Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Not Too Late For Two (City-) States

Economically, can you have a sustainable Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, that is, on just 22% of historic Palestine? If not, isn’t the whole Annapolis process a waste of time?

A couple of weeks ago, on November 25th., a group of writers and critics
met in London to advance what they call the “one-state” solution—decent people, some of whom I have known personally over the years, who in any case need no grades from me regarding their application of democratic standards: Omar Barghouti, Haim Bresheeth, Ilan Pappe, Nadeem Rouhana, Nur Masalha, Joel Kovel, and others. Their ideas have prompted a vexed (if not exactly new) debate on whether it’s too late for two states. The historian and former Jerusalem deputy-mayor Meron Benvenisti has been warning about this since the early 1980s, and he’s been refining his position ever since.

I’ll not join the debate here: I have written often about the need for any two eventual states (three, if you include Jordan) to work out shared sovereignty where jurisdictions cannot be split: water, telecom, a currency, and so forth. None of this mitigates the need to get things started with two states, Israel and Palestine, centers of gravity for two distinct cultures and, for now, very unequal economies. The dean of peace advocates, Uri Avnery, raised common sense objections to a unitary state back in 2004, and his check-list is worth revisiting.

However, one claim of the one-staters particularly rankles with me, and you hear it all the time, even from people who do not share their edgy political goal. It is that, as their declaration states, the two-state solution “entrenches and formalizes a policy of unequal separation on a land that has become ever more integrated territorially and economically.” Leave aside the question of whether economic integration is a bad thing. (It isn’t, not when wealth comes from know-how, but let it go.) Is there really an “unequal separation" of land? This is where you normally hear about the 22%. Presumably, Israel has 78% and the disparity is the difference between viability and non-viability.

PERHAPS THE BEST way to think this through is to recall the 2005 RAND Corporation study on the future of Palestine, which captured the imaginations of most educated Palestinians and Middle East experts around the world. Its policy suggestions (on security, health, water, etc.,) were unexceptional. What catapulted its lead authors, Steven N. Simon and C. Ross Anthony, into a momentary spotlight was their vivid idea of the “arc.”

According to the study, major towns and cities of Palestine—including Nablus, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Hebron, and Gaza City—would be linked by a high speed train—an arc of rails and overpasses, making it possible to travel from southern Gaza to the northern West Bank in less than 90 minutes. “Each rail station, located several miles from existing historic urban cores,” the study said, “would create a focal point for new development and would connect to a historic core via a new boulevard and an advanced form of rapid bus transit.”

Along the path of the train new commercial and residential neighborhoods would be developed, to accommodate population growth—as many 6.6 million Palestinians by 2020, assuming natural population growth and immigration. The transportation arc would “pump economic activity into the historic centers of Palestinian cities” and assure their preservation and revitalization, creating “a ladder of linear cities along the defining mountain ridge of the West Bank, and preserving open land for agriculture, forests, parks and nature reserves.”

THE RAND PLAN was lovely. What almost nobody seemed to notice, however, was that the Palestine envisioned by the plan was actually an almost perfect mirror image of contemporary Israel within the Green Line. Israel, too, is “a ladder” of linear cities and suburbs, wired to the global economy, settled along the coastal plain—a growing megalopolis, from Beer Sheba to Haifa, swinging around to the Valley of Jezreel and the Galilee, and tied together by a bend of rail and roads.

Indeed, if you superimposed the geometry and area of the wretched Gaza Strip on coastal Israel, from the north of Bat Yam to Netanya, you’d pretty much include the entirety of Tel-Aviv, Ramat Gan, Herzliya, etc., where something more than half the Jewish population of the country live—and by far the greatest part of its GDP is produced.

The very word “country” seems something of an exaggeration in this context. Israel’s coastal plain has a small hinterland, some very pretty mountains in the Galilee, where Jews and Arabs are about equal in number, and breathtaking desert ranges in the Negev, inhabited mainly by Bedouins. Israel, it is true, also includes the corridor to Ben-Gurion airport and up to Jerusalem and back, as Palestine has a corridor to Amman. But such East-West movement is more anomalous than natural.

The fact is, Israelis live on not much more of the historic territory than Palestinians do. The Jewish arc faces an Arab one. Both are city-states: they absorb populations with elevators. And if they want to survive as independent states, both Israel and Palestine will have to integrate into something bigger. Israel is already incorporated into global markets and, like Turkey, should aspire to a place in the European Union. In any case, both Israel and Palestine will immediately need incorporation into larger regional markets, from the Gulf to booming Amman. Israeli Arabs, for their part, will shuttle between both arc lengths, creating a cultural and economic bridge.

A border will of course be necessary, to establish residency for taxes and voting. In the early years, perhaps even a wall will be necessary. But with peace, and in time, how many will care where the border is? I hasten to add that Hebrew culture will not be endangered by the prospect of mingling populations. Like Singapore Chinese, the Hebrew entrepreneurs, technologists, scholars, artists, designers, etc., will establish the region’s liveliest political economy. They will create cultural forces to be reckoned with. Who cares how many square miles Singapore is?

Utopian? Hardly. But even if it were, one thing is clear. It is possible to hold one-big conference where peace advocates gather, enjoy hotel rooms of equal comfort, and speak a nicely accented English to one another. One big state is another matter.