Israel will pay the price for intransigence

The JC Essay


Forty years ago the Fabian Society published my seminal pamphlet, Middle East Conflict: a tale of two peoples, which called for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In this essay, I revisit the proposal and assess its relevance today.

Looking back on the 1970s, they were in general a time of cautious - if ultimately misplaced - optimism. Not to paint too rosy a picture but, following a shaky few years in the wake of the June 1967 war, both Israelis and Palestinian residents of the West Bank were enjoying full employment, living standards were rising, fedayeen guerrilla activity had virtually ceased, and mutual contempt and fear were stealthily giving way to mutual curiosity and incipient dialogue. Movement between Israel and the occupied West Bank was barely restricted.

In undertaking research for my doctoral thesis, I regularly drove back and forth without hindrance, often in the company of Israeli and Palestinian colleagues. There were almost no checkpoints or roadblocks, no segregated highways and no genius had yet thought to divide the minuscule West Bank into three separate zones with different governances for each. Nor had unsightly eight-metre-high concrete walls and other barriers yet become a feature of the spectacular landscape.

Although settlement activity was gathering speed, the supposition of most people on both sides of the divide was that Israel would relinquish the bulk of the West Bank and Gaza sooner or later. The main debate was about the extent and timing of Israeli withdrawal. It was widely thought that evacuated West Bank land would revert to Jordanian rule, an assumption that was implicit in the unanimously adopted UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967.

The occupation is choking Israel and threatening damage to Jewish communities around the world

However, a small number, myself included, had started to call for the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be handed not to the Jordanian king but to the Palestinian inhabitants of these territories to form their own independent sovereign state alongside Israel. I felt sure that anyone who made a genuine effort to view the conflict through the eyes of the principal protagonists, each in turn, while parking their own preconceptions and prejudices at the doorstep, would reach the same conclusion. More and more people did indeed come round to this view over time, including most Israelis and Palestinians.

However, it took a further three decades for the two-state formula officially to replace the "Jordanian option" as the new global consensus, when it was endorsed by Security Council Resolution 1397 in March 2002 and simultaneously incorporated into the Arab Peace Initiative. Far too many years had, in the meantime, been squandered by persistently negligent major powers, during which time Israeli control over Palestinian lives and the damaging - and self-destructive - expropriation and settlement of their land had continued apace, threatening not just the prospect of a viable Palestinian state but also jeopardising the future of a predominantly Jewish state. A double catastrophe was in the making, having in mind the respective histories and contemporary aspirations of the two peoples.

The basic case for a Jewish homeland was strikingly put by the poet Byron, in 1815, when some of the worst tragedies to face the Jewish people, including the Tsarist pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust, still lay a distance ahead and several decades before Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, was a twinkle in anyone's eye. Byron wrote: "The wild dove hath her nest, the fox his cave, mankind their country, Israel but the grave!" By "Israel," of course, he meant the Jewish people.

But more than a century later, to rectify the enduring Jewish calamity, a second people paid a heavy price. The ill-fated Palestinians, in common with other colonised peoples, had looked forward to their future independence free from foreign rule, only to find that another people, mostly from foreign parts, was simultaneously laying claim to the same land. Of course the Palestinians resisted. Any people would have. Israelis certainly would. Dispossessed and degraded, the Palestinians were among the principal losers in the geopolitical lottery that followed the horrors of the Second World War. Their original felony was, in essence, to be in the way of another distressed people's frantic survival strategy.

This tragic historical clash - the product of centuries of virulent antisemitism of European nations at home and their ruthless imperialism abroad - is the root of the conflict. Everything else has been grafted on retrospectively. Self-serving explanations that portray either people as innately wicked or falsify their histories, disparage their sufferings or belittle their national aspirations, add nothing to our understanding of the problem or how to solve it. They merely confound the issues, deepen the hatred and poison the air. The core case for each side stands proud on its own terms. Neither one is nullified because the other side also has a strong case.

The bottom line is that both peoples overwhelmingly want their own state. All the evidence and all the reasoning point to this aspiration being held no less strongly today than it was when my pamphlet advocated the two-state formula 40 years ago. If anything, national sentiment has hardened since then. The first preference of many on both sides is for a state in all of the land. The second preference is for a state in part of the land. As for a third preference, there isn't really one. While there has been some talk recently about one unitary state for both peoples, this idea has little significant support at the grassroots level on either side.

But the first preference is plainly not feasible either, as the other people is not going away. So the only plausible choice continues to be to find a way of sharing the land on the basis of two states for two peoples, even if it means creatively adapting the earlier conception of this model in the light of today's more problematic circumstances. There simply is no practical alternative. (This is not to rule out, however, a future confederal arrangement, possibly to include Jordan as well, should the citizens of two - or three - independent states decide freely, after some years of peaceful coexistence in neighbouring entities, that this is what they want.)

Following years of agonised internal debate, the PLO eventually caught up with reality and adopted the two-state proposal at the Algiers congress in 1988. The immensity of this move should not be underestimated. It was a hard pill to swallow - and still today not everyone has fully digested it - as it meant lowering Palestinian sights from the hitherto immutable demand for 100 per cent of the land and accepting a scaled-down state on the remaining 22 per cent, comprising the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as the capital. The implicit PLO recognition of Israel (and, by extension, West Jerusalem as its capital) became explicit and official five years later under the Oslo Accords.

This was the Palestinians' once-and-for-all grand historical compromise - although subsequently they went further still in agreeing in principle to equitable land exchanges, provided that the 78:22 ratio was observed and that Jerusalem would be the shared capital.

While not the sole cause of breakdown, the evident belief of many Israeli leaders that a further deal may be cut over the residual 22 per cent - what Israel's government, uniquely, calls the "disputed" territories - has been at the heart of the collapse of most peace plans to date. Any future peace initiative will suffer the same fate, regardless of which Palestinian faction or leader is in the driving seat, unless Israel and its supporters are, similarly, ready to grasp the decisive nettle.

Failing this, there is no prospect of Israel achieving a durable peace with its neighbours and being accepted into the changing region. Its government claims that it is retaliating against the Palestinians for alleged misdemeanours by further expanding its settlement programme, but it is Israel and its people who will ultimately pay the higher price. The occupation, now in its 46th year, may be brutalising the Palestinians - all occupations eventually become brutal - but it is also choking Israel and threatening consequential damage to Jewish communities around the world.

The global reputation of the Jewish state has recently plunged new depths, as attested to by the overwhelming vote at the UN General Assembly, which granted Palestine non-member observer status in the face of robust opposition from the Israeli government. Not that the resolution was "anti-Israel" at all: it repeatedly affirmed support for "the two-state solution of an independent, sovereign, democratic, viable and contiguous state of Palestine living side by side with Israel in peace and security on the basis of the pre-1967 borders".

Of 188 voting states, only eight voted with Israel, four of which were Nauru, Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. In opposing the motion, the US contradicted its own longstanding position, a stance that is unlikely to be sustainable forever. Of the 27 EU states, only the Czech Republic voted on Israel's side. As if this near isolation were not enough, the Israeli government's defiantly punitive response to the vote has enraged its few remaining key allies, notably the US, Canada and Germany (abstained). It is almost as if Israel's leaders are asking for their country to be ostracised. Their predecessors - the architects of the estimable Israeli Declaration of Independence - are surely turning in their graves.

The writing is screaming on the wall. It has been plain for many years that Israel's standing will go on deteriorating and the boycott movement will gather pace for as long as Israel continues to deprive the Palestinians from exercising the self-determination that Israelis have long enjoyed. This is the key issue. Important domestic causes to Jews around the world - for which allies are often vital -are likely to suffer too for as long as those who speak in their name identify uncritically with policies widely regarded as unjust and belligerent, and that would never be tolerated by the custodians of Jewish values if enacted by any other country.

S ome Israel supporters may prefer to attribute its problems to other matters or they may dismiss current trends as deriving from anti-Israel or antisemitic prejudice on the part of the mass media, trade unions, universities, human rights groups and just about the entire NGO sector. But denial is not an answer. Israel was conceived as a way of normalising relations between Jews and all other peoples. Without a change of direction, there is a danger that its actions might normalise anti-Jewish sentiment instead.

There will come a time, not far off, when it really will be too late to negotiate a peaceful two-state settlement through mutual agreement. This might be because, in exasperation, Palestinians get the message that increasingly hardline Israeli governments are not actually interested in anything other than their effective capitulation, or it might be because Israel finally builds the long-planned settlement in the area known as E1 that would virtually cut off the northern and southern parts of the West Bank from each other. While this would probably signal the definitive end of a peace process, it does not mean it would be the end of the two-state idea. In the absence of a plausible alternative, it will endure, although its nature and means of delivery may change.

The status quo is inherently unstable. It could fall apart at any time. With genuine intent and political will, Israel's celebrated ingenuity could doubtless find a way to end its occupation swiftly without jeopardising its own legitimate security. Failing this, the perils of perpetual conflict loom, as does the prospect of a resilient Palestinian separatist movement that could grow into a full-blown insurrection, potentially marked by violence and counter-violence, atrocity and counter-atrocity. Eventually, it might culminate in the emergence of a bedraggled Palestinian state alongside an isolated and widely despised Jewish state. The "two-state solution" will have come about, but by disaster not design.

The future does not have to unravel this way. It all depends on the choices human beings make. May the decision-makers be endowed with wisdom and foresight so that, a further 40 years from now, the relationship between Israel and its neighbours will no longer be defined by bitterness and enmity. If you will it, as someone famously said, it is no dream.

For the record: The title of Tony Klug’s essay was chosen by the JC, and not by the writer.

Dr Tony Klug is a special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group and has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Last updated: 9:41am, February 21 2013