Wednesday, December 18, 2013

One State in Palestine? Be Careful What You Wish For

[By Ben Waite at]

One-State for Palestine? Be Careful What You Wish For

 With faith in the US-led Middle East peace process at an all-time low, a growing chorus of commentators and experts proclaims the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict dead. They argue that Israel's colonisation of the West Bank is too extensive to be reversed, and hence that establishing an independent Palestinian state is now impossible. In its place, most, on the left at least, advocate a bi-national unitary state for Jews and Palestinians alike.[1]

 While predictions of the future in political affairs can never be precise, it is valuable to consider the trajectory of the conflict at present and how it might be affected by embarking on so radical a path as abandonment of the two-state solution.

 The movement among Western commentators and activists away from the two-state solution is occurring alongside a marked shift to the right in Israeli politics, whilst divisions between Israelis and Palestinians remain as deep as ever. Historian Avi Shlaim describes Israel's current government as the most ‘aggressively right-wing, diplomatically intransigent, and overtly racist... in Israel's history.’ Debates have emerged on whether the treatment of even Arab-Israelis, let alone Palestinians in the occupied territories, now constitutes something akin to apartheid. These developments bode ill, to say the least, for prospects of the emergence of a harmonious bi-national state, except perhaps as a distant goal to be realised after a long and unlikely reconciliation process.

 More realistically, abandoning the struggle for Palestinian nationhood at this point would give rise to one of several possible futures, all with bleak consequences for the Palestinian people. The most likely scenario, in the short term at least, is that it would free the Israeli government to pursue and accelerate its current policies, perpetuating and further entrenching the status quo. This would involve continuing misery for Palestinians and, crucially, the consolidation and expansion of Israel's settlements in the West Bank and Greater Jerusalem. Palestinians would have the choice to live with the daily impositions and humiliations, or pack up and leave.

 In recent years, successive Israeli governments have sought to ‘normalise’ the occupation in the West Bank, primarily by co-opting the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, and working with it to isolate and ultimately neutralise Hamas. This process has proved highly successful. Settlement construction in the West Bank proceeds apace, provoking only slight and ineffectual resistance. Meanwhile Israelis are increasingly disinterested in the occupation, turning their attention to domestic economic and social issues.

 However, as the recent uprisings across the Middle East demonstrated, a regime cannot severely oppress a population in perpetuity. In the case of Israel-Palestine, an additional, 'demographic' factor may further undermine the long-run instability of permanent occupation. Although figures are disputed, it appears that Arab population growth in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is rising much faster than Jewish, to the point where Jews will soon constitute a minority in historical Palestine. Without a separation of the two peoples, the very raison d’etre of Israel—its Jewish majority—will be threatened.  In the context of this concern, various proposals for a more decisive solution to the ‘Palestinian problem’ have emerged, or more accurately re-emerged.

The Jordan option

 The first has been the dredging up of the idea, popular in the 1970s, of a Palestinian state in federation with Jordan. This has gained some credibility due to the fact that Palestinian refugees constitute the numerical majority inside Jordan and considering that nation’s previous experience of administering the West Bank, prior to 1967. For Israel, it offers the opportunity to relinquish responsibility for the Palestinians whilst holding on to its desired areas of the West Bank, largely delineated by the ‘separation barrier’. The hope is that the hub of Palestinian life would shift to the east of the Jordan River, with the Palestinian areas of the West Bank becoming little more than an undesirable backwater. For Israel, this would create the impression of ‘finality’ in the conflict and all but extinguish hopes of creating a contiguous, viable Palestinian state west of the Jordan River. Although the ‘Jordan Option’ would be an unwelcome solution in the eyes of many, the current weakness of the Palestinian leadership means that it could well be imposed. Jordan itself faces a precarious situation, being surrounded by nations experiencing war or civil strife and the threat of the Arab uprisings reaching its own territories. The country’s leadership has long been concerned by the large Palestinian refugee population within its own borders, who do not enjoy the rights of natural Jordanians, and are often restive as a result. The ‘Jordan Option’ is therefore highly unlikely to be accepted by the Jordanians themselves, except in extreme circumstances. Nonetheless, it was seemingly discussed by Binyamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah in a state visit earlier this year. If nothing else, this demonstrates that those close to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are now considering unorthodox ideas to hasten its conclusion.

Ethnic cleansing

 Another potential solution is emerging that is both more direct and more alarming. The expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes was central to Israel's establishment in 1948.[2] That this was the case was denied for many years, but the idea of ‘population transfer’ is slowly being sanitised and, of more concern, advocated. ‘Population transfer’ used to be considered a fringe policy idea in Israel, the province of such far-right figures as Rehavam Ze'evi, who was wont to use such words as "lice" and "cancer" when referring to Israel's Palestinian population. Its mainstreaming began when the Israeli historian Benny Morris, famed for his history of the 1948 expulsion of Palestinian communities in what is now Israel, spoke in a notorious 2004 interview of the ‘necessity’ of the ethnic cleansing, lamenting that the Israeli leadership of the time had ‘faltered’ by not finishing the job. Though the interview initially elicited shock, such views now seem acceptable in Israel to the point of banality. Indeed even the liberal interviewer, who expressed shock and disdain at Morris’ comments, was moved recently to give thanks to those did the ‘dirty, filthy work’ of expulsion and massacre in 1948 that ‘enables my people… to live.'

 In his interview, Morris argued that future circumstances may once again justify expulsion of Palestinians. Such thoughts have already appeared in embryonic form in the Knesset and halls of power. Israel's current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has consistently proposed a policy of ‘soft transfer’ of Israel's Arab citizens to Palestinian territories and similar policies have been touted by politicians like Otniel Schneller of the centrist Kadima party.[3] Uzi Cohen, an influential member of the Likud party, has publicly proposed a full-scale transfer of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, claiming that the idea has ‘widespread support.’[4] Recently, Likud member Moshe Feiglin’s suggestion that Israel pay Palestinians to leave the West Bank was considered by political strategists helpful to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (of the same party) in garnering votes on the right. The pioneering advocate of renewed ‘transfer’ himself, Rehavam Ze’evi, is currently being lionised by the Knesset, where funding to preserve his memory vastly increased in 2013, and now provides kits for schools in which he is described as ‘a man of principles’ and an ‘idealist’. It is clear that renewed ‘population transfer’ has moved in from the fringes of Israeli politics.

 In the end, political agreements and settlements are reached by and reflect the will of involved parties, particularly the powerful ones. The mistake of those who advocate ditching the two-state paradigm is to imagine that they will be in a position to determine its replacement. But it is political will that will determine the course of the Israel-Palestine conflict, not heterodox thinking by marginal actors. Abandoning the idea of Palestinian nationhood is not only to abandon decades of struggle in the pursuit of justice; it is, at this point, positively dangerous. As the overwhelmingly dominant party, Israel has disproportionate power to impose a solution that suits its own desires. Whether the ‘Jordan Option’ or renewed mass population transfer, currently being discussed theoretically, will ever be realised in practice is something that will only be known in time. However, those who expect a harmonious and just bi-national state to emerge from the end of the two-state solution would be wise to consider the balance of probability.

Ben Waite writes on Politics and International Affairs and holds degrees from Nottingham University and King’s College London. He would like to thank Andrew & Cheryl Waite, Noam Chomsky, Yezid Sayigh, Matthew Boot-Handford, Laura Muirhead, Avi Shlaim and Jamie Stern-Weiner for their insights and suggestions when reviewing this article. 

[1] See, for instance, Tony Judt (2003); the One State Solution Conference at Harvard University (2012), keynoted by Ilan Pappé and Ali Abunimah; and, more recently, Huffinton Post political editor Mehdi Hasan.

[2] Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford, 2007); Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge, 2004).

[3] Quotes in Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (London, 2010), p. 156.

[4] Opinion polls have shown that a significant proportion of Israelis would favour transferring some Palestinian citizens of Israel to a future Palestinian State. (Dialog – 47%; Knesset Channel – 75%; INSS - 70%) The idea of transferring the Palestinians in the occupied territories was broached in a 2002 poll, which found a growing proportion (46%) in favour.

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