Palestine topographical map
Whether one believes that negotiations for two states in Israel/Palestine have failed or have yet to be undertaken, it is clear that the peace process of the past two decades will not lead to a just and lasting solution. Israel is unlikely to relinquish the internal and external advantages it perceives in continued occupation and will not seriously address the refugee question (which it perceives as an “existential threat”) of its own volition. On the other hand, none of the international actors capable of compelling Israel to reach a viable solution (first and foremost the United States) seem particularly motivated to do so. In the meantime, the systematic violation of Palestinian rights continues – in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and among the refugees.
There seems to be a consensus within the Palestinian solidarity movement (but not necessarily in Palestinian society) that the best way forward is non-violent action, along the lines of the protests against the Separation Wall, prisoner hunger strikes, grassroots boycott initiatives, etc. Although non-violence is merely a strategy and not an end in itself, the history of such struggles and the philosophies behind them are profoundly rooted in ideas such as equality and civil rights. It is thus natural that many exponents and supporters of what has effectively become an international movement, envision a future of pacific co-existence and equality – and what political framework could be more suited to the realisation of such a vision than a single democratic state “from the river to the sea”? This is particularly true of western supporters and activists, generally to the left of the political spectrum, with little use for nationalist sentiments – whether their own or Palestinian. So why not a United States, an Australia or a South Africa in Israel/Palestine? The fact that a great number of Palestinians would like to see a Palestinian Arab state (and have made historical political choices in that direction) does not seem to affect this vision, both because it is based on universal principles (whether those directly involved like it or not) and because there are indeed Palestinians and even a few Israeli Jews who share a similar vision.
The debate tends to focus however, on the relative feasibility of the one versus two-state paradigms. Those in favour of the two-state solution cite the aspirations of a majority of Palestinians and Israeli Jews (to live in their own states) and long-standing international consensus, while those who advocate a one-state solution cite the “facts on the ground” that Israel has created over the past 45 years in order to render partition impracticable.
But what is the likelihood that either solution will be realised, under the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships or under any conceivable alternatives? The one-state idea is certainly utopian, and the two-state approach tends to range from the unviable (Bantustans, lack of access to Jerusalem, no solution for the refugees) to the utopian (full Palestinian independence, equitable land swaps, contiguity within the West Bank and between the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem, a just solution for the refugees).
In such a seemingly hopeless situation, we look to historical precedents, from India to Algeria to the U.S. South, for inspiration and hope. How can one force the privileged and the powerful to relinquish their power (and their fears), to enfranchise the powerless, the oppressed and the occupied? It’s been done before, why not in Palestine? How are the situations similar and how do they differ? Yet, previous successes (or at least the replacement of one kind of violence and dispossession with another) in no way assure the success of this particular struggle.
Norman Finkelstein isn’t exactly optimistic, but he believes that we are currently at a crossroads, that a reasonable settlement (two states) is now “possible—not certain, not even probable, but still possible”. The solution he outlines is certainly reasonable, but is it possible? Can Israel really be compelled by Palestinian non-violence (supported by an international campaign) to establish a Truth and Reconciliation style commission to find a just solution to the refugee problem (other than U.S. and European-funded compensation and the possibility of resettlement in the Palestinian state – a solution unlikely to be accepted by any credible Palestinian representative)? Can Israel really be compelled by Palestinian non-violence to remove enough settlements to create a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank (“safe passage” to Gaza is actually not the thorniest problem)? And what about access to and from Jerusalem – an even more complex issue than divided or shared sovereignty – in light of Israeli settlements built both within and around the city’s gerrymandered municipal boundaries? This was one of the primary objections of Palestinian negotiators to the Clinton Parameters, and no satisfactory answer has ever been provided by subsequent U.S. administrations or Israeli governments.
Other factors of course include political circumstances and trends within Israeli and Palestinian societies – an increasingly oppressive and authoritarian climate in Israel, Palestinian disunity, Israeli repression and largely successful disinformation, etc. - that would seem to preclude even an unreasonable solution, let alone a reasonable one. And then there are Israel’s allies: the U.S, the rest of the Anglosphere and Europe. One need not get into the endless debate over the precise degree of influence exerted by the Israel lobby on U.S. foreign policy to realise that it is highly unlikely that any U.S. administration would attempt to force Israel to achieve anything approaching a “reasonable solution” (Clinton Parameters and road maps notwithstanding), and Europe is too guilt-ridden and subservient to strike out on its own, assuming that a European stand opposed by the U.S. could actually achieve anything where Israeli is concerned.
Realistically, I find it hard to believe that we are at a crossroads and I fail to see even the shadow of a possibility of reaching a “reasonable solution” in I/P.
So where does that leave us and, far more importantly, where does it leave the Palestinians? I am convinced that the most realistic position at this point in time is to relegate solutions to the realm of dreams and visions – worth indulging from time to time, but not to be confused with real problems and real objectives – and to focus on consciousness, education and the principles that will necessarily form the basis of any lasting solution. In terms of more immediate goals, there is the siege on Gaza, ongoing dispossession along the route of the separation wall and in the West Bank in general, the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, and other abuses of Palestinian human rights. International attention and campaigning may achieve small but significant victories in these areas, while helping to raise awareness of the ongoing violence and injustice in Palestine. Both the strategy and the stated goals of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (principles of equality and justice rather than illusions of expediency) strike me as particularly suited to this purpose. Were Israel to show signs of willingness to reach a truly reasonable solution, in good faith, I have no doubt that the BDS movement would dissolve or, at the very least, adopt new goals and a new strategy geared toward realistic resolution. Until then, it does well to stress justice, equality and human rights, evoking other struggles that embody those values in the popular imagination.