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Thinking outside the Oslo box

The Oslo Accord has failed to bring justice to Palestinians or peace and security to Israelis

December 6, 2014 2:00AM ET

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once again spirals toward large-scale violence, the United States’ policymaking establishment is finally coming to grips with the demise of the Oslo peace process. During the last two months, Israel’s defense minister was snubbed during a visit to Washington, the State Department sternly warned the country about the consequences of continued settlement building, and a White House official even insulted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by calling him a profanity for not having the courage to stand up to right-wing elements in his coalition and moving the process toward a final peace agreement.

The recent attack by two Palestinians at a Jerusalem synagogue that left four congregants and a police officer dead will not change matters, even with the Republican takeover of an already pro-Israel Senate. The potential of a U.S.-Israeli rift is being amplified by the decision of the new Swedish government to recognize the state of Palestine, a move that France and other European countries are sure to follow.

The debate over who lost Oslo will go on for years. What is clear today is that that the two-state solution as envisioned by the two-decade-long Oslo process is dead. A radical alternative that’s just to both Israelis and Palestinians is necessary.

Oslo was based on a specific logic of land for peace. Israel would withdraw from most of the West Bank and Gaza and accept a demilitarized Palestinian state with at least a part of East Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinians would forgo the right of return for most of the 5 million refugees and end political and territorial claims to pre-1948 Palestine.

Such a scenario was always wishful thinking, since Israel’s overwhelming power and wide international  support provided little incentive to make painful compromises. Even in the coming years, pressure won’t come in sufficient force from the West to make Israel change course, and without a reasonable balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, a two-state solution will continue to be impossible.

Three scenarios

There appears to be three possible scenarios for conflict in the coming years.

First, Israel could move toward official annexation of the West Bank. As outlined by Israel’s Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett in a Nov. 5 New York Times editorial, such a step would involve offering Israeli citizenship to some West Bank Palestinians who, without Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants, would remain a minority in an enlarged Jewish-majority state for the foreseeable future.

To succeed, this scenario depends on Palestinians’ agreeing not merely to live in Israeli-surrounded cantons but also to separate the West Bank from Gaza. But Palestinians will not agree to a further division of their homeland, much less accept the permanent disenfranchisement of 1.8 million Gazans and three times as many refugees.

The idea of a Greater Israel separate from Gaza is a fantasy.

The second scenario is the continuation of the status quo, with Israel managing the conflict as it always has — calibrating the intensity of settlement, violence and negotiations to maintain its political, military and diplomatic supremacy over a Palestinian society too weak to offer significant resistance but not weak enough to be pushed off history’s stage.

At least for another generation, the idea of a one-state solution remains a fantasy.

While plausible, this strategy contains major risks for Israel. A U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal, further radicalization of Sunni countries, a leaderless (and harder to control) street-level intifada, rising U.S. domestic petroleum production and growing alienation of American Jews from Israel — any and all these events could undermine Israel’s position in U.S. politics.

Moreover, the effect of long-term corrosion of democratic values in Israeli Jewish society should not be underestimated, as it will make it even harder to achieve a compromise based on mutual recognition and some level of justice. Palestinians are not only aware of this dynamic; many are banking on it as they consider their options.

The third scenario revolves around Palestinian hopes for a single or binational state with full civil — and through them, political — rights for all citizens. This is the most democratic solution, but it’s one the vast majority of Israelis would vigorously resist in order to preserve Israel’s status as a Jewish state. The closer Palestinians move toward demographic parity with Israelis, the more intense and bloody the occupation will likely become, with little international pressure on either side to make the compromises necessary for a negotiated peace.

At least for another generation, the idea of a one-state solution remains a fantasy.

Rethinking peace

For those who wish to see this conflict move toward resolution, a complete rethink of the foundations of peace is in order. In the last six years a group of Israeli, Palestinian and international scholars has attempted to do just that and develop an alternative built on sharing rather than dividing the land.

The basic principle rests on dividing sovereignty instead of territory, creating two parallel state structures co-existing between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. This would require decoupling the exclusive link between state and territory, replacing it with a link between governments and citizens wherever they live in the territory.

The two parallel states would retain their separate identities, national symbols and political structures. But the two states would lack internal borders, allowing free movement and access to land, resources and economic opportunity for the citizens of both nations.

As detailed in our new book, "One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States," such an arrangement would enable Israelis and Palestinians to create their own states covering the whole territory of Greater Palestine, including a shared Jerusalem. The issues of settlements and Jerusalem would be rendered moot.

Equally important, it would allow both people’s return to their historic homeland without upsetting the demographic balance within each state.

Military, political and economic barriers would be lifted as a joint security and defense policy, a common and equitable economic policy and joint and harmonized legislation would replace existing divisions and ensure the fundamental interests of and broader equality between Israelis and Palestinians.

Security cooperation — Oslo’s single success story — would be deepened through the establishment of joint external and internal security systems in which both Israel and Palestine would have responsibility for safeguarding security in the whole territory.

While many questions remain, a parallel state solution accommodates the long-term complex realities far better than territorial division or a one-state solution. It may be the only remaining two-state solution that could work. And given the way in which ethnic and religious territorial conflicts are tearing countries apart today across Africa, the Middle East and former Soviet republics, the importance of reconsidering the exclusively territorial grounding of nation states and sovereignty has never been greater.

At the very least, such a plan reminds us that any solution to the century-old conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism will require thinking far outside the narrow Oslo box. 

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

Mathias Mossberg, a retired Swedish ambassador and long-term diplomat on issues related to the peace process, is a senior research fellow at Lund University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mark LeVine, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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