Thank you Trump, for legitimising debate about a ‘one-state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

After decades of a failed peace process, the US president’s comments, breaking US orthodoxy on the ‘two-state solution’, may inadvertently have planted a seed of hope for the future.

Andrew Rigby
22 February 2017
NurPhoto SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

NurPhoto SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.On 15 February 2017, Donald Trump ditched decades of USA and international orthodoxy that the only path to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. At his press conference with Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, he announced that: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I could live with either one.”

Who would have thought that such a ‘bull-in-a-china-shop deal-maker’ – however inadvertently – might have planted a seed of hope for the future, by breathing some fresh air into a so-called peace process that has been little more than a charade for decades?

The failure of the Oslo peace process

As someone with a deep commitment to nonviolent means of pursuing justice, and a long-term involvement in trying to understand the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have found it exceptionally difficult over the last decade trying to sustain any hope for the future of the people occupying the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

The years since the Oslo Peace Accord of 1993 – the years of the so-called peace process – have seen little more than the deepening of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the virtual imprisonment of the people of the Gaza Strip in their narrow compound. Politicians and diplomats and peace professionals have been and gone, all mouthing their commitment to a peace process they claimed would lead to the favoured solution – the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

But whilst leaders mouthed their commitment to the vision of two states, developments on the ground undermined any possibility of establishing a viable contiguous Palestinian state, with the main centres of Palestinian population surrounded by Israeli settlements, and Israel retaining exclusive control of over 60% of the territory of the West Bank, designated as Area C under the Oslo Accords.

A bi-national state?

As a consequence of such developments, activists and commentators have been arguing for some time that with the erosion of any basis for any sustainable Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel, the most practicable plan for peace should be the creation of a single bi-national state for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs with equal rights for all its citizens. 

What the proponents of such a process have failed to address however has been just how this democratic bi-national state might come about, given that for many Israelis it would require the forfeiture of their commitment to Israel as a Jewish state.

An apartheid state?

But there is another ‘one-state solution’ that has been advocated – this time by Israeli right-wingers such as the leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party, Naftali Bennett. He has urged the unilateral annexation of Area C that encompasses the bulk of Israeli settlements and associated infrastructure – leaving the Gaza Strip as a mini-state and the Palestinian population centres in the West Bank as autonomous zones within Greater Israel.

What people like Bennett and their followers are proposing is the creation of a modern variant of an apartheid state, with the Palestinian population centres as Bantustans.

Which version of the one-state solution for Trump?

So there are in fact two versions of the one-state solution: a democratic bi-national state where Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs enjoy equal rights of citizenship, and an apartheid-like state within which Palestinians would remain as they have been throughout much of their history – an occupied people without basic human or civil rights.

However cavalier Trump might be, he stood for election on a Republican Party platform that rejected “the false notion that Israel is an occupier”, insisted that Israel stood out “as a beacon of democracy and humanity”, and opined that “support for Israel is an expression of Americanism”. On this basis there would seem little doubt as to which of the one-state models he would support – except, as Hagai Matar pointed out a few days ago in +972:

“In Trump’s view, at least according to what he said Wednesday night (which, as we know, does not necessarily have any relation to his views Thursday morning), the desired outcome to the conflict is one that is acceptable to both sides. That doesn’t mean withdrawing to the borders Israelis want on Israeli terms. It doesn’t mean unilaterally annexing parts of the West Bank. It means an agreement.”

Seeds of hope?

Whichever option Trump decides to back, at the very least he has helped legitimise debate about alternative paths to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and moving beyond the orthodoxy of the two-state solution does provide a few seeds of hope – at least for the mid- to long-term.

If, as seems probable, the ultra-nationalists of Israel feel emboldened with Trump in the White House to push more vigorously for annexation, then a number of factors could come into play. First off, as Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry observed on 28 December 2016, when dismissing Israel’s hopes of making a separate peace with Arab states:

“Now, one thing we do know: if Israel goes down the one state path, it will never have true peace with the rest of the Arab world, and I can say that with certainty. The Arab countries have made clear that they will not make peace with Israel without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Secondly, and more significantly, any moves on the part of Israel to institutionalise structures and practices directly comparable to the South African apartheid system as part of a proposed peace settlement would provoke a wave of protest and condemnation of such a magnitude as to make the current BDS movement seem miniscule. Diana Buttu of the Institute for Middle East Understanding has predicted a new era of apartheid and resistance:

“Israel’s apartheid regime will be challenged in the same way that South Africa’s was – by holding Israel accountable through boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Ultimately, as in South Africa, the outcome will be the same: equality for all. And no one should have a problem with that.”

In this potentiality there lie some seeds of hope. But for this hope to be realised, significant changes need to take place within the Palestinian political domain, changes that are best highlighted by a brief reference to some of the major contrasts between the South African case and that of contemporary Palestine:

  1. The global anti-apartheid movement took its lead from the African National Congress (ANC) which was recognised as the unified and legitimate leadership of the liberation struggle in South Africa.
  2. Within South Africa the United Democratic Front (UDF), which was the internal manifestation of the ANC, was able to organise and coordinate internal protest and resistance.

In the Palestinian case there is not a unified leadership to be followed. There is the ongoing division between Fatah and Hamas, a rivalry that militates against a strong and coordinated political struggle. Furthermore, there is the fact that many of the current political leadership within the Palestinian political domain benefit from the ongoing occupation, which means that there is not the same ‘internal’ leadership as there was in South Africa.

For too many years, Palestinians have looked outside themselves to identify those responsible for their desperate plight – invariably with considerable justification. But they also need to have the courage to recognise their own weaknesses and fault lines, and commit to addressing them before they can expect to achieve their goal of a sustainable peace.

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