The Palestinian state – an urgent call to get serious


December 2, 2012 by IJV

by Tony Klug

Originally published in the Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East pamphlet “Peace and Security in the Middle East”

Some 40 years have elapsed since the Fabian Society, in January 1973, published my pamphlet ‘Middle East Conflict: a tale of two peoples’, that called for the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside the state of Israel. The pamphlet held that no resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was feasible that failed to satisfy the common minimum aspirations of two vibrant national movements for self-determination in at least part of the land that each regarded as its own. This, it seemed to me, was axiomatic, no matter what the rights and wrongs or where our sympathies lay.

The argument was not that the two-state paradigm would, of itself, constitute – or guarantee – a ‘solution’ to the conflict but that it offered the indispensable framework for enabling the myriad outstanding issues to be negotiated and resolved. The non-statehood of the Palestinians was the vital missing parameter, distorting their relations both with Israel and neighbouring Arab states. For as long as they continued to be denied presumptive political parity with all other peoples of the region, they would be handicapped from participating effectively in the eventual settlement of their problems and vulnerable to the machinations of all state parties, including by governments that professed eternal allegiance to their cause.

Developments in the intervening years – during which time national among both peoples has, if anything, hardened – have underscored this thesis. In principle, the case for two independent thus remains compelling. It is hard to see any other realistic basis for resolving this conflict. Many ideas abound, but in one way or another they all appear to require one side or the other – or in some cases both – to relinquish their national identity and national aspirations. But these sentiments are inexorable products of historical processes – forged and honed by catastrophe in both cases – that cannot be wished away to fit someone else’s idea of what this conflict should be about.

Take the unitary state proposal – the so-called ‘one-state solution’ – that appears to have been gaining ground recently in some circles.
Its enthusiasts – conjuring up problematic analogies from different contexts – may be well-intentioned, but the proposal is deeply flawed as it is predicated on the notion that a territorial clash of two national movements can be reduced by fiat to a one-dimensional struggle for civil rights, even if there is a heavy-duty civil-rights dimension to the conflict. The one-state proposal is not so much unfeasible as
implausible. It is a solution maybe to a different problem, but not to this one. Or at least not now.

The one-state idea would mean putting an end to the Palestinian dream of independence and self-determination and oblige the Palestinians instead to share common statehood with another people – with whom they have been bitter foes for the best part of a century – in a joint non-Arab, non-Muslim, state, simultaneously relinquishing the struggle for the end of occupation and gratuitously bestowing political legitimacy on the ongoing settlement enterprise.

At the same time, 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 ill-fated 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.

The bottom line is that the Palestinian Arabs overwhelmingly want their own state. The same is true for Israeli Jews. They both have good reason. Who are we, as outsiders, to try and impose our preferred, western-type, model on them? We need to rein in our customary imperial instincts. The time to support a unitary secular state – which is neither Arab nor Jewish nor Muslim – is when and if both peoples signal their support for it.

One reason that the one-state proposal has apparently gained traction is of course that the projected two-state outcome has not yet materialized. Moreover, its prospects appear to be waning by the day in the face of Israel’s relentless colonization programme, which threatens the contiguity and viability of a future Palestinian state anchored in the West Bank. Ultimately, it threatens the integrity of the Israeli state too but the logic of this argument seems incapable at present of penetrating the ideological fervour underpinning the settlement drive.

It has been clear for many years that what posed as a peace process had failed abysmally. But this does not mean that the two-state paradigm itself has failed, or indeed that it would be wise to permit it to fail. However unfeasible it might currently appear to be, it does not follow that there is an alternative – including, for much longer, the status quo – that is more feasible.

None of the array of mooted alternatives – including those put forward by right-wing Israelis – bears scrutiny, which probably explains why their respective advocates have persistently shied away from moving beyond the clichés to fleshing out their models. Despite its shortcomings, to abandon the two-state idea in the absence of a realistic alternative could be to condemn the parties to perpetual conflict. It would turn a potential win-win situation into a certain lose-lose situation. There is no win-lose or lose-win scenario in this conflict.

This said, 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 peaceful outgrowth of a two-state  model, possibly incorporating other neighbouring states, notably Jordan. However, to place them on an equal footing, the Palestinians first need to attain their sovereignty. Then, like their neighbours, they may agree to forgo some of it for the greater good.

In the meantime, the shape and nature of the two states will need to adapt to the evolving realities. When I was writing my first Fabian pamphlet in the early 1970s, there were fewer than 5,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Today the number is in excess of 500,000. It is scandalous that the international community, despite its clear and reiterated policy, did almost nothing to stop this perilous state of affairs from developing.

Nonetheless, the two-state paradigm has to move with the times.  Only the purists on either side of the debate envisage the two states as ethnically rigid or inflexibly structured. This need not be the case. In fact, it cannot be the case. A two-state outcome today would necessarily have more of a hybrid quality to it, with both two-state and one-state features. There is a need for innovative thinking and original solutions within the basic two-state framework.

For one thing, as with many neighbouring states around the world, there is no reason why both Israel and Palestine should not have sizeable minorities from the majority population of the other state. Indeed, even now, more than a fifth of Israel’s population is Palestinian Arab, which happens to be roughly the same proportion of Israeli Jews currently living in the West Bank.

Many of the latter would doubtless be re-absorbed into the Israeli state in the event of a two-state deal, mainly through compensation or land swaps, but it could be conducive to healthy future Palestinian-Israeli relations and to making peace work if a good number of Israeli Jews were encouraged to remain, not as colonizers of course but as good citizens or residents and help build up the new state. While Israel currently has full control over ‘Area C’, comprising around 60 per cent of the West Bank and incorporating all the settlements, the total area covered by all settlement buildings accounts for no more than one per cent of West Bank territory.

The underlying principle could be that both Israel and Palestine would be states of all their citizens in which, respectively, the Israeli Jewish people and the Palestinian Arab people exercise their self-determination. A good start would be to develop mirror constitutions, guaranteeing parallel rights to ethnic and religious minorities, within a context of open borders and mutually beneficial trading, sporting, and other relations. As indicated, it would be up to the two if they subsequently wished to achieve any form of unity.

Rather than meekly surrender to the territorial bullying of Israeli prime minister Netanyahu and his cohorts – which, in effect, is what the one-state proposal would entail – it is time to launch a serious, concerted international effort, at every level, to finally end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank – and the blockade of Gaza – and replace both with an independent Palestinian state. One possibility would be for the state to be preceded for a limited period by an international protectorate (see The nature of the relationship between the two parts of the new state would be up to their inhabitants to determine between them.

To be effective, the campaign would need to be astute, sharply focused and capable of appealing not just to pro-Palestinian circles but also to influential governments and, crucially, to mainstream Israeli public opinion, a largely neglected constituency thus far by pro-Palestinian activists. This may be achieved only if the campaign upholds a clear distinction between the international legitimacy of Israel in its pre-June 1967 borders – as enshrined in UN resolutions – and the illegitimacy of its continuing and apparently indefinite occupation of the West Bank – also enshrined in UN resolutions.

Should this distinction be blurred, the campaign would be doomed. To succeed, the goal would have to be clear and unambiguous, and threatening only to parties that would seek to obstruct the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Such a campaign has never seriously been attempted before. As the of a solution, two states officially became international policy only in March 2002 under UN Security Council Resolution 1397, marking a huge advance on the terms of the earlier seminal Resolution 242 of November 1967 which had depicted the Palestinians as just homeless refugees, not a stateless nation. The Arab Peace Initiative, also launched in March 2002, was similarly predicated on two states, with the promise of full normalization of relations with Israel of the whole Arab world. This initiative stood in sharp contrast with the Arab League’s three definitive ‘noes’ of September 1967 – no peace, no recognition and no negotiations with Israel. Finally the policy architecture was in place.

The world took 35 years following the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 to reach this critical point but it has effectively squandered the ten years since then, culminating in the precarious situation today whereby the West Bank is on the brink of erupting. The answer to this predicament is not limply to abandon the long-in-coming universal consensus in support of Palestinian independence and start all over again with a different and much more controversial policy. Rather, what is urgently needed now is a resolute global initiative to bring swiftly into effect the only ‘solution’ that still makes any sense.

The collection of essays from the LFPME is available here.

2 thoughts on “The Palestinian state – an urgent call to get serious

  1. lynne007 says:

    Well argued as ever, Tony. So long a wait; so little time to stop the wreckage of lives in Gaza.

  2. lynne007 says:

    from Haim Bresheeth: To believe in the 2 state solution, after five decades of consistent Israeli action against it, sounds to me like real folly. Where and how is it at all possible? Where is the political space which will bring it about? Most of my Palestinian friends are totally dismissive about this slogan, which has been mainly used to enlarge the illegal settlements!
    48 minutes ago


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