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Diana Buttu

A united, democratic nation with equal rights for all

AS A FORMER legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, I spent more than six years working toward a “two-state’’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During that period, we held countless negotiation sessions, examined scores of proposals, met with hundreds of diplomats and even went house-to-house campaigning for the two-state solution. Today, we are no closer to achieving a two-state solution than we were 20 years ago when negotiations started. Since that time, the number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank has almost tripled to 600,000, with settlements spreading throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip increasingly isolated from the rest of Palestine.

Some pundits point to poor leadership, the rise of right-wing governments, weak or uninterested US presidents, and a powerful Israel lobby, while others highlight the imbalance in negotiating power and the absurdity of negotiating while under occupation. The divergent views suggest an unsatisfactory impasse until we achieve the right alignment of stars: the perfect Israeli prime minister, the perfect American president, and the perfect Palestinian leader for peace to finally reign.

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But perhaps the pundits are wrong and have failed to identify why six decades after Israel’s creation on top of Palestine there is no peace. In fact, we may have tried the wrong model: We tried to divide a land that had never historically been successfully divided and we focused myopically on the creation of a “state’’ rather than the fulfillment of rights.

Instead, we might look to a model focusing on equal rights for all individuals in the land irrespective of religion; a model which seeks reconciliation rather than separation and protects minorities rather than discriminates against them. The student-led one-state conference at Harvard this weekend aims to explore this model.

I am under no illusion that achieving equality for Palestinians and Israelis will be easy. Power is never voluntarily shared by those who wield it. Indeed, the idea of one state has already created hysteria among many of Israel’s supporters who claim it would “destroy Israel.’’ This is wrong. One-state proponents seek only to defeat the ethno-religious privilege that currently defines Israel and affords Jews superior rights to Palestinians, irrespective of whether the Palestinians are citizens of Israel or non-citizens living under Israel’s military rule.

Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories already function as a single unit. There are no separate border crossings for “Palestine’’ and no separate Palestinian currency. Yet Palestinians of the occupied Palestinian territories are denied the same civil and political rights as Israelis. For Palestinian citizens of Israel, the picture is similar. Such citizens vote in Israeli elections, but are denied the same rights as Jewish Israelis. More than 35 laws explicitly privilege Jews.

Perspectives are already changing. Today, more than a quarter of Palestinians support a single democratic state, despite the absence of any political party advocating the position. Israeli perspectives are changing too on both the left and right.

The primary obstacle to one state is the belief that this system of ethno-religious privilege - similar to the privilege that ruled apartheid South Africa - must remain. Indeed, Jim Crow laws and South African apartheid were similarly entrenched in many minds. Yet history demonstrates that ethnic privilege ultimately fails in a multiethnic society. Palestinians and Israelis are fated to live together. The real question is how - under a system of ethno-religious privilege or under a system of equality?

Diana Buttu is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Law School. She served as a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team from 2000 to 2006.
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