Background and Foreground
For years, perhaps going back as far as the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991, influential international debate on the future of Palestine has almost exclusively considered variations on the theme of a two-state solution. The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, stampeded the Palestinian Authority and Israel into negotiations that ‘failed’ even before they started a year ago.
At least Kerry was prudent enough to warn both sides that this was their do or die moment for resolving the conflict. It was presumed without dissent in high places anywhere that this two-state outcome was the one and only solution that could bring peace. Besides the parties themselves, the EU, the Arab League, the UN all wagered that a resolution of the conflict required the establishment of a Palestinian state. Even Benjamin Netanyahu became a reluctant subscriber to this mantra in his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, although always in a halfhearted spirit.
The reasoning that underlay this consensus went along these lines: a viable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict could not challenge the Israeli commitment and the essential Zionist Project to create a homeland for Jews worldwide; this meant that self-determination for the Palestinian people would have to be addressed separately, and the only way to do this was by way of a partition of historic Palestine.
The British had come to this conclusion as early as 1936 in the Peel Commission Report (a British Royal Commission that concluded that the British mandate as applied to the whole of historic Palestine was unworkable because of the tensions between the two ethnic communities, and proposed that partition be imposed), which became the basis for the solution proposed in 1947 by the UN in General Assembly Resolution 181. It was reaffirmed in Security Council Resolution 242 unanimously adopted after the 1967 War that reduced the portion of Palestine assigned to the Palestinians from 45% to 22%, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territory occupied as a result and reaffirming the principle of international law that territory could not be validly acquired by force of arms.
Underneath the partition consensus, there is an intriguing puzzle to solve: why has the consensus persisted despite the leadership of neither Israel nor Palestine seeming to have opted for partition except as a second best outcome. The Palestinians made their dislike of partition manifest from the outset of large scale Jewish immigration in the decades after the Balfour Declaration of 1917, believing that imposing a Jewish homeland, much less a Jewish state, was an unacceptable colonial encroachment.
In the late 1980s, the Palestinians, as represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization, adjusting to the realities of Israel’s presence, accepted the idea of partition in the historic decision in 1988 of the Palestine National Council. In its essence, the Palestinians endorsed the vision embedded in Resolution 242, envisioning a Palestinian reality based on an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-war green line borders, an expectation that, of course, never materialized.
More subtly, the Zionist leadership was at best ambivalent about partition, appreciating it initially as a path leading to sovereignty, which exceeded ‘homeland’ as a political outcome, and represented more than they could have hoped for earlier in their movement, yet decisively less than the biblical vision of Israel as encompassing the whole of historic Israel. As the situation evolved since Israeli independence, Israel has continuously revised its sense of a favorable balance of forces making it seem realistic to seek a fuller realization of the Zionist dream.
In recent years, the Israeli one-staters have started to gain the upper hand, based partly on what has been happening on the ground, partly by the rightward drift of the governing coalition, and partly from the absence of real incentives to compromise territorially due to the falling away of Palestinian armed resistance and the absence of meaningful pressure from Washington.
There is a renewed reliance in Israel on the contention that the ‘Palestinians’ do not really have a distinct ethnicity, and hence are not a ‘people’ entitled to self-determination under international law. Palestinians are and should be viewed as ‘Arabs.’ As such, they have no need for another state as already 22 Arab states exist. In my experience, within Israel, almost no Israelis refer to Palestinians as other than as Arabs, except of course the Palestinians.
Of course, what a Palestinian state meant to the Palestinians was different than what it meant to the Israelis. Additionally, what it meant for the Palestinian Authority was also far apart from what the Palestinians in overseas dispersed communities and the refugee camps believed to be the necessary components of peace. Almost necessarily, the focus on Palestine as a state rather than Palestine as the communal recipient of rights reduced the conflict to a territorial dispute supposedly susceptible to solution by a ‘land for peace’ formula.
This approach marginalized other Palestinian grievances, above all, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, creating tensions between Palestinians living under occupation and Palestinians living in refugee camps and in exile. It also situated issues relating to Jerusalem in some indeterminate zone that was neither territorial nor distinct from territorial claims.
On the Israeli side, too, there were big variations. The dominant Israeli position in recent years has been one in which the dimensions of a Palestinian state must be subordinated to the imperatives of Israeli security as defined by the Israeli government. In effect, that would mean confiscating all of Occupied Palestine to the West of the separation wall and the settlement blocs as well as controlling the borders and maintaining for an indefinite period Israeli security forces in the Jordan Valley.
In addition, Palestinians must renounce all their claims as part of a final status agreement, which would seem also to imply the end of any assertion of a right of return for 1948 and 1967 Palestinian refugees. More maximalist versions involve even larger annexationist features and treat the city of Jerusalem as exclusively belonging in perpetuity to Israel.
On top of all these demands is the insistence by Netanyahu that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which both relegates the Palestinian minority in Israel to permanent subjugation and effectively renounces any Palestinian right of return.
The Israeli government having in recent years become virtually inseparable from the settler movement has long appreciated that the function of endorsing a Palestinian state was little more than a way of appeasing, and thereby neutralizing, world public opinion, given its insistence that a political solution was possible and necessary, and could only happen if the Palestinians got their state, satisfying at the very least, the territorial core of self-determination. Even now the Palestinian Authority continues to sing the same lyrics, although the melody is more solemn.
The Palestinian governmental representatives in recent years have lost even the ability to say ‘no’ to international negotiations despite having nothing to gain from the recurrent charade of such American orchestrated gatherings and quite a bit to lose by way of expanding settlements, the altered makeup of Jerusalem, and a gradual shifting international mood in the direction of accepting Israeli maximalism as unassailable, if regrettable.
Ironically, Israeli media influence and the supportive voice of the U.S. Government also blames the Palestinians for each round of failed peace talks, although for the first time, the Israel obstructionist role was so evident, Washington blamed both sides.
There is no light at the end of this particular tunnel. With what appears to be the death throes of a failed peace process is being acknowledged in the form of an eerie silence in high places. There is an absence of conjecture or advocacy as to how the conflict might end abetted by the recent focus on the turmoil in the region, especially the renewed chaos in Iraq and intensifying strife in Syria that has shifted public and media attention away from the Israel-Palestine agenda.
This evasive silence has for the present replaced earlier false hopes invested in futile diplomatic negotiations. In retrospect, it is easy to conclude that political preconditions for conflict-resolving negotiations premised on a viable Palestinian sovereign state never truly existed on the Israeli side, assuredly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. This is mainly because the expansionist vision of the right-wing settlers became more and more accepted as official state policy in Tel Aviv, and there was no longer pressures being mounted by Palestinian armed struggle.
On the Palestinian governmental side, in contrast, there was an eagerness to end the occupation and attain the status and rituals associated with being a sovereign state. Confusion surrounded the practicalities of what such an arrangement would yield. It always seemed doubtful as to whether a deal like this could be sold to the Palestinian people if it left the several million Palestinians living in refugee camps and overseas out in the cold. This assessment is especially true since the death of Arafat in 2004, which has led to a virtual leadership vacuum on the Palestinian side.
The security logic of the Israeli right is that Israel will only be able to maintain its security over time if it continues to control all or most of the West Bank. This image of security reflects the view that real threat to Israel no longer comes from Palestinian armed resistance. It comes from the surrounding Arab world that is moving toward more advanced weaponry, and at some point is almost sure to again turn its guns and missiles in an Israeli direction.
Additionally, pushing toward a similar understanding is the view that the full realization of Zionism involves the incorporation of the West Bank, always referred to in internal Israeli discourse by their biblical names of Judea and Samaria.
Peace through bilateral negotiations presided over by the United States has long seemed moribund to many close observers, but after the recent collapse of the talks this top down diplomatic approach seems discredited even among governments and at the UN, at least for now. Yet it is impossible for most of the world to accept the finality of such a stalemate that favors Israel, in effect, ratifying land grabs and apartheid structures, while consigning the Palestinians to regimes of misery of for the indefinite future, which translates into the rigors of permanent denial of rights, oppression, refugee camps, and involuntary exile. This bleak assessment raises the question ‘What Now?’