Ali Abunimah was limping as he left Olin Sang Auditorium at Brandeis University in late February. The keynote speaker at the first Israeli Apartheid Week at the Jewish-sponsored school had a torn meniscus, and his doctor had ordered him to lay off the pain pills in advance of his upcoming surgery.
“It is hard to believe I am going to take down the State of Israel when my knee hurts this much,” he said, leaning onto a cane as he stepped into a student’s car that would transport him to his hotel in downtown Boston.
He was joking — sort of. Abunimah is the leading American proponent of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which calls for a shared democratic state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. It is a state, in Abunimah’s vision, in which all residents of Israel and the territories it now occupies would enjoy equal rights and obligations. But in the eyes of his detractors, Abunimah’s idea is tantamount to the destruction of the State of Israel, a proposal that would obliterate the Jewish character of the country in favor of majority Arab rule.
“This person has called for the elimination of the State of Israel and the replacement of that with one state inhabited by the return of millions of Palestinian refugees,” said Stephen Kuperberg, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. “In other words, the elimination of the self-determination of the one state that Jews have anywhere in the world.”
Abunimah’s popular Chicago-based website, The Electronic Intifada, is a clearinghouse of cutting criticism of Israel. In the past few years, the website’s success has propelled him to the forefront of the anti-Zionist left on college campuses across America.
“It has assumed a kind of central place in the anti-Israel propaganda war,” said Michael Kotzin, former executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, who has followed Abunimah’s rise. Abunimah claims his site currently averages about 300,000 page views per month. Its traffic in 2011 increased by 33% over the previous year, he said.
Abunimah’s idea, on which he elaborates in his 2006 book, “One Country: A Bold Proposal To End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse,” is based on the notion that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are willing to cede the minimal amount of land to satisfy the demands of the opposite side. The two-state solution, he likes to say, is pure “political science fiction.”
For Abunimah, 41, an American of Palestinian parentage, the one-state solution is as much a pragmatic remedy to an intractable conflict as it is a way to rectify Zionism’s historical wrongs. In Abunimah’s single state, Palestinian refugees who were forced out or fled in 1948 and 1967 would have the right to return to their homeland. But Abunimah can grow vague when pressed on just how things would work out from there.
In his book, for example, Abunimah says, somewhat boldly, that the one state he envisions would retain a Law of Return for Jews even as Palestinian refugees could also return under its reach. But Abunimah dialed back that concession in his interview with the Forward. Jews will be subject to what Abunimah terms a “nondiscriminatory” immigration policy, he said. “It is not a question of Jews coming or not coming,” he said. “It should be a home to anyone who is persecuted.”
Most of the returning Palestinians would move to new cities on empty land. Some would demand to return to their homes in Israeli cities, and these cases should be handled “as ethically as possible.” Certain settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would remain in place, no doubt, transformed from Jewish-only municipalities into mixed neighborhoods. Like the white flight from South Africa at the end of apartheid, many elite Jews would leave, Abunimah predicts. But most would stay — in particular, poor Jews, religious Jews and Jews of Arab origin.