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There is no Liberal Solution for Palestine


October 7, 2023 ignited a war and thrust the Israeli-Arab Conflict back into the public eye the world over. On the Left, the Conflict has come to serve as a defining point of difference between “anti-imperialists” (such as the DSA, formerly DSA-associated Palestine Solidarity Working Group, and Cosmonaut Magazine) and perceived back-footed liberal apologists for Zionism (such as Slavoj Zizek, CPUSA, and the Communist Party of Palestine). Theorists have begun to offer critiques of Left positioning and manifestos for splits.

Most Left interventions share a basic vision for a solution to the Conflict: a unified, liberal-democratic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea in which all residents, regardless of their background or nationality, would count as equal citizens and exercise the same bourgeois rights. While most Leftists do not enumerate these rights into a list specific enough to propose as a constitution, since Sublation is an American magazine, I will assume that they approximate the American Bill of Rights. They would include rights to vote, to free speech, to the exercise or refusal of religion, to privacy, and to property – I did say they were bourgeois rights. They would also include freedom from discrimination and equal access to state services. These rights would apply individually, not communally.

In this article I aim to show that this basic vision cannot work: the implementation of equal liberal rights, as described above, would lead to the frustration of the Palestine liberation movement rather than its triumph. I will demonstrate why the movement would consider equal liberal rights a material and ideological defeat, and that this is symptomatic of a form of ideology. I will tentatively diagnose and critique this ideology. I hope to convince the reader that the recourse to imposing “plain old-fashioned liberalism” onto Israeli and Palestinian governments, parties, and civil societies would firstly lead to an entrenchment of Zionist property relations and at the same time reify a key pillar of the nationalistic status quo under which the region suffers.

To make my argument, I divide this article into three primary sections. The first two concern the time relative to which the “plain old-fashioned liberalism” would be imposed: the first considers today, the year 2023. It will explain what the material outcomes of the solution would be and why it would prove profoundly lacking to the Palestinian national-liberation movement.

Prospects for liberalism in Palestine today

The best time for a liberal revolution is centuries ago. The second best time is today. The Left therefore wants to solve the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab Conflicts by imposing from outside the equivalent of a liberal revolution: a single, liberal-democratic state that would stretch “from the River to the Sea” and grant everyone in its borders equal rights. In this section I will explore some of the likely consequences of such a liberal-revolutionary solution to the Conflict, and how it would likely fail to live up to the aspirations of the Palestinian liberation movement. Throughout this section I’ll assume that the solution would work: no wars would break out and there would be none of what the region likes to call “security concerns”. The question is just the consequences of liberalism for Palestine liberation.

Unifying Israel and Palestine would open global labor markets to increased quantities of cheap, highly-educated Palestinian labor. The present minimum wage in Occupied Palestinian Territory is ₪1,880.00/month for an official work-week of 45 hours. The present minimum wage in Israel is ₪5,571.75/month for a similar official work-week of 45 hours. Without the ideological obstacles of Zionism, which limit the quantity of guest-worker permits for Palestinians into Israel to mere thousands per month, Israeli capital’s exploitation of this wage differential would accelerate. Legislation or market forces would have to close the gap between these wage floors, either leveling up or leveling down.

Assuming the gap is leveled up, I would expect inflation to occur (due to the increase in wage levels) and class gaps to rise (due to an incoming flood of capital). The Palestinian capitalist class and professional stratum would both likely grow, aided but exploited by investment from the Jewish ruling class. This is, after all, what happened when South Africa abolished apartheid: the localized leveling up provided an inadequate counter to the global trends funneling wealth away from the (black) working class and into the (mixed-background) professionals and capitalists. I also base this prediction on the existing trends within the Arab-Israeli[1] sector of historic Palestine today, which serves as an engine of real-estate investment in the West Bank.

Unification of Palestine would change the economy from two competing national economies to an integrated single economy. In addition to benefiting from the influx of cheap Palestinian labor, Jewish capital would enjoy access to relatively undervalued Palestinian asset markets. The liberalization of land laws in particular would present a growth opportunity. The Israel Land Administration is notoriously sclerotic; its elimination as a Zionist national institution would provide a historic privatization. Economic unification would also abolish Palestinian laws banning sale of land to non-Palestinians, with the likely consequence that Jewish investors and the Jewish settlement movement would buy up property. They have sometimes found willing buyers even given legal prohibitions or extreme social censure, so they would probably find them under a liberal regime.

The Sheikh Jarrah Controversy that fueled the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in 2021 was just such a case of Zionist private property (an Ottoman title sold to a settlement movement) overriding Palestinian collective ownership (an UNRWA resettlement lottery during Jordanian rule). Israeli courts have tried to suppress the controversy by granting the Palestinian residents protected-tenant status, under which they would pay a purely nominal rent for continued usage. The courts have held eviction to be possible only upon open refusal to pay even a nominal rent. Leading up to 2021, the residents declared the Israeli claim illegitimate and refused to pay rent, leading the courts to order eviction in favor of the settlement movement. This led to rioting and helped to precipitate the 2021 Israel-Gaza struggle. As such, privatization of the Sheikh Jarrah properties would likely lead to eviction of the Palestinian families and their replacement with Jewish residents drawn from the right-wing settlement movement.

Tragically, the unified state of Palestine would face little political pressure to curb these abuses of Palestinian rights, owing to its demographic makeup. Israel has 7.15 million Jewish citizens, including settlers in the Palestinian territories. 2.048 million Arab-Israelis plus 4.997 million Palestinian citizens would equal a population of 7.05 million Palestinians in the single state. The unified Palestine would thus be 50.33% Zionist, enough to block redistribution of privatized wealth from Zionist to Palestinian hands in a representative parliament.

The above numbers only count as Palestinians the current residents of the territory that would form the unified state. This section therefore imagined what would happen if we implemented a liberal revolution in Palestine today, accounting for no history at all and imposing total methodological individualism. I imagined that as a starting point for the Left and liberal imagination, but the Palestine solidarity movement has demands beyond this. Specifically, the BDS movement’s third demand requires a right of return for descendants of Palestinians who lost property and were exiled in the 1947-1949 Palestine Civil War. BDS enjoys broad support on the Left from a variety of organizations (aforementioned DSA and PSWG), social movements (such as Black Lives Matter), and parties (such as the Party for Socialism and Liberation). The demand for the Right of Return is also a pillar of Palestinian society’s own liberation movement, as embodied in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). In the next section, I will integrate the Right of Return into a liberal framework by universalizing it.

Prospects for liberalism in the Right of Return

Integrating the Right of Return into a liberal revolution will require reversing the proverb with which I began the last section. The best time for a liberal revolution is today, but the second-best time is 1947. That was the beginning of the Palestine Civil War, which resulted in the partition of Palestine and the exile of 700,000 Palestinians as refugees. The one-state solution and the Right of Return aim to reverse both these injuries.

Those 700,000 Palestinians exiled in the Palestine Civil War presently have 5.6 million descendants. As demanded, their Right of Return consists not only of a right to citizenship not only in a reunified Palestine but of a right to return to the hometowns and properties that they lost in the War. Palestinians demonstrate this demand by carrying literal and metaphorical keys and with imagery of keys, keys to their lost homes. A liberal solution for Palestine that satisfies the demand for the Right of Return must therefore back-date the application of Palestinians’ right to property to 1947.

The Right of Return would yield an Arab majority of 12.65 million within the unified country, as against the 7.15 million Jews. “From the water to the water, an Arab Palestine”, just as demanded.  This 64% supermajority could carry through a truth and reconciliation process, as demanded by the Palestinian national movement, and restore lost property.

The Sheikh Jarrah Controversy might thus enjoy a favorable resolution, but universalizing the Right of Return complicates its application. It implies a Right of Return for Jews who lost citizenship and property as a consequence of the 1947 Palestine Civil War, because it treats 1947 as the event that violates liberal rights already in force, rather than as a political event able to “change the map”. Under such an arrangement, the Palestinian families of Sheikh Jarrah would likely reclaim their homes in Haifa, Sarafand, and Jaffa, while the settler movement with the title might take possession of the property.

Universalizing the Right of Return would also restore citizenship and property to the Mizrahi Jews exiled in response to the partition of Palestine. They originally numbered between 850,000-900,000 individuals; most were absorbed into Israel but some went elsewhere or remained stateless for some time. Today these Mizrahi Jews number about 4.6 million and are politically represented by organizations such as Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA), or they lack political representation.

Restoring property to the Mizrahi Jewish refugees would run into budgetary constraints. Prior to their expulsion from MENA countries, they held real-estate totalling about 100,000 km^2 in area. The Zionist State of Israel – within today’s post-1967, internationally recognized borders – contains only about 22,000 km^2. The Palestinian territories, defined along the same borders, total about 6,200 km^2. Restoring property to both Arab Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews would therefore require more than three times the total 28,200 km^2 land area of historic Palestine. Other Palestinian Jews, circa 1947, may also have claims to press in court.

Assume that original properties within historic Palestine are restored, while those outside it result in financial restitution. This would provide a liberal solution to the Israeli-Arab Conflict and a universal implementation of the Right of Return. This solution would exacerbate the tension I hinted at in the previous section, with an Arab-Palestinian majority economically beholden to a Jewish-Palestinian minority. With free markets in real estate, that minority could use its economic power to push forward Zionist aspirations to land presently held in check by Israeli and Palestinian laws. The Left will likely be uncomfortably reminded of the racial wealth inequalities still persisting in post-apartheid South Africa, but these inequalities would not arise from an insufficient process of justice but from an uncomfortably full one.

An optimist might guess that such a process, uncomfortable as it might be, could lead to a post-nationalist reconciliation of the two societies. A pessimist will note that the above solution does not appear to provide what the Palestinian national and solidarity movements actually demand: dezionization. BDS critiques Zionism as settler-colonialism, and sees their liberation in the decolonization of “all Arab lands”. These demands leave little room for a Jewish minority owning more land and wealth than the Arab-Palestinian majority. The Palestinian national and solidarity movements would likely find a universalized Right of Return circa 1947 as ill-suited to their demands as “plain old-fashioned liberalism” in 2023. Some ideology appears to hold them back from universal bourgeois liberalism. The next section will diagnose that ideology.

The Algerian Ideology

If equal, liberal rights in a single state would seem to deepen the domination of a Jewish minority over an Arab majority, are we seriously to believe that Palestinian liberation movements want this? Are they progressive neoliberals of the worst kind, looking for a liberal domination of individual Arabs by individual Jews, over a less mystified national conflict?  Based on how they conceive of their problem and how they propose to liberate themselves, I don’t think so. I think they just suffer a simple bout of ideology clouding the lens through which they see the world. In this section I will offer a potential diagnosis of that ideology.

I call it the Algerian Ideology, for its place of origin and for an analogy to the Californian Ideology. The Algerian Ideology also developed during an overlapping historical period to the Californian Ideology: the time between the 1968 New Left attempts at revolution and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. I suspect the two ideologies may share similarities as a function of this shared historical development. I take the clearest contemporary example of the Algerian Ideology to be Houria Bouteldja of the Indigenes of the Republic Party (PIR) in France.  She gave us the call-and-response slogan: “They say 1789. Let’s answer 1492!”

She views the principal contradiction in today’s world system as between the colonizers (whites) and the colonized (indigenes). Bouteldja describes her indigenes as specifically Arab and Muslim, indigenous not in relation to other identity groups within their own polity (eg: the Ottoman Empire) but in relation to the European colonizers who came by sea. She uses “whites” only for post-1492 Westerners. So far, so good for the liberation of North Africa from the French in the 1950s.

Then she passes to her category of “Jews”. She conceptualizes Jews as dividing into whites and indigenes not based on a Jew’s identity but based on their politics. Zionists Jews are whites; antizionist Jews (from colonized countries, of course) can be indigenes. She views Israel and Zionism as focusing the principal contradiction in the world system to a single point: the comprador Zionists against the antizionist indigenes. Since Jews divide by politics rather than race, Ashkenazi (“European”) Jews can be indigenes by virtue of an antizionist politics (as among Satmar Hasidim and the fundamentalist sect Neturei Karta) while most of today’s Mizrahi (“Middle Eastern”) Jews come out as whites (colonizers) by virtue of their Zionist politics (even if they have lived there since the Roman or Babylonian Conquests).

I think we’ve found our ideology: that the authentic, indigenous population of the Middle East and North Africa are normatively Arab and Muslim. Why? Because they made up the ruling majorities in 1492, colonialism’s dark Year Zero. According to this Algerian Ideology, the “colonized” consist of the people and territory stolen from the Ottoman Empire, from the House of Islam. Through this lens, minorities in the Empire had no right to their own politics: they actively sided with the colonized (Muslim and Arab) or they were passive colonizers. Through this lens, Algeria and Tunisia expelled their Jews (including postcolonial theorist Albert Memmi) as an act of decolonization.

How could the revolutionary movement of decolonization have led to expelling native-born minorities? Prior to colonization, non-Muslim (but monotheistic) minorities in the region had lived under dhimma (protected tributary) status. They were “protected” from the extermination and forced conversion often reserved for polytheists and idolaters. They were tributaries in that they paid an extractive head tax in exchange for such “protection” and lacked civic rights, being explicitly second-class relative to Muslims. Dhimmi could not freely use uncultivated lands, could not construct new buildings, and had to publicly display their subordination to Muslims (wearing distinguishing clothes, keeping their houses of worship shorter than mosques, etc). There were also repeated pogroms. Civic liberalism was viewed as a European influence in the 19th century, weakening the Empire’s Islamic caste system.

The Empire passed the 1860s’ Tanzimat Reforms to rectify this issue. To counter rising Arab and Persian nationalisms and the appeal of Western liberalism, these reforms abolished dhimma. For the first time in 1400 years, non-Muslims achieved equal rights to own property and practice their own cultures. Predictably, many groups exploited their new freedoms to acquire property and initiate struggles for greater self-determination. Later in this period, the First Aliyah brought Jews from Yemen to Palestine, before anyone arrived from Europe.

This historical context shows why the Algerian Ideology is ideology, a distorting lens. It constructs belonging to the MENA region as a matter of political allegiance to a specific succession of states: from the early Islamic Conquests to the Ottoman Empire, then the Arab League. The Algerian Ideology equates the MENA as a region with the derivative-imperial nations hewing most closely to premodern imperial rule. This is how Algerian and Tunisian Jews appeared as compradors and were expelled from homes they knew before Islam. This also illuminates why Yassir Arafat declared independence from Algiers, not Ramallah or al-Quds.

The Algerian Ideology requires the decolonization, in the Algerian sense, of Palestine. The Arab-Muslim Palestinian majority would need a usufruct property system and a special privilege as indigenes to counter the bourgeois rights by which the colonizer (eg: Zionists/whites) might rob them. This would prioritize justice for the Arab indigenes over the liberal rights favored by the Western Left. That might sacrifice some favor among the Western Left, though the necessity of dezionization would likely keep it in line. It is, however, a full and radical solution to the problem of Zionist colonization and the Israeli state. It gets to the root of the problem, as explained by the Institute for Palestine Studies in the Jerusalem Quarterly:

“[T]he intensity of the post-1908 reaction can only be explained by the cumulative effect of a series of land purchases from absentee landlords involving the expulsions of fellahin and the ensuing clashes.”

That full import was not a robbery or an absence of liberal rights. It was their exercise to expropriate the indigenes, defined by their allegiance to an Islamic polity. This indigene status has political stakes, as well. Without it, some Zionists threaten a counterclaim, as indigenous Middle Easterners and North Africans, of owning land.

Can there be a Left solution for Palestine?

The problem liberal solutions for Palestine is that the liberals are all damned two-staters.

Given the choice between the Algerian Ideology and liberal individualism, they fall back on the “realistic” old cliche: two states for two peoples. This is not Palestine solidarity or liberation; it is liberal Zionism. Leftists insist that they could never be Zionists; they deceive themselves. The exceptions tie themselves in knots, opposing Zionism as a settler-colonial project but withholding support for dezionization to give the settler-colonists liberal rights to stolen land.

Could liberalism itself be the problem? It has always been contradictory. Liberal problems often require radical solutions. Socialism promises to abolish both nation-states and private property, eliminating the need to compensate private property owners. Land, among other capital assets, would be available by usufruct: a Palestinian could move into an unused house anywhere. A Jew could simply request a place to live from their local municipal labor council; lacking vacancies they would freely move elsewhere. Greening the Negev could be taken up again without the contradictions of profit and Zionism holding back social forces of production, provided no ecological concerns come up. Given an intersectional, antiracist socialism, Palestinians would make up 64% of the population and therefore claim 64% of the land and wealth. Reeducation could then defuse the Haredi-Jewish demographic time-bomb.

Socialist utopias always sound like ungrounded, facetious speculation compared to the realities of life under liberal ideology that divides politics from economy. In practice, socialism is not a magic wand for resolving rivalrous material demands into political harmony. Refusal to write recipes for the cookshops of the future has never avoided the kind of vetocratic system in which “the prevailing presumption in most areas of economic life is that an activity may not be undertaken unless permission has been obtained from the appropriate authority.”  It is easy to stand for the human right to stop Zionists doing Zionist things because it is a right to stop someone. Materially sublating rivalrous disputes is harder.

[1] I use the term “Arab-Israeli” to denote an Arab citizen of the present State of Israel, sticking to a legalistic designation to avoid speaking over the broad range of self-identifications with respect to Israeli civil-society, Palestinian national aspirations, and differences among the Druze, Bedouin, fellahin, urban Palestinian Arabs, etc.