One of the issues raised in the controversy over Norman Finkelstein’s recent video interview is the feasibility of the two-state solution. While the creation of a Palestinian State in Gaza and the West Bank alongside Israel remains the purported basis of a settlement among much of the international community, many are now questioning whether it is still possible. After decades of Israel’s deliberate creation of “facts on the ground,” primarily the illegal settlement of hundreds of thousands of its Jewish citizens throughout the West Bank, can a Palestinian State still emerge free from a large number of permanent residents owing allegiance to, and expecting protection from, a foreign state? Finkelstein emphatically answers in the affirmative, and has presented his case in lectures around the world.
A brief preface. I have greatly admired Finkelstein for many years, and cannot think of anyone else outside the Palestinian community who has devoted more time and energy to the cause of their freedom. He is sincerely taking what he feels to be the best strategic position to mitigate the human suffering he has witnessed firsthand. He is in a position to make the most genuine case for the two-state solution, and he does not come close. At recent videotaped lectures he gave in Glasgow and Edinburgh , his discussion of the settler problem contains serious flaws and shortcomings.
Finkelstein begins talking about the two-state solution at about an hour and a half into his lectures. First, he offers a legal/logical/moral imperative for recognizing the State of Israel as a simultaneous condition for demanding Palestinian rights guaranteed under international law. Mondoweiss published three responses, including my own, to this contention, but rather than repeat that discussion, let’s turn to Finkelstein’s insistence that the two-state solution remains viable, and that a peace settlement along the lines of the “international consensus” may still be achieved with a little creativity.
Here is his prescription for dealing with the settlers. First, Finkelstein estimates the number of these settlers at the very low end of 500,000. Netanyahu has stated that there are 650,000 settlers and the actual figure may even be higher, but Finkelstein goes with only 500,000.
Second, Finkelstein claims that if just 1.9% of Occupied Palestine is transferred to Israel, 63% of the 500,000 settlers reside within that 1.9% and would not have to leave their homes and communities to leave Palestine. At his lectures, he displays a map, presented by a Palestinian negotiating team in 2008, depicting this 1.9% of the OPT. The 1.9% consists mostly of numerous territorial segments that appear sort of mushroom-shaped, with narrow access roads leading a few miles from the Green Line to a settlement. The map also shows a few land areas that are presently part of Israel’s internationally recognized territory that would constitute an equal amount of territory that can become part of Palestine in the swap. Finkelstein concludes that about 300,000 of the 500,000 settlers will be accounted for in this 1.9% swap, leaving about 200,000 who must be evacuated.
Third, he states that many settlers are not ideological fanatics but moved to the OPT because of financial incentives offered by the government, and similarly could be induced to move back within the Green Line. He estimates that only 5000 to 10,000 settlers might refuse to move out of ideological fervor. Finkelstein believes that compelling the removal of this number would be relatively easy. Israel could merely impose a deadline when it will withdraw its armed forces, and these five to ten thousand ideological settlers will comply with an evacuation order out of fear of being left alone and unprotected.
Finkelstein makes several errors and omissions in his analysis, but this last one is the best place to start. His estimate of 5000 to 10,000 recalcitrant settlers seems absurdly low. Even if one accepts his minimal figure of 500,000 total settlers, and 200,000 who would not be “swapped,” his numbers correspond to only 2.5% to 5% of these 200,000 settlers being ideological and resistant to financial incentives for relocation. According to Finkelstein, 95+% would leave voluntarily. I don’t know what polls he relies upon to support this improbable figure, but a recent Hebrew University poll shows a much higher rate of settler opposition to evacuation. In 2010, 21% of settlers agreed that they would not only refuse to move, they would use all means, including force of arms, to resist. This position is on the increase, up from 15% in 2005. This 21% represents the hardest of the hard-core; surely many more would also refuse to move, but would not presently commit to force of arms to stay. It looks like Finkelstein could be off by a factor of ten, and that 50,000 to 100,000 settlers would refuse all offers of financial compensation, and would require massive military force to budge them from their illegal residence in the West Bank.
Finkelstein’s plan to remove these stubborn settlers, whether 5000 to 10,000 or a great deal more, is to assume they are “cowards” who would turn tail and refuse to face life amongst Palestinians without IDF protection. It’s amusing to ridicule one’s enemies as cowards, but it’s often inaccurate. Bill Maher lost his gig at ABC a decade ago for sensibly pointing out that the 9/11 hijackers were not “cowards.” These fanatical settlers may be greedy, racist, violent, deluded, and a host of other adjectives, but they also are well-armed with both firearms and the certain conviction that God promised the Jewish people the entire land of historical Palestine. Finkelstein’s “evidence” of the settlers’ cowardice consists of a quote from the former head of the Shin Bet, who said, of the 400 Hebron settlers, that they would quickly run back behind the Green Line if threatened with the loss of IDF protection. Does Finkelstein accept the word of Shin Bet directors about anything else? Even if this questionable source was absolutely sincere in this instance, he was merely voicing his own generalized prediction of the conduct of others. The assumption that many thousands of ideological lunatics with guns will be frightened to abandon God’s plan for Jewish sovereignty over Judea and Samaria is not a realistic basis to reach a peace agreement. Is there anything more dangerous than a person with a gun and the unshakeable conviction that God wants him/her to use it?
Of course, the IDF could physically force the settlers from their illegal outposts, but that might be politically impossible, and even physically impossible if the numbers are significantly greater than 5000-10,000 as they almost surely are. These die-hard settlers are not concentrated in one or two geographical areas, but dot the landscape all over the West Bank. Enormous resources would be required to force them to move without outbreaks of lethal violence. Finkelstein’s conclusion that it would be simple to empty the future Palestinian State of Israeli citizens is absurdly optimistic.
While Finkelstein does not explicitly propose it, Israel theoretically could strip, or threaten to strip, these recalcitrant settlers of their citizenship and have them assume Palestinian citizenship, as Jewish citizens of Palestine. However, there is no realistic chance that these fanatics would accept being subject to Palestinian governmental authority. It is not difficult to foresee them use their weapons in “self-defense,” leading to a armed conflict and Israeli military intervention to protect these “courageous Jewish pioneers” from massacre by the “Arab hordes.” In short, leaving behind ideological settlers would be a recipe for conflict and disaster.
There are other flaws in Finkelstein’s analysis as well. There is no reason to believe that Israel would ever be willing to accept the disjointed, mushroom-shaped territories extending into the West Bank, or that it would swap those areas presently within the Green Line that were designated by the Palestinian negotiators. Finkelstein concedes that it would be political suicide for any Israeli leader to accept this map, and urges us all to apply political pressure to somehow make it feasible.
Next, who would pay the enormous price tag for relocating about 200,000 settlers who supposedly would agree to move with generous compensation? The compensation cost alone could easily run into tens of billions of dollars or more. And how would Israel accommodate this huge influx? Enormous new housing projects would have to be designed and constructed. Where? How long would it take? How much would that cost? Who would pay?
Finally, is there any Israeli political will to force any two-state settlement at all? Somehow, it has failed to materialize until now. Theoretically, a majority of Israelis oppose the settlements, but the settler population and their supporters from within Israel have been politically able to obstruct any movement to restrict settlement activity. The country is certainly becoming more right wing, and that will continue in the foreseeable future, as there is a much higher birth rate among the ideological and/or religious Israelis than there is among the secular population.
Norman Finkelstein, while expressing certainty that the two-state solution remains achievable, with only this last consideration (Israeli political will) to be overcome with international pressure, doesn’t address these thorny questions. Even worse, his vision for the future is dependant on an unrealistically optimistic view of the ease with which Israel’s illegal settler population can be re-settled within its internationally recognized boundaries. To briefly recap, he starts with the lowest estimation of total settlers, assumes that the Israeli map could be acceptably redrawn with lots of tiny fingers extending into a foreign state, assumes near unanimous compliance with evacuation orders when 25-50% would probably refuse, and neglects to ponder numerous other obstacles to a two-state solution.
Finkelstein’s argument that the law requires recognition of Israel is not nearly as clearcut as he insists. He claims that Israel’s existence is a legally recognized fact, but Israel exists only as a Jewish State and has no legal right to insist on the kind of ethno-religious favoritism that such definition entails. And the law is not straightforward, but a tangled web of conflicting claims. The UN Partition Plan “created” Israel on 55% of the land, but that percentage increased to 78% by the 1949 cease fire. That’s what is presently known as the Green Line, Israel’s generally recognized boundary. What is Israel’s legal claim to that part of its internationally-recognized territory outside the 1947 UN map? Wasn’t that territory acquired by war, just like the territories conquered in 1967? Also, the right of return of all Palestinian refugees is enshrined in international law, but if exercised, it would signify the end of Israel’s Jewish majority and its Jewish Statehood. What would happen to the Israel that Finkelstein claims is an entity that deserves legal recognition? It would disintegrate by enforcement of the law! So “the law” both requires recognition of Israel and sows the seeds of its downfall. The legal claims of all parties cannot be reconciled in one consistent, coherent manner.
Perhaps most importantly, Israel has withstood the illegality of its settlement project for over 40 years. What would suddenly make it vulnerable to international public pressure? And if, as Finkelstein agrees, such pressure is required to budge Israelis from their current obstinacy, why would an appeal to law – hopelessly tangled and subject to varying interpretations and jurisdictions – be any more likely to be successful than an appeal to the principle of equality for all regardless of ethnic or religious background? Israel and its powerful supporters worldwide have legions of lawyers ready to obfuscate the law and explain why the illegal settlements are actually legal, the illegal occupation is legal, the illegal acquisition of territory by war is legal, etc. These arguments may be countered by more reasoned analysis from the other side, but submitting hyper-technical legal arguments to the whims of the public is not a sure thing. An appeal to the simple but undeniable principle of equality might be more successful. It would be more difficult for Israel to argue that in the 21st century, it remains acceptable to discriminate against native-born inhabitants based on their ancestry, ethnicity, and religion.
We’re now 45 years into the occupation and 500,000-750,000 illegal Israeli Jewish settlers blanket the land supposedly designated for a future Palestinian State. How many more years and more settlers will it take before Finkelstein concludes that the 2ss is now impossible? How many more dead-ends and false starts and fruitless negotiations in the peace process before we all realize it is not going to happen? His position mirrors those sincere liberal Zionists who say that unless Israel relinquishes its control over millions of stateless people, and/or unless it provides equal rights to its non-Jewish minority population, Israel will cease to be a democracy. Exactly what are they waiting for to make this pronouncement? Forty-five years of military rule over the disenfranchised, and 64 years of blatant, government-led discrimination is not enough? These people will be saying the same thing in 20 years, perhaps in 50 years. Finkelstein is making a similar mistake. The doors and windows of the two-state solution are all shut and locked tight, and it’s time to look for a new house.