In their probably unintended debate on BDS, international law, and the solution, Norman Finkelstein and Anna Baltzer presented very powerful (and opposite) arguments, and despite my deep respect and admiration to both of them, I found myself more aligned with Anna’s arguments for the reasons I shall attempt to briefly outline here.
Finkelstein explained very powerfully that the core problem with the BDS movement (as identified by its founders) is that it suffers from a fundamental hypocrisy. If BDS was based on international law (as it claims to be), then it cannot take an agnostic position on Israel, because international law is just as particular in defining Israeli rights as it is with Palestinian rights. The pro-Israel camp is vehemently fighting BDS (even labeling it as anti-Semitic) on the premise that BDS’s true intention lies not in the protection of Palestinian rights, but in wanting to destroy Israel. So when the public asks the BDS movement what their position is on Israel’s rights, the BDS movement’s default response is that it does not have a position on Israel’s rights, as it is not their concern, which further strengthens the anti-BDS allegations.
But Baltzer responds, correctly, that if we do follow international law to the letter, which calls for: (1) the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands conquered in the 1967 war, namely the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, (2) the right of return for all Palestinian refugees to their lands since 1948 - approximately 5.5 million according to the UN, and (3) the end of discrimination against Israeli citizens based on religion, race, or ethnicity; it might mean in effect the destruction of Israel, i.e. the dismantlement of Israel as a “Jewish” state.
In fact, the goal of BDS is not the dismantlement of the Jewish state, but one could argue that it would be a natural consequence. If all 5.5 million Palestinians were allowed to return to historic Palestine (pre-1948), and if Israel was compelled to treat all its citizens equally and democratically, then we would certainly have a Palestinian majority (the way it would have been had Israel not engaged in ethnic-cleansing shortly prior to its foundation in 1948). And when the population of a democratic Israel that grants equal rights to all its citizens is made up of a majority of Palestinians, then surely it can no longer be a “Jewish” state, which means that the Zionist project to create a state by the Jews and for the Jews would be dead.
Finkelstein argues that such a vision is against the international consensus which calls for a two-state solution. He powerfully shows that the one-state solution is analogous to erasing the borders between the United States and Mexico, on the same grounds of logic and justice. As it is well-known, more than a 100 years ago, the United States permanently annexed half of Mexico (the lands that constitute today the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas). So instead of talking about solving the Mexican illegal immigrants problem, why not combine Mexico and the US into one country? That way the problem of immigration and its legality would be automatically resolved. But despite the sound logic and the desirable outcome of such a union, Finkelstein argues, politically it is virtually impossible. Hence it would be ridiculous to start a movement to call for it, instead of solving the problem of immigrants with what is politically feasible, namely, immigration reform.
And when Baltzer brings up the South African example - which the BDS movement echoes as its inspiration - Finkelstein counters correctly with the fundamental fact that led to the end of apartheid and a one state for all whites and blacks: there was international consensus on an integral South Africa (134 votes to 0 at the UN), whereas the international consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian problem virtually unanimously and unequivocally calls for two states, not one.
According to Finkelstein, politics is not about personal preferences or sound logic (as important as they are), but about what is feasible and what isn’t. A two-state solution, backed by an international consensus, is infinitely more feasible politically, from which follows that in order for the BDS movement to become legitimate in the eyes of the world, and thus have a real shot at succeeding, it needs to clarify that its ultimate goal is to push Israel to end its illegal occupation of the 1967 lands, in line with the two-state solution, which also means unambiguously recognizing Israel’s rights. Baltzer’s view, however, is that the international consensus does not get to dictate the parameters of the struggle for justice. Slavery was once the law of the land, and fighting to end it was the right thing to do, despite political feasibility. Just like with slavery, the relentless struggle is what would eventually and necessarily alter political feasibility in favor of the just cause.
It’s true that Mexico and the United States will most likely never become one country in our lifetime, but that’s because there is no critical mass calling for such a union. But in the case of Palestine and Israel, there is in fact a very big and growing worldwide movement that’s calling for the one-state solution, a movement that even includes renowned Israeli activists like Amira Haas, Gideon Levy, Miko Peled, Ilan Pappe, and hundreds of others. Unlike Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, I do not rate the level of political feasibility based on what the international consensus is. Rather, I rate it based on (1) the reality on the ground, and (2) the consensus of the people directly involved: in this case the Palestinians.
As to the reality on the ground, at this moment there is ironically just one state: the state of Israel. There is only one official army, one real government, and one border control apparatus. Both Jews and Palestinians live on both sides of the 1967 border, and both are economically intertwined. For the one-state solution to become a reality, all Israel has to do is pass a law that recognizes all Palestinians as equal citizens of the state! And that very simple flick of a pen is already in line with existing international laws and human rights. What the world needs to do is to compel Israel to uphold the law, and what better way to do so than to boycott, sanction, and divest from Israel until the day it decides to uphold it?
I agree with Finkelstein that the struggle to gain an international consensus for the one-state solution (no matter how much more sense it makes) will take a very long time, and may never even come. I understand that he sees the current international consensus of two-states like the bird in the hand, and thus should be capitalized upon with full force (instead of wasting energy on a project that lacks any international support on the governmental level). Even Gideon Levy, a staunch supporter of the one-state solution, admitted that the occupation-addicted Israel is incapable of dismantling itself from within, and that the change must come from the international community; the US in particular. But I also cannot ignore that the two-state solution was already dead back in 1993, when Israel made sure that its occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank had become irreversible (as Levy explained in detail).
So long as the United States is the world’s sole superpower, and so long as supporting Israel’s occupation and violations of human rights and international law is part of its hegemonic policy, the BDS movement alone cannot compel Israel to do anything. Not even the two-state solution has a chance in the face of the alignment of US-Israeli interests in continuing the occupation. But what the BDS movement can still do is:
Finkelstein might still believe that, on balance, a BDS movement specifically supporting a two-state solution is far more fruitful with respect to all four points aforementioned (for the rationale outlined above), but I agree with Baltzer in keeping the movement open for the advocates of both solutions, since the principles of the BDS movement do not require enunciating either position, as it is clearly and strictly designed to compel Israel to observe international law, regardless of what number of states such observance may lead to.