Months of violence in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip have exhibited both the depths of enmity between Israelis and Palestinians and the utter irrelevance of the U.S.-led peace process.
On the surface, the conflict seems like one without a solution. But the challenge for policymakers and social movements alike is to reconsider how these two peoples can learn to live together in historic Palestine. We need fresh thinking that gets away from the sterile binary of one state or two states and dares to imagine the future with fresh eyes that accept the guidance of a rights-based approach rooted in international law.
To begin with, we need to overcome Washington’s blinkered conception of the conflict. There is no better sign that the U.S.-led Israel-Palestine peace process is unraveling than the absurd brouhaha that followed the recent Atlantic magazine article quoting an unnamed senior White House official calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “chickenshit,” because of his refusal to take risks for peace. It was alleged that this refusal imperiled Washington’s dogged adherence to the Oslo Accord system of direct negotiations under U.S. supervision.
The collapse in April of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, were unquestionably a defeat for the Oslo approach. Ever since the Oslo Declaration of Principles was sanctified on the White House lawn in 1993, the U.S. government has insisted that only this diplomatic framework could end the conflict. The orientation consists of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and designates the United States, despite its biased role, as the exclusive and permanent intermediary between them.
Without evident embarrassment, U.S. presidents have appointed as special envoys to the negotiations only ones backed by the Israeli lobby, such as Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, and acted as if their blatant partisanship were not a problem. Israel would have it no other way, and the Palestinian Authority, forever deferential to Washington, has meekly gone along.
Not only was the Oslo framework flawed because it leaned so far to one side, but also it was understood and accepted that the Palestinians would be willing to carry on negotiations without reserving the right to complain about Israeli violations of international law. When on several occasions the Palestinians did call attention to the continuation of the unlawful settlement process, they were immediately slapped down and told that such objections were not helpful to the peace process and that the disposition of the settlements would be deferred until the final status negotiations took place at the very end of the peace process, after the main elements of a solution had been agreed on.
This undermined Palestine’s advantage in negotiations, based on the favor of international law on key issues such as settlement construction, the status of Jerusalem and the rights of refugees. As a result, diplomatic bargaining continues to reflect facts on the ground that completely favor Israel.
After more than 20 years of futility, Washington’s insistence that all solutions must come through Oslo are beginning to fall on deaf ears, and new alternatives are beginning to surface on many sides. Israel is moving ineluctably toward a unilaterally imposed one-state solution that incorporates the West Bank. It has recently seized 1,000 acres of strategically placed land to facilitate the largest spatial enlargement of a settlement since the early 1990s, and it has given approval for 2,600 additional housing units to be built in various West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements that already have more than 650,000 settlers.
The new Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, is an avowed advocate of the maximalist version of the Zionist project involving the extension of Israel’s borders to encompass the whole of historic Palestine. He couples such a rejection of the Palestinian right of self-determination with promises of equality for both peoples within this enlarged Israel, offering the Palestinians full human rights, the rule of law and economic and political equality of opportunity in exchange for their political surrender.
The Palestinians have their own version of a unilateral solution, although it is far more modest. It is essentially a state of their own within 1967 borders, taking an ambiguous posture toward the settlement blocs and even East Jerusalem. Such a state claims 22 percent or less of historic Palestine and includes the contention that Palestine is already a state in the eyes of the international community, having been recognized as such by 134 nations and in a resolution of the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 29, 2012.
The Palestinian Authority is reinforcing this position with a draft resolution tabled at the U.N. Security Council proposing a resumed period of direct negotiations for nine months (accompanied by a freeze on settlement construction), followed by Israel’s mandatory withdrawal from the West Bank within three years if no agreement is reached.
Both sides’ reactions to the breakdown of Oslo contradict each other. What Netanyahu’s unilateralism is seeking is utterly inconsistent with any kind of viable Palestinian state constructed on 1967 borders. Equally, what the Palestinian Authority is proposing would seem to require the elimination of most Israeli settlements, the dismantling of the security wall and the abandonment of the Israeli-only network of roads. Neither side is facing up to political realities.
There is an understandable reluctance on the part of all sides to let go of the two-state framework for a solution. At least, that’s what Washington and even Tel Aviv both still say they seek, although Netanyahu has been telling Israeli audiences that after their experience with Hamas rockets, Israel will never allow the emergence of a neighboring Palestinian state.
Ever since the 1988 decision of the Palestinian National Council, the Palestine Liberation Organization has agreed to a solution framed in terms of a state of its own within the 1967 borders. Even Hamas has signed on to the extent of accepting a 50-year plan for peaceful coexistence with Israel, provides it ends its occupation of Palestinian territories.
These are big concessions from the Palestinian side, considering that the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 awarded 45 percent of historic Palestine to the Palestinians and proposed the internationalization of the entire city of Jerusalem. The 2002 Arab Initiative is built along the same lines and includes a commitment to full diplomatic and economic relations with Israel for the entire Islamic world, which endorsed the proposal of the Arab League by a 56-0 vote, with only Iran abstaining.
Most recently, a letter to Netanyahu by 106 high-ranking retired Israeli military and security officials strongly urged the same two-state solution, implicitly condemning Israeli unilateralism and Zionist maximalism as creating a future of periodic warfare of the sort that occurred this summer in Gaza — which they argue is badly damaging security for the entire Israeli population. The letter emphasized Israel’s moral decline associated with keeping millions of Palestinians under prolonged occupation, which they contend is unnecessary from the perspective of security.
Again, there is a lack of clarity about whether such encouragement assumes that the settlements can be retained, that the rights of Palestinian refugees can be ignored and that Jerusalem can be kept under unified Israel control. But what the initiative expresses is an emergent consensus that Oslo-style negotiations have consistently failed and something else must be tried. The letter appears to propose a unilateral partial withdrawal described as “an alternative option for resolving the conflict not based solely on bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians, which have failed time and again.”
Europe has also, at last, exhibited impatience with deferring any longer to this Oslo approach, which puts the United States alone in the driver’s seat. The recent Swedish recognition of Palestinian statehood and the recent parliamentary votes in Britain and France urging the same shift some diplomatic responsibility to Europe. This is desirable but not sufficient, as it still seems to be endorsing a two-state approach that can no longer be imposed on an Israeli government that has all but ruled out a viable Palestinian sovereign state.
Today the only realistic hope is to forget traditional diplomacy for now and understand that whether Palestine has a future depends on a further mobilization of global solidarity movements. The current boycott, divestment and sanction campaign against Israel is gaining momentum by the day and is coupled with a sense that its political program is more in keeping with the wishes of the Palestinian people than are the formal representations of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas.
When neither governmental diplomacy nor the United Nations can produce a satisfactory solution to a conflict that has caused decades of suffering and dispossession, it is past time to endorse a people-oriented approach. This is what helped end apartheid in South Africa and win many other anti-colonial struggles. The case of Palestine is likely to be no different.