An untenable state of affairs

By Khaled Diab

With neither a two-state or bi-national solution imminent, Palestinians and their Israeli allies should attend to civil rights.

September 2008

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due back in the this week for a last-ditch attempt to shore up a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But the Bush administration's “too little, too late” efforts are almost certain to collapse.

As a sign of the pessimistic mood, Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinians' chief negotiator sparked controversy with his threat that, if the Annapolis process fails to meet its deadline and deliver an independent by the end of 2008, “We will call for the alternative solution for the Palestinian people and their leadership – that is a single bi-nationalist state,” he said.

This stance is all the more surprising given that Abu Ala'a, as he is more popularly known, was one of the chief architects of the Oslo Accords and one of the most prominent Palestinian advocates of the two-state solution. If he, too, has lost hope in the oxymoronic ‘peace process', then what chance is there that a workable resolution will come to pass.

The remark was widely criticised in . “Inevitably, the vast majority of Jewish Israelis will view any talk about a one-state solution as a threat – even as an existential threat,” Petra Marquardt-Bigman wrote in The Guardian‘s comment section.

The veteran peace activist Uri Avnery fears that putting the bi-national solution on the table would unleash widespread panic in Israel and leave the settler movement with a free hand to accelerate their settlement activity and push for ‘transfer'. “The real choice is, therefore: the ‘two-state solution' or the ‘ethnic-cleansing solution,” he warned.

This is highly unlikely alarmism, as most Israelis can tolerate a low-intensity conflict, but any attempt to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian territories would meet with such domestic and international outrage that it would galvanise the Israeli moderates out of their stupor and run the risk of international intervention or, at the very least, make Israel's international isolation complete.

Besides, Revisionist and Religious Zionists, who seem to hold the balance of power, believe that the Jewish identity of the land is more important than the Jewish identity of the population. That is why, in December 1977, unwilling to cede control of the West Bank and Gaza as part of a comprehensive peace deal being offered by , Menachem Begin drafted an autonomy plan, which was later shelved, which offered the Palestinians in the occupied territories Israeli citizenship and the right to purchase land and settle in Israel.

On the Palestinian side, the reaction has been divided. Fatah's main political rival, Hamas, has roundly condemned Abu Ala'a's idea, and effectively accused the Palestinian Authority of collaboration and of selling out the Palestinian cause.

Some, particularly secular activists, favour the switch in strategy and others fear that it might set back their cause. “In spite of eloquent and articulate views and analyses by Palestinian intellectuals,” observes Ghassan Khatib, the vice-president of  Bir Zeit University, “the vast majority of the public, according to public opinion polls, and the majority of the political elite consider the idea of a bi-national state a dangerous alternative strategy.”

Personally, I think Qurei may be on to something, if approached correctly. Both the two-state and bi-national solution seem like distant and utopian possibilities at the moment. Just as Israel is talking about a ‘shelf agreement' until they deem the Palestinians to be ready for peace, it is time for the Palestinians to shelve their aspirations for nationhood until the time is ripe.

This means that they should temporarily abandon their national struggle and, instead, campaign for their civil rights, leaving the complexion of an eventual resolution to a more amenable future or more visionary leadership.

When the Annapolis talks were launched, I did not hold out much hope that they would succeed and proposed that, if they fail, the Palestinians, and the Israeli peace movement, should launch a civil rights movement.

“The Palestinians cannot continue to live in such dire conditions for much longer in the vain hope of fulfilling their national aspirations,” I wrote. “There must come a time when they decide that individual dignity is more important than the deceptive trappings of nationhood.”

Unlike the Palestinians who fell within Israel's 1948 borders and obtained citizenship and equal civil rights, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have been disenfranchised for four decades. However, as long as Israel controls the territory on which they live, it is obliged to grant them their civil rights.

Moreover, the bread-and-butter issues of civil liberties – such as freedom of movement, the right to live in security and safety, the right to education and employment, the right to vote, the right to citizenship – are issues that can be tackled one at a time and in an incremental fashion.

They are also more concrete and pressing than the elusive notion of nationhood, and easier to build public sympathy for. “We want the right to visit our families in other villages and towns… We want the right to work,” are demands that tap into people's common humanity, rather than their nationalistic differences.

Sari Nusseibeh, the progressive president of al-Quds University in Jerusalem, has suggested that the holy city could be the launch pad for such a civil rights movement, if its Palestinian residents reverse their boycott of the city's municipal elections and run their own candidates.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 26 August 2008. Read the related discussion.

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



  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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