May 22 5:58 PM

Two-state blues

Secretary of State John Kerry (C) watches as Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (R) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (L) shake hands during a presser on the Middle East Peace Process Talks, July 30, 2013
2013 Getty Images

President Barack Obama, “stung by his second failed attempt to broker a peace deal, has decided to take a conspicuous breather from the Middle East peace process,” according to an anonymous White House official quoted in The New York Times.

But the status quo is unlikey to remain static; as Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly warned, the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements deemed illegal by the U.N. Security Council increasingly renders the two-state solution on which the peace process is premised geographically improbable.

Now, Naftali Bennett — Israel’s economy minister and strong advocate of the settler movement — has come out openly advocating for Israeli annexation of the majority of the territory on the occupied West Bank. In a Wall Street Journal op ed, Bennett proposed what he calls a “Stability Plan” under which Israel would annex that portion of the West Bank defined as “Area C” under the Oslo Accords — which today comprises 61% of the West Bank.

Such a move would formally end the Oslo process, and Bennett acknowledges it would not receive any international recognition — in the same way that Israel’s claims on East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are not recognized by the international community. But that lack of recognition hasn't changed the facts on the ground. He suggests that the Palestinians would rule themselves in the pockets of the West Bank currently controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and argues that “Annexing Area C would limit conflict by reducing the size of the territory in dispute, which would make it easier to one day reach a long-term peace agreement.” 

Needless to say, there’d be no Palestinian takers for such an agreement for the foreseeable future.

But for an Israeli cabinet minister to reveal an openly annexationist agenda is a signal that it is not only Secretary Kerry’s recent peace effort that has failed but the entire two-decade Oslo process.

It is the two-state solution itself that is increasingly being called into question on both sides.

Last week’s violence around “Nakba Day” protests was a reminder of what the two-state concept, even in its most optimistic moments, left unresolved.

“Al Nakba” (“The Catastrophe”), is the Palestinian term for the 1948 dispossession of some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs during the birth of the State of Israel. Israel’s demographic makeup today – four fifths Jewish and one fifth Arab Muslim and Christian — is a product of the 1948 eviction more than 60% of the Arab population that had lived within its boundaries.

The Nakba followed the last international attempt to impose a two-state solution.

In 1947, there has been some 1.2 million Arabs, and around 600,000 Jews living in British-Mandate Palestine, increasingly in conflict over land and political control. The U.N. proposed partitioning the territory into a Jewish state comprising 55% of the territory, and an Arab state on the remaining 45%. The Israeli leadership of the time formally accepted the partition plan, while Palestinian Arab leaders rejected it.

But in reality, the partition plan worked for neither side: The Arab majority would not accept more than half of Palestine becoming the sovereign domain of a minority they viewed as arrivistes. And the boundaries of the proposed Jewish state would have given it a Jewish population of some 500,000 and an Arab population of 400,000 — untenable for a nationalist movement whose key demand was for a sustainable Jewish ethnic majority.

The war of 1948, however, left Israel in control of 78 percent of what had been Palestine, with the remaining 22 percent — Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem — was under the control of Egypt and Jordan. And it created an enduring Palestinian refugee problem.

This may sound like ancient history, but it’s also the story of the present. Today’s talk of a two-state solution is an update of the U.N. Partition Plan, envisaging the creation of a Palestinian state on all or most of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and which have been occupied by Israel since the war of June 1967. But the two-state idea is intended to resolve a conflict that predates 1967.

President Obama made that much clear in his outreach speech to the Arab world in June of 2009, acknowledged that the fundamental Palestinian grievance was “the displacement brought about by Israel's founding.”

“It is also undeniable,” Obama said, “that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.  For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation.  Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead.  They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation.  So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.  And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”

But the Nakba Day protests are a reminder that those displaced 66 years ago have not been focused on the “pursuit of a homeland” elsewhere, but rather have retained their connection to land and property lost in the homeland in which the lived until 1948.

The fate of Palestinian refugees is designated a “final-status” issue in the peace process, but closing the gap between the two sides on that issue may be a bridge too far. The Israeli side argues that recognizing the refugees’ right of return, as the U.N. has done every year since 1948, is tantamount to calling for Israel’s destruction, because that would change Israel’s demographic balance. But even if Palestinian leaders were inclined to forge a compromise on the issue by bringing those refugees to a Palestinian state, no Palestinian leader has thus far been able to publicly sell that compromise to a national movement forged originally among refugees.

When the PLO leadership in 1988 first proclaimed its interest in creating a Palestinian state on the 1967 boundaries, it wasn’t presented as a final resolution of the conflict, but more a case of establishing Palestinian sovereignty on part of the territory lost in 1948 — even if, in practice, the Oslo process began with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat formally recognizing the State of Israel. Similarly, some Hamas leaders in recent years expressed support for Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines —  not to formally end the conflict by renouncing all further claims on Israel, but as the basis for a decades-long truce.

Profound differences over the refugee issue are at the heart of the deadlock over Netanhyahu’s recent demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people”  — the PLO side refuses because doing so negates the rights of the refugees and Palestinian citizens of Israel; the Israeli side insists on that designation precisely in order to negate Palestinian claims of a right of return. 

Already in 2009, two of the most astute participant-observers of the peace process — U.S. official Rob Malley and former PLO adviser Hasan Agha —  had flagged the failure to deal with the legacy of 1948 as basic flaw in the peace process.

“Mr. Netanyahu underscores that Israel must be recognized as a Jewish state — and recalls that the conflict began before the West Bank or Gaza were occupied,” they wrote. “Palestinians, in turn, reject recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, uphold the refugees’ rights and maintain that if Israel wants real closure, it will need to pay with more than mere statehood.”

For both Netanyahu and the Palestinian national movement, in other words, the key to peace is resolving the conflicts of 1948, not simply the occupation of 1967.

“It’s easy to wince at these stands,” write Agha and Malley. “They run against the grain of a peace process whose central premise is that ending the occupation and establishing a viable Palestinian state will bring this matter to a close. But to recall the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian clash is not to invent a new battle line. It is to resurrect an old one that did not disappear simply because powerful parties acted for some time as if it had ceased to exist.”

Bennett’s op ed, and the Nakba Day narrative, are reminders that underlying the stalemate in the peace process is the fact that there’s no consensus either among Israelis or among Palestinians on where to set borders and boundaries in a solution based on partition.  

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