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Why the 'two-state solution' lingers in the political imagination

Advocates of the two-state solution must produce a conception of its implementation on the basis of the equality of the two peoples

Few would deny that Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy now seems more frozen than ever. Even the US presidency of Barack Obama that staked a lot eight years ago on its capacity to broker a deal has now thrown up its hands in frustration.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after making an electoral pledge a year ago to avoid the establishment of a Palestinian state, now opportunistically softens his position with the claim that the time is not right for implementing the formula of “two states for two peoples”. He now refers to this "two-state solution" as a "vision" or carefully hedges it with the word "ultimately", which in the code language of political leaders is the equivalent of "never".  

And if you read the fine print, Netanyahu further underscores his closed-door mentality with the proviso that if any Palestinian state ever came into being it would have to be permanently "demilitarised" and would have previously acknowledged Israel as "a Jewish state," despite the presence of at least 1.5 million Palestinians within its borders.

Always more persuasive than words are deeds, and the continued expansion of the Israeli settlement population, combined with the increasingly open advocacy of a one-state solution preceded by the formal annexation of all or most of the West Bank, gives the game away; as does a shift in the internal Israel conversation from "peace" to fears about "the demographic bomb," the prospects of a majority Palestinian population under Israeli sovereignty forcing the choice between "democracy" and remaining "a Jewish state". 

There is also the less often discussed "religious bomb" resulting from the higher fertility rates of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority that is making its weight more and more felt both in political leadership circles and in the officer corps of the Israel Defence Forces. These realities are accentuated by the recruitment of IDF professional soldiers for combat roles from the ranks of the most ideological settlements, with estimates that this rate is 80 percent higher than from secular communities in Israel.

Given these developments, it is not surprising that there is greater support than ever among the Jewish population to find ways to rid Israel of its Palestinians, the final step in the dynamics of Zionist dispossession that started more than a century ago, culminating in the nakba of 1948, reinforced by the naksa associated with the 1967 War, and continuing quietly ever since in more subtle manipulations of Palestinian citizenship and residence status. 

In other words, at this time, further ethnic cleansing, tragic as it would likely be, seems far more likely than a satisfactory diplomatic solution, and yet the media and the political discourse continues to act as if the two-state solution remains the one path worth pursuing. Why is this?

The French Initiative

One expression of this faith in the two-state solution has been expressed by the recent initiative of the French foreign ministry to host a multilateral conference designed to make two-state diplomacy credible again. The initial undertaking was reinforced by the threat that if the conference failed to achieve its goal of a diplomatic revival, France would have no choice but to join with the 136 other countries that have already recognised Palestinian statehood.

Israel explained its rejection of what it called the French "ultimatum" by contending that the Palestinian Authority would have no incentive to reach a positive outcome because it would gain a political benefit if the conference failed.

The Palestinians on their side welcomed the French proposal, but, tired of decades of futile negotiations, demanded a prior Security Council resolution decreeing a halt in all Israeli settlement activity. As radical as this may sound, it would only be seeking belatedly and way after the fact Israeli compliance with Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which makes the settlements unlawful.

There are several issues raised. Why has France proposed such an unpromising scenario?

The most constructive answer is the French belief that the peace negotiations might finally go forward if the American monopoly over the diplomacy was ended and replaced by the more impartial auspices of a European site and multinational participation.

As shown by reactions above, Israel has long benefited from the American role, creating time to advance its expansionist goals of a greater Israel, and it has no interest in creating a more balanced diplomatic framework. The Palestinian Authority, struggling to overcome its questionable legitimacy as representative of the Palestinian people as a whole and finally aware that past negotiations have been a trap, seeks credible reassurances in advance that Israel is serious, which it is not.

So it seems that the French initiative is a non-starter even as a public relations event. Maybe France felt that having done such a widely acclaimed job in fashioning a global climate-change agreement late last year, it could achieve a second political miracle.

Given the sophistication of French diplomacy, the obstacles must have been anticipated, but maybe the thinking was that if not a miracle then at least some credit could be won for a valiant try and a political basis made for angering Israel by formally endorsing Palestinian statehood; in effect, declaring that Oslo-type diplomacy was no longer viable as a solution option.

In effect, Palestine and Israel would be two states, even with the quiet acknowledgement that what the Palestinians have achieved is "a ghost state" with none of the redeeming attributes of sovereignty.

It remains to be wondered as to why Israel takes such offence when a foreign government, especially in Europe, confers its endorsement on such a ghost state for Palestine. Instead of anger, why does not Israel accept the development and rest easy with the argument that the two-state consensus has been implemented?

Why can't Israel live with Palestine as a ghost state so long as its expansionist plans are being fulfilled and the Palestinian people remain subjugated under Israeli administrative control, a regime increasingly viewed through the lens of apartheid?

Of course, there is no official explanation, but the best guess is that the mere acknowledgement of a Palestinian state as an existing reality renders problematic the Israeli one-state option.

Sincere advocacy of the two-state solution

Despite all the considerations advanced above, there remains an explanation of why people and groups of good faith refuse to give up the two-state approach. These adherents on both sides of the struggle regard the establishment of a Palestinian state as, despite everything, the only possibility for peace and an end to the conflict.

For the Palestinian Authority, a Palestinian state of some sort is the only way that it can uphold its role as the engine of self-determination for the Palestinian people. One-state outcomes would eliminate its reason for existing.

On the Israeli and Zionist side of the debate is the conviction that the establishment of a Palestinian state remains the only way to square the circle of peace, Jewish state, and democracy for Israel. The alternative is a burdensome and abusive permanent occupation and a simmering of resistance violence.

As well, a resolution of the struggle would open up wider regional opportunities for Israel to benefit economically and politically from the normalisation of relations with the Arab world.  

And if no peace deal is reached, the arms build-up in such an unstable region could easily take yet another turn, and move from co-existence with Israel to resumed belligerence with dangerous outcomes possible.

This prudential argument is reinforced by the assertions that a Palestinian state has not become, as critics assert, "a practical impossibility". The contention is that only a small portion of the settlers are "ideological" or "religious," and could be resettled if the political will existed in Tel Aviv.  

The claim made is that no more than 100,000 settlers would have to be forcibly moved in any event, the other 600,000 or so either being allowed to remain in settlement blocs along the green line or in East Jerusalem. In addition, the separation wall located inside Palestine could be dismantled and a new border established.

What is missing from this two-state scenario are two elements: any real resonance in Israel and any sense that such a Palestinian state would be based on the equality of the two peoples, which would have to include, at the very least, the end of discrimination within Israel of the Palestinian minority and a just resolution of refugee issues, which involves Palestinians living in misery in camps either within Palestine or neighbouring countries.

These are daunting challenges, but unless met, the advocacy of this two-state approach will not bring peace or provide a solution that satisfies either side.

Civil society realism

Only civil society activism and its growing global solidarity movement affirms a solution that is based on the equality of the Palestinian and Jewish peoples, acknowledging that the realisation and reconciliation of overlapping claims of self-determination is the narrow gate that must be opened if peace is to be achieved in a manner that is just and sustainable.

The difficulty is that this campaign, increasingly endorsed by the Palestinian people, has only the slimmest possibility of gaining the political leverage needed to alter the climate of opinion in Israel enough so that an atmosphere of compromise emerges.

In the meantime, debate and discussion is being confounded by an interplay of cynical and genuine advocacy of the two-state solution.

The cynical advocates believe it will never happen, but holding out the possibility appeases public opinion without inhibiting Israel with respect to settlements, Gaza, and de facto annexation. The sincere advocates, including such groups as J-Street in the United States, will sing the same old two-state song but will no longer be able to carry the tune.

It is up to these sincere advocates to come up with a conception of how the two-state solution can be implemented under current conditions on the basis of the equality of the two peoples. Without such a concrete vision of what a two-state solution would look like and how to get there, sincerity is just a cover for naive irrelevance.

The current impasse is real and seems likely to endure for the foreseeable future. This prospect translates into continuing oppressive suffering for the Palestinian people as a whole, whether living within the confines of Gazan captivity, as refugees, as involuntary exiles, as subjects of Israeli occupation administration, or as a minority in Israel.

It should not be forgotten that the UN took over from colonial Britain the task of bringing peace to historic Palestine, and that its passivity over the years has made it more of the problem than a solution.

- Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. In 2008 he was also appointed by the UN to serve a six-year term as the Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Palestinian protester slings stones at Israeli security forces during a demonstration against expropriation of Palestinian lands by Israel, at Kafr Kaddum village in Nablus, in the occupied West Bank on 26 February, 2016 (AA).

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