I was at a meeting recently where the head of the British Foreign Office’s ‘Near East’ group openly confessed that “Many people in the Foreign Office were caught by surprise by what has been happening in the region”. To be fair, they are not alone in failing to see in advance what, in retrospect, is so obvious. The same comment could be made about the most powerful intelligence agencies across the globe, the finest professors in the best universities, revered international diplomats and indeed the whole shebang of analysts, consultants and foreign policy wonks.
But then why should we expect anything different? When was the last time venerable experts foresaw any of the seismic events of recent years? Who, before it happened, predicted the impending release of the hitherto ‘terrorist’ Mandela and the rapid dismantling of the apartheid South African state? Who imagined the sudden crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the astonishing collapse of the Soviet Union and the other communist regimes of Eastern Europe? How many soothsayers got Northern Ireland right prior to the historic deal between its warring factions?
The list goes on. Within the Middle East region itself, the abrupt fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 was a bolt out of the blue. The dramatic visit of the Egyptian President Sadat to Israel in 1977, just four years after the unexpected war of 1973, took everyone by surprise. So too did the secretly negotiated Oslo agreements in 1993 between the Israeli government and the PLO - until then eternal enemies - which culminated in mutual recognition and handshakes on the White House lawn. Who saw coming either the first or second Palestinian intifada in 1987 and 2000 respectively? Or the Hamas election victory in 2006? Indeed, since the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, probably every significant development - including every major outbreak of hostilities and every breakthrough peace initiative - occurred when least expected.
I pose the questions but I don’t have the answers any more than anyone else does. But the record is so compellingly and consistently poor that I suspect there must be a common factor or factors linking all these failures of anticipation. Maybe there is a tendency for the human mind to fixate on the status quo and deduce assumptions backwards. There could be an interesting Ph.D thesis there for someone!
In the current Middle East setting, the status quo throughout the Arab world, generally speaking, was, until the recent political earthquakes, one of despotic regimes suffering a chronic lack of legitimacy, rampant nepotism and widespread corruption among the ruling families and their cronies, little or no freedom of expression or right to dissent, a striking lack of democratic accountability across the board, a tightly controlled media and judiciary, high levels of unemployment and poverty, and a scary, omnipresent state security apparatus. In the face of such widespread and enduring subjugation, the question that increasingly posed itself was why had the citizens of these states not risen up and overthrown their oppressive rulers? Why had democracy by-passed the region when it had been eagerly embraced in recent times in most other parts of the world where tyranny had previously reigned, such as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Latin America, Turkey, Southeast Asia, South Africa and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa?
The answer commonly given by self-appointed experts on ‘the Arab mentality’ was to the effect that democracy and the urge for freedom were simply not a part of the Arab DNA. If, as events have since strikingly demonstrated, this was the wrong answer, it was because it was the wrong question. Democracy had not by-passed the region, full stop, past tense. It just hadn’t burst through yet.
The Arabs, it turns out, are no different from the rest of the human race. If you prick us, as an Arab Shylock might have said, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? To which, he might have added, if you oppress us, do we not revolt and kick you out, even if we take our time about it?
So how will these dramatic changes unfold? It is of course much too early to say. There are opportunities and there are dangers. Not the least of the dangers is the ominous prospect of civil war in countries where the oppressive regimes decide to fight back and go on fighting to the bitter end. But, in the light of the dismal past record of professed experts, who is going to stick their neck out at this stage and make definitive predictions?
Nonetheless, there are certain tentative deductions that I think we can risk making even now.
One is that autocratic regimes cannot be depended on to deliver what is often proclaimed to be the key western objective of ‘stability’. This is not altogether surprising when you consider that there is usually no mechanism to change these brittle regimes that does not involve bringing down the whole system.
A second deduction is that non-violent mass action is not the poor relative of an armed uprising but, depending on the circumstances, can be far more effective in achieving and sustaining change. Had the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt been commandeered by the men and women of the gun, they would probably have instantly invited overwhelming counter-violence by the respective regimes, gladly seizing the opportunity to crush the incipient protests.
A third deduction is that, while the grievances of the Arab street may be similar, the contexts are different in each country. So it is not surprising if the revolutions – and the responses they provoke – take divergent paths, as we are witnessing day-by-day.
A fourth deduction is that no one faction – religious, nationalist or ideological - ‘owns’ the revolution, except maybe the Arab youth, male and female, who have broken the fear factor and are not prepared to swallow the old slogans, put up with a life of oppression and suffer the alienation, hopelessness and humiliations of their parents’ generation.
Today’s young have not only the longing and energy to change things but also the technological means and know-how to mobilize their fellow-citizens on a large scale despite the governmental monopoly of the classical media and other traditional forms of communication - with the telling exception of the more independently minded popular international satellite television channels such as Al Jazeera, which have in recent years beamed new and different perspectives into the Arab world.
But the ruling old guard was caught unaware in particular by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the rest of the new social media. By comparison, putting down armed uprisings and attempted coups must have seemed like child’s play.
This is not to say that there may not be an attempt by this or that political grouping to hijack one or another of the revolutions. Eternal vigilance on the part of the young revolutionaries, coupled with strong constitutional safeguards, will be vital to forestall such an eventuality, particularly during the transitional phases.
A fifth initial deduction is that, unlike the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 that, in the main, aimed to transform their despotic governances into Western Europe-style liberal democracies, the Arab uprisings seem not to have very clear models other than generally wanting to change the political systems. This could be a strength or a weakness. It all depends.
So there is no question that serious change in the region is on the way. On the other hand, there are some hardy fundamentals that endure and go on enduring – chief among them the Israeli-Palestinian issue. A compelling question is what is the connection between the contemporary ‘Arab awakening’ and this perennial conflict?
On the face of it, not very much it would seem, although to a degree everything is arguably linked to everything else. Generally, however, it seems clear that the current unrest in the Arab world is essentially about the internal affairs of state rather than about Israel or Palestine.
Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that both Israelis and Palestinians are anxious about what the regional explosions mean for them. If not sooner, then certainly later, the developments in the region are bound to have an important bearing on the future course of the conflict and on the respective destinies of the two peoples.
I attended an off-the-record meeting in Istanbul recently where a group of influential Palestinians debated this very question. On the one hand, they took it for granted that support for their cause would be enhanced by the replacement of corrupt Arab dictatorships reliant on American largesse with the democratic expressions of the popular will. It was, after all, the Palestinians, as someone was keen to point out, who pioneered mass uprisings in the region with their two intifadas, blazing the way for what is happening now in other countries.
Furthermore, as freedom spreads in the region, the denial of Palestinian rights and their lack of statehood will become ever more bizarre. I shall return to the primacy of this matter later on.
On the other hand, copious media coverage of the Arab revolutions has, for now, knocked the Palestinian issue off the front pages. At a packed meeting on the Middle East at Chatham House in London a short while ago, it was striking that neither Israel nor the Palestinians even got a mention until towards the end of the hour-long event - and that was only because someone observed that no one had mentioned Israel or the Palestinians!
In addition, the open brutality of the responses of some of the Arab regimes has dented the portrayal of Israel as uniquely repressive in an otherwise relatively benign region.
For its part, a bewildered Israel has been facing both ways at once. In the final run up to the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, presumably in a bid for King Canute’s empty crown, was reported to have appealed to the United States and the countries of the European Union to continue supporting the incumbent president.
This failure to deduce even the blinding obvious on the eve of its occurrence is not uncharacteristic of a government that has made a speciality of defying the waves of global developments and international opinion. It is not a trait for which the Israeli people are likely to thank their leaders in the long run.
The Israeli President Shimon Peres, on the other hand, has urged support for what he has called “a great moment for the region", arguing that the spread of democracy, in bringing "freedom and dignity” into the lives of its inhabitants, could dramatically improve Israel’s circumstances.
But it is possible there is a degree of disingenuousness to this argument. After all, in the battle of words, Israel’s claim to be ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ has for decades been one of its trump cards. If the Arab world is genuinely on the verge of joining the club of democratic nations – at a time when the right-wing Israeli parliament is introducing decidedly undemocratic legislation, and as the Israeli state approaches the 45th year of its military occupation of a neighbouring people - Israel could end up as the illiberal joker in a more enlightened regional pack.
Israel does, though, have a genuine concern that the long-standing peace treaties with two of its four immediate neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, could be at risk. So far, there is no indication of any moves being made to nullify these treaties and, barring the improbable takeover of these countries by extreme ideological factions, or possibly another prolonged Israeli bombardment of Gaza that causes widespread casualties, it is unlikely to happen, at least not formally.
If the treaties were to be unilaterally terminated on the Arab side, this could be the first hazardous step on the road to a full-blooded war and, after several previous rounds of death and destruction in the past, a further bout is no more in the interests of the contracting states now than it was when the treaties were signed in 1979 and 1994 respectively.
In any case, war is not what the youthful rebellions are about. Quite the opposite in fact. More in keeping with their spirit are the themes of peace, harmony, justice and dignity. The potential is now there for all the peoples of the region, including both Palestinians and Israelis, to aspire to a better, more hopeful, life.
But the potential for Israel to become ever-more isolated in the region is also there. What future actually awaits the Jewish state to a large extent depends on how the Israeli government chooses to play its cards from this time on in the light of this “great moment for the region", as Shimon Peres put it.
Above all, there is a compelling need to bring its occupation of Palestinian territory to a swift end, to be replaced by a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. If the Palestinians do not gain freedom in their own independent state, there is no prospect for Israel being accepted into the region – a self-evident observation that I, among others, originally made in a published essay nearly 40 years ago
Time running out
Now time is seriously running out. Two years ago, a few months after President Obama took office, I wrote that he has just two years to cajole the parties into swiftly ending their conflict before he moves into re-election mode. The alternative, I suggested, was a future of indefinite strife with deeply troubling global ramifications. If this was a petard, I am now well and truly hoisted by it, as time is almost up. So, if the fading opportunity is not swiftly seized, what happens next?
First, we need to understand that patience on the Palestinian side has almost completely run out after many fruitless years of aimless negotiations and feeble international mediation. In any case, by and large, the Palestinians – exasperated by US reluctance or impotence - see the shelf-life of the long-running but deeply flawed peace process expiring later this year. From September, we are likely to see a new face to Palestinian strategy and tactics.
Why September exactly? For one thing, that is when the UN General Assembly holds its annual meeting. For another, it coincides with the end of the two-year period of infrastructure-and-institution-building proclaimed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who heads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, in preparation for the declaration of a Palestinian state.
For a third, it marks the anniversary of the aspiration voiced by President Obama at the General Assembly last September to secure a Middle East deal “within a year” that would lead to a new member, Palestine, being welcomed into the world organization. As things have turned out, it looks like that vacant seat will be taken by Southern Sudan instead.
So, come September, the Palestinians are preparing to throw in the towel on the protracted farce of bilateral negotiations with Israel and seek to ‘internationalize’ the issue on the one hand and simultaneously ‘Palestinianize’ it on the other. What might this mean in practice?
To begin with, let’s look at a few of the ‘internationalization’ possibilities:
First, based on the assumption that there is no prior deal with Israel on agreed borders, the Palestinians could call on all countries, and the United Nations as a body, to recognize a Palestinian state on the pre-June 1967 boundaries. More than 100 countries – many of them not at all hostile to Israel - have already pledged their support for such a move. If this move proceeds and is successful, this would leave Israel, with its military bases in the West Bank, in the invidious position of being in daily violation of the sovereign territory of an independent UN member-state. In many respects, Israel’s legal position would become a nightmare.
Second, the Palestinians could call for an international protectorate or trusteeship to take control of the occupied territories for a transitional period pending independence. Such an interim arrangement might be seen as less confrontational and enable the Israelis to hand over occupied territory in the first instance to an authority it might view as less threatening.
Third, they could adopt, as official policy, a vigorous campaign to isolate and boycott Israel internationally, and systematically use the panoply of mechanisms available under international law to prosecute the Israeli state and its agents.
A complementary ‘Palestinianization’ strategy might include any or all of the following steps:
First, there may be a serious effort, primarily between Fatah and Hamas, to restore Palestinian national unity, on the basis that a divided people will never achieve its national goals. A strong challenge to both factions to stop the internal squabbling was the principal demand of the youthful March 15 movement as it has been dubbed – also known unofficially as the ‘eff-off-everyone’ movement - following demonstrations by tens of thousands of young Palestinians earlier this year in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Parallel with any such effort, some western governments may contemplate engaging cautiously with Hamas in the wake of the failure by Israel and the PLO to achieve a negotiated peace. There is much to be said for this as Hamas, like Fatah, reflects a major Palestinian political current which cannot be wished away as if it were a passing phenomenon.
However, achieving international legitimacy is likely to elude Hamas for as long as it fails to openly purge its Covenant of its virulently antisemitic content, crudely reminiscent of the notorious Tsarist-era forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in blaming Jews for virtually all the ills of the world, currently and historically.
Informally, some Hamas leaders credibly claim the Covenant to be largely dormant and out-dated – in three separate places, for example, it refers to the ‘Communist East’ – but even the most accommodating western governments and civil society groups may be hard-pressed to defend formal relations with a political faction that remains officially associated with the sort of imported racist bilge to which Christian Europe was once committed but from which post-World-War-Two Europe has, in the main, avidly striven to make its distance.
Second, we may see the pumping of new life, and the attracting of a new generation, into ossified Palestinian political agencies such as the PLO and its legislative body, the Palestinian National Council. These bodies had been allowed to atrophy after the Palestinian Authority took centre stage in May 1994 under the Oslo Accord, in the thwarted belief that statehood was just five years away. A reinvigorated PLO would embrace a much broader constituency than the PA by seeking to include Hamas and the diaspora Palestinians plus, potentially, Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Third, a popular campaign may erupt in the occupied West Bank of non-violent civil disobedience. The protests – which are likely to be dubbed a third intifada - could take the form of mass demonstrations, marches, sit-ins or strikes or other innovative ideas that may evolve through creative use of the new social media. Settlers, settlements and other symbols of Israeli occupation would very likely be the principal targets of the protests.
Fourth, a long-stop option might be for the PA to dissolve itself altogether and return the West Bank to direct Israeli rule. That would bring an end to the limited experiment of Palestinian autonomy but the greater cost may be borne by Israel, if only because the Israeli state would then presumably have to finance all municipal and other services, including the security agencies, from its own coffers, for it is unlikely, in such a circumstance, that the EU and other funding sources would continue with their munificence. Such a move could cause mayhem but, in desperation, cannot be ruled out.
Nor could retaliation by Israel be altogether discounted in the form of unilateral annexations of some parts of the West Bank and unilateral withdrawals from other parts. The annexed areas would, we may suppose, include all or most of the territory on which Israeli settlements have been built – although there may be some consolidation - together with the surrounding infrastructure and modern road system.
The annexed area might also incorporate the Jordan Valley, which Israeli governments have often claimed as the state’s vital ‘security border’ to prevent armies or missiles infiltrating the West Bank from the east to attack Israel.
The areas from which Israel pulls out – probably all or most of the heavily populated Palestinian cities – might then be fenced off and left to their own fate, with or without a Palestinian Authority to govern them and represent their interests internationally.
Should Israel move to take such unilateral actions, it would doubtless invite instant condemnation by most of the world. It would be advantage to the Palestinians in terms of international sympathy and support, but game, set and maybe match to Israel in terms of creating new and possibly irreversible facts on the ground. For a few years at least, Israel might find itself increasingly isolated as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement extends its appeal globally and governments around the world vent ineffectual fury.
For their part, the Palestinians would have suffered a heavy blow in their quest for an independent state and the exercise of self-determination and may now find their other policy options – apart from possibly enforced absorption into the Jordanian state - to be extremely limited too.
This would not be an ideal situation for either Israel or the Palestinians. It would, rather, be a recipe for perpetual conflict, with no winners. It would give a new meaning to a zero-sum game.
Another circumstance which may induce Israel to make such a move is if the Palestinians carry out the veiled threat to reverse their 23-year commitment to the two-state option and switch instead – or rather switch back - to a so-called one-state solution. It is not hard to understand the pressures that are leading to this policy re-think but, in my view, it would be a seriously retrograde step: condemning the Palestinians themselves to a bitter long-term struggle with uncertain consequences to say the least.
While, in the current circumstances, it may have a strong surface appeal, I fear the one-state idea is not just a pie-in-the-sky fantasy but, more worryingly, a dangerous fantasy, in that it encourages us to imagine that the real alternative to a swift two-state arrangement is not perpetual conflict, but some sort of harmonious, egalitarian utopia which miraculously bypasses a cornucopia of intractable problems.
In other words, with one important exception that I will come to, I see it as a wasteful diversion from the only solution that fits the problem, albeit imperfectly. At the very least, in the light of the growing importance of this debate, the issues it raises need to be explored with the seriousness they warrant.
Seen through their eyes
But first, in the interests of full disclosure, I should reiterate that I originally argued for the two-state paradigm in a Fabian pamphlet back in the early 1970s. While I am open to being persuaded away from this view, the burden of events since then has, if anything, served to confirm its pertinence in my eyes, even if today it would need to have more of a hybrid quality.
I first arrived at the two-state position by seeking to understand the issues not from what I have called a ‘phoney objective detached standpoint’ but by endeavouring to view the conflict through the eyes of the principal protagonists, each in turn, will all the emotion and passion thrown in. It is an approach I recommend to fellow students of international relations among you.
What became abundantly clear to me was that the animosity between the two peoples was not deeply embedded in their histories or in their respective religious beliefs or cultural traditions - which actually have much in common - but is a tragic offspring of a bitter territorial clash whereby Israelis and Palestinians simultaneously aspired to the same piece of territory on which to build their own state. This is the root of the conflict. Everything else has been superimposed or rationalized retrospectively.
In brief, on the one side, all sorts of conspiracy theories and malevolent intent have been heaped over the years onto the Zionist movement by its detractors, some of it giving off a familiar antisemitic whiff, not so different from that which played the decisive role in winning so many Jews, and indeed others, to the Zionist cause in the first place.
Conceptually, Zionism was a distressed people’s proud, if defiant, response to centuries of contempt, humiliation and periodic bouts of deadly oppression that culminated in the systematic extermination of millions of Jews during the Nazi holocaust. The Israeli state was the would-be phoenix to rise from the Jewish embers still smouldering in the blood-soaked earth of another continent. For most Jews, it was the one and only consolation to hang onto when the madness and horrific losses of the death camps finally came to an end.
The motive was the positive one of achieving justice and safety for one tormented people in their historic homeland, not the negative one of doing damage to another people. Yet, in effect, this is precisely what it did do, and at some point Israelis and their supporters around the world will have to come fully and openly to terms with this.
The Palestinians, likewise, did not set out to damage anyone. They merely wanted for themselves what, with considerable justification, they felt was their entitlement. While their Arab brethren were achieving independence in neighbouring countries, the Palestinians – the knock-on victims of Nazi atrocities - were paying a heavy price for losing out in the geo-political lottery.
Dispossessed, degraded and derided – conditions from which they are yet to recover - their original felony was simply to be in the way of another anguished people’s desperate survival strategy. Almost everything that has happened since then is in some way a consequence of this.
To a significant degree, the genesis of the Israeli-Palestinian clash, as intimated, lay in the endemic prejudices and discriminatory practices of European societies, made worse by the double - or more accurately treble - dealings of Anglo-French diplomacy in the first half of the twentieth century which made contradictory pledges to the Arabs and Jews, neither of which was truly kept or intended to be kept by the two ambitious imperial powers who secretly agreed to carve up much of the post-Ottoman Middle East between them.
Present-day Europeans would do well to reflect with a degree of humility on this history, whatever their particular partisan inclinations today, when zealously moralizing from a distance about the goings-on in the region ever since.
It is important to understand that, despite the sharp claims sometimes made, Palestinian animosity towards Israel stems primarily not from it being a Jewish state but from the huge disruption the creation of that state and its policies since that time have inflicted on the lives, dignity and destiny of the Palestinian people, including its right to self-determination. It would not have been profoundly different had the state in question not been Jewish but, say, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist.
By a similar token, Israeli – and by extension Jewish - antipathy towards Palestinians is not, at root, because the latter are Arabs or Muslims but because of a perception that they pose a persistent threat to the peaceable exercise of Jewish self-determination in their own state. It would have been no different had they been Ugandan Africans or Catholic Argentinians, bearing in mind that land in both Uganda and Argentina was implausibly mooted at one time as a possible venue for a future Jewish homeland.
One v two states
Through adopting this more – shall we say - subjective, empathetic approach as a vital tool of analysis, it seemed clear to me that without satisfying the common, minimum, irreducible aspirations of both peoples for self-determination in at least part of the land that each regarded as its own, a resolution of the conflict was impossible.
Some 40 years on, the two-state proposal is, in one way, a lot more complicated in the light of the materially changed facts on the ground and with the number of settlers having grown from 5,000 then to 500,000 now. But, on the other side of the balance sheet, there are a number of powerful factors of more recent vintage in its favour.
First, from a handful of advocates four decades ago, there now exists worldwide support for the two-state concept. Even Hamas has shifted its ground and, for some time, has been signalling its preparedness to do a deal based on the 1967 borders. And in June last year, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uttered, for Likud - the hard-line nationalist party he leads - the hitherto forbidden phrase ‘a Palestinian state’, even if he hedged it with strict preconditions. This would be a strange time indeed suddenly to abort the whole idea and start all over again with a different idea, and a very controversial one at that.
Second, there is a profound lack of visceral enthusiasm, currently and historically, among both Palestinians and Israelis for a unitary state for both peoples. On the contrary, such a prospect is widely viewed as deeply threatening on both sides.
Although in the past the PLO charter did envisage one ‘democratic secular’ state of Palestine, it was explicitly to be ‘Arab’ in character and would include only those Jews – defined exclusively in religious terms - who arrived before the ‘Zionist invasion’, variously interpreted as 1917 or 1948. In other words, it would include very few of them. There is little evidence or indeed reason to suppose that Palestinians today are in reality any more ready to drop their demands for national independence and self-determination and share common statehood instead with another people in a combined non-Arab - and non-Muslim - state. Indeed, why would anyone expect this of them?
What, for the most part, the Palestinian people yearn for and manifestly need is an end to occupation and for Palestinian sovereignty over the evacuated territories. Opinion poll after opinion poll has demonstrated this, at least among the Palestinians suffering occupation. ‘One state’ profoundly deflects from this aspiration.
In parallel, an attempt to eradicate the Israeli state and its predominantly Jewish character is liable to revive the Jewish fear of genocide, or minimally of discrimination and persecution, and meet with fierce resistance. In the light of their history, it is hard to imagine Israeli Jews, of almost any stripe, voluntarily sacrificing their hard-won national independence to become a minority again in someone else’s land.
To put it another way, Israel/Palestine is not South Africa. Nor is it Northern Ireland. Nor is it directly analogous to a host of other international or historical trouble spots which are, from time to time, cited by way of comparison, notably Sri Lanka, India/Pakistan, Algeria under French rule, Cyprus, East Timor, Iraq or Darfur. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are Nazis: that’s toxic nonsense. Israel behaves like occupiers behave. The Palestinians behave like the occupied behave. Each of them is acting out probably one of the few cast-iron laws of history. Ending the occupation is the only way to change both behaviours.
Each conflict has its own peculiar features and, if a solution is to tick the vital boxes, it has to spring from the inside-out rather than be imported from the outside-in. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa, for instance, was essentially a civil rights struggle. Israel/Palestine, as noted, is primarily a clash of two national movements - even if there is a heavy-duty civil-rights dimension - and any proposal that disregards either national imperative, let alone both of them, is incongruous and, I believe, bound to fail.
Third, over the past 50 years, there have been numerous - initially enthusiastic but ultimately unsuccessful - attempts in the region to merge separate entities. Probably the best known was the United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria - conceived as an initial step toward creating a wider pan-Arab union – which lasted, primarily on paper, from 1958 to 1961, when Syria formally withdrew. Other short-lived experiments at Arab unity have in addition included, at different times, Iraq, Jordan, North Yemen, Sudan and Libya.
If such attempts spectacularly failed among peoples who in some way perceive themselves as sharing a common language, culture, religion and a sense of history and destiny, on what ground should we anticipate a more positive outcome between two peoples who share none of these traits or aspirations and who have been bitter foes for the best part of a century?
Further, there is not just one but many versions of one united state and very little effort has been made to put flesh on the skeletons of any of them. It is one thing to attract support for the high-flying rhetoric, but a lot of it falls away once it comes down to the content. Depending on the proponent, ‘one state’ could be unitary, federal, confederal, bi-national, democratic, secular, cantonal (Switzerland), multi-confessional (Lebanon), Islamic (Hamas), Arab (PLO charter) or Jewish (Greater Israel).
Some of these terms are frequently used interchangeably even though they are often mutually inconsistent, sometimes even fiercely contradictory. To get a grip on the substance of these matters, we need to move beyond the ‘one-state’ cliché.
The proponents of a unitary ‘secular democratic’ state, in particular, need to show how in practice its version will not be tantamount to the continuation of occupation under another name, will not perpetuate and exacerbate the existing economic and social imbalances, will not foster an ‘apartheid-style’ entity and will not lead to the political domination of either people over the other. Crucially, they will need to explain how the national imperatives of both peoples will, hey presto, melt away.
While some supporters of one state argue fervently for a unitary ‘secular democratic’ state, others – at the opposite poll – support a ‘bi-national confederal’ state, in which the constituent elements would retain their national identities and essential zones of sovereignty. To my mind, this latter conception is a possible – I would say desirable – future outgrowth of a two-state model and may be where a future generation will take us, possibly to incorporate other neighbouring states too, notably Jordan.
But a future confederation should not be confused with a condominium - as it sometimes is, inadvertently or mischievously - whereby in effect the Palestinian entity would be jointly governed by Jordan and Israel with a degree of Palestinian internal autonomy.
If we take the European Union as a model, a genuine confederation could only come about through sovereign nations volunteering to delegate upwards parts of their sovereignty for common benefit. But first, they need to have their sovereignty. Israel has had its sovereignty for nearly 63 years. Jordan for two years longer than this. To this day, Palestine does not have sovereignty at all. This missing parameter is, and always has been, at the heart of the conflict.
It is worth noting too that the constituent states of the EU – and even of the more closely integrated Benelux, comprising Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg - have retained their separate national identities, for the reason that it is important to them, unlike what would be required of Israel and Palestine in a unitary state.
Finally, a quick but telling anecdote: a few months ago, as part of an Oxford Research Group delegation, I visited Gaza to attend a Palestinian workshop. On both entering and leaving the territory, Egyptian officials in Rafah took our Palestinian colleagues - eminent intellectuals and peace activists - aside for interrogation. This delayed our passage for several hours and it was not clear until the last moment whether they would let them pass at all.
In the end they waived them through, explaining that, on the way in, it was a case of mistaken identity and, on the way out, a clerical mishap. The disbelieving Palestinians attributed the delays to the sort of harassment to which they were accustomed both within and without the Arab world. It is the price of statelessness - and there is only one sure way to remedy this inequity.
So, whichever way we look at it, there is, I believe, no escaping the two-state paradigm as the basis of a resolution to the conflict.
To my mind, following the 1967 war, roughly 30 years were irresponsibly squandered on all sorts of platitudinous UN resolutions and international plans of limited worth until, eventually, a solid international consensus, backed by majority Palestinian and Israeli opinion, emerged, around the turn of the century, in support of two viable states as the backbone of a solution. The consensus was eventually reflected in UN Security Council Resolution 1397 in 2002.
In the same year, the Arab League adopted the Arab Peace Initiative that called for a comprehensive regional settlement with full normalization of relations among all states of the region, including the Israeli and Palestinian states, in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the territories it captured in 1967. Not long before then, such a proposal would have had Israelis dancing in the streets.
So finally the whole international community, with the Arab world importantly on board, agreed a common destination. But still it had to get the strategy right - and this it has persistently failed to do. While each had its merits, a range of initiatives – from the Madrid and Oslo processes in the 1990s, through the Camp David summit in 2000, the Taba talks (January 2001), the Mitchell Report (May 2001), the Road Map (2003), the summits at Sharm el-Sheikh (2000/2005), Aqaba (2003) and Annapolis (2007), and several others besides, proved to be either dead-end, stillborn or toothless.
All the while, through its burgeoning settlement programme, the state that already had its independence doggedly chiselled away at the minuscule territory of the putative Palestinian state, bit-by-bit eroding the feasibility of the only destination that made any sense.
In consequence, as observed, even the most pragmatic Palestinian opinion has steadily been losing faith in the two-state outcome, some 23 years after the PLO in 1988, at its historic congress in Algiers, dropped its previous demand for the eradication of the state of Israel and momentously lowered its hitherto immutable demand for 100 per cent of the land, agreeing instead to settle for a state on the remaining 22 per cent within the framework of a two-state solution.
This solemn decision was the Palestinians' great historical compromise. For as long as Israel's leaders persist with the belief that a further deal can be cut over the 22 per cent, peace will continue to be elusive.
In parallel, the deadly record of suicide bombings followed by the epidemic of Hamas rockets, which has terrorized the population of southern Israel for years – most notably after Israel withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005 - has deepened the mood among ordinary Israelis that peace-making is futile, that Palestinians are not serious about peace and that a state in the West Bank is merely a device to attack Israelis from closer range and finish them off. To many Israelis, ‘peace’ has become a four-letter word – which, it so happens, it is in the Hebrew language!
The principal casualty of these negative political currents on both sides could be the irretrievable collapse of the hard-won consensus destination. That would take us back to square one.
The important question now is what to do with such time as is left before the window of opportunity shuts firmly tight? I believe the answer is to shift the focus sharply away from process – or, worse still, talks about process – direct to the endgame. I have written about this previously but, in brief, the aim should be to establish a clear horizon coupled with an effective enforcement mechanism that would not easily be derailed by the first atrocity or disrupted by the furtive manoeuvrings of any party.
At this point, if President Obama is not ready, willing and able to openly take the lead himself, it is up to other leading members of the UN Security Council, preferably with the fulsome backing of the Arab League, to initiate a process to determine the shape of a final resolution – we know broadly, and even in some detail, what it would have to look like - and to fashion potent inducements, positive and negative, for the conflicting parties to meet their respective interim targets along a fixed timetable towards the final destination.
In a double whammy, achieving the interim targets could attract powerful rewards in each case at each stage – material or diplomatic - while failure to achieve them would suffer stringent penalties.
If the conflicting parties are not happy with any elements of the final plan, they would be free to negotiate an alternative with each other. But, in a change from the past, the default position would be the Security Council resolution, not the status quo that invariably favours the stronger party and that has consistently impeded all progress towards a resolution of the conflict.
International political will
So, without underestimating the complexities, a settlement of the conflict could, maybe, still be rescued, even after September. Indeed, it could even be September that triggers a major new push. It would take a determined international effort – ideally to include a galvanizing visit by President Obama and other senior international figures to Israel and the occupied West Bank - some innovative thinking, a degree of goodwill, and a healthy dose of coercion.
An initiative of this type would almost certainly be welcomed, overtly or covertly, by the traumatized mass of Palestinians and Israelis desperate for a way out of their seemingly intractable problem. With the requisite political will, even the most obdurate issues could still be resolved to the minimum satisfaction of the principal parties and to the general relief of us all. But time is closing in.
So there it is. I’m sure there is plenty there to disagree with. Thank you for your attention.
This piece is adapted from a presentation by Tony Klug to the Foreign Affairs Society at St Andrews University, Scotland, 14 April 2011