A popular adage holds that if you think you understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, someone hasn’t explained it to you properly.
In recent times, it has become fashionable in a part of the pro-Palestinian left to view the conflict exclusively through an anti-colonialist lens, portraying Israel, from its very beginning, as a sinister settler-colonial apartheid state. Almost everything, including the conflict’s complex history, is then simplistically folded into this narrative, perversely casting Jews who were fleeing a brutally antisemitic Europe for their lives as agents of European colonialism.
A similarly one-dimensional worldview processes almost everything through the lens of pervasive antisemitism. Palestinian resistance to dispossession, exile and occupation is thereby not perceived as an authentic response to the catastrophes they experienced but as a knee-jerk anti-Jewish reflex; the Palestinians are depicted as the new standard-bearers of traditional Jew-hatred.
These worldviews are not just constricted and self-serving, but also wholly inadequate as explainers of a conflict involving two peoples, even if they throw light on certain aspects of it. Nor do they take us any closer to a solution. One common flaw is that they discount or trivialize the turbulent history of the other people, leaving a vacant space for false or distorted narratives to explain their conduct.
I found a long time ago that viewing the issues empathetically through the eyes of the principal protagonists, each in turn, was the vital starting point for coming to grips with the core positions, without which it was impossible to understand the conflict, let alone contribute to resolving it. This approach, which I originally elaborated in a Young Fabian pamphlet published in January 1973, brought into focus the minimum aspirations of both peoples, and led inexorably to the idea of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside Israel. In later years, the proposal came to be known as the “two-state solution” – although I had thought of it more as the nucleus of a solution than the solution. I also regarded it as the indispensable framework for future negotiations between the two peoples over a raft of issues. Without a state of their own, the Palestinians have no effective agency, regardless of the preferred destination. Thus the inevitable failure of direct negotiations.
So certain was I, not just of the plan’s desirability but also of its inevitability and urgency, that when the release of the pamphlet was put back by three months owing to a backlog, I complained that any further delay might see the proposal implemented before the pamphlet had even been published! Half a century on, the burning question is: will there be a solution of any sort, or has this wretched conflict become endemic and irresolvable?
The idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel took many years to catch on. The international consensus following the 1967 war was that the territories captured by Israel should be returned to their previous rulers, with scope for minor – but only minor – border adjustments on security grounds. Israeli leaders strove to retain large chunks of the West Bank and all of a thinned-out Gaza, while the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) asserted its claim to a Palestinian state in the whole area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, which would entail the liquidation of the state of Israel and the expulsion of most of its Jewish inhabitants.
However, a small number of Palestinian and Israeli individuals had independently started to advocate the two-state formula in the aftermath of the 1967 war. Once alerted to their existence following the publication of my pamphlet, I spent several months in the region tracking them down. In the wake of two concerted Arab attempts to eradicate the Jewish state, in 1948 and 1967 – both of which catastrophically backfired – and with greater intermingling of the two populations after 1967, a growing mood among Palestinians that the future now lay in finding a way to live and prosper alongside Israel was apparent.
There was wider evidence of this trend. Leading Palestinian intellectuals and PLO figures started to back the two-state formula, if only as an interim measure. By the mid-1970s, the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, had been won over. In 1988, the organization formally adopted this position and in 1993, under the Oslo Accord, it officially recognized Israel. Israel, in turn, recognized the PLO, which had previously been outlawed as a terrorist band. Even Hamas periodically indicated it was prepared to accept a settlement based on the 1967 borders.
Among the people, support steadily grew, reportedly peaking at over 70 percent of both Palestinians and Israelis in 2002. Three Israeli prime ministers – Yitzhak Rabin (1995), Ehud Barak (2000), and Ehud Olmert (2008) – edged towards deals structured around two states with land swaps. In March 2002, the UN Security Council finally adopted the two-state goal as its official policy and the Arab League simultaneously launched the Arab Peace Initiative, predicated on two states.
Yet the opportunity was recklessly allowed to slip by. The international community failed to follow up its new policy with firm pressure, the Arab League sat on its laurels, Israeli settlements continued to grow aggressively and the Palestinians felt ever more abandoned. Anti-occupation Israelis felt increasingly sidelined. Today, the pendulum has almost swung back to where it started decades ago: no acceptance by either side of the legitimacy of the other side’s core claims, or even its national existence. The mood increasingly among both peoples is, once again, that “it all belongs to us”.
So is this the end of the two-state idea? It is certainly off the agenda for now. Indeed, it seems futile to talk about any sort of “solution” today, as there appears to be no genuine desire for one. Calls to restart negotiations are pointless and diversionary. The Israeli right seeks Palestinian defeat and capitulation, although the government it elected is more likely to provoke a simmering uprising. Among many young Palestinians, exasperated by their situation, there is a growing appetite for violence to hurt – and ideally remove altogether – the despised usurper/occupier. But this is all fantasy. No one is going to meekly surrender and no one is going away. Despite all the travails, both populations continue to grow and both are deeply attached to the land. The question of how to live alongside each other remains.
The new Israeli coalition government – incorporating a bizarre assortment of strictly orthodox hardliners and ultranationalist fanatics, strung together to keep Prime Minister Netanyahu out of jail – is set to be the most divisive in Israel’s history and is unlikely to last for long. It could well precipitate unprecedented civil strife. The mass protests of recent weeks, the deadly assault on the Jenin refugee camp and the fatal shootings outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem are ominous indications of what could lie ahead. When the coalition falls apart, though, new opportunities may open up. Sooner or later, an Israeli-Palestinian modus vivendi will have to be found again, so it is still worth considering what form it might take.
The debate has often been suffocated by the anvil of “there is no alternative to the two-state solution” and the hammer of “the two-state solution is dead”. My fear is that there may be sufficient truth in both mantras to point to a future of perpetual conflict, whose toxins have a propensity to seep into other parts of the globe. We all, therefore, have a powerful interest in seeing the conflict resolved.
There is strong evidence that both peoples still regard themselves as a nation entitled to self-determination and that they are not prepared to settle for anything less. If anything, this sentiment has hardened over the years. Atomizing everyone down to the level of the individual, such as in a single unitary state, would therefore fail to accommodate a vital minimum aspiration of both sides. The concept may be popular in some western circles, but solutions need to come from the inside-out, not the outside-in.
Yet self-determination does not have to take the form of fully sovereign, separate entities if collective aspirations can be satisfied in other structures. One idea that is attracting growing support takes account of both peoples’ affinity for the whole land in advocating an Israeli-Palestinian confederation. However, the extent to which Palestinians will find it appealing to be permanently tied to an avowedly Jewish state and thereby further detached from the Arab and predominantly Muslim neighbour to their east is questionable. West Bank Palestinians, in particular, have close familial, cultural and social links with Jordan (which already has a majority Palestinian population).
A more plausible future vision may be an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian confederation, broadly along the lines of Benelux. But, in any case, the first step would still have to be Palestinian independence, as a confederation is a voluntary arrangement between two or more states. Otherwise, given the huge power imbalances, it would be either an Israeli hegemonic state masquerading as a confederation or an Israeli-Jordan condominium over Palestine.
A useful model could be the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which was a peaceful transition based not on ethnic purity and enforced population transfers but on mutually agreed legal and political jurisdiction over demarcated territory, with open borders and free movement.
There is useful action that the UK government could and should take at once. Having recognized Israel for decades, it should now join the 138 other governments who have already recognized Palestine. As the author of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the mandate authority over Palestine from 1922 to 1948, the UK has a special historic responsibility in this area and formal recognition of Palestine by its government at this point could be a game changer. Other western countries, and ultimately the UN Security Council, may then be more willing to follow suit. Two Labour foreign ministers told me in 1975 that they agreed with that step but that the time was not right. Well, if not now – some 48 years later – then when, exactly?
Second, consistent with the principle of equality, the UK government and the international community at large should consider adopting the policy I proposed with the Palestinian thinker Sam Bahour: “a Palestinian state now or equal rights until there is a solution”. The concept is simple to grasp and, as an interim measure, the equal-rights alternative has a natural appeal, grounded in international law, human rights conventions and any notion of fairness. The current default situation in the occupied West Bank of full citizenship rights for one people and almost no rights for the other people is intolerable and unsustainable. Resolute pressure would present Israel with a sharp choice, which could result in restoring the option of two states to the Israeli political agenda.
Unlike some other proposals for equal rights, this proposal does not carry a threat to the existence of the state of Israel or to a future state of Palestine and therefore has the potential to attract a broad-based coalition of support at the level of civil societies as well as governments. The aim would be to build a momentum around the slogan, trigger a bandwagon effect and turn the slogan into firm international policy. It could herald a new, more promising, era and lift us all out of the defeatist mood of doom and gloom.
Image credit: יורם שורק, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Dan Palraz, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons