In the novel Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, the character Major Major provides a conundrum for those he commands. A shy and easily intimidated man, Major Major implements a policy of only allowing men into his office to meet with him when he wasn’t there. Likewise, the fighter pilots in the novel could only be removed from flight duty if they were considered to be insane, yet the only ones that were diagnosed as insane where the ones who wanted to fly. As the title of the book denotes, its a catch 22: the only circumstance in which one is allowed to do something completely prohibit it. So what does Major Major have to do with Palestine and Israel? Well, both sides, in their own way face a catch-22 of sorts that make a one state solution more plausible; or, rather, make a two state solution more of a fantasy.
For the Palestinians, the catch-22 centers on the need to be accepted as a legitimate partner by the Israelis. Prior to Oslo, the PLO, like Hamas today, was deemed a terrorist organization with whom Israel refused to speak. It was not until the PLO began to accept the terms of negotiation (inter alia two states, acceptance of the Israeli state) that Israel recognized the PLO as the sole Palestinian representative. Today, Hamas is completely isolated and rejected from consultations due to its choice of resistance over negotiations a good representation of this difficult choice. Hamas can either be a resistance movement and be politically isolated or change its face and be accepted by Israel. As Nils Butenschon puts it:
The paradox is that recognition of Palestinian national rights has been conditioned on Palestinian renunciation of their right to the same, leaving any Palestinians leadership with a catch 22 situation, i.e., the impossible choice of either struggling for the fundamental right of its own people to self-determination and risk being excluded and punished and losing ground to the enemy, or accepting the demands by powerful external powers and thus yielding to the logic of a political order imposed from the outside with no guarantees for the future aspirations of the Palestinian people. (p. 75-76)
[tweetmeme] Basically, Butenschon argues, Palestinians are trading the unalienable right to self-determination for the possibility of negotiated self-determination. Right or wrong, this argument goes a long way in explaining the contempt of the PA by many in the West Bank. Many here feel that Israel has simply subcontracted the occupation to the Palestinian leaders who religiously continue to follow the defunct Oslo area divisions while Israeli settlers continue to colonize Palestinian land. To bring the situation back to Butenschon, the PA has agreed to take on responsibility for the occupation in exchange for the possibility of ending the occupation.
Israel has cultivated this catch 22 as well. By violently demonstrating its unconditional view of Hamas and its resistance ideology, Israel is giving the PA an option between being the ‘brown skinned occupiers’ for Israel or face Hamas’ fate. This choice was clearly demonstrated during the Second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada when Israel unleashed its wrath on the PA:
However, Israel stopped short of total destruction of the PA. The official existence of the authority was intentionally spared so as to claim that there was a Palestinian body responsible for providing basic needs and services to its people, and to exonerate Israel from these responsibilities under international law. (p. 59)
This is an unenviable choice. The PA has a choice of trading the Palestinian right to self-determination and taking on aspects of the occupation for the possibility of a negotiated settlement that would potentially give the Palestinians a limited sense of self-determination. Of course, this catch 22 works for the benefit of Israel. An alternative choice for the PA is to either to play into the hands of Israel by continuing to work within this unjust paradigm or to reject the paradigm and force Israel to retake control of the West Bank (dissolution of the PA). The latter choice represents a clear path towards one state while the former simply leads to more paradoxical negotiations.
For Israel, the catch 22 represents a potentially fatal contradiction in Zionist thought. Inherent to Zionism is, first, the desire to establish a Jewish state and, second, to revive the ancient biblical Israelite Kingdom. Of course, bringing biblical kingdoms back to life would involve annexing the rest of the so called Eretz Israel, the land of Israel – meaning the West Bank. Yet, annexing the West Bank would lead to the destruction of the first Zionist goal of a Jewish state. Zionists can achieve only one goal, and at the expense of the second:
This chronic dilemma resulted from the contradiction between the Zionist nature of expansion and the need to preserve the Jewish character of Israel. The annexation of the occupied Palestinian land practically abolishes the Jewish character of Israel and makes it a bi-national state with a majority and growing Arab Palestinian population. (p. 52)
This impossible balance has both underlined and undermined Israeli policy since 1967. On the one hand, Israel has taken actions, such as the construction of the Apartheid Wall and the ‘disengagement’ from Gaza that are meant to ensure the demographic domination of Jews in Israel. On the other hand, though, Israeli settlers are working to ensure that all of the historical kingdom is included in modern Israel, further undermining the Jewish majority.
The inability of Israel to choose between the Zionist dream of Eretz Israel and a demographically Jewish state is leading the region closer to a one state solution. To be sure, successive Israeli governments have tried to work around this contradiction by creating an isolating separation system based on Bantustans so as to not annex the heavily Palestinian areas. Palestinian leadership, though, is sure to reject such a proposal. The recent emphasis on settlements once again proves that Israel seems destined to submit to its expansionist side, therefore leaving Mandate Palestine with only a one state option.
The current impasse in the peace negotiations only highlights the impossible choices that both sides are faced with. Israel demands recognition as a Jewish state while continuing to build settlements and colonize the West Bank. The PA, on the other hand, demands the right to self-determination while entering negotiations on that same right. Interestingly, the inability of either side to choose one option over the other is leading Palestine and Israel closer to a one state, bi-national solution. Israel’s inability to choose between expansionism and a Jewish state and the PA’s inability to choose between maintaining the occupation accompanied by political acceptance of rejecting the occupation with isolation has led to a diplomatic status quo.
On the ground though, there is no status quo. The realities of Mandate Palestine show a region that is slowly reaching the Rubicon. Soon, the internal contradictions in both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership groups will result in an irreversible slide towards bi-nationalism. While it is debatable whether a two state solution is even possible at this point, what is clear is that if Israel or Palestine does not break free of the catch 22’s that are constraining their diplomatic flexibility, soon two states will be out of the question.
Photo from Le Kutz