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Stalemate in the Middle East

Has the two state solution for Israel and Palestine run its course? Mike Heiser looks at the options 20 years after the Oslo peace accords.

What are the prospects for peace in Israel and Palestine? For at least thirty years talk has been of the two-state solution, in other words separate sovereign states of Israel and Palestine within the territory of mandatory Palestine. Most people saw this as the logic of the Oslo peace process and it has been the material of thousands of resolutions and speeches, such as Douglas Alexander's at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester this year. But what is the situation on the ground some twenty years after the Oslo agreement?

The architects of the Oslo agreements hoped that by now there would indeed be two sovereign states, with internationally agreed borders. Today we are a long way from this, although what has developed are three rather than two very different political arrangements, something like a state and two statelets.

In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu has now been in power for three-and-a-half years. His coalition has been unstable and variable, and he has now called early elections in January 2013. He has avoided the border wars in Lebanon or Gaza which characterised his predecessors from Shimon Peres to Ehud Olmert, but his term has been characterized by a Dr Strangelove-like obsession with Iran. He has gradually ramped up the tension, most recently in his much derided and parodied address to the United Nations. His use of a cartoon-like graphic of a bomb seemed to invite versions which quickly went round the web with other cartoon characters like Wile.E.Coyote making an appearance.

At this stage we can't know how the situation will develop. But it can be said that the ratcheting up of tension does not lead to the sort of atmosphere where confidence can be built. Besides, there is a consensus in Israel that there is no ‘partner for peace'. This stretches from the Zionist Left outside the coalition through Ehud Barak, the prime minister at the time of the 1999 peace negotiations who split the Labour Party so that he could stay as Netanyahu's defence minister, all the way to those on the extreme right such as foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. So-called ‘price tag' attacks, where Palestinians have been subject to violent attacks from settlers, including burning of mosques and churches, have been rightly compared to pogroms.

Further, the recent attacks on Sudanese asylum seekers in Tel Aviv by Israelis show that this is not just a feature in the occupied territories.

Turning now to the Palestinians, within the West Bank the Palestinian Authority has succeeded in establishing an autonomy of sorts. It is very far from being a state with secure and recognised borders, since it is built around the main West Bank towns, excluding Jerusalem and half of Hebron; criss-crossed by roads closed to Palestinians which lead to the Jewish settlements and is circumscribed by the Separation Wall. Supported by foreign aid and a bloated bureaucracy, the Palestinian Authority has painstakingly tried to build up industries including a high-tech sector and stone extraction.

Gaza, following the Israeli withdrawal and evacuation of settlements, is much more of a territorial one-ness. But of course it is not recognised by Israel which has carried out a blockade ever since Hamas took over in December 2006 and proceeded to establish an Islamic regime. According to the United Nations in 2009, 70% of the population was living below the poverty line. It is even more dependent on foreign aid than the West Bank, although there has been a recent boom in leisure centres and hotel building. International flotillas, including many Jewish peace activists from all over the world, have tried to bring much-needed humanitarian and medical supplies to Gaza, but have been routinely stopped by the Israeli navy, sometimes with the use of force.

Ever since 2007, negotiations have continued towards bringing about some sort of Palestinian unity government but have not got anywhere. Hamas has declared a form of cease-fire, and the advent of an Egyptian president supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, close to the historical political home of Hamas, gives some hope that the Gaza regime could come in from the cold. But Israel has been adamant that any sort of unity Palestinian government would mean not only the end of the peace process, but of the economic ties with the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank.

With stalemate, and with the end of any pretence of a peace process, some have started to ask whether the very idea of a two-state solution has any validity any more and whether the only long term solution is one state. There seems to be a number of arguments deployed.

Firstly, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, even at its maximum extent, is unviable. But even in the current economic situation both territories have managed to achieve some economic growth. Problems such as sharing the aquifer that runs down the spine of the West Bank are not insoluble, although at the moment it is the Jewish settlements which take the hungry lion's share of the water. There is no reason in principle why a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with economic ties to Israel and Jordan, could achieve viability. Some have spoken about a sort of common market arrangement which could eventually lead to an EU-style economic union.

Secondly, there is no prospect of a negotiated settlement. The gap between Israel and the Palestinians remains as wide as it was in the 90s when there did seem to be a real chance of a settlement being reached. Israel will not compromise over borders, over land and water rights, or over Jerusalem. However the broad lines of a settlement were worked out in the 1990s; they would involve some redrawing of boundaries so that the largest settlement blocks were brought into Israel, and an arrangement for sharing Jerusalem, particularly the Holy Places in the Old City. What is needed, as Afif Safieh, the former Palestinian envoy to the UK has long been arguing, is the willingness of the outside world, particularly the US and allies, to impose a ‘mutually unacceptable' settlement. US president Bill Clinton was unwilling to take this step and none of his successors, including Barack Obama have done anything different. Given the fact that Israel is still dependent on American aid, there is a lever, if only it could be used.

Thirdly, it is argued that as the two-state solution has failed, there is a de facto one-state situation. All the Palestinians need to do is recognise this and argue for equal rights in the new state and demographics will do the rest. The argument is that Israelis should be challenged on whether they want to support an apartheid-like situation or equal rights for all. Linked to this is an argument that says that some people on the Israeli or Jewish side only support a two-state solution because they see it as the way of preserving Israel, as a Jewish state.

Those who take an essentialist anti-Zionist perspective - which blames the entire Israel Palestine conflict on the Zionist movement's project to establish a Jewish colonial settler state - would take this view as it enables them to argue that only the defeat of Zionism can bring about true peace. I would instead argue that what has failed is the belief in peace as a viable political project on each side, despite the valiant efforts of movements like One Voice (see link) and the unwillingness of the outside world to use its considerable political and economic clout to bring it about.

Fourthly, there is an argument, linked with the economic argument, that says that mandatory Palestine is one space and that two states are not viable in the long term. It is true that thosewho have travelled in Israel and Palestine are struck by the closeness in distance, of for example, West Jerusalem and Ramallah, and the perversity of roads and communication systems which are designed to divide people rather than bring them together. A prime example of this is the new Jerusalem light railway system which runs from a West Bank settlement near Ramallah through the heart of Jewish West Jerusalem to the symbolically charged sites of Mount Herzl, where the founder of Zionism is buried, and the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem. It may very well be the case that one bi-national state, with some form of national cultural autonomy for the minority in particular areas, is the best obtainable long term project.

There is a difference between outlining an ideal situation and a political project of bringing it about, which is the challenge that those who argue for a one-state solution have not met. Are they arguing, for example, that the Palestinian Authority should voluntarily dissolve itself and invite Israeli troops back into Gaza and the West Bank cities, and then promote a civil rights campaign? Perhaps in the future an Israeli politician will have the courage to argue this and the ability to garner votes and seats in the Knesset. So far no cross community movement, with the exception of the Hadash party, whose roots lie in the Communist Party receives the majority of its votes from the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel, has arisen. It should be mentioned Hadash itself supports an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders rather than a democratic secular state. Even on the Palestinian side both Fatah and Hamas, to the extent that they support the one-state goal, it is as a long-term goal rather than a short-term project. Hamas's ultimate goal is an Islamic state on the traditional model, not the democratic secular state which the PLO supported in the past.

Up to that point the two state solution, with full civil rights for the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel, remains in my opinion the best prospect for those who wish to see a peaceful rather than a violent solution in Israel and Palestine.

One Voice: see www.onevoicemovement.org