The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict has upped the ante on the ‘failures’ of the peace process. In the West, the international ‘consensus’ is now challenged on two fronts. First, the process itself is far too slow. Second, the two-state endgame of the process is no longer seen as viable given Israeli settlement expansion and Hamas’ rejectionism as it eclipses the PLO. The ‘new’ approach reflects current Western discomfort with ethno-nationalism. The two-state solution is regarded as ‘passe.’ The answer is a bi-national one-state.
The one-state approach is now advanced in mainstream publications. In an article entitled Israel and Palestine: Two States or One, the Economist calls for a single secular democratic state with equal rights for Jews and Arabs. The Economist is impatient with the ‘process.’ It argues the two-state solution is dead because the process towards it has yet to bear fruit. The seeds of mutual recognition and two-states planted in Oslo have died. Notwithstanding that British colonialism ignited the modern conflict, and that the ink on Brexit from One Europe is not yet dry, The Economist’s argument merits consideration.
On inspection, the one-state approach is not new at all. In fact, a “secular democratic state” for Arabs and Jews was the PLO position after the Six-Day-War and well into the 1980s. Aligned with Arab socialist thought in Egypt and Syria as per Soviet patronage, and bolstered by academics such as Edward Said, a secular democratic state did not in theory exclude Jews in the struggle against Zionism.
Israel, however, had no interest in a proposal that negated ethno-nationalist sovereignty. In time, neither did the Palestinians. They, too, came to the recognition that a sovereign ethno-nationalist homeland separated from its Israeli equivalent was the correct path to self-preservation.
It is important to recognize that Palestinian identity crystalized as the Arab world abandoned socialism, secularism, and Pan-Arabism itself in a concurrent trend towards accommodation with Israel.
The dedicated architect of Arab-Israeli accommodation and thus the inadvertent architect of Palestinian nationalism was the United States. After the 1973 War, Anwar Sadat broke with Assad in Syria, expelled the Russians, and flew to Jerusalem as an Egyptian nationalist aware that the “United States held 99% of the cards” in his quest to regain the Sinai.
Despite what The Economist tells us, thus began the slow painful bilateral diplomacy under American patronage that is all that has ever achieved progress in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite Sadat’s bold gesture, the road to Camp David was bumpy. Kissinger, Vance, Brzezinski, and Carter all almost quit along they way, but they persisted.
The Palestinians balked at ‘autonomy’ as Sadat discarded Nasserism. This resentment festered as Begin’s revisionist Zionism eclipsed traditional secular labour Zionism. Settlement activity accelerated with a purpose and resulted in the Intifada.
In response, secret diplomacy facilitated in Oslo led to the Accords that outlined a path towards a Palestinian state. Yet, it was Bill Clinton who produced the Arafat-Rabin handshake. It was Clinton who hosted Rabin and King Hussein to formalize Israeli-Jordanian peace. And it was Clinton who – almost – persuaded Arafat to approve Barak’s Wye River proposals for the provisional borders of a Palestinian state that included an East Jerusalem capital.
Arafat waffled under Hamas’ pressure and the opportunity was lost with Sharon’s rise and then 9/11. No matter how history judges Trump, American-led diplomacy again chipped away at the conflict when the UAE, Morocco and Sudan signed agreements with Israel at the White House.
The deals appear to have survived the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2021 and President Biden remains as committed to the Abraham Accords as much as Hamas and the PLO resent them. At the same time, Biden and Blinken have renewed contacts with Abbas in Ramallah and re-opened Palestinian representation in Washington.
Blinken flew to the region to upgrade the fragile cease-fire into a stable truce. He told Israelis in no uncertain terms that traditional Palestinian areas in Jerusalem such as Sheikh Jarrah must be respected, along with Jordanian Wafq custodianship of the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif. In turn, Blinken balked at any role for Hamas in disbursement of US Gaza reconstruction funds. Both Blinken and Biden reiterated America’s commitment to Israeli security, right to self-defence against Hamas’ rockets, and promised to replenish the defensive Iron Dome system.
Yet again, another American administration doubled-down on bilateral diplomacy as the path forward towards a two-state solution.
Despite voices in the Democratic Party that echo The Economist approach, Biden and Blinken have opted to recognize history and stay the course. Ethno-nationalism is no longer a ‘progressive’ idea in the West as it was in 1918. To change course in a region where tribalism is embraced as a foundational concept rather than shamed as an atavism is ahistorical projectionism. The latest round of bloodshed illustrated this in uncomfortable ways. Jews and Arabs who had co-existed in Israel proper for decades found themselves drawn into the violence. Palestinian and Israeli nationalist sentiment is at record highs, bolstered by the mutual religious denialism of the other’s narrative evident in the Hamas Charter and Revisionist Zionism.
Rhetorical charges of ‘apartheid’ against Israel proper do not stand objective examination in the context of over 700,000 Palestinian votes and the balance of power in the new Israeli parliament. In the context of the West Bank, however, such accusations merit closer consideration. The secular/labour Zionist majority has argued since the late 1980s that for Israel to remain democratic and Jewish, the country cannot retain indefinite control over Palestinian population centres in the West Bank. The demographics are clear: either a Palestinian state must emerge, or Israel must grant full citizenship to West Bank Palestinians and thus become a binational state. Failure to progress towards a two-state solution threatens American alliances and interests in the region.
The Biden administration’s response to its first Mideast crisis indicates a realist recognition of these dynamics. Support for a two-state solution reflects a consistent American position over eight presidents and five decades.
If this seems small and slow – that is what diplomacy is. Unlike sensationalist media reports and Facebook posts, diplomacy recognizes and parallels history. Diplomacy is an art and a science predicated on history, recognition of mutual interests through compromise and negotiation. Above all, diplomacy since 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia understands that states are still the principal actors in the international system, with rational, practical objectives. First and foremost, states guard sovereignty and the establishment and recognition of secure territory with defined borders. If anyone thinks sovereign states with controlled boundaries is a passe concept, then a core lesson of the pandemic is lost.
The obstacles may seem tall now. Hence the US hesitation to invest and risk failure. Radical rejectionist Islamic nationalism in Gaza, a weak and undemocratic Abbas in the West Bank, an unstable Israeli political environment that struggles to contain an ultra-nationalist revisionist religious Zionist vision, Iranian/Hezbollah meddling, and a fractured American polity all stack the cards against the US and two-state progress now.
Make no mistake, however, the US still holds all the cards where the endgame must be a two-state solution via conventional diplomacy. One-state alternatives as advanced by the Economist are at best impatient distractions.
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