Danny Rubinstein’s account, in his Summer 2010 Dissent article (“One State/Two States: Rethinking Israel and Palestine”), of the disdainful reaction of Sufyan Abu-Zayda, a prominent figure in the Palestinian Authority, to Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Bar-Ilan speech,” in which the right-wing prime minister of Israel formally accepted the two-state solution, is remarkable and telling. Someone who perceives this conflict as it is usually perceived—a small people struggling for national independence after decades of military occupation by a mighty regional power—would perhaps have expected something different. Admittedly, it is natural enough to avoid giving the rival side credit for any show of moderation. A moderate Palestinian spokesman might have questioned Netanyahu’s sincerity, called on the international community to hold the prime minister to his word, and insisted that the future Palestinian state be established on Palestinian terms rather than those suggested by Netanyahu. Instead, Abu-Zayda dismisses the very idea of separate Palestinian statehood: Netanyahu is not doing us any favors by agreeing to two states; we have another, more attractive option—“one state.”
It is often said that if the Palestinians are increasingly driven toward a one-state solution, this is because they have despaired of attaining a viable independent state alongside Israel—principally because of Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank. Though Rubinstein’s article presents a much more nuanced and complicated picture of the reasons for “the decline of the Palestinian national movement,” his final conclusion is still that “the new Palestinian generation in the West Bank…would prefer to fight for equal rights in a single binational state rather than continue a struggle that seems almost hopeless [for an independent state].” But there isn’t much hopelessness in Abu-Zayda’s words. Instead, the Palestinian activist seems very confident that the future of his people is assured under any scenario. He is rightly convinced that a one-state solution (which will inevitably mean not a binational state but an Arab and Muslim state in the whole of former Mandatory Palestine—I will return to this point later) will be a complete victory for the Palestinian national cause. There may perhaps be an element of bravado here, but I think Rubinstein is right to treat what Abu-Zayda has to say seriously, as representing a widely shared Palestinian attitude. If this is how a moderate Palestinian sees things—and Abu-Zayda is certainly a moderate—then we have to ask whether the Palestinians have any reason to make the compromises necessary for a two-state solution, whatever Israel does. If they believe that they have nothing to lose, strategically, by rejecting any compromise, what are the chances of a compromise being reached? And if reached and implemented, will it be respected in the long run?
These questions must be asked regardless of, and in addition to, any criticism of Israel’s attitudes and policies that one might have (I have plenty of them, first and foremost regarding the settlements). The balance of power between the two sides in this conflict—taking into account, as one surely must, the regional Arab and Muslim dimension—is deeply ambiguous. Both sides are, in various ways, David and Goliath simultaneously. Everybody knows that at the present moment, Israel is the much stronger side. But only history will tell who was stronger in the long run. And, as more or less everyone in the region understands, if the final verdict is that Israel was the weaker side, Israel itself will be history. The same does not apply to the Palestinians—and this, in the final analysis, is the greatest asymmetry in this notoriously asymmetrical (in various and contradictory senses) conflict. The Palestinians feel their present weakness, and its adverse consequences, very keenly; they genuinely feel entitled to benefit from the Western liberal penchant for supporting the underdog. But they do not regard themselves as the weaker side historically and strategically, nor have they, since Oslo, behaved as a weaker side behaves. This strategic dimension is of course not the only one that determines their behavior, but it does influence it in a very real way.
THOSE WHO fail to appreciate this aspect of the overall picture cannot analyze Palestinian behavior correctly or judge Israel’s conduct fairly; nor can they find the best way to minimize violence and advance the cause of peace. Many believe that if this endless and exasperating conflict has not yet been solved, this must be (mainly) Israel’s fault, because, after all, it is inconceivable that the weaker side, the Palestinians, would let slip any serious chance of attaining their long-awaited independence. But what if the Palestinians really believe, in sufficient numbers, that nobody is doing them a favor by proposing a two-state solution?
I, too, recall a meeting with Abu-Zayda. It took place in Gaza, in September 2000, after Camp David and shortly before the second intifada started. One of the Israeli peace organizations arranged a tour of Gaza for a group of journalists from the Russian press in Israel, and since most of the participants belonged to the Right, they asked me to accompany the group, as a Russian-speaker and an activist (at that time) of Meretz, the left-liberal party strongly supporting the peace process. I immediately noticed the visible signs of improvement since my previous visit to Gaza, as part of another pro-peace delegation, some two years earlier. The place was clearly undergoing a building boom. The rate of economic growth in the PA areas was indeed, at that time, very high by international standards; obviously, the starting point, especially in Gaza, was very low (though not in comparison with neighboring Arab countries). The Palestinian officials dealing with the economy and public building projects who spoke to us sounded confident and hopeful. “This does not look like a place that is planning to go to war,” I said to my colleagues, who tended to agree, despite their initial skepticism. The tour ended in a meeting with one of the Palestinian leaders—Abu-Zayda. “I am now quite sure that we will soon be signing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement,” he said. “Before Camp David, I was not so optimistic. But after the Camp David summit, after the huge progress made there, now that the remaining differences between the two sides are like this” (he brought two fingers together, to show how minuscule the remaining gap was) “compared with the disagreements before the meeting, I am sure that the peace agreement is at hand. So what if they failed to reach an agreement at Camp David? Who said that a conflict that has lasted for a hundred years must be solved in ten days? The important thing is that the parties have resumed their talks, and are trying hard, with President Clinton’s help, to resolve the remaining differences. It is inconceivable that they will fail.”
I don’t think that Abu-Zayda was lying to us. We know that important Palestinian leaders were in favor of saying “yes” to Clinton at Camp David, and would later favor accepting the Clinton parameters (an improved version of the Camp David proposals). These people were ready for a full-fledged two-state solution as a historic compromise; they were unwilling to sacrifice the well-being of the present generation of Palestinians on the altar of maximalist long-term expectations. It should be noted that Abu Mazen was not among them. He is known to have urged Yasser Arafat, during the Camp David talks, not to give up the “right of return” to Israel. This issue, not officially raised there, but certainly discussed unofficially, would feature prominently in Clinton’s parameters—prompting, among other things, Arafat’s refusal to accept them. Abu Mazen was in 2000, and has been since then, consistently opposed to fighting Israel (what he called “the militarization of the intifada”); in this sense he is very different from Arafat. On the other hand, he insisted, at the decisive moment, on a demand that made a two-state solution impossible. In any case, Arafat was in charge, and the fateful decisions—turning down the chance for peace and resorting to arms—were made by him. Each time I hear, as one hears a lot, that Israel did not offer the Palestinians a viable state, with a capital in East Jerusalem, at Camp David and afterward, and that the Palestinians were driven to taking up arms because they despaired of obtaining independence by peaceful means, I see in my mind’s eyes Sufyan Abu-Zayda’s two fingers showing how close we were to peace. This, again, was in September 2000, shortly after Camp David, on the eve of the intifada, and before the additional concessions to the Palestinians suggested by Clinton in his parameters and accepted by Ehud Barak’s government.
THE PALESTINIAN leadership knew in 2000, and has known ever since, that Palestinian independence alongside Israel, with a capital in East Jerusalem, could be achieved without any fighting. The leadership (as opposed to the wider Palestinian public) was not driven by despair to anything. When Ehud Olmert offered Abu Mazen 100 percent of the West Bank (with swaps of territory on both sides of the Green Line), the Palestinian side was decidedly unimpressed by this acceptance of what most people assume is the key Palestinian demand. Some say that the Palestinians could not treat Olmert’s offer seriously because of his political weakness. But had they reached an agreement in principle with him—even if it was not formally binding—they would have put Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert’s successor, in an impossible position. This would have been a huge diplomatic triumph for the Palestinians—if a state based on the 1967 borders is indeed their maximum strategic goal. The leading Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, explained in a June 25, 2009, interview with the Jordanian daily Al-Dustour why the Palestinians were in no rush:
At Camp David they offered 90% [an understatement, according to all we know about the Camp David talks—A.Y.], and [recently] they offered 100%. So why should we hurry, after all the injustice we have suffered? The agreement will not be stable anyway, unless it is based on international law and on justice.
On the issue of the right of return, the Palestinian negotiator’s understanding of international law and justice in fact precludes any compromise on substance:
The Palestinian decision makers do not have the right to decide the fate of the refugees; only the refugee himself can decide his own fate. It is not up to the international [community] either. It is the refugee who has the right to choose whether to return to Israel, return to Palestine, or remain where he is—and in all of these cases [he is entitled to] compensation. It is not the Right of Return or compensation; it’s the Right of Return and compensation (Middle East Media Research Institute translation).
This Palestinian demand (strongly reaffirmed in the resolutions of the Fatah conference in 2009) is tantamount to nullifying the independence of the Jewish people rather than seeking independence for the Palestinians. Some argue that this is merely a bargaining position, aimed at gaining the upper hand on all the “1967 issues.” The Palestinian acceptance of the Arab Peace Initiative is often adduced as proof of a readiness to be flexible on this issue. And indeed, the formula on refugees contained in the Arab initiative does seem flexible—especially if you stop in the middle of the sentence when quoting it, as people usually do: “a just and agreed-upon solution to the question of refugees.” The words that immediately follow are, for some reason, regularly omitted: “on the basis of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.“ Article 11 of Resolution 194 says the following:”[The Assembly] resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”
In 1948, when this resolution was adopted, the Arab countries and Palestinian leaders rejected it (as they had rejected the 1947 Partition Plan). They were unwilling to countenance a political settlement with Israel on any terms and unhappy that the resolution did not provide for an automatic right of return, not one conditional on one’s “readiness to live in peace” with one’s neighbors. Today, the descendants of the 1948 refugees, numbering in the millions, are officially recognized by the UN as refugees, unlike any other category of refugees’ descendants in the world; and many of them are kept in refugee camps. The principle that Israel is now required under the terms of the Arab peace initiative to accept—before talks on implementing this principle in an “agreed-upon” fashion can begin—is that those who wish to do so can settle in Israel.
Whether or not the Palestinian leadership will ultimately be willing to give up this demand can be tested only when there is a peace plan on the table—a fair and reasonable two-states-and-two-capitals-in-Jerusalem plan providing explicitly for a Palestinian right of return to the Palestinian state and not to the state of Israel. Such a plan should, ideally, be submitted by the Israeli government. Unfortunately, Netanyahu does not seem either willing or capable of doing that. But if he does not, sooner or later this will probably be done by the United States.
IN THE meantime, what about the settlements? It is chiefly because of the settlements that many people believe that, whatever criticism the Palestinian leadership deserves, it is Israel that is preventing a two-state solution and, in fact, may already have rendered it unfeasible. It is true that Israel has dismantled settlements in the past, and offered to dismantle many more at peace talks. The settlements in Sinai were dismantled under the terms of the peace treaty with Egypt, and in Gaza as part of the unilateral disengagement (when three settlements in the north of the West Bank were also dismantled, with the obvious intention of signaling that the precedent of dismantling settlements didn’t apply only to Gaza). One could rely on those precedents in order to argue that settlement is not in fact irreversible. But the number of settlers that would have to be evacuated to enable the creation of a viable Palestinian state on the West Bank would be far larger than the number in the Sinai and Gaza. It is understandable that many people doubt whether any Israeli government would be willing to undertake such an evacuation, especially given the lamentable weakness that Israeli governments (right-wing ones above all, but others too) commonly display vis-à-vis the settlers, even when there is a conflict of interest between them.
But why should we accept that the choice is between depriving the Palestinian state of its sovereignty over the land on which Jews now live and evacuating those Jews from their homes? If we are talking about a negotiated peace and peaceful coexistence, there is no need to evacuate anyone. Israeli Jews now living in the territories should have the right to remain under Palestinian sovereignty—not as settlers with extraterritorial status but as a Jewish minority in the Palestinian state, fully subject to Palestinian jurisdiction (just like the much larger Arab minority in Israel). If this is accepted, the whole issue of settlements as an insurmountable obstacle to peace is defused. Of course, there is every reason to oppose the expansion of settlements now. But there is no reason to regard every apartment that we cannot stop being built in some settlement or in East Jerusalem as another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.
The peace treaty should specify that Israeli Jews living in the West Bank should have a right to stay and keep their property and houses (mostly built on state land). The problem of “land grab” results from the wide municipal boundaries of the settlements established by Israel; these, naturally, will be redrawn by the Palestinian authorities. The Palestinians have no demographic problem: the overwhelming Arab majority in their future state is in no danger. The massive Israeli investment in infrastructure for the settlements—mainly roads—will benefit the future Palestinian state.
High-ranking Palestinian officials, including, lately, Prime Minister Salam Fayad, have repeatedly said that they would accept such a solution. What matters for them is sovereignty. High-ranking Israelis are also known to have expressed support for this option. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will escape the nightmare of having to drag the settlers from their homes; it will simply withdraw to the new border. The settlers cannot prevent this. Many of them will find themselves on the Israeli side of the border, as a result of land swaps. Most of those remaining, the great majority, I believe, will probably return to Israel once the border is drawn (greatly reducing any practical problem that may arise from this solution). But this will be their choice. It is true that the recent precedents for Jews living under Arab sovereignty are not encouraging: no Jewish community has been able to survive anywhere in the Arab world. The Zionist state, which is accused of being intrinsically predisposed to ethnic cleansing, is in fact the only country in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs live together in considerable numbers (while half of its Jewish population consists of refugees from Arab countries and their descendants). But we are talking about peace—and in any case, it will always be possible for Jews in Palestine to move to the neighboring Jewish state.
This scenario raises various questions and problems, but none of them is as bad as giving up on the two-state solution or having to carry out a mass “expulsion” of Jews from the West Bank. The negative effect of the settlement drive on the relations between the two peoples (and on Israel’s international standing) is unquestionable, and in most cases this drive has indeed been based on an ideology that “denies the Other.” Its strategic aim has been to make any partition impossible (without granting Israeli citizenship to the Palestinian population of the territories). But there is no reason why we should go along with this aim. The settlements are only an insurmountable obstacle to peace if we allow them to serve as an obstacle.
Most of those who today speak of one state do not dismiss the two-state solution the way Abu-Zayda did. Rather, they argue that the two-state solution has become, or is fast becoming, untenable because of the settlements—and so a single binational state from Jordan to the Mediterranean is inevitable. These people are wrong on both counts: partition is possible, and a binational state is not. The two-state solution is possible if both sides genuinely want it. A clear and consistent majority of Israeli Jews affirms, in every poll, its readiness to see an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. This has not been changed by all the post-Oslo disappointments, as seen from the Israeli side (not that the wider Palestinian public has not experienced its share of disappointments). The slogan of “land for peace” has been discredited repeatedly when it turned out that if you hand over land, you (the Israeli citizen) end up enjoying less peace. The peace process, with Arafat as a partner, greatly increased one’s chances of getting killed in a terrorist attack.
But the situation has now greatly improved. Following the Hamas coup in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank realized that if you allow terrorist fundamentalist groups to amass power and attack Israel from PA-held territory, these groups will eventually turn their arms against you. The security forces of both sides are now cooperating in preventing terrorist attacks and dismantling the military infrastructure of the extremists, as they should have been doing since Oslo. Many in Israel still suspect that it is only the Israeli military presence in the West Bank that keeps this area from falling into the hands of Hamas. But the successful nation-building policy of the present Palestinian leadership should, with the passage of time, allay these fears. If the Israeli public is persuaded that it will be possible to live with a reasonable degree of safety alongside a Palestinian state, it will support its creation by a large majority.
ON THE other hand, a binational state—an extremely rare state-form in the Western world and wholly nonexistent in the Arab-Muslim Middle East—is not a realistic option. A single state in the whole of the former Mandatory Palestine will have a large Arab-Muslim majority, if only because of the Palestinian “right of return.” Naturally, there has to be a right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants under any settlement of the conflict—either to the Arab-Palestinian state alongside Israel (under a two-state solution) or to the one state in question. It is obvious that this state, regardless of anything that may be written in its constitution, will not be binational but Arab and Muslim.
In order to believe that a state with a large Arab-Muslim majority and a Jewish minority, situated at the heart of the Arab-Muslim Middle East, would really be binational (rather than simply Arab, as is the case both practically and officially with all the Arab-majority states in the area), a number of wildly implausible assumptions need to be made. One would have to assume that the Arab-Palestinian people would agree, over the long term, that their state—the only state they would have—would not have a pronounced Arab character and would not be regarded as part of the Arab world; that they would agree to be the only Arab people whose state would not be officially defined as Arab, would not be a member of the Arab League, and would not share, by declaration, the aspirations for Arab unity. One has to assume that the Palestinian people would agree to make these concessions—amounting to a formal relinquishing of Palestine’s “Arabness” (as the term is understood by all trends of the Arab public opinion in the area), something that no Arab nation has agreed to do in its own state for the sake of the large non-Arab native minorities in the area. And one has to assume that they would do this for the sake of the Jews, widely considered as foreign intruders and colonialist invaders in Palestine, whose very claim to constitute a nation is no more than Zionist propaganda. All these assumptions are unreasonable and fanciful. This much can be asserted simply on the basis of the Palestinian national narrative, without needing to raise additional uncomfortable questions as to Palestinian and regional realities. The true alternative to a two-state solution is not some binational fantasy but a single state that is Arab and Muslim: one state for one people. It is paradoxical, though perhaps not entirely surprising, that an idea inevitably leading to this result is being advocated in the name of equality.
Alexander Yakobson teaches ancient history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is an op-ed writer for Haaretz.