Just in case the world has forgotten what the Arab-Israel conflict is about, Professor Bashir Bashir, 32, is quick to remind that it is about half-a-century of forcible occupation of Palestinian homes by Israel. It is also about the daily humiliation and brutalisation of the Palestinian people who are forced to live in the biggest open air prison on the face of the earth. The Palestinian professor is an alumni of the London School of Economics and Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is an Israeli citizen and a research fellow in the Gilo Centre for Citizenship, Democracy and Civic Education at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Bashir is co-editor of ‘The Politics of Reconciliation in Multicultural Societies', (Oxford University Press, 2008). Hardnews caught up with the professor mid-January in Vienna at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue where Bashir spoke passionately about the Palestinian cause.
Excerpts from the exclusive interview:
Mehru Jaffer Vienna , Hardnews
Q: How do you apply the theory of the politics of reconciliation to practice?
A: If we are really serious about reconciliation then we have to first come to terms with historical injustices. To do this, courage is required to acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinian people. Next, we have to look at the Palestinian problem in a different way. The study of the politics of reconciliation gives us an opportunity to look anew and differently at solutions that have not worked in the past. The so-called peace process of the past is grounded more on conflict management rather than reconciliation. I admit that reconciliation is a much more demanding and profound form of settling historical disputes. Reconciliation demands a shift from a state of hostility, injustice and exclusion to a state of cooperation, justice and inclusivity.
There are two questions which require consideration. The first concerns Israel and its relationship to the Palestinian minority within the Jewish state. Today, Palestinians are 20 per cent of the Israeli population, and they are not treated as equal citizens. The second concerns the Palestinian national movement outside of Israel. These two concerns are intimately linked. Let me give you my opinion of the most discussed solutions.
Israel claims to be a ‘Jewish democratic state'. This is accepted by the international community. In my opinion, this view of Israel, both in terms of philosophical grounds of democracy and Judaism and in terms of the reality on the ground, is inconsistent. The truth is the practice by Israel of the inherent exclusion of the Palestinian minority. The most celebrated solution in terms of the Palestinian-Israel conflict is the ‘two-state' solution. I argue that the two-state solution is impractical and irrelevant, especially if seen in the context of the reality on the ground concerning Israeli settlements, the walls and Jerusalem. The two-state solution as discussed within the terms and limits offered by Israel is not viable.
Q: What do the Palestinians want?
A: Palestinians today are not after a viable state as is often discussed in the international media. The Palestinians want an ‘independent sovereign state' that answers their minimal aspirations. Today, Palestinians are realistic enough to concede that Israel exists on 78 per cent of their historic homeland. The demand is not for claim, revenge or for the return of this land. The demand is for a sovereign state on the 22 per cent of the land which including the Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem. Even Hamas is prepared to accept this proposal.
Instead, what is proposed now is only about 70 per cent of this 22 per cent.
This is not acceptable to the Palestinian people. If Jerusalem cannot be divided and the two state solution is not working - primarily if not exclusively due to Israel's lack of sincere intent - then I say, let us look at other ways of settling the conflict.
The other possible and innovative solution that comes to mind is a ‘bi-national state'. I propose one state for Arabs and Jews with equal rights. This proposal inspires me despite the fact that I am accused of being Utopian, an escapist, a dreamer, idealist and an unrealist.
Q: What would you call this state?
A: This is a matter of semantics. I am not interested in this type of a question. You can call it what you will. The point is that 20 per cent of Palestinians already live in Israel as a minority and all Palestinians are being made to pay the price of crimes committed against European Jews which they did not commit. It was Europeans who persecuted the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust - not us.
By supporting the bi-national state solution Palestinians are now saying that they are willing to share their homeland with the Jews. This solution is more inclusive and based on ideas of justice and equality. The reality is that a bi- national state already exists in Israel. From a bird's eye view you can see how Arabs and Jewish populations intermingle in Israel despite the practice of oppression and the politics of exclusion practised by the Jewish democratic state for 60 years.
Q: What is the reaction to the bi-national state solution in Israel and among Palestinians?
A: At the moment it is very unpopular on both sides. However, a few more Palestinians are showing interest in it. This is natural as the solution poses a very serious challenge to people to change their attitude and consciousness.
But whether its dismissal can prevent it from being realised one day is not so certain. In fact, there is evidence which gives me hope: I don't want to stop advocating a more humane, just and inclusive society. My source of optimism is based on contingent historical events. Even a few years ago, who would have imagined that an African-American will be sworn in as the president of America?
This event fuels my hope. America, of course, is not Israel. America is a very established democracy with all its structural and historical problems of racism and politics of exclusion. Despite that there is huge room in America to accommodate change. Democracy in America is flexible and elastic and able to adapt itself to the demands of the time. But Israel is not. I know because I live there. It is even doubtful whether Israel is a democracy or not.
I know that my proposal is risky and there is no security that it will happen. But I am inspired by history, by morals and by my concern for justice.
Q: How would you describe the role of Hamas in the last big conflict with Israel only a few weeks ago that cost the Palestinian people in Gaza nearly 1,500 lives and massive ruination, injuries and suffering?
A: It is unprecedented that a Palestinian Islamist group is playing a leading role in the people's fight against Israel. It is not Yasser Arafat but Hamas who is leading the Palestinian people's struggle today for a homeland. What we are witnessing here could lead to disastrous consequences for the Palestinians in the long run. The Palestinian people are divided in their opinion as they watch Hamas become the most powerful political party.
The sad reality is that the Palestinian Authority failed miserably to seize a golden opportunity to connect better with the concerns and needs of the people. It is busy buying into their way of thinking and making alliances with certain western and Arab regimes. In doing so, the main loser has been the Fatah. It is alarming that for the first time since the Nakba, (Palestinian catastrophe) when people were expelled from their homes in 1948, the leadership has looked outside for legitimacy. In the past, mainstream politicians relied on legitimacy exclusively from the Palestinian people. Palestinian politicians were most powerful when they enjoyed the support of the Palestinian people. What we are witnessing today is a leadership that is not up to the expectation of the Palestinian people and has been made impotent by concerns imposed upon it by Israel and other external forces.
Another development is that the Palestinian cause and territory is turned into a battlefield by regional powers to visit and to play their own internal games.
Part of the brilliance of Arafat, despite all my criticism of him, was that he embodied Palestinian unity. Arafat was able to prevent Palestinian territory from being used by powers in the region and he seized the right moments in the regional and Palestinian conflict to achieve benefits for the Palestinian people. I don't see that happening today.
Q: What is your worst criticism of Arafat?
A: Arafat failed to build institutions and he personalised politics. As a result, we are in the midst of disastrous consequences today.
Q: Does it surprise you that both peaceniks and warmongers within Israel supported the recent air raids over Gaza?
A: This is a very important question which leads me to talk about the fiction and illusion of the Israeli Left. There is an image of a powerful Zionist Left in Israel. I want to make it clear that within the Israeli society there are few people who believe in peace, inclusivity and justice. Israel is a very divided society and it has its own dynamics but when it comes to the Palestinian cause it orchestrates the same symphony. Israel responds like a tribe. It plays tribal politics and it has no room to accommodate different opinions. I am surprised at the tribalism and pathological narcissism practised in Israel.
I feel seriously disappointed as an academic and scholar that within the Israeli intellectual landscape there are few voices talking of justice. It is often heard that they want to live in peace like normal human beings. Then why deprive the right of others to also live in peace? They say that they want their children to be safe and not terrorised by violence. Then for God's sake, why do they terrorise the children of others? Where are the principles of reciprocity?
If this so-called Zionist Left continues to use the same logic, then I see little progress towards any kind of peace. The Zionist left argues and advocates for the two states solution not on the basis of justice and democracy BUT on the basis of demography and
maintaining Jewish character/ majority. According to this view, they are willing to keep the Palestinian minority in Israel, but as second class citizens subject to the hegemony of the Jews in Israel. By withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza they get rid of more than three million Palestinians that endanger the Jewish character of the state.