This is the third and concluding diary in my agonistic politics series, exploring the political theory of how irreconcilable adversaries can coexist in a democratic state. The series originated in a long and dense diary on agonistic political theory and its possible application towards resolving the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Because of the abstract nature of that diary, I decided to break it down conceptually into three distinct parts, and the result is this series. The first diary in the series discussed how adversarial relations create political identity, while the second discussed how and why the theory understands enemies as distinct from adversaries.
This diary will apply those theoretical insights to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and show that a one state solution -- which would involve Israel annexing the West Bank and Gaza, making the current residents of the territories full citizens of Israel, and allowing Palestinian refugees from third countries the right to return to Israel -- is the only outcome promising long-term peace and stability.
Agonistic politics requires that adversaries accept each other as legitimate opponents with whom they have irreconcilable differences. It is hard to see that either Israelis or Palestinians accept the other in this way today.
Let's look at the extremes of political discourse on each side. On the Israeli side, the most extreme position would have to be represented by the proponents of transfer, such as Olmert's Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, of course, has proposed exchanging majority Arab territories inside Israel for Jewish settlements inside the West Bank and has been quoted saying that some 900,000 Israeli Arabs "have no place here. They can take their bundles and get lost."
Lieberman, that is, supports the physical separation of Palestinians and Jews -- creating a physical space in which the other is absent and where Jews can live without adversaries or enemies. His is an extreme position espoused by a small minority of the Israeli population, but it represents a logical extension of the general Israeli approach to Palestinians since at least 1948.
On the Palestinian side, suicide bombing also attempts to physically negate the other. The most common reading of Palestinian suicide bombs is as an irrational extremist effort to completely expel Jews from Palestine. From the point of view of agonistic politics, however, the suicide bomb is somewhat more complex than that.
Israelis focus rightly on the mayhem produced by the bomb, on the innocent lives lost, on the victims permanently maimed as a result of the hideous cynicism of the bomb's makers. The suicide bomb is an act of premeditated mass murder, made even more ugly by the fact the killer has picked his victims at random.
But the suicide bomb is also an act of suicide, of consciously taking one's own life. Normally we associate suicide with desperation, with a personal existential crisis, with a sense of helplessness facing forces beyond one's control. In a suicide bomber that desperation mixes with murderous intent -- it is a dual act, at one and the same time taking one's own life and killing as many of your adversaries as you possibly can.
In this sense, the suicide bomb is the culmination of an existential crisis for the Palestinian extremist. He can't live with the Jews, but he can't live without them either, so he resolves his inner conflict explosively, destroying both himself and as many Jews as he can.
Like transfer, the suicide bomb negates the democratic possibilities of agonistic politics, and like transfer it is a step taken by a very small minority of extremists. Yet public opinion polling (poll data from January 2006) among Palestinians shows that a majority support such actions.
Extremism -- defined here in agonistic terms as the desire to eliminate one's enemies -- exists therefore on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unless there is a radical change in the way Israelis and Palestinians view each other, extremist politics will continue to appeal to a significant proportion of the population on both sides.
The international consensus position, officially endorsed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is that a two-state solution can resolve the political crisis. But can two states actually wean Israelis and Palestinians away from the desire to eliminate their enemies?
Jeff Halper, writing in Counterpunch two years ago, argued that the Palestinian areas of Mandatory Palestine might just barely constitute a viable state:
Just the size of the American state of Delaware (but with three times the population before refugees return), it would at least have a coherent territory, borders with Israel, Jordan, Syria and Egypt, a capital in Jerusalem, a port on the Mediterranean, an airport in Gaza, a viable economy (based on Holy Land tourism, agriculture and hi-tech) and access to the water of the Jordan River. An accepted member of the international community enjoying trade with its neighbors--and enjoying as well the support of a far-flung, highly educated and affluent diaspora--a small Palestinian state would have a shot at viability.
Israel, however, has been working to reduce that viability. The Israeli vision of the future would be to:
establish a tiny Palestinian state of, say, five or six cantons (Sharon's term) on 40-70% of the Occupied Territories, completely surrounded and controlled by Israel. Such a Palestinian state would cover only 10-15% of the entire country and would have no meaningful sovereignty and viability: no coherent territory, no freedom of movement, no control of borders, no capital in Jerusalem, no economic viability, no control of water, no control of airspace or communications, no military--not even the right as a sovereign state to enter into alliances without Israeli permission.
According to the World Fact Book, The Palestinian Territories showed a decent GDP growth rate in 2005 -- 4.9% -- but GDP per capita worked out to about $1500 per person. The corresponding figures for Israel (2006) were 4.5% and $26,200.
The Palestinian poverty rate, meanwhile, was nearly 46% in 2005, and the unemployment rate was a staggering 20.3%. Israel's poverty (21.6%) and unemployment (8.3%) rates were not great in real terms, but they were much, much better than the Palestinian ones.
The Territories are also densely populated, with an average of some 1600 people per square mile (the corresponding figure for Israel is almost half that at 890 per square mile), and considering the overwhelming youth of the population (64% of Palestinians were age 16 or younger in 2004) the stress on the carrying capacity of the land is only going to get worse in the foreseeable future.
Now, the only realistic outcome of any solution to the Isreali-Palestinian conflict is to reduce the number and political influence of extremists on both sides. A two state solution, creating an artificial state on the overcrowded, impoverished terrain that already exists in the Palestinian territories, would be extremely unlikely to produce that result. In fact, it is more than highly likely that Palestinians will continue to feel a high degree of resentment towards Israel and Israelis, and Palestinian irredentist claims on Israeli territory would continue to find a receptive audience among the Palestinian public.
On the Israeli side, the creation of a dependent and impoverished state is unlikely to decrease the tendency of right-wing politicians to dream of a Greater Israel, from which all Palestinians would be removed. In recent history, the most reactionary elements in Israeli society get strengthened when the perceived threat from the Palestinians is high. In June 2004, as the al Aqsa intifada reached a peak, a University of Haifa poll (Ha'aretz article republished here) found that 64% of Israelis supported encouraging Israeli Arabs to leave the country. If Israel feels the need to defend itself from an independent Palestinian state, you can be certain that some Israelis will propose -- and many more will consider seriously -- the idea of removing all the Palestinians from the geographic unit known as Mandatory Palestine.
A central idea of agonistic politics is that for enemies to become adversaries, they must agree on something. Dividing Palestinians and Israelis into separate states guarantees they will agree on nothing.
Bringing them together into a single state, however, opens the possibility they could agree on the defense of that state. They might agree on nothing else, but you could win both sides over to a common and joint sense of loyalty to that nation-state.
This series began with, was in fact inspired by, an article published in Al Ahram -- the English-language Egyptian weekly -- by Mohammed ben Jelloun, a Swedish-Moroccan agonistic theorist. ben Jelloun wrote on the prospects for agonistic politics in Lebanon, a multiethnic country characterized in the recent past by a bitter civil war. Here's how he defines the essential conditions for an agonistic state to emerge:
Such a republican multinational state needs no common nationality to assert itself on democratic grounds. All it needs is a unanimously acknowledged political arena. It need not suppose nationhood or communal belonging as the basis for the solidarity and trust needed to sustain its (agonistic) democratic rule, but only the "community" of agonists; of citizens who identify with a multilevel political arena -- internal, communal, then inter-communal or domestic national, then inter-national.
ben Jelloun finds compelling evidence that Hezbollah has already committed itself to a Lebanese national state, that it has subordinated "the Islamic nation to the Lebanese state" (emphasis in the original).
If Lebanese Shi'a, Sunni, Christians and Druze, who only a few short years before had been engaged in one of the bloodiest civil wars on the planet, can reach common grounds of agreement and disagreement, why can Palestinians and Israelis not do the same?
Now, I know some will say a one-state solution lies outside the realm of possibility, that the two sides will only agree on two states. To me, that argument begs the question. The point is to end the conflict. If two states will not end the conflict -- and I am certain they will not -- then we must do whatever we can to reach the solution that will end it.
That solution involves one state, open to and guaranteeing the rights of Muslims, Christians, and Jews.