The ‘non-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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By Khaled Diab

With the two-state solution relegated to the dustbin of history, the time has arrived to consider equal citizenship for Palestinians and Israelis.

Thursday 4 October 2012

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has sincerely flattered none other than himself. When he surreally pulled out the cartoon bomb to illustrate the apparent threat from the alleged Iranian programme to build a nuclear weapon, he succeeded in becoming a parody of himself, triggering a proliferation of viral caricatures, such as the one mocking him as a “Looney Tunes” villain.

Netanyahu’s rhetoric was just as two-dimensional, casting Iran and its presumed allies in the role of the ultimate bloodthirsty, suicidal enemy bent on destroying civilisation as we know it.

“At stake is not merely the future of my own country. At stake is the future of the world,” he claimed rather implausibly, given that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the Iranian regime, despite its ill-informed and dangerous grandstanding, is developing a nuclear weapons programme, that it would be successful even if it were pursuing one, or that it would actually be stupid and suicidal enough to deploy said WMD. Meanwhile, Israel, despite its policy of ambiguity, is widely understood to sit on the Middle East’s only known nuclear arsenal.

Netanyahu drew “red lines” all over the General Assembly, while conveniently overlooking the far more significant green line, upon which the future of his country truly rests. In fact, judging by the evasive passing reference to negotiations and “mutual compromise”, Bibi seems to rate Iran’s non-existent nukes as a greater threat to Israel than the ticking time bomb of the unresolved Palestinian question.

Cold-shouldered by Netanyahu and facing mounting unrest among his own people, PA President Mahmoud Abbas continued, for want of more imaginative ideas, his disastrous quest for UN recognition, as if the non-membership of a non-state would somehow help the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

“There can only be one understanding of the Israeli government’s actions,” Abu Mazen told the assembly, suggesting that “the Israeli government rejects the two-state solution”.

Judging by Israel’s deeds, which have left no more space to negotiate over, it seems safe to conclude that the idea of an independent Palestinian state existing beside Israel on the pre-1967 borders lies somewhere in the dustbin of history. While the Israeli leadership is content to “manage the conflict”, the PA is powerless to breathe new life into a defunct process.

So, what’s the answer? According to Abbas, a “new approach” is required. However, the new approach he outlined sounded suspiciously like the old one: that the ineffective and ineffectual international community can somehow be prevailed upon finally to rise from its lethargy and force Israel to commit to the pre-1967 borders.

He mentioned but did not elaborate on a far more promising and powerful track. “Our people are also determined to continue peaceful popular resistance, consistent with international humanitarian law, against the occupation and the settlements and for the sake of freedom, independence and peace,” Abbas concluded.

Personally, I believe we need to take this “new approach” to its logical conclusion. Rather than continue the decades-old futile efforts to accommodate two conflicting nationalisms in such a tiny space, it is high time for everyone involved to recognise that all attempts to partition and repartition this land simply have not worked and are unlikely to in the future.

Instead of fixating on borders and territory, as if soil is so much thicker than blood, the focus must shift to the people, whom for too many generations have been sacrificed in the cause of this holy land, as if it has more rights than they do.

Prioritising the people will necessitate transforming the Palestinian struggle into a mass, non-violent civil rights movement, in which Palestinians deploy all the tools of peaceful resistance at their disposal, and Israeli sympathisers force emancipation platforms on their political parties. In this context, the “land for peace” formula will be replaced by a “rights for peace” one in which full emancipation will be the central demand.

We need to form a Popular Front for the Liberation of the Palestinians to pursue the various civil rights Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are currently denied, deprived of or have restricted access to. These include the freedom to travel and to work everywhere, not just in Palestine but also in Israel, the removal of roadblocks and checkpoints, the dismantling of the wall, and the opening up of Israeli-only settlements to Palestinians.

But, first and foremost, all 4.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza must seek full Israeli citizenship. For differing reasons, this bold proposal is bound to be anathema both to Palestinians and Israelis, as it will be seen to be sounding the death knell on their dreams.

For Israelis, it sounds suspiciously like the one-state solution which, to the minds of many, though there are a growing number of supporters, spells the demise of the century-long Zionist dream and the end of the Jewish state. For many Palestinians, though more of them support the one-state option than in Israel, the idea of becoming Israelis is tantamount not only to admitting the death of their beloved Palestine but to asking for the privilege to drive the final nail into the coffin.

Such worries reflect historical and psychological anxieties, heightened by the maximalist visions of extremists on both sides, rather than the glaring realities on the ground: that Palestinians and Israelis are effectively living in a single state, albeit one that is largely segregated and in which millions are disenfranchised.

To my mind, despite all the poetry of the land that has marked the Palestinian struggle, “Palestine” is far more than its olive and orange groves, it is, above all else, the sum total of its people. What better way is there to preserve what’s left than to protect the right of the Palestinians to continue to live there in full equality?

Likewise, it is the Israeli people who make Israel Jewish and so emancipating the millions of disenfranchised Palestinians will not make the state any less Jewish than it is today – only fairer and more just. Moreover, if maintaining a clear Jewish majority is truly the overarching aim of the Zionist project, then Israel should have allowed the emergence of an independent Palestine many years ago.

Personally, I am an advocate of a single, bi-national federation of Israel-Palestine because it allows both sides to have unfettered access to the land they hold so dear, while preserving their social and cultural identities and rights through, for example, elected community governments, one representing Jews and one representing Arabs wherever they may live on the land (and perhaps a third representing those anti-nationalists who wish to be defined as neither). Above this, an elected federal government would be responsible for common issues, such as the economy, defence, foreign relations and water resources.

But what I am proposing here is not a one-state solution per se. If anything, you could say it is the ‘non-state solution’, i.e. it is an ideologically neutral means of improving the reality on the ground.

Once everyone is emancipated, then the real work begins and a true conversation of equals can take place to determine democratically the future of the two peoples: whether they will continue together in a single, democratic state or opt for a magnanimous divorce brokered, not by outsiders, but one people to another.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2012.

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Palestine@UN: From national to civil rights

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By Rachel Lever

As the two-state solution enters its final death throes, it is time for campaigners to switch their demands to equal rights in a single democratic state.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Mark Twain once asked, on hearing news of the death of a less-than-dynamic American politician, “How did they know he was dead?” What we are now asking about the two-state solution is: how will we know it is dead?

The formula of two states for two peoples has been so dead for so long that it has been dubbed the “undead”. Nevertheless, the powers-that-be will never declare the death of the two-state solution.  

Israel’s establishment will not do it because it has been a brilliant cover for the acquisition of the West Bank and the throttling of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority will not do it because their status and salaries depend on it. Washington will not do it because they think their votes depend on it. Israel’s “peace camp” will not do it because their illusions depend on it. And most Palestinians will not do it because they feel that a state, however limited and nominal, is their only hope of getting some control over their destiny.

UN tactic to resurrect the undead 

As for the UN recognition tactic intended to resurrect the two-state option, it might gain Palestinians a better bargaining position for a separate state. But this bargain would cost the Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes, and leave Palestinians inside Israel open to further ethnic cleansing. 

And how many of the countries that will vote for recognition have committed themselves to supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) to isolate Israel until it ends its military rule over the new “state” they’ve just voted to recognise and until it fulfils the provisions of various UN resolutions? Has the PA even asked them to apply such sanctions? 

Kick-start without the kick 

The UN bid did seem to promise a bit of a departure from the tired old business-as-usual negotiations. It was still a two-state compromise, but its highlight was to insist, and get it voted on at the UN, that Palestine’s territory consisted of nothing less than the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem (as it stood pre-1967) as its capital. 

 Israel was, of course, dead set against this, and also hated the short-circuiting of negotiations and the bad behaviour of its prisoner appealing to the UN over its head. 

Now this has apparently been junked, Haaretz reported, and the whole concept drastically watered down in a new draft “crafted” by the Fatah leadership. Now, instead of recognising Palestine within the 1967 borders, it will say that the permanent borders will be determined by, yes, you guessed, negotiations with Israel “based on” the borders of 4 June, 1967. This is the position the negotiations were at five years ago. 

The idea is to make the resolution so feeble that even the United States and Israel could vote for it. So after all the excitement, what is the point of it at all? 

Another revealing comment from the Haaretz report noted that: “This approach made it possible to enlist the support of leading moderates in Hamas, who claim that recognition of the 1967 borders before the signing of a final-status deal means waiving the claim to the right of return.” So their only worry was that it would be given away cheaply at the start of the process rather than sold for a price at the “final status” point.

The two-state roadblock

This dead, useless and hazardous project to repartition historic Palestine stands four-square in the way of a perfectly feasible political solution that reunites the country based on universal human rights, an equal democracy, multicultural tolerance, and reconciliation. All of which could add up to real and lasting peace. 

This whole, complete and single state would have no internal borders. It would need no high-profile evictions of dangerous, armed and militant settlers (who have just vandalised an IDF base as a “price-tag” for losing three houses); no security arrangements, and no “population transfers” or land swaps. Palestinian refugees could be welcomed back to help build a new society. Jerusalem would be a united city, liberated from shameful ethnic cleansing and the racist rewriting of its history – house by house and street by street. 

Those who say this is impossible because of racial or communal hatred are simply pandering to such hatred. All evidence shows that separation, and unjust separation especially, serve to inflate fear and hatred.

A constitution created jointly would guarantee the most beneficial rights, and respect and nurture of the variety of identities, because its joint authors will insist on them on behalf of those they represent. Equality means what’s “good for the gander is good for the goose” – no exceptions, no double standards. 

The new country would no longer be a Jewish state. But it will still remain a very Jewish country in the best sense, finally able to reclaim Judaism’s core values that command us to respect “the other”. 

To ensure that the state will treat all cultures and faiths equally, there has to be strict separation of “church and state”. This principle has been tried and tested over hundreds of years in secular democracies, and withstood strong organised religion, even where one faith is dominant. 

A country with two strong faiths would have cast-iron defences for its constitution. In Israel and Palestine and among potential incomers, exiles, and expats, only a small minority is known to favour any state-enforced religion. It is not credible that such a constitution could be overturned if it required a massive, popular, across-the-board majority of all communities in a referendum. 

By far the strongest guarantee is that all the people would have an equal stake in the new state, and an equal interest in making it work and isolating rejectionists and extremists on either side. And a one-state solution is fast: work to create a merged society could start very quickly, transforming the political landscape from day one. Many joint projects will have been created as part of the struggle and ahead of formal transition. Some exist now, already forging strong bonds.

Anyone can see that the two-state train has been sitting up against the buffers for decades now, with the one-state express stuck behind it. The big problem has been opening up the line to let the fast train through.

A common scenario outlined by a number of historians, politicians (including Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert) and Israel’s own leading think-tank Reut is that once the two-state option is closed off, Palestinians will start to demand civil rights in one country. 

Ethnocracy or democracy?

Israel calls itself Jewish and democratic, and obsessively seeks to maintain this strange hybrid by fiddling the franchise so that it will always have a massive ethnic majority. Its  complicated and flexible “apartheid” system, helped by the zones set up in the Oslo “peace process”  allowed it to take the West Bank land but leave the Palestinians there without a vote, which means they effectively live in a military dictatorship.

But if the zones and borders are taken away, all this will be in full view, and Israel will be left with the choice of Jewishness (by openly denying the franchise to people who share the country) or democracy, which will end the present guaranteed ethnocracy, whose establishment and maintenance have called forth massive and continuing ethnic cleansing. Already, the issue is up for debate, as a new quasi-constitutional Basic Law has been tabled under which, if there is a choice, democracy must lose out. 

Choosing democracy

A grassroots Palestinian movement demanding an end to zones and borders, and waving the banner of equality under one law and universal franchise, could drive a wedge into Israeli thinking, separating those who choose democracy from those who prioritise Zionism. 

The universalism of this demand makes it far more powerful than national demands which are, after all, stuck behind their national boundaries. Civil rights slogans can penetrate into the liberal hearts of the majority ofIsrael’s Democrat-voting American Jewish outriders, weakening Israel’s lifeline lobby in Washington. 

Civil rights demands can get under the skin of the fervent old Zionist peace campaigners who thought the two-state solution would return Israel to its supposed days of innocence before 1967. And they can make big inroads into Israel’s mass movement that is campaigning for social justice – but only on its side of the Green Line. 

Switching the points: from statehood to rights

In any other context, a demand for the right to vote would be obvious. But here it is a demand to vote in national elections for the Knesset, in what amounts to de facto (if, hopefully, temporary and transitional) acceptance of Israel in its current form.

So switching the points and turning the struggle around from demanding statehood (however nominal and symbolic) to demanding votes in the occupier’s state will not be easy.

Israel’s adamant and threatening opposition to the UN vote has made the compromise of 22% of historic Palestine look like a great act of defiance. Whereas the truly radical demand, for an equal share in and equal right to all of Israel-Palestine, looks uncomfortably like the ultra-Zionist demand for annexation. 

 A civil rights movement could also help to create a new, elected and accountable Palestinian leadership that stands its ground and speaks with one voice, and which might appeal across the national divide not by compromising and cringing but by expressing the inclusive and anti-racist values that are already gaining ground in the grassroots struggles. 

There may not be a better time than the September UN vote to declare that with the blocking of statehood comes the final death of the two-state solution, and to start the turn from a national territorial struggle to a fight for  one person, one vote, one law, for no borders and no more barriers.

At a time when a brave minority of Israel’s J14 protests, such as Tent No.1948, are trying to connect the “social justice” demands and concerns with the Palestinian struggle, what better way to start a one-country civil rights movement or party than to raise the same demands for social justice from the other side?

Ideally, the organisations that have questioned the value of the UN bid will now get together with others and put out a joint call immediately after the vote, titled, in the words of Palestinian lawyer Noura Erakat, “Statehood blocked: equality struggle ahead”.

This article is part of a special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.

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Palestine@UN: Last chance for the two-state solution

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By Labeeb Baransi

If the UN bid fails to resurrect the peace process, Israelis and Palestinians will be left with no choice but to find other ways to live together.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

The Palestinian Authority’s unilateral decision to go the United Nations is, in my opinion, one of the last available means of keeping the two-state solution alive. If this bid fails and perhaps even if it succeeds, the PA will be left with little choice but to disband itself.

This may sound like political suicide. But what other options are there? Since the Oslo accords were agreed, both parties have tried numerous times and ways to keep the peace process on track but to no avail. It is true that some were more interested in a process rather than an end result. Nevertheless, the current deadlock is one that was anticipated by many right from the start due to the complexity of this unrealistic two-state solution.

What the PA can achieve by going to the UN – apart from, at worst, a US veto or, at best, a General Assembly vote similar to resolutions 181 and 242 – is still very much unclear. Even if the General Assembly recognises a Palestinian state, the reality on the ground, based on experience, is unlikely to shift beyond the status quo.

Doubtlessly, a positive vote will be considered to be a victory, by both the PA and the Palestinian people. However, in my opinion, this will be the start of yet more hardships for the Palestinians. UN recognition would, once again, highlight the illegality of Israel’s presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which would be seen as a major political setback by the Israeli PR machine. This may lead Israel to punish the Palestinians collectively for the political decision that the PA has taken by, for example, withholding wages and tax revenues, and more.

And it is then that the PA will really have no choice but to dissolve itself. By this stage, it would have literary tried all the possibilities in and out of the book, yet still ended up in the same situation, that of basically helping to run the occupied territories on behalf of Israel, but much more cheaply and conveniently than Israel could do directly.

As the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and so both Israelis and Palestinians have to understand that unilateral moves only create complications. However, this one-sided move will almost certainly be the last card to be played by the PA and so, despite my reservations about unilateralism, I find my self agreeing to it.

Palestinians have tried armed resistance under Yasser Arafat’s leadership and unlimited compromise under Mahmoud Abbas’s. Yet both approaches have had the same net result: the same limitations hampering the Palestinian people from living normal lives. Hence, it is becoming clearer to a growing number of Palestinians and Israelis alike that a two-state solution is one that will be impossible to reach a compromise on.

Now it has become a matter of waiting: we will wait until this UN move succeeds in changing nothing. After which, we will wait again for the PA to take the courageous step of ending its respected-yet-failed project of providing the Palestinians with their long-deserved right to live as full citizens in a state of their own.

Looking ahead and beyond September, I believe that the true political process will only begin with the end of the PA. This is when reality will hit back and tell both people: “Hey, you have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but to live together in peace”. This will push both parties to educate their populace about this unavoidable fact.

With time, and yes it will take time, people will finally grasp the idea that neither side is going to drive the other into the sea or the desert, and that we are not going to kill one another till the last man is down. And so let us live and let live.

This article is part of a special Chronikler report on the Palestinian quest to seek United Nations recognition.

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Special report: Palestine@UN

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Photo: ©Khaled Diab

In September 2011, the Palestinian leadership plans to go to the United Nations to seek recognition for an independent Palestine on the pre-1967 borders in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. What will this bid mean for Palestinians, Israelis and the international community? Will this diplomatic initiative succeed or fail? Will this unilateral move serve the cause of peace or fan the flames of conflict? Will it improve the situation on the ground or make it worse? Where should happen post-September and where do we go from here?

Throughout the month of September and beyond, The Chronikler’s Palestine@UN special report features Palestinian, Israeli and other interested and knowledgeable voices who air their views on the significance and ramifications of the Palestinian quest to seek UN recognition.

This page will be regularly updated with the latest articles on the subject, so do check back regularly.


Israelis for Palestine

4 October 2011 – Left-wing Israelis do not buy Netanyahu’s scare tactics and look forward to living side by side with an independent Palestine.

Walking on the moon in Ramallah

30 September 2011 – As an Israeli and a Jew, Ramallah once seemed to be as distant as outer space. So joining the crowds celebrating the Palestinian UN bid was like a small step for a man but a giant leap for my mind.

A civil compromise to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

29 September 2011 – With the Palestinian bid to join the UN likely to get them nowhere, there is a more civil way out of the impasse that will give both Israelis and Palestinians what they want.

From national to civil rights

8 September 2011 – As the two-state solution enters its final death throes, it is time for campaigners to switch their demands to equal rights in a single democratic state.

Too few cooks spoil the peace

8 September 2011 – The asymmetry in power between Israelis and Palestinians and the exclusion of key players mean that the quest for UN recognition of an independent Palestine is like the icing on an uncooked cake.

A Palestinian Masada

6 September 2011 – Are Palestinian plans to go to the United Nations a case of passing the political hot potato, reinventing the Oslo process or a hopeless last stand?

Last chance for the two-state solution

6 September 2011 – If the UN bid fails to resurrect the peace process, Israelis and Palestinians will be left with no choice but to find other ways to live together.

From the archives

Egypt and Israel: cold peace or cold war?

Egypt, Israel and Palestine: towards the promised land of peace?

Race against space

Which comes first: Palestine or the Palestinians?

Reinventing the Palestinian struggle

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Hallucinatory states

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By Khaled Diab

Instead of obsessing over how their identities clash, Israelis and Palestinians need to focus more attention on where they mesh.

30 August 2009

AR version

The rise to power of Hamas, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu represents a frightening hardening of nationalistic visions that does not bode well for the future. Instead of obsessing over how their identities clash, Israelis and Palestinians need to focus more attention on where they mesh.

For all their mutual loathing and animosity, these extremist Israeli and Palestinian parties have one thing in common: their political vision of the future has no space for the other side except as a vanquished, subject people.

Under immense pressure from the United States, however, Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went against his own convictions and his Likud party’s platform and, for the first time, grudgingly and conditionally accepted the eventual emergence of an independent Palestinian state.

Similarly, on the other side of the divide, Hamas’s charter also rejects the existence of a Jewish state, but the extremist Islamist party has modified its rejectionist stance since it came to power by offering Israel tacit recognition and a 10-year truce if it withdraws to the pre-1967 borders.

Needless to say, both positions are still unacceptable to the other side. Yet again, peace based on two independent states seems to have stalled in the concept phase, with the key difference being that, in the Oslo years, some real progress was made on the ground.

So, why is it that the two-state solution, despite having been the only diplomatic show in town for nearly two decades, never seems capable of making the leap from the notional to the real?

Part of the problem is the enormous power disparity between the two sides. Ideologically tinged perception is another major hurdle. At their core, many streams within Zionist and Palestinian nationalism are rooted in a claim to the entire territory of Mandate Palestine. In such a climate, concessions are seen not as pragmatic attempts to coexist but as acts of treachery of the highest order.

In the 1970s, some PLO members, such as the organisation’s London representative, Said Hammami, advocated the two-state option and paid for it with their lives. Meanwhile, their Israeli counterparts, such as the peacenik and journalist Uri Avnery, were ostracised and demonised. During the Oslo years, Yitzhak Rabin, despite treading a cautious and slow path that undermined the peace process, also paid for his “betrayal” with his life.

Albert Einstein once described nationalism as “the measles of the human race”. In the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I would hazard to liken it to an immune system which evolved originally to defend against oppression and weakness but which has grown over the years into a cancer corroding the humanity of all those involved.

Like the 19th-century European models upon which they are based, Arab and Jewish nationalism started off as a quest for self-determination. However, the medicine that sought to cure oppression and overcome weakness quickly morphed into a dangerous and highly addictive hallucinogen which has led the most hardcore abusers on such a wild trip that they have become almost entirely detached from reality. Many people have woken up to the terrible side effects of the nationalism drug, but fear the withdrawal symptoms too much to kick the habit or allow themselves to be lured back into the opium den by charismatic pushers like Avigdor Lieberman or Khaled Meshaal.

With Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Hamas currently calling the shots, it is hard to imagine that there was once a time when identities were more fluid – when the term “Palestinian” also encompassed Jews, when Middle Eastern Jews freely identified themselves and were seen as “Arabs”, while some European Jews, including Britain’s only prime minister of Jewish extraction, Benjamin Disraeli, held the romantic notion that they were “Mosaic Arabs”.

But after a century of conflict, perceptions have hardened and identities have narrowed to the extent that the mere suggestion that Israelis and Arabs have something in common is widely regarded as an insult.

But if this conflict is ever to be resolved, we need to invade this common ground, occupy it and make it our own. For both sides, the prospect of dividing up the land into two separate states is painful because it would deprive them of access to areas of great symbolic and emotional value. Acknowledging that Israelis and Palestinians actually live in a single country, and striving to make that state a fairer one that serves all its people, will avoid this distressing carve-up.

We need a bi-national confederated state made up of an autonomous, secular Israeli and Palestinian component – each of which can keep the cultural trappings of nationhood, such as the flag and national anthem. Freedom of movement within this federation would ensure that Israelis and Palestinians have access to all the places they hold sacred and dear, such as Jerusalem, Hebron and Jaffa. In this scenario the energies currently consumed by conflict can be re-diverted to creating prosperity for all.

By recognising that Israelis and Palestinians possess equal stakes in a common homeland, one can do away with the familiar and uncompromising terms of reference of who holds historic title to the land, of occupation and resistance, of terrorism and retaliation, of Cane and Abel, of David and Goliath.

This column first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 26 August 2009. It was written as part of a special series on nationalism for the Common Ground News Service.

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States of confusion

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By Khaled Diab

As the dust settles on Gaza, is the best vision for the future of the Middle East a one, two or three-state solution?

February 2009

The fragile two-week-old truce between Israel and Hamas looked in danger of collapsing this weekend as Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, threatened a “disproportionate response” following the firing from Gaza – though not by Hamas, this time – of some two rockets at southern Israel on Sunday, causing no damage or casualties. Israel has already launched air strikes and says more could be on the way.

Does this mean that Olmert is considering resuming Israel’s 22-day pummelling of Gaza which left 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, and the Strip’s infrastructure reduced to dust, including some 20,000 homes destroyed or damaged? And to what end?

That either side should claim victory in Gaza shows just how warped perceptions are – the mighty can’t win in this asymmetric war, but neither can the weak.

As foreseen by so many, Israel’s bloody offensive failed to destroy Hamas or even stop the rocket attacks – yet the overwhelming majority of Israelis approved of the assault (93%, according to one poll commissioned by the Ma’ariv newspaper).

I got a sense of the extent of this support when an Israeli Buddhist we’d encountered in India phoned me to discuss Gaza. Despite being a declared pacifist and the obvious degree to which the carnage in Gaza distressed him, he was entirely convinced that “this time, there was no other option”. The idea of dialogue and removing the blockade strangling the Palestinians didn’t seem to have occurred to him.

In addition to the extra hatred among the Palestinians and the international condemnation it has fostered, the offensive has not delivered any sizeable domestic gains for Israel’s self-serving government, with all signs suggesting that the Likud’s ultra-hardline Binyamin Netanyahu is on track to win the upcoming election.

Hamas’s own declaration of victory was both surreal and depressing. To my mind, there is a gaping chasm between triumph and simple survival. Just because Hamas was not wiped out – after all, no one, except the Israelis and their cheerleaders, expected such a well-establishment movement to be – that does not mean they won.

In fact, by any objective standards, the losses Gaza suffered will take years to repair. This makes the use of puny slingshot rockets, which bring no military or political advantage, seem counterproductive and even masochistic.

Against this backdrop, Barack Obama dispatched his special envoy George Mitchell to the region on a “listening” tour – although his ear did not extend as far as Hamas. The message seems to be that Obama intends to carry on from where Bill Clinton left off and revive the two-state peace process.

However, this is the same Mitchell whose previous efforts in the Middle East, under Bill Clinton, only succeeded in plotting the course for the Quartet’s ‘road map’ to nowhere which now lies somewhere in the political wilderness. In the intervening years, the situation has grown decidedly worse and positions have hardened, which does not bode well for his efforts, especially given America’s long-standing reticence to apply pressure on Israel.

If these efforts are likely to stall, what other options are there?

John Bolton, the US’s hawkish former ambassador to the UN, has proposed what he calls the three-state option, with Jordan gaining control over the West Bank and Gaza swallowed up by Egypt. The “Jordan option” has been popular among Israel’s leadership since the 1967 war, but does not wash with the Palestinians who do not regard returning to Egyptian and Jordanian rule as constituting the self-determination they seek. Jordan and Egypt are also not keen on this option.

A growing number of voices – mainly on the Palestinian side – have been advocating the one-state solution. Even Libya’s eccentric and whimsical Muammar Gaddafi has weighed in on the debate. Despite the surprising eloquence of his appeal, I doubt the Libyan dictator will win many supporters over to the idea in Israel, where it is regarded as an existential threat, an extension of the conflict by other means.

Personally, I am in favour of a federalised bi-national state eventually emerging, since a single state already exists, it only needs to be made fairer – but I don’t hold out much hope of it coming about any time soon.

What this one, two, three focus overlooks is that there is zero trust and too much animosity and hatred on the part of Israelis and Palestinians – and too little international willpower – to make any solution work. We don’t need grand visions. What is required are measures to improve the situation and efforts to galvanise and mobilise the grassroots, who are so often ignored yet constitute the most important component of any eventual resolution.

One option I have advocated is to transform the conflict into a civil rights struggle dealing with concrete civil rights. In addition, the embattled and shrinking Israeli peace movement needs to be strengthened, and one way to achieve that is for Palestinian and Arab peace activists to join their Israeli counterparts in an umbrella movement built around civil rights.

In the mean time, to restore hope, we need to improve conditions for Palestinians, especially in Gaza. In addition to international assistance, Israel should be weighed upon to fulfil its obligations to ensuring Palestinian economic well-being as an occupying power. A powerful gesture that Obama could make to show he means business when he talks of peace would be to turn guns into olive branches by diverting the $3 billion the US gives to Israel in military aid towards programmes to support the Palestinian, and Israeli, poor. The EU could also downgrade Israel’s special status.

Gaza, the most densely populated place on earth, urgently needs to reconnect to the outside world and gain more living space. Since a Palestinian state seems like a dim and distant prospect, Egypt should not only open its borders with Gaza, but should declare a certain part of the border area on the Egyptian side a ‘Freedom Zone’ where Palestinians from Gaza can settle. Of course, a referendum of locals living in any proposed Freedom Zone would first need to be conducted to ensure that there is sufficient domestic support for such an idea. The oil-rich Arab states and other donors would then be invited to fund the development of the area.

I have long hesitated before advocating such a radical option. If Egypt hands over part of its territory to the Palestinians, this could be seen as rewarding Israel for its belligerence. To ensure that Israel does not read this as an end to its responsibilities, Egypt would not officially cede the territory to the Palestinians and would continue to support and push for an independent Palestinian state – once a resolution is reached, Cairo may decide to give it as a gift to the Palestinian people or let it stand as a Freedom Zone. More importantly, regardless of how Israel interprets it, the humanitarian imperative has grown too compelling and continued inaction is not an option.

Such a gesture would not just be good for the people of Gaza, but would also be good for the Egyptian government, which is facing popular anger and outrage for the role it played in besieging the Strip. Moreover, this part of Egypt is relatively under-populated and so an influx of hard-working, ambitious people could help boost its fortunes, rather like the flood of Palestinian refugees transformed Amman.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 2 February 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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