According to most scorekeepers, the Gaza war boosted the popularity and prestige of Hamas and was a disaster for Israel; now, in his usual response to the threat of peace, Netanyahu has announced the seizure of nearly one thousand more acres of Palestinian territory for settlements. If Israel continues on the path it has been on for the last twenty years, its future will be continual war and international isolation in a region that is increasingly unstable and where ISIS and other extremists are far more violent than Hamas. Gaza shows that, far from being impossible, a secure, well-run Palestinian state is more essential than ever, for the sake of justice and for the security of both sides.
Liberals like Anthony Lerman (in the Times) and Jonathan Freedland (in the New York Review of Books) have begun to say that a two-state solution has become impossible, citing the Israeli settlements that have eaten up so much of the West Bank. But the majority of people in both Israel and Palestine are still convinced that two states are needed. 75 percent of Palestinians in a new PSR poll reject a one-state approach. Within the region, right-wing Israeli politicians are the main ones talking about one state—and they certainly don’t mean a state in which all citizens would be equal.
A two-state solution—if we have the will to pursue it—is certainly a far better guarantee of security and economic progress than an endless, unwinnable war. Two main obstacles stand in its way.
The first obstacle is the religious-nationalist right on both sides—the Likud coalition and Hamas. They have a symbiotic relationship: Israel’s destruction of Gaza has enormously increased the popularity of Hamas, while the rockets of Hamas have strengthened the Israeli right. And both have historically opposed a two-state solution—though on September 5, according to the Lebanese weekly Al Akhbar, Khaled Meshal, head of the political wing of Hamas, agreed to accept two states within the 1967 borders. On the Israeli side, Netanyahu remains intransigent, as he said in a speech last month: “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”
The second obstacle is a lack of concrete progress towards a Palestinian state. A coalition between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas is a step in the direction of statehood, and many believe the real reason behind the Gaza war was Israeli determination to destroy this possibility. But an uneasy marriage between Fatah and Hamas is a far cry from a democratically elected government based on the rule of law. For nation-building to progress, Palestine needs a functioning economy, an updated secular constitution, political parties, transparent elections, and a strong civil society. It also needs stronger leadership than it has at present—which is why freeing Marwan Barghouti is a key demand.
In the absence of a forceful diaspora strategy to support two states, the only game in town has been the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign inaugurated by Palestinian civil society groups in 2007. The goals of the BDS movement are to end the occupation and dismantle the separation wall; give full equality to the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as guaranteed by UN Resolution 194. Because the right-of-return demand is usually understood to mean a one-state solution (i.e., the end of Israel as a Jewish state), support for BDS among Jews has been concentrated on the left and among the young, in organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No.
A different strategy is needed to mobilize people who believe in a two-state solution: one that focuses on the Israeli right and the settlements and on nation-building in Palestine. The following ten program points are not meant to be exhaustive. The first five are aimed at diaspora Jews (especially in the United States), the second five at Palestinian civil society and its supporters in both the region and the diaspora.
1. Dismantle the settlements
Israel has a massive housing crisis, but instead of investing in housing stock inside the Green Line (Israel’s 1967 borders), successive Likud governments have built more and more settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—settlements that are illegal under international law. While some settlers are driven by ideology, many are refugees from Russia or the Middle East who live where they do for economic reasons. A recent report by B’Tselem details the incentives offered by the Israeli government: subsidized apartments, cheap loans, a longer school day than in Israel, cheap transportation to schools, tax breaks. Meanwhile many liberal young people are leaving Israel because they cannot find housing and are sick of war.
Despite world disapproval of the settlements, the Israeli right has expanded them year after year. The only time the United States played hardball on this issue was under Bush the elder, whose secretary of state James Baker told Israel he would deduct any money spent on the settlements from U.S. aid. Although the U.S. government does not fund the settlements directly, its military aid enables the Israeli government to release funds for other purposes, and U.S. nonprofits that do fund them are tax exempt—a contradiction between tax policy and foreign policy.
A real change in settlement policy will not come as long as the Israeli right is in power. But a campaign focused on the settlements would put the issue on the front burner and help reach beyond the 56 percent of American Jews who are currently willing to disband settlements. J Street has just begun an initiative to “Stop the land grab, and set the borders,” though its strategy seems to consist of a petition to President Obama. Years ago some anti-occupation activists also discussed starting an international fund to buy economic settlers out and thus isolate the hardcore ideologues who think they are living in an imaginary country called Judea and Samaria. That idea should be revived.
2. Focus on the Israeli right
Up until now, Israeli politicians have not personally felt the cost of the occupation. That has to change and it may be starting to. The Palestinian Authority has filed a war crimes complaint with the International Criminal Court. Netanyahu is getting nervous about the ability of Israeli leaders to travel without being arrested. The question of possible arrest has already arisen in the UK, where Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni had to be given diplomatic immunity in order to visit London in May.
Such war crimes prosecutions are important—they could also affect Hamas—but why wait for the ICC? How about protesting when visas are given to people who advocate ethnic cleansing and extermination, starting with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin? Demonstrations at U.S. appearances by politicians who want to continue the occupation is another way to increase the cost of such policies to those to advocate them.
Attention should also be paid to the right-wing orientation of Birthright. Peter Beinart recently suggested a travel option more likely to bring increased understanding of the situation: a Freedom Summer for American Jews in Palestine. And to counter the endless circuit of speakers from the Israeli right, it is more important than ever to organize U.S. speaking tours for the Israeli peace camp, particularly Israeli-Palestinian groups like the Parents Circle and Combatants for Peace.
3. Follow the money
The settlements are illegal under international law; therefore, people who fund them are criminals. Attention should be focused on the organizations and individuals involved; in the United States these include Sheldon Adelson, a mega-rich Republican funder and operator of gambling casinos, and Irving Moskowitz, another gambling magnate who started a foundation to buy up East Jerusalem. Another source of funding for settlements is the Jewish National Fund, a registered charity, tax exempt in many countries. Private foundations, also tax exempt, contribute significant funding as well. These tax exemptions should be questioned, since nonprofits are not supposed to fund international crimes. They are also forbidden to fund organizations with links to terrorists; shouldn’t that definition include the “price tag” gangs that attack Palestinians?
A New York Times investigation in 2010 highlighted this contradiction in U.S. tax policy: “As the American government seeks to end the four-decade Jewish settlement enterprise and foster a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the American Treasury helps sustain the settlements through tax breaks on donations to support them.” Reporters “identified at least 40 American groups that have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last decade.”
4. Mobilizing is not enough: organize!
To be effective, opposition to the occupation cannot be confined to demonstrations and appeals to the president. A strategy of isolating the Israeli right and its enablers will need a tactical repertory that also includes educational work, advocacy, community organizing, and local political pressure, year after year.
Certain members of Congress act as if they were elected to represent the Likud. They need to know that their constituents are not all on that page. And internet petitions are not enough to make the point; anti-occupation activists need to develop relationships with public officials and do community work in their own districts. J Street was set up to do this job in Washington but has been weakened by its efforts to be part of the Conference of Presidents and its one-sided support for Israel in the Gaza war. Some former members have formed a new group, If Not Now, which aims to “mobilize American Jews and Jews around the world to end the occupation by withdrawing consent and participation from institutions that uphold it.” But in order to make a real impact, If Not Now will need to do more than commit civil disobedience at the Conference of Presidents. It will need a long-term organizing strategy.
5. Oppose anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism
Hateful remarks about Arabs or Muslims should be challenged, including remarks made by the late comedian Joan Rivers, who said when asked about children killed in Gaza, “At least the ones who were killed were the ones with very low IQs.” A much sharper ideological struggle needs to take place within the Jewish community against anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, whether it is expressed in such “jokes” or in the openly racist incitement of Pamela Geller. Just as anti-Semitism is bad for the Palestinian struggle, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism is bad for Israel and Jews.
6. Free Marwan Barghouti
Palestine needs capable and energetic leaders who are younger and less compromised than Mahmoud Abbas and are not militaristic theocrats like the leaders of Hamas. Marwan Barghouti, a leader of both the First and Second Intifadas, called the Nelson Mandela of Palestine by some, has already shown his ability to bring together the PA and Hamas. In a 2012 poll, 60 percent of Palestinians wanted him for President. He got fewer votes than Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas in a new post-war poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, but this change is partly an artifact of the recent war and of the fact that Barghouti has been sitting in an Israel jail since 2002, when he was kidnapped by Israel and tried on five fictitious murder counts. He was on Hamas’s list of prisoners to be exchanged for Gilad Shalit but the Israeli government refused to release him, possibly because he is considered incorruptible as well as competent.
As former British Labour MP Martin Linton says, “if peace is ever to come, Israel will have to acknowledge that Barghouti was a political and not a military leader, that he never carried arms and that he always opposed actions targeting Israeli civilians, even while defending the right of Palestinians to resist.” Strong credible leadership is essential to building a nation, and Barghouti’s release should be an international focal point for those who support a two-state solution, as should the release of other imprisoned human rights defenders.
7. Build a functioning political system
It is good news for a two-state solution that the PA and Hamas will attempt to govern together, but this is not enough. As Palestinian-American business consultant Sam Bahour wrote recently in +972, “Anyone seriously wanting to see Palestinians survive this latest Israeli attack should support the reemergence of a fully operating Palestinian political system, rather than just the replacement of a pair of failed political monopolies with a reconciled but leaderless political duopoly.” The first priority, he suggests, should be a political party law that allows new forces, especially youth, to organize and run for office. It is high time for civil society groups to start drafting such a law, as well as a constitution, so that the issues can begin to be discussed.
A recent report by the Palestinian think tank Al Shabaka stresses the importance of involving people on the ground, including Hamas, in all these discussions and in Gaza reconstruction efforts. This was not done after Operation Cast Lead; in fact, at the 2009 international conference to discuss reconstruction, the documents were not even translated into Arabic, and 52 percent of the donor budget was allocated to PA administrative expenses. The Al Shabaka report calls for budgetary transparency and emphasizes recruiting local companies and institutions to the extent possible, “so that reconstruction becomes a national rather than international operation and that Palestinian society receives the bulk of the expected funding.” Transparency in reconstruction must be part of the nation-building process, which should include not only business leaders and political groups but civil society groups, especially youth and women.
8. Strengthen civil society
A democratic country needs not only an elected government but a vibrant civil society. This is the way people learn how to govern themselves, and why authoritarian politicians from Sisi to Putin are always trying to limit external funding for independent organizations. Before the Oslo Accords of 1993 established the PA as a quasi-government, most international funding was channeled through NGOs, and Palestine developed strong civil society organizations in areas such as agriculture, housing, and education. When the First Intifada began in 1987, these organizations began to mobilize politically as well.
But after Oslo, according to Ariane Brunet, who was then in charge of Middle East funding for the Canadian government’s now defunct program Rights and Democracy, Yasser Arafat demanded that all international funding be channeled through the Palestinian Authority because he saw civil society as a threat. To get around Arafat, international donors concentrated on funding Israel-Palestine “partnership projects” or “dialogue funds.” These partnerships did little to sustain and develop Palestinian civil society, and were skewed by the asymmetry between Israeli and Palestinian groups. Since then, most international funding for work in Palestine has been directed to “the peace process,” UNRWA, and human rights groups. While the latter play a crucial role, the old service-providing organizations, which Brunet sees as the building blocks of democracy, have disappeared or been supplanted by religious charities. To make things worse, the European Community gives grants only to organizations that can provide a bank guarantee for 400,000 euros, which is impossible for local groups.
Support for local civil society groups, especially secular youth groups, is the best counter to Hamas and other Islamists. Young people in particular need work that can give them hope for the future—especially the youth of Gaza, whose lives have been so hideously impacted by occupation and war. When it becomes possible for Palestinians to live like normal people, most will be concerned with their families and livelihoods, not with wanting to become martyrs.
9. Support secular voices
The religious fundamentalism of Hamas is not popular among Palestinians, but openly challenging it inside Gaza is extremely risky. This makes online opinion sites and cultural groups vital, not only in Gaza but in the West Bank. Those who want a two-state solution must find more ways to support secular Palestinian journals, websites, music, theater, women’s groups, and arts groups, all of whom have tiny budgets and must raise their own funds.
A constitution is also key. All over the region, Islamists are killing people who hold beliefs different from theirs. Palestinian civil society needs to start discussions now about a constitution that ensures separation between religion and the state; otherwise its future citizens may suffer the fate of the secular Iranians who went back to help the revolution and were jailed or killed by Khomeini.
10. Oppose anti-Semitism in the anti-occupation movement
Just as anti-Arab racism must be fought among Jews, anti-Semitism must be opposed within the anti-occupation movement. U.S. discussion has mainly focused on whether anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are the same thing. They’re not, but anti-Semitism does exist within the anti-occupation movement, reflecting the prevalent discourse in the Middle East and Pakistan, where The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Czarist forgery about a Jewish plot to gain world domination, are routinely referred to as if they were historical fact. Palestinian-American comedian Dean Obeidallah recently called out such views: “to those who want to cheer ‘Death to the Jews,’ use Nazi imagery, or in any other way want to demonize the Jewish people, let me be clear: I don’t want you on our side.”
The parameters of a two-state solution have been clear for many years: a return to the 1967 borders with just and mutually agreed-upon solutions to the refugee problem and the question of Jerusalem. But we won’t get there until people who believe in this approach are willing to start forcefully opposing the ideas and methods of both the Israeli and Palestinian right, and do the kind of organizing that can make two states a reality.
Meredith Tax is a writer and activist in New York and a founder of the Centre for Secular Space. Her most recent book is Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights.