Two very interesting pieces were published in the last few weeks essentially explaining why there’s now virtually no possibility of achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. On the Magnes Zionist blog, the pseudonymous Jerry Haber posted ‘Some of what’s wrong with the liberal Zionist vision of the two state solution’. In the online magazine Souciant there’s Mitchell Plitnick’s ‘Goodbye to all that: post-mortem for Israel and Palestine’.
Haber argues that the liberal Zionist vision of the two-state solution ‘is not morally justifiable’ and represents what Avishai Margalit calls a ‘rotten compromise’, ‘one that result[s] in, or preserve[s], an inhuman system’. What it would do is deliver peace in the form of ‘a Palestinian state that is only marginally better than occupation, and in which there is still a significant degree of Israeli control, hence, of dehumanization.’ But, Haber insists, ‘peace is not the endgame – dignity and self-determination are’.
Plitnick describes what he says ‘a real two-state solution would have looked like’.
Real land swaps kept to a minimum; full Palestinian control over their land, air, water and borders; trade and water sharing agreements; agreements between the countries for passage through their borders (not unknown, as from 1967 until Oslo, Palestinians went around the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper regularly, and Israelis visited the West Bank and Gaza regularly and freely); firm international security guarantees for Israel and full peace and acknowledgment of Israeli sovereignty from Palestine and all the Arab states.
If all interested parties had articulated this specific vision eighteen years ago, writes Plitnick, ‘we would be in a very different place today, and it would have been much harder to have crushed the two-state solution, as appears to have been done’.
Instead, Israel built and built, making itself a global pariah, destroying the democracy Jews enjoyed and reversing the trend of integrating its Arab minority which, though it had been appallingly slow, had been progressing from 1949 until the end of the 20th century.
In then saying ‘two states means two independent and self-sufficient states, with all the rights and responsibilities that implies’, it seems to me that Plitnick is making the same point as Haber, that ‘dignity and self-determination’ were never on the table for the Palestinians.
The only way that two fully independent states could come about is if both sides make painful compromises, Haber argues. And what we have seen during and since Oslo, and what has been confirmed in the leaked Palestine Papers, is that when it came to the bottom line, only the Palestinians were being asked to make serious compromises. And none more serious perhaps than on the question of Palestinian refugees and the right of return.
In my view, nothing is more emblematic of what is involved in persuading the Palestinians that a solution to the conflict puts ‘dignity and self-determination’ first than Israel accepting the principle of the right of return. While it’s understandable that Israel should see that to do this would be erasing its ultimate red line, because it raises the spectre of hundreds of thousands or even millions of Palestinians returning to their homes within the Green Line and thereby dispossessing hundreds of thousands of Israelis and destroying the Jewish character of the state of Israel. But for the Palestinians to agree to a compromise that does not include acceptance of the right of return would in effect set in stone the notion that they have no historic or legal right to a state because there is no recognition that they have any rights whatsoever to the homes they had before 1948. It would be a denial of their dispossession. A denial of the naqba. Any state ‘offered’ to them would be entirely on sufferance, a ‘gift’ rather than a ‘right’ – the opposite of ‘dignity and self-determination’.
Now it’s quite widely understood that even if Israel did agree to accept the principle of the right of return, only a very small segment of Palestinian opinion would seek to seek to interpret this in a maximalist fashion and insist on the absolute actual right to return to inhabit every Palestinian home that was taken and every settlement, village, kibbutz, town etc. that was built on demolished Palestinian homes. This would be the pursuit of the principle of absolute justice, an impossible quest, as Haber argues. In reality, the Palestinian leadership would almost certainly accept a compensation arrangement and perhaps the symbolic return of some thousands or some few tens of thousands of refugees to their former homes. But what’s on offer to the Israelis to get them to understand and accept this is a purely pragmatic argument, a solution that emerges in the working out of how to get to the end point of peace. It still leaves open the possibility of failure because one side might decide that one person’s pragmatism is another person’s poison, or because fear or the exploitation of naked advantage might make one side behave in a way that is the opposite of what is expected.
So it comes back in the end to principles: principles that, if agreed to, would make it impossible for a new catastrophe of any kind being perpetrated on one side or the other. This, to me, is the nub of the problem. At its very basic, what must be avoided at all costs is any more killing, any more collective punishment, any more ethno-nationalist inspired dispossession. Particularly with children in mind – Palestinian children, Jewish-Israeli children, children of any identity who live in the region of conflict – the thought of some ‘solution’ that creates a new wholesale tragedy is unthinkable. It’s for this reason that the maximalist interpretation of the right of return – the absolute justice option – is inconceivable. The new pain and suffering it would inflict on families, on children, cannot be allowed to happen, not to mention the bloodshed that is likely to ensue if Israelis who take up arms clandestinely to oppose the implementation of any maximalist option begin to use them.
I would argue, as I have done for some years now, that the only principles that satisfy the demands of this situation are those of universal human rights. These are the only common values and principles to which all Palestinians and all Israelis can jointly subscribe. Using them as the fundamental guide will not mean that in reaching an agreement no one will experience some pain or disappointment, but it will mean that the least pain and disappointment will be experienced and that competing rights can be mediated as justly as is humanly possible. So, on the one hand, refusal to recognize the Palestinians’ right of return would contravene the principles; on the other hand, the massive displacement and dispossession of Israelis living within the pre-1967 borders would do the same. Again, on the one hand, refusal to bring a complete end to the occupation of Palestinian territory taken during the 1967 war would contravene the principles; on the other hand, if, on the basis of land swaps, the Palestinians are convinced that a Palestinian state, fully independent, self-sufficient, viable and fully sovereign could be established, not to make the land compromise would do the same.
Having made this argument I’m forced to admit that, given the current situation, what I’ve outlined is something of a castle in the air. Along with Haber and Plitnick, as things stand I see no possibility of Israelis and Palestinians reaching a point where they can agree on the ‘bad compromise’, to use Haber’s/Margalit’s term, that would bring about a two-state solution rooted in the principles of universal human rights. For all that some attempt to portray the Palestinian Authority as able to act independently, in reality what currently exists in Israel-Palestine is tantamount to a ‘one state solution’: the illiberal, repressive, Israeli-controlled one-state in which Palestinian-Israelis are treated as second-class citizens and Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are denied their human rights. We all know that prime minister Netanyahu claims to have accepted the two-state solution, but it’s also perfectly clear that he does not mean a democratic Israel protecting the rights of its Jewish and its non-Jewish citizens, existing alongside a sovereign Palestine. Instead, he and his coalition partners want a sovereign, explicitly Jewish state, separated from an assortment of powerless Palestinian bantustans, politically disjointed, lacking sovereignty and under Israeli control.
I think there is a path to a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but the gate giving access to that path is securely closed. And I fear that it may never open.