The two-state solution: where next?

By Tony Klug, IJV Steering Group Member

As a series of abstentions, including those of Britain, France, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, leave Palestine with eight confirmed votes in favour of UN recognition – just short of the nine needed to sway the 15-nation UN Security Council – the author argues that there is no win-lose or lose-win scenario in the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Among the key questions here, as I see it, are: is a two-state framework still feasible and, if not, is the so-called ‘one-state solution’ the default alternative? Is that what’s next?

Proponents of a unitary state would certainly claim that it is. However, in my view, there is a fundamental flaw at the heart of their proposal, for it is predicated on the notion that what, at root, is a historical clash of two national movements can, hey presto, be turned into a struggle for civil rights.

All the evidence, past and present, and all the reasoning, point, I believe, to the inescapable conclusion that it is not possible to resolve this conflict without satisfying the common, minimum, irreducible aspirations of both peoples for self-determination in at least part of the land that each has regarded as its own. This, as I see it, is axiomatic. In other words, a unitary state is not just unfeasible but implausible.

Language in this area is often used carelessly and we need to distinguish between a unitary state and a binational confederated state that would retain the two national identities and essential zones of sovereignty. To my mind, this formulation would be a possible – I would say a desirable – future outgrowth of a two-state model, possibly incorporating other neighbouring states, notably Jordan.

A unitary state 

But, for a moment, let’s suspend reality and assume that I am wrong and that a unitary state is plausible and feasible and comes about. What would be its implications? Take the Palestinian right of return – a central plank of the one-state argument. Under an independent Palestinian state, a law to enact this right would almost certainly be among the first to be promulgated, albeit limited to the West Bank and Gaza. It is close to inconceivable, however, that a combined Israeli-Palestinian government in a unitary state would ever reach a consensus on such a massive disruption to the fragile population balance.

Further, the one-state solution would put an end to the Palestinian dream of independence and self-determination, obliging them instead to share common statehood with another people – a people with whom they have been bitter foes for the best part of a century – in a joint non-Arab and non-Muslim state, simultaneously relinquishing the struggle for the end of occupation. It just doesn’t bear scrutiny.

Moreover, any attempt to eradicate the sovereign Israeli state and its predominantly Jewish character is liable to revive the Jewish fear of genocide, or minimally of discrimination and persecution, and meet with fierce resistance. In the light of their history, it is hard to imagine Israeli Jews of almost any stripe voluntarily sacrificing their hard-won independence to become a minority again in someone else’s land.

Two-state feasibility

So, if the one-unitary-state idea fails the plausibility test, how does the two-state idea fare with the feasibility test? I would say less-and-less well, day-by-day. The principal obstacle is that the state that already has its independence has for years been chiselling away at the territory of the putative other, bit-by-bit eroding the practicability of the only solution that has ever made sense.

When I first advocated two states in the early 1970s in a Young Fabian pamphlet, ‘A Tale of Two Peoples’, there were fewer than 5,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Today there are in excess of 500,000, spread throughout the territory. To paraphrase, this project must be one of the longest state-suicide notes in history. If any of you has any influence, please use it to advise the Israeli government to flip its current policy and be the first to support the Palestinian bid at the United Nations while securing amendments to safeguard its own legitimate interests. That would be a really astute move, something that Israeli governments were once rather good at.

Failing this, and assuming the regrettable absence of serious international pressure, the real alternative to two states may come into play – not the fantasy of one harmonious egalitarian utopia – but, when the crunch comes, a unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank and a unilateral withdrawal from other parts. The annexed areas would, we may suppose, embrace all or most of the territory on which Israeli settlements have been built – although there may be some consolidation – together with the surrounding infrastructure and modern road system. The areas from which Israel pulls out – probably all or most of the heavily populated Palestinian cities – might then be fenced off and left to their own fate, with or without a Palestinian Authority to govern and speak for them.

Such an action, far from resolving the conflict, would deepen and entrench it and give rise to sustained international condemnation. Israel and its hapless citizens would be made to suffer the consequences of increasing isolation at every level. Jews around the world would not be immune to the effects either. For their part, the Palestinians would have suffered a heavy – maybe a mortal – blow in their quest for an independent state and may now find their other policy options to be extremely limited, apart from possibly enforced absorption back into the Jordanian state. It would turn what could still – just – be a win-win two-state situation into a possibly irretrievable lose-lose situation.  There is no win-lose or lose-win scenario in this conflict.

In sum, Israel now faces a stark choice: freeze all further settlement growth in preparation for swift and focused negotiations based on the pre-June 1967 boundaries with equitable land swaps, or prepare for permanent conflict and indefinite pariah status – not quite what its founders had in mind! I suspect their advice, at this point in time, would be to follow the biblical injunction to ‘seek peace and pursue it’.

These were Tony Klug’s opening remarks as a panellist at a meeting of the LSE Israel Society held on October 25, 2011

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