Two states for two peoples: solution or illusion? / Tony Klug

Open Democracy, 21, 07, 2008

Is it already too late for the "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a "one-state solution" the realistic as well as alluring alternative, where the energies of those committed to a peaceful outcome should be invested?

These questions have a particular resonance for me, for as long ago as summer 1972 I explored these very options in a pamphlet that concluded that the two-state framework was the only logical and sustainable basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the interests of both peoples. So certain was I of its desirability and inevitability, that I admonished my publisher, the London-based Fabian Society, for delaying publication until January 1973, by which time, I suggested, this solution may already have been put into effect!

As it turned out, I was a little hasty both with that prognosis and with my warnings over the next few years that time was about to run out. Today, however, the prospects for such a settlement truly are in the "last-chance saloon", for reasons that are daily becoming more evident. But why should this be of concern if, waiting in the wings, is the increasingly fashionable one-state alternative? The simple answer is that this option (with the qualification that there needs to be a certain respectful caution in deeming it so, given the circumstances out of which it has emerged) is a fantasy - and, moreover, a dangerous fantasy, for it implies that the real alternative to two states is not perpetual conflict but some sort of harmonious, egalitarian utopia which miraculously circumvents a complex of intractable problems.

The pressing need at this point is for a serious, concerted, global effort to resolve this quintessentially 20th-century conflict once and for all, based on two viable states and a comprehensive regional settlement. This will call for uncharted political resolution and creative mindsets on the part of the principal regional actors, and firm leadership at the international level - but it can be done. It will depend, above all, on the determination of the incoming president of the United States and on his motivational and inspirational powers, for it is he who holds the master-keys to the last-chance saloon.

Over the past four decades, two powerful, conflicting trends have been at work. On the one hand, the intellectual and political argument for two states has effectively been won at virtually every level. From a handful of advocates in the late 1960s, there now exists worldwide support for this outcome. Even Hamas has indicated its preparedness to do a deal based on the post-1967 borders. This would be a strange time indeed to abandon the whole idea.

On the other hand, even as the Israeli government bolsters its rhetorical commitment to two states, the feasibility of an authentic Palestinian state has been constantly chiselled away by the changing facts on the ground - the maze of settlements, bypass roads, military posts, forbidding barriers and the progressive isolation of Arab East Jerusalem from its Palestinian hinterland. There were around 5,000 settlers in the West Bank in the early 1970s; nowadays the figure is in the region of 250,000, or roughly double that number if East Jerusalem and environs are included. Already, according to United Nations figures, some 38% of West Bank land is controlled by the settlements and other Israeli infrastructure (although the populated, built-up areas of the settlements, according to the Israeli group Peace Now, take up no more than 2%).

A closer look

After years of agonised internal debate, Palestinian opinion in the West Bank and Gaza came to regard the two-state formula as the pragmatic solution to the conflict. More recently, however, a new mood is gathering - if only at the margins for now - in which pragmatism is starting to favour one state for both peoples, even if it means engaging in a bitter long-term struggle with uncertain consequences and reaching for an objective Palestinians themselves don't necessarily favour or truly believe is attainable. In short, there is a growing sense that they have no alternative. Yet this option does indeed (with the caution above in mind) warrant the description a "fantasy" or "illusion", for at least three compelling reasons.

First, there is a profound lack of visceral enthusiasm, currently and historically, among Palestinians and Israelis for one combined state for both peoples. On the contrary, such a prospect is widely viewed as deeply threatening. Their respective struggles - reflecting their respective histories - have been for national independence and self-determination in their own state.

Although in the past the PLO charter envisaged one "democratic secular" state of Palestine, it was explicitly to be "Arab" in character and would include only those Jews - defined exclusively in religious terms - who arrived before the "Zionist invasion" (variously interpreted as 1917 or 1948). In other words, it would include very few of them. There is little evidence or reason to suppose that Palestinians today are any more ready to drop their demands for national independence and self-determination and share common statehood instead with another people in a combined non-Arab (and non-Muslim) state. Is it even reasonable to expect this of them? What they desperately need and yearn for - and for which they are entitled to receive full support - is an end to occupation and for Palestinian sovereignty over the evacuated territories."‘One state" profoundly deflects from this vital goal.

In parallel, an attempt to eradicate the Israeli state and its predominantly Jewish character is liable to revive the Jewish fear of genocide, or minimally of discrimination and persecution, and meet with fierce resistance. It is hard to imagine Israeli Jews voluntarily sacrificing their hard-won national independence to become a minority again in someone else's land.

To put it another way, Israel/Palestine is not South Africa; nor is it Northern Ireland; nor is it directly analogous to a host of other international or historical trouble-spots. Each conflict has its own peculiar features and, for a solution to work, it needs to spring from the inside-out rather than be imported from the outside-in. South Africa and Northern Ireland, each in its own way, were essentially civil-rights struggles. Israel/Palestine is primarily a clash of two national movements (even if there is a heavy-duty civil-rights dimension as well) and any proposal that disregards either national imperative (let alone both of them) is incongruous and bound to fail.

Second, there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts in the region over the past fifty years to merge separate entities - in which Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, North Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Tunisia have all featured at various times. If such attempts failed abysmally among peoples who in some way perceived themselves as sharing a common language, culture, religion and a sense of history and destiny, on what ground would we anticipate a different outcome between two peoples who share none of the above traits and who have been bitter foes for the best part of a century? It may be a nice dream to believe it would somehow work, but a dangerous sentiment on which to build the future of millions of people and possibly the peace of the world.

Third, there is not just one but many versions of a united state and very little effort has been made to put flesh on the skeletons of any of them. It is one thing to obtain agreement on - and attract superficial support for - the high-flying rhetoric, but a lot of it falls away once it comes down to the substance. Depending on the proponent, "one state" could be unitary, federal, confederal, bi-national, democratic, secular, cantonal (Switzerland), multi-confessional (Lebanon), Islamic (Hamas), Arab (PLO charter) or Jewish (Greater Israel). Some of these terms are frequently used interchangeably even though many of them are mutually inconsistent, even fiercely contradictory. So it is up to the supporters of each option to take up the challenge of elaborating the detail of their particular proposal if they wish it to be taken seriously as an authentic alternative to two states. This is no time to hide behind cliches.

In particular, the proponents of a "secular democratic" state, will need to show how in practice its version will not be tantamount to the continuation of occupation under another name, will not perpetuate and exacerbate the existing economic and social imbalances, will not lead to the political domination of either people over the other, will not foster an "apartheid-style" entity and will not be treated with deep suspicion by other states in the region who may view authentic democracy and secularity - if this is what is meant - as alien and threatening. Crucially, they will need to explain how the national imperatives of both peoples will melt away. These are serious questions that cannot be glossed over.

A genuine "bi-national confederal" state - by giving expression to the collective identities - could in important respects be closer to a two-state model than to a unitary "secular democratic" state, but its supporters would need to show why it will be more robust than, say, Belgium and Canada, the two bi-national examples often cited in favourable comparison but which are both fragile entities, periodically in danger of dissolving into their national constituent parts. The fate of the multinational constructs of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are not encouraging in this respect either.

On the other side of statehood

This discussion points to a conclusion with an ironic twist in its tail. On the one hand, an imposed unitary-state scenario that fails to reflect the wishes or accommodate the needs of both peoples could provoke a Palestinian secessionist movement and thus act as the unintended midwife of two separate, hostile states further down the line. On the other hand, a negotiated two-state agreement that puts Israeli and Palestinian societies on a more equitable constitutional footing, could give rise to closer horizontal relations and structural ties and to a gradual pooling of sovereignties where this is viewed as advancing their common interests.

In the past, two states were spoken of not as a "solution" but as an essential step in the quest for solutions to the many outstanding problems between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis already had their state. Palestinian statehood was the vital missing parameter. Similarly, two states were not necessarily seen as the end of the process. It would be up to the two peoples to determine, democratically and non-coercively, how they would want to shape their future constitutional relations. There have been many changes over the past few decades but these two imperatives are no less valid today than they were forty years ago (see Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse", 5 June 2007).

How the future will span out is of course yet to be seen, although no doubt it will all have been obvious in retrospect. Perhaps the most likely distant scenario for these two embattled peoples is some form of voluntary bi-national confederal (or conceivably federal) arrangement - possibly including Jordan and, later, maybe other states too - with each constituent element retaining its national identity and essential zone of sovereignty. One route to this eventual destination will cost countless lives and create ever more rancour. The other path will skip that stage by allowing developments between neighbouring Israeli and Palestinian states to evolve peacefully and take their natural course. If this opportunity is not seized while it still - just - exists, future generations will justifiably look back at those who failed to grasp it with deserved contempt.

Tony Klug is a special advisor on the middle east to the Oxford Research Group. He is the author of How peace broke out in the Middle East: a short history of the future (Fabian Society, 2007). A slightly different version of this article appears in the current edition of thePalestine-Israel Journal under the title 'The Last Chance Saloon'.