States of confusion in the Middle East

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?

2 February 2009

The fragile two-week-old truce between 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 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 .

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 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 -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.


  • 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 . 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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