West Bank Areas A and B rendered as an archipelago
of islands. (Credit: Julien Bousac)
Every week this year seems to bring some new obituary for the two-state solution. Both in Israel and in the U.S., more and more politicians on the right (the Netanyahu-appointed Levy Committee in Israel; settler spokesman Dani Dayan in the New York Times; the legislatures of Florida and South Carolina; even, apparently, the Republican National Committee) have been coming forward to acknowledge what many on the left have argued for years: there’s only one state between the river and the sea, and there’s no realistic prospect of that changing.
From a different perspective, several prominent long-time champions of the two-state approach have joined the chorus just in the last couple of weeks: Nahum Barnea, widely described as “the dean of Israeli columnists;” Henry Siegman, the former Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress; and Richard Silverstein, the well-known Tikun Olam blogger, who titled his post “Two States Are Dead, Long Live the New State!” Meanwhile, the brightest lights on the left are increasingly focused on mapping out what a one-state solution might look like.
I hesitate to disagree with such a diverse array of pols and pundits, but I don’t buy it. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that a two-state outcome – of sorts – remains very much in the cards: I think it’s almost certainly what Netanyahu et al. are planning, if not for the immediate future then for some opportune moment down the road.
In fact, I believe those announcing the demise of the two-state solution are inadvertently sowing an illusion that could be damaging to the movement for Palestinian rights.
On one level, of course, I agree completely: the kind of two-state solution liberal Americans, Israeli left Zionists, and Palestinian Authority loyalists have long imagined (and right-wing Zionists have feared) – that is, a state with at least many of the attributes of sovereignty along something close to the 1967 borders – is dead. But that’s nothing new: the whole idea was probably stillborn at Oslo, but if there was ever a possibility it would come to life, that chance ended years ago, as the settler population swelled into the hundreds of thousands, successive Israeli governments kept building out the infrastructure to support them, and Israelis of all stripes realized that no one – not the U.S., not the U.N., not the E.U., and not the Arab states – was actually prepared to do anything to impose the two-state “international consensus” they all talked about.
The only thing that’s changed in recent years is that liberals and moderates are finally shedding their blinders, and the right is emboldened to say openly what it always sought privately.
But to acknowledge that one idealized version of the two-state solution is dead doesn’t necessarily mean that other versions of it aren’t possible. It certainly doesn’t mean, as many of the recent obits imply, that the only issue before us now is the nature of the single state – i.e., will Israel continue denying any real legal and political rights to the Palestinians of the West Bank, even if it formally annexes their land? Will it devise some new form of limited pseudo-citizenship for them? Or will it finally fulfill the fantasies of the farthest-right (expelling the whole Palestinian population) or the dreams of many of us on the left (granting them full and equal rights)?
Each of these alternatives strikes me as completely implausible. After all, although the Zionists have always sought to control all of “Greater Israel,” their elite has also been guided from the beginning by another principle: not just maximizing their territory, but minimizing the number of Palestinians on it, in order to ensure Jewish control. If they had their druthers, most Israelis would no doubt opt for complete ethnic cleansing (a.k.a. “transfer”); the only reason it hasn’t happened is that their leaders haven’t been confident the world would let them get away with it, especially in view of the resistance the Palestinians would likely put up. That remains the case today, I believe. (Of course, in the event of all-out, sustained regional war, all bets would be off…)
But as long as transfer is off the table and millions of Palestinians remain on their land, the Zionist leadership has consistently chosen not to incorporate all of it into their state: That’s why Ben Gurion didn’t push to “finish the job” in 1948, and why Israel didn’t annex all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the 1967 war. That’s why Sharon pulled back from Gaza in 2005. And that’s why I can’t see complete annexation of the West Bank now.
What seems much more likely is that the Israelis will seek to preserve the status quo as long as possible, while they keep expanding the settlements and quietly driving out as many Palestinians as they can (mainly by making their lives miserable and hopeless) – all the while blathering about the need for negotiations. Is there any reason to think that Washington and the Europeans wouldn’t let them get away with this little game, just as they have for so many decades?
And if at some point, from somewhere, there did arise real pressure to resolve the issue – or if the Israelis succeed in so demoralizing the Palestinian population and corrupting its leadership that they can impose the terms they want – I’m convinced they’ll actually implement a two-state “solution.”
It just won’t look anything like what the peace processors have pretended to discuss for the last 20 years. Forget the 1967 borders – Israel will annex the majority of the West Bank. What they’ll leave for the new state is an archipelago of minuscule fragments, including the main Palestinian population centers, all cut off from one another and surrounded by what will become officially Israeli territory.
Specifically, in terms of the supposedly short-term administrative divisions originally laid out in the “Oslo II Agreement” between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1995, count on Israel to formalize its currently de facto but complete control of Area C, which represents 62 percent of the West Bank’s land area. It includes all the settlements, the buffer zones around them, the Israeli highways, the IDF bases and “firing zones,” and the entire Jordan Valley except the city of Jericho. (See this factsheet from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and especially the European Union report “Area C and Palestinian State Building,” released early this year, though dated last July).
Administrative divisions of the West Bank.
The real beauty of Area C, from the Zionist perspective, is that swallowing it up, even without further ethnic cleansing, would increase the state’s non-Jewish population only modestly: after decades of decline, its Palestinian population is down to somewhere between 92,000 and 150,000 people, depending on whose estimate you believe - not much more than 5 percent of the West Bank total. Thanks to a systematic and amply documented Israeli policy of ethnic cleansing, the Jordan Valley in particular has been almost completely depopulated of Palestinians: in 1967 it was home to between 200,000 and 300,000 people, but now the total, not counting at least 9,400 Jewish settlers, has dropped to 56,000, of whom 70 percent live in Jericho (Area A), according to the EU.
To top it off, the Israelis might also grab some choice bits of Area B, where Jewish settlers have recently begun, for the first time, to set up settlement outposts. But it’s hard to imagine them taking it all: it’s only 20 percent of the West Bank, but nearly a million Palestinians (41 percent of the West Bank Palestinian population) live in the villages and towns it encompasses. It’s no secret that Israeli Jews are already obsessed with the “demographic timebomb” represented by the roughly 1.5 million Palestinian citizens inside the Green Line – would they really want to add another million, just in order to achieve formal control of such a modest area?
And as to Area A – 14 separate fragments encompassing all the major Palestinian cities on the West Bank – only fanatics determined to control every inch of Eretz Yisrael, regardless of the consequences for the Zionist project, would want that incorporated into the state as long as its Palestinian population remains. After all, it’s only about 18 percent of the West Bank – about 4 percent of the area of Mandatory Palestine – but it’s home to roughly 1.3 million Palestinians, which means that swallowing it up would nearly double Israel’s Palestinian population, even without counting the Area B population.
Few if any of those proclaiming the death of the two-state solution argue that Israel is ready to grant full citizenship to the 2.3 million Palestinians of Areas A and B. When they talk about a single state, they’re assuming, at least implicitly, that Israel will continue to deny the population the right to vote and other civil and legal rights. But if Israel were to formally annex the whole area while continuing to deny citizenship to the natives, the state and its defenders in Europe and North America would face even more difficulty than they do today in trying to refute the charge of apartheid. At that point, it would almost certainly face an accelerating loss of liberal support and renewed condemnation from most of the world, and the size and power of the already growing BDS – boycott, divestment, and sanctions – movement would swell, perhaps finally approaching the proportions of the movement against South African apartheid in the 1980s.
Why would the Zionists risk all that, when they have alternatives? Why won’t they just stretch out the status quo as long as possible? And then, if they have no other choice, they can resort to their own version of the two-state solution: either unilaterally or in conjunction with a quisling Palestinian leadership, they could simply annex Area C (and whatever parts of Area B they want) and declare the remaining fragments of the West Bank to be the Palestinian state. Undoubtedly, the Israelis would insist on demilitarization and a variety of other limitations on the sovereignty of this Palestinian entity, but they could still call it a state.
In fact, Bibi Netanyahu and his cronies have long hinted at such a “solution.” In 1996, when he was first elected prime minister, he promised to implement the Oslo agreement, but compared the kind of entity he had in mind for the Palestinians to either a territory with the right to hold a referendum on sovereignty, like Puerto Rico, or a demilitarized state like Andorra. When David Bar-Illan, then director of communications and policy planning in Netanyahu’s office, was asked about statehood, he answered “Semantics don’t matter. If Palestinian sovereignty is limited enough so that we feel safe, call it fried chicken.” And just last year, when Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, was asked to explain his thinking about a Palestinian state, he put it even more clearly: “Our intention is to leave the situation as it is: autonomous management of civil affairs, and if they want to call it a state, let them call it that. If they want to call it an empire, by all means. We intend to keep what exists now and let them call it whatever they want.”
This scenario sounds somewhat like what the South African whites tried to do in the apartheid era by setting up black bantustans. Of course, they didn’t get away with it, but there’s another precedent where similar plans succeeded (from the occupier’s perspective): right here in the U.S.A., Israel’s prime supporter and role model, federally recognized tribes are nominally sovereign nations. Indeed, the “Navajo Nation” is larger than West Virginia. (The comparison to apartheid South Africa probably has more resonance with contemporary Americans, but I’ve always thought the closest analogy to the Palestinian situation was the white man’s treatment of native Americans.)
Some astute observers of Israeli politics have been predicting the annexation of Area C – Jeff Halper has repeatedly warned about this possibility (see, for example, Frank Barat’s interview with him in Al Jazeera in May), and just last month Israeli historian Ron Pundak, who helped negotiate the Oslo agreement and later the Geneva Initiative, laid it out very clearly in a Haaretz column entitled “Decoding Bibi’s West Bank Agenda.” My impression, though, is that this very plausible scenario is getting lost in the rising tide of rhetoric about the death of two-state solution and the not-very-likely prospect of a single state.
Does it matter? I think so, insofar as the progressive community can still hope to have some effect on what happens in the Middle East. Consider this scenario: suppose Netanyahu (or a successor) goes to the UN (probably not this year – he’s too preoccupied with Iran – but maybe next year, especially if Romney wins) and boldly declares that it’s time to end a stalemate that has gone on long enough. Since the Palestinians can’t get themselves together and won’t negotiate, he’ll announce, Israel is going to settle the conflict once and for all by recognizing a Palestinian state. That state will encompass, basically, Areas A and B; simultaneously, Israel will set setting borders for itself that include Area C.
Instead of recognizing this maneuver as the grotesque landgrab it really would be, Washington (whoever’s in charge) and most of the media would undoubtedly hail him for his “boldness,” “courage,” “vision,” and “fairness.” They’ll declare his plan a “magnanimous compromise,” “the fulfillment of the long-held dream of a two states living side-by-side in peace and prosperity,” blah blah blah.
How the Palestinians would react, I certainly can’t say. Let’s hope they could overcome their current divisions and apparent exhaustion and rise up with sufficient numbers, militancy, and creativity to make the world recognize that this kind of “two-state solution” is no solution at all.
But whatever the Palestinians do, they’ll need help from supporters abroad, especially in the U.S., who can expose the Israeli ploy as a farce and a fraud. And if we’re going to play that role, we’d better be prepared for what’s really in the cards, instead of wasting our time either wringing our hands or celebrating over the supposed demise of the two-state solution.
 The ethnic cleansing of the Jordan Valley began in June 1967, when Israeli forces razed numerous villages and camps housing 1948 refugees, driving out perhaps as much as 88 percent of the population – even though no major military battles were fought in the area. Since then, Israel has worked quietly but relentlessly to finish the job, first by preventing the return of refugees (and routinely shooting those who tried), then by establishing a variety of policies and practices designed to deny the remaining Palestinians any prospect of a decent life. Among the techniques employed to this end: land theft (for settlements, “military zones,” and “nature preserves”); physical harassment by settlers and soldiers; home demolitions (40 percent of all the structures Israel demolished in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in 2011 were in this sparsely populated area); planning restrictions and denial of permits for even the most modest construction (out of 440 permit applications in 2010, the latest data available, four were granted); destruction of foreign-aided development projects (including European-funded solar panels); theft and murder of animals; and, perhaps most egregiously, a variety of policies that limit Palestinian access to water - deliberate destruction of Palestinian cisterns, denial of pipeline service by the Israel water company, outrageous pricing of water from other sources, and drilling wells much deeper than the Palestinians’, so the latter run dry as the water table is depleted to fill settlers’ swimming pools and nourish their export crops.
Although the Jordan Valley commands little attention in the West, it must be the best documented case of ethnic cleansing in human history. Good recent overviews include “The Forcible Transfer of the Palestinian People from the Jordan Valley,” by Al-Haq legal researcher Mercedes Melon; a report and interactive feature from B’Tselem, entitled “Dispossession and Exploitation: Israel’s Policy in the Jordan Valley and Northern Dead Sea” ; and a beautifully illustrated report from the Ma’an Development Center called “Parallel Realities,” comparing the lives of Palestinian residents and Jewish settlers in the Jordan Valley. See also the website of Jordan Valley Solidarity, a network of Palestinian grassroots community groups and international supporters, and two excellent documentary films, the Lifesource Collective’s “Jordan Valley Blues” (2010) and Al Jazeera’s superb “Last Shepherds of the Valley,” aired and posted just last month.
So much documentation, so little justice!