‘When we have settled the land,’ Rafael Eitan, then chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Force, said in 1983, ‘all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.’ Over twenty years later, the Palestinians are struggling to consolidate a genuinely representative Palestinian Interim Self-Governing Authority and to handle the huge economic and political challenges resulting from Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, while the Sharon government finishes cantonising the West Bank, and Gaza remains walled off. Unable to achieve even the agenda Israel has set for it, the Palestinian Authority is cut off physically and diplomatically at every turn.
Experienced observers and activists are warning that the quest for a two-state solution is being wedged between two alarming alternatives. On the one hand, an emerging system of ghettoised Palestinian enclaves, a situation that’s increasingly described as ‘apartheid’: an archipelago of cantons, deprived of meaningful sovereignty, that will condemn Palestinians to economic and political ruin. On the other hand, a complete collapse of the two-state option, such that the only fair solution would be a single democratic state, which would force a radical redefinition of the Jewish state. For those who dread both alternatives, salvaging a viable two-state solution has become a desperate matter. ‘We cannot afford to have our attention deflected by any other issue, important as it may be,’ Jeff Halper, of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, wrote in a recent manifesto. ‘It is either a just and viable solution now or apartheid now . . . the next three to six months will tell.’
But Halper’s warning is odd in two ways. First, the facts on the ground – the sprawling settlements, the immense wall, Israel’s hold on the West Bank – are already ‘telling’ overwhelmingly. The Palestinians don’t have enough territory for a viable state, and Sharon has promised that none will be given back. What more can be determined, or gained, or changed, in the next three to six months? Waiting further, for some unknown sign of unforeseeable change, can only foster more paralysis among a concerned international community: a paralysis that enables Israel to complete its bantustan strategy in the West Bank.
In fact, those governments and NGOs attempting to lobby harder for the already moribund two-state solution would merely set themselves up. To co-opt everyone’s hopes, the Israeli government need simply invent some new ‘meaningful political process’, as Hillel Schenker recently put it in the Nation, which even cynical peace groups will feel compelled to support – especially as the hapless PA will inevitably be enlisted. Israel’s options are here time-tested and assured, and they can be confident of the co-operation of the sanguine Bush administration and the politically bankrupt PA. For example, the Sharon government might announce a new meeting in Taba, with preliminary ‘high-level’ consultations, contingent on a ceasefire (three to four months’ delay). Or announce a visit by Sharon to Washington DC, and then postpone it (weeks stretched into months). Or arrange with the Bush administration for some new visit to Israel by a trusted ‘envoy’, who will then report back to the Bush administration and Congress (more months). When the Europeans and the Arab states complain too vociferously about the lack of progress, Israel can announce a summit for, say, March, delay it until May, then substitute preliminary talks (June) but with lower-level officials, then confine its results (July) to a plan for more talks. Then ruin the plan by assassinating a Hamas official and triggering a terror attack, denounce the Palestinians for ruining the plan, launch rounds of helicopter gunship attacks on ‘terrorist targets’ through August, express disgust over the resulting Palestinian militant retaliation and internal Palestinian factional strife, and finally postpone talks indefinitely while grumbling that ‘talks about talks’ might be renewed when a ‘genuine’ Palestinian partner appears – and another year has gone by with no progress at all.
Meanwhile, Israeli government ministries will have added the finishing touches to the West Bank settlement grid, the wall will be completed, and the de facto annexation of the West Bank consolidated. Stuck with (but also sheltered by) a fake process, the international community will remain diplomatically immobilised. And, having staked all its moral and political capital on yet another fruitless ‘initiative’, the peace camp will be more demoralised, fragmented and directionless than it is now. Setting up this sequence, yet again, through calls for more urgent work on a two-state solution, is therefore not a call for action. It is a call for paralysis.
Part of the problem is that foreign governments and peace groups have been trying to respect the PA – its programme, diplomacy, vulnerability – which means respecting its formal commitment to the two-state solution implied by the Oslo Accords and confirmed in the Road Map. The PA must endorse the present ‘peace process’ because the Oslo Accords and Road Map established the very terms of its existence. So far, despite unilateral Israeli action and the galloping expansion of settlements, it has sustained the fragile impression of defending a genuine two-state solution. But as Halper also warned, if Mahmoud Abbas accepts the terms of Sharon’s plan – a cantonised West Bank, a sealed-off Gaza Strip, token access to East Jerusalem – the activist community would see him only as Israel’s long-sought quisling.
This concern that Abbas may become a quisling is also odd. He is already a quisling. This is not to say he is insincere or not trying his best. Many quislings are, in their failed way, nationalists. Set up by the occupier, owing their measly power to the occupier, fearful of losing it if they anger the occupier, they act on terms set by the occupier. They may try to aggrandise themselves or pad their friends’ pockets, but they may also try sincerely to save what shreds of benefits for their own nation that the occupier has suggested (though not promised) they can – if they deliver on the occupier’s demands. In so doing, they betray their own people. But they themselves are trapped in hopes and assumptions steered by the occupier, convinced that giving up those hopes would truly leave them, and their people, with nothing.
The PA was created by agreement of the occupier (the Oslo II Accord), its formal responsibilities were established by the occupier (almost solely, security for Israel), and its powers are limited by the occupier at will. But as the unenviable head of this dismal institution, Abbas has no choice but to act as though it might work. The PA is the only mechanism left through which Palestinians can convene any kind of democratic debate, and other courageous and principled Palestinians also struggle to make it work. But they won’t win that struggle by trying to wring effective leadership from a body that, by the very terms of its existence, can operate only within the terms of the occupier. They can win only by changing the conditions that create quislings: by retaking the power to make the terms.
Those new conditions may be closer than people think. The next three to six months should indeed tell, but not whether Sharon’s strategy is reversible, which it isn’t, or if a viable two-state solution and Palestinian state can be resurrected, which they can’t be. The question is whether hope for a two-state solution can survive the next three to six months. Despair, however, needn’t be a bad thing, if it allows a fresh and more vigorous hope to rise.
The operative word here is apartheid. Accepting that the ‘peace process’ has generated a system of apartheid in Israel-Palestine – in which the indigenous population is politically excluded by law, on the basis of ethnicity, from having any political voice in the state governing their lives – would convert efforts for peace into an anti-apartheid struggle. And that struggle promises to be what Ehud Olmert (now Israel’s deputy prime minister) once warned it would be: ‘a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle – and ultimately a much more powerful one’. Israel’s leadership is desperate to avert this transformation, because, as Olmert added, ‘it would mean the end of the Jewish state.’ It would also end hope for a ‘Palestinian state’ as it is now understood.
What would this new anti-apartheid struggle be like? That’s what the Palestinians, Jewish-Israelis, and the human rights community will soon need to sort out, but a few predictions can be made. In a collective quest for full democracy in Israel-Palestine, the fundamental terms of the entire human rights campaign would change. All groups would at last accept that Israel cannot possibly gain peace or the Palestinians justice through a cantonised Palestinian ‘state’ and crippled Palestinian government, and that real peace can be found now only in one system of law that protects everyone equally in one land. Legal arguments would shift from emphasising Israel’s obligations under the (roundly ignored) Geneva Conventions to its obligations to enfranchise the population under its permanent control. ‘End the occupation’ would no longer mean withdrawing the Jewish settlements from the West Bank – which will never happen anyway – but ending military rule over civilians. The wall would be denounced not because it is placed illegally but because it is carving out ethno-racial ghettoes in a multi-ethnic society. A stable peace would mean what it means elsewhere: granting Palestinians full citizenship in one unified democratic state.
Deeply held and long-cherished assumptions about national identities would need to adapt. At present, Israel is formally conceived in its Basic Law as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’, a formula reassuring to many Jewish Israelis in affirming both Israel’s ethnonationalist mission and its democratic principles. But it has always been an oxymoron, because ‘Jewish and democratic’ requires Israel forcibly to sustain a Jewish political majority by enforcing a two-tier citizenship system within Israel and by excluding some four million Palestinians in the territories from suffrage altogether. The perceived imperative of a Jewish majority not only laid the basis for the entire conflict (the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948, the refusal to allow their return, and the current bantustan strategy) but remains demographically unstable. And yet, the core mission of establishing a Jewish ‘national home’ remains politically indispensable. From the Jewish-Israeli side, Israel would have to be reimagined and reconstructed in the only stable formula ever truly available to Zionism: a democratic state embracing both Jewish and Palestinian ‘national homes’ within an over-arching civil nationalism, whether ‘Israeli’ – a nationality unrecognised under Israeli law, which recognises only the ‘Jewish’ nation – or under some other rubric. The prospect is not impossible: global debates on ‘multicultural citizenship’ already grapple with how to secure vital group rights in liberal democracies, and Jewish politics is hardly lacking in theorists of democratisation.
From the Palestinian side, reclaiming a genuine right to self-determination would have to be restored to its Mandate meaning – the will of the territory’s population. The long-cherished goal of a ‘Palestinian state’ would need to be re-envisioned not as a separate democratic state led by Palestinians but as a democratic state in all of Mandate Palestine. The Israeli government would no longer be seen as the unjust alien occupier of Palestinian land but as an unjust apartheid regime in a unified land. This shift could not be simply a roll-back to the old PLO premise of a state dominated by its pre-1948 indigenous Arab population. Democracy in Israel-Palestine today requires full mutual acceptance by all ethnic and confessional populations in the country that they are all permanent and valued parts of the new society. Within this state, a Palestinian national home and a Jewish national home can both flourish, but only by accepting that both must be secure if either is to flourish.
Expecting such fundamental ideological shifts still seems hopelessly utopian to many people. Still, such transitions have been accomplished elsewhere, against odds as great. Only by accepting that alternatives have become intolerable or impossible will most people be motivated to tackle what is only extremely difficult. This is what happened in South Africa, and, again as in South Africa, hard work would certainly be required on all sides. The international community would need to reinvigorate its commitment to principles of universal human rights: no more acquiescence to racial, ethnic or religious governance – i.e. no more tacit acceptance of Jewish ethnocracy or polite reticence about budding Islamic theocratic ideologies. Concerned Jewish Israelis would need to undertake a major rethinking of Zionist ideals and history to confront the injustice and dangers embedded in the old concept of ‘Jewish statehood’. The Palestinians would need to reject their weapons of the weak – quisling placation of the Israeli government, terrorism against civilians – and establish a new programme of civil liberation guided by the international ideals (anti-racism, equality, democracy) they invoke on their behalf. Only by redefining their own struggle in this way can Palestinians reclaim their own politics: eliminate the conditions for quislings, and regain international moral authority for their struggle.