Analysis by Helena Cobban
WASHINGTON, Apr 10 (IPS) – President Barack Obama has spoken out forcefully – including this week, in Ankara, Turkey – in favour of building an independent Palestinian state alongside a still robust Israel. However, many Palestinians have noted that President George W. Bush also, in recent years, expressed a commitment to Palestinian statehood. But, they note, Bush never took the actions necessary to achieve such a state – and neither, until now, has Obama.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to give very generous support to Israel – where successive governments have built Jewish-only colonies in the occupied West Bank and taken other actions that make a viable Palestinian state increasingly hard to achieve.
Many Palestinians and some important voices in what remains of Israel’s now-battered peace camp have concluded that it is now impossible to win the ‘two-state solution’ envisaged by Bush and Obama. This has led to the re-emergence in both communities of an old idea: that of a single bi- national state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, in which both Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis and Arabic-speaking Palestinians would have equal rights as citizens, and find themselves equally at home.
That goal was advocated most eloquently in the 1930s and early 1940s by Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, and other intellectuals at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. However, most Israelis moved away from it after Israel was established as a specifically Jewish state in 1948.
Later, in 1968, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) articulated a somewhat similar goal: that of building a ‘secular democratic state’, which comprises both pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank and Gaza – which Israel brought under military occupation in 1967.
However, the PLO leaders could never agree on which of the numerous Jewish immigrants brought into Israel before and after 1948 to include in their project. A few years later, in 1974, most PLO supporters – but not all – moved decisively away from the ‘one-state’ model. They started working instead for the two-state model: an independent Palestinian state in just the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, alongside the Israel state.
For 26 years after 1974, Israel’s governments remained deeply opposed to an independent Palestinian state. All those governments made lavish investments in the project – illegal under international law – of implanting their own citizens as settlers in the occupied West Bank. They annexed East Jerusalem. When pressed on the Palestinians’ future, they said they hoped Palestinians could exercise their rights in Egypt or Jordan – just not inside historic Palestine. This idea has been making a comeback recently – including among advisers to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In 1993, Israel finally recognized the PLO, and concluded the Oslo Accord with it. Under Oslo, the two sides created a new body called the Palestinian Authority (PA), designed to administer some aspects of daily life in parts of the occupied territories – though not, crucially, in occupied East Jerusalem.
Even after Oslo, Israeli officials made clear that they had not promised the PLO a full Palestinian state. They also said, correctly, that their rights and responsibilities as a military occupying power would remain in place. The final disposition of the occupied areas would await conclusion of a final peace agreement.
Oslo specified that that agreement should be completed by 1999. Ten years later, that deadline has still not been met – a final peace treaty still seems fairly distant. Meanwhile, Israel has used the 16 years since Oslo to increase both the number of settlers it has in the West Bank and the degree of control it exercises over the economies of both Gaza and the West Bank.
Palestinian-American political scientist Leila Farsakh describes Israel’s policies toward the economies of both areas as “the engineering of pauperisation.” She notes that despite the large amounts of international aid poured into the West Bank, poverty rates there have risen. Most West Bank areas outside the territory’s glitzy ‘capital’, Ramallah, are poor and increasingly aid-dependent. Lavish new settlements housing 480,000 settlers crowd much of the West Bank’s best land, and guzzle its water, Farsakh explains.
In an Israeli population of just 7.2 million, those settlers now form a formidable voting bloc. Attempts to move them out look almost impossible. In the latest round of peace negotiations that Israel and the PA/PLO pursued from 2000 until recently, participants discussed ways to reduce the number of settlers required to move by annexing the big settlement areas to Israel in return for a land exchange. But those boundary modifications look complex, and quite possibly unworkable.
Meanwhile, the negotiation over a small Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza has sidelined the concerns and rights of three important Palestinian constituencies. The 1.2 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel would remain as an embattled minority within an Israeli state still ideologically committed to the immigration of additional Jews. The 270,000 Palestinians of Jerusalem might also still be surrounded and vulnerable. And the five million Palestinians who still – 61 years after they and their forbearers fled homes in what became Israel in 1948 – would have their long-pursued right to return laid down forever.
From 1982 – the year the PLO’s leaders and guerrilla forces were expelled from Lebanon – until recently, the main dynamo of Palestinian nationalism has been located in the Palestinian communities of the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But in recent years, those communities have been severely weakened. They are administratively atomised, politically divided, and live under a palpable sense of physical threat.
Many ‘occupied’ Palestinians are returning to the key defensive ideas of steadfastness and “just hanging on” to their land. But new energy for leadership is now emerging between two other key groups of Palestinians: those in the diaspora, and those who are citizens of Israel. The contribution those groups can make to nationwide organising has been considerably strengthened by new technologies – and crucially, neither of them has much interest in a two-state outcome.
Not surprisingly, therefore, discussions about the nature of a one-state outcome – and how to achieve it – have become more frequent, and much richer in intellectual content, in recent years.
Palestinian-Israeli professor Nadim Rouhanna, now teaching at Tufts University in Massachusetts, is a leader in the new thinking. “The challenge is how to achieve the liberation of both societies from being oppressed and being oppressors,” he told a recent conference in Washington, DC. “Palestinians have to… reassure the Israeli Jews that their culture and vitality will remain. We need to go further than seeing them only as ‘Jews-by- religion’ in a future Palestinian society.”
Like many advocates of the one-state outcome, Rouhanna referred enthusiastically to the exuberant multiculturalism and full political equality that have been embraced by post-apartheid South Africa.
Progressive Jewish Israelis like Ben Gurion University geographer Oren Yiftachel are also part of the new movement. Yiftachel’s most recent work has examined at the Israeli authorities’ decades-long campaign to expropriate the lands of the ethnically Palestinian Bedouin who live in southern Israel – and are citizens of Israel. “The expropriation continues – there and inside the West Bank, and in East Jerusalem,” Yiftachel said, explaining that he did not see the existence of “the Green Line” that supposedly separates Israel from the occupied territory as an analytically or politically relevant concept.