If you want to know what a politician really thinks, wait till he or she leaves office. It’s when politicians no longer have to court votes, or worry about party discipline, that they finally speak their true mind.
Plenty will say that explains this week’s intervention by the former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain. On Thursday, he was due to give a public lecture at Swansea University, departing from the position he has held for the past two decades and which represents the consensus of the international community: that the best answer to the conflict between
Israelis and Palestinians is two states, living side by side.
Now, Hain wonders if the moment for a two-state solution has passed and if it is time instead to look at a different scenario: what he calls a “common state” shared by the two peoples – in other words, a one-state solution.
“Ah,” many JC readers will say. “So, when Hain was in government, he was just paying lip service to Israel’s right to exist as a secure, independent state. All along, he actually believed in the old pro-Palestinian demand for a single state, in which the Zionist dream of Jewish self-determination would be swallowed up and forgotten. He’s no friend of ours after all.”
Such a view will be temptingly simple but unfair. Hain is clear in setting out his own credentials as a former Middle East minister under Tony Blair, one who worked closely with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He also underlines his understanding of what Israel is up against: the “unremitting hostility” of its neighbours, the state of “siege” the country has had to endure since its birth. He is explicit, too, that his past support for two states was sincere, that he believed it to be “the best plan for peace and the fairest outcome.”
But, now, reluctantly, Hain has concluded that time has all but run out for the two-state solution. He offers the familiar reasons: the serial failure of past negotiations; the Hamas-Fatah split; and, above all, the fact that “the land earmarked for a viable Palestinian state has been remorselessly occupied by Israeli settlers.” As others have put it, it’s hard for two people to agree to split a pizza when one is gobbling up slice after slice as they talk.
Doubtless many will dispute Hain’s conclusions, finding him premature in pronouncing two states near-dead. But whether he’s too pessimistic is not really the point. He is a mainstream political figure — with experience, in Belfast, of a bitter conflict also once deemed intractable — beginning to look seriously at an idea previously deemed beyond the pale.
In that sense, his words are a warning. He is saying that, if Israel, through its constant building in the West Bank, sends the message that it just cannot contemplate partitioning the land, then eventually the world will start thinking of other arrangements. It will look at the territories envisaged for a Palestinian state, now dotted with Jewish settlements and criss-crossed with Israeli roads, and decide that disentangling these two peoples has become impossible.
Very well, international opinion will say. If you refuse to divide the historic Land of Israel, then you must share it — making it “a common state” for two nations.
I remain opposed to that outcome: I believe it absurd to ask two peoples who cannot agree to divorce, to get married instead. But if Israel refuses to make two states possible, then it will eventually be stuck with the alternative: a single state in which Jews will fast become a minority. And no one will be able to say we weren’t warned.