A member of the Palestinian security forces stands guard during a visit by Palestinian prime minister in the village of Susya, south-east of Hebron. Photo: Getty

Why hope of a two state solution is dying

Donald Macintyre, reporting from the West Bank, explains how the old dream of two states is slipping beyond reach
August 17, 2018

Sitting with Nasser Nawaja and his father Mohammed on the floor of his flimsy wood-framed shack at Susiya, in the rocky, windswept South Hebron hills, you sense how the history of the last 70 years is bound up in their journey here—short though it was by the standards of many Palestinian families. In 1948, Mohammed, then aged two, was carried on his father’s shoulders as they walked four miles north to flee advancing Israeli forces, like over 700,000 other refugees who lost their homes in what is now Israel. Susiya was just across what would become the 1949 armistice line, in the West Bank, which after the first great round of fighting stopped was controlled by Jordan.

But after the 1967 Six Day War, the West Bank—along with Gaza and East Jersualem—was occupied by Israel, paving the way for the settlers. And so, in 1986, it was the toddler Nasser’s turn to be carried on Mohammed’s shoulders from his birthplace. Three years after the establishment of a nearby Jewish settlement, the Palestinian residents were ordered by the Israeli military to leave to make way for an Israeli archaeological park around the ancient ruins of a synagogue; no matter that a mosque had also existed there since the 10th century. The families constructed a new, makeshift Susiya, where today its 240 residents remain squeezed precariously, between two Israeli-imposed “security zones,” which exclude them from much of their previous land. To Susiya’s north is that archaeological park; to its south are the red-roofed settlement houses, homes to 950 Jewish residents, with their own synagogue, community centre and swimming pool. It could expand again without fuss, if the only Palestinian residents were once again uprooted.


Read Avraham Burg on why it's timeto consider a one state solution ___________________ Which is just what the Israeli authorities intend. Israel’s military has court authority to demolish seven of the ramshackle dwellings, the first step in a process to move the Palestinians from their land to the impoverished West Bank city of Yatta. But the Nawajas have been fellahin, peasant farmers, in the area for generations—the very way of life, along with their land, that they are now under military orders to abandon. Nasser is an activist; but also a farmer to his fingertips. When we last met back in the late spring, he broke off to worry aloud about the heavy rain beating unseasonably on the nylon roof above us—it might be “good for the vegetables,” but “disastrous” for his wheat and olives. And he is determined to resist being forced, as if it were a once in a generation event, to carry his own youngest son on his shoulders from his birthplace. “I won’t do it,” he says.

Whether he will succeed in resisting is another matter. Susiya is in “Area C”—the mainly rural 60 per cent of Occupied Palestinian Territory under direct Israeli military control. A significant minority of the Palestinians, estimated at 300,000, live here together with the vast majority—around 400,000—of all the Israeli settlers. Area C is easily the biggest territorial chunk of an independent future Palestine, so without it there is not going to be the two-state peace deal that the international community has long espoused.

But ultra-nationalist members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition want to see much or all of it unilaterally annexed by Israel. If Susiya is demolished, it will be yet another case of the creeping de facto annexation which hard-right ministers want to formalise. Since a plausible Palestinian state would require settlements to be dislodged, their expansion makes a peace deal correspondingly more difficult.

Since its last move, Susiya’s story has been one of demolitions, settler violence, damage to Palestinian property, expulsion orders, and ultimately vain appeals to the Israeli courts. In international law, the settlement—like all those in the West Bank—is illegal. But in Israeli law, Susiya’s Palestinian residents are caught in a classic Area C trap. The ostensible reason for the Susiya demolition orders is that the residents, forcibly transferred over 30 years ago, built their present dwellings without permits, which is true. But it is virtually impossible for Palestinian residents—unlike Israeli settlers—to secure such permits. Between 2000 and 2014, 2,020 Palestinians embarked on the heavily bureaucratised process of applying to the Israeli authorities for building permits. Just 33 were granted. Dismantling Palestinian Susiya would be a symbolic but logical extension of the discriminatory process which many are saying has already killed the two-state solution.

Stuck at a staging post

Israeli-controlled Area C was never supposed to last. It’s a hangover from the Oslo accords, the first of which prompted the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn 25 years ago this September. It’s easy to forget the excitement and hope the accord generated among millions of Israelis and Palestinians. It was designed to lead to a lasting peace between the two peoples by 1999. But supposed to be an interim staging post, Oslo became the endpoint.

Establishing a Palestinian Authority with heavily circumscribed autonomy in the cities, Israel rid itself of any obligation regarding the welfare, education and other essential services for the Palestinians, without sacrificing its overall control of the occupied territories. As Yossi Beilin, the Labour politician who was the accord’s key Israeli architect told me, “the problem with Oslo is not that it’s dead but that’s it alive.”

The agreement was always flawed. For one thing, it gave Israel carte blanche to continue building settlements in occupied territory in (what has proved to be an indefinite) interim period. Opposition mounted. Hamas rejected the agreement and unleashed a spate of suicide bombings, after a Hebron settler, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Ibrahim mosque, the site, holy to both Jews and Arabs, of Abraham’s tomb. There was virulent incitement against the accords by the Israeli right, including the present Prime Minister Netanyahu. And in November 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic as he left a Tel Aviv peace rally.

Whether or not Oslo would have led to a two-state solution had Rabin lived, without his lustre and personal authority as a general and war hero, the chances were greatly reduced. Immediately after the White House signing, Beilin—acting alone—had opened secret talks overseen by himself and Arafat’s deputy Mahmoud Abbas, to produce the blueprint for a full two-state agreement. That was achieved, with tragic timing, in October 1995; Beilin, temporarily abroad, intended to put it to Rabin early the following month as the basis for completing negotiations. Ahmad Khalidi and Hussein Agha, the two Palestinians who had done the detailed negotiation of the outline agreement, travelled to Gaza on 1st November and secured Arafat’s parallel assent. But on 4th November, Rabin was killed.

Beilin thinks that Shimon Peres, who immediately succeeded Rabin, made a serious error by refusing to make the two-state blueprint the centrepiece of his 1996 election campaign. “He said I can only do this once I have a personal mandate, and not before,” recalled Beilin. Instead Peres lost the election to Netanyahu—who brought the post-Oslo process to a halt.

Two state diplomacy did not permanently stop—it resumed, after Ehud Barak’s 1999 defeat of Netanyahu. Yet the paradox of the next quarter century was that, as the basic contours of a two-state solution became progressively clearer, the prospect of it became more elusive. Partition would return to what it had been between 1949 and 1967: 78 per cent of historic Palestine would be Israel’s, and 22 per cent the Palestinians’.

A land swap would probably allow a couple of the biggest Jewish settlement blocs to be sited within Israel while the other settlers would be evacuated. There would be a capital for both states in Jerusalem, respectively west and east, and at least a recognition by Israel of the wholesale dispossession of 1948—what the Arabs call the nakba, or catastrophe—underpinned by a symbolic return for a minority of Palestinian refugee descendants, with compensation for the large majority.

It was hardly an impossible dream, so how has it come to be regarded as unattainable? One factor is the shrinking of Beilin’s centre-left peace camp in Israel’s domestic politics. Most Israelis said they favoured—and still do—a two-state deal. But they blame the Palestinians for the failure of the Barak-Arafat Camp David talks in 2000, then the subsequent, second intifada, as well as the doomed Ehud Olmert-Abbas talks of 2008. But some American—and in the case of Camp David—also Israeli officials disputed this apportionment of responsibility. Israel always took more account of its own strident anti-deal minority, than of the Palestinian belief that Arafat’s “historic compromise” of 1988, ratified at Oslo, settling for 22 per cent of historic Palestine, left scant room for further concessions. Nonetheless, the Israelis spun—and came to believe—that there was “no partner for peace.”

A similar narrative embedded itself in the Israeli psyche after Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal of 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Disengagement from Gaza potentially set a momentous precedent. But Sharon was determined to act unilaterally, denying Abbas a political dividend—which might have helped him win the fateful 2006 elections against Hamas—and refusing to link the move to any wider peace plan. And disengagement—by design, and in contradiction to earlier deals—started to separate Gaza from its markets in Israel and the West Bank. After Hamas seized full control of Gaza in 2007, that separation rapidly accelerated, halting all exports and destroying Gaza’s economy. But the Israeli right—again including Netanyahu—was deaf to the idea that this impoverishing separation was something Israel had imposed. Instead, it popularised the argument, “We left Gaza to the Palestinians so they could prosper in peace, and all they did was fire rockets at us. That’s what happens when we give up territory.”

The new normal

Back in the 1990s a gruesomely funny sketch in the Israeli television satire show, Hahamishia Hakamerit, depicted three long-skirted female Jewish settlers cheerfully swapping cooking tips in a Hebron street. The scene is wholly normal except that two of the women, without halting their homely discussion of whether olive oil can be re-used, fire their M16s at a (presumably Palestinian) target off camera, while another hurls a hand grenade.

Underlying this caricature was an assumption that most of the show’s mainstream audience would see its characters as, well, crazy. Ideological settlers were still seen as an outlandish fringe minority. True, the numbers had grown rapidly; but there were around 100,000 Jewish settlers across the whole West Bank, a small constituency in a population of 5.5m. Today there are at least 380,000 settlers in the West Bank, as well as the 200,000 in East Jerusalem—an increase that has convinced some analysts that it is now “too late” for two states.

And it’s not just about the numbers. Hebron, is in many ways a microcosm of the wider occupation and the only Palestinian West Bank city with settlers in its heart. After the Goldstein massacre, Rabin considered removing the Hebron settlers but eventually decided this would have to await a final peace agreement. Instead the greatest impact of the atrocity was on the Palestinians themselves; to prevent revenge attacks the military imposed a six-month curfew and then closed part of Shuhada Street, the city centre’s main artery, to Palestinian vehicles. The neighbourhood began to empty of its Palestinian residents, and the bustling shops and markets, which had once made this commercial hub of the southern West Bank, began to wither into the desolate ghost town of today.

Things got much worse during the second intifada. With settlers so close to the Palestinians, Hebron was an incendiary flashpoint. Between 2000 and 2007, Palestinian militants killed five Israeli civilians, and 17 Israeli security force personnel. The Israeli military killed 88 Palestinians—over half of whom were “not taking part in hostilities,” according to the Israeli human rights agency B’Tselem.

I visited Hebron this year, as I had a decade earlier, with Yehuda Shaul, who had served in a combat unit there at the peak of the second intifada, and has since founded Breaking the Silence, a veterans’ group which, in Shaul’s words, thinks “the military should be for Israel’s defence and not for the oppression and occupation of Palestinians.”

Steel shutters and cages on every window protect the few remaining Palestinian residents from stones thrown by their Israeli neighbours. International volunteers were still preparing to escort the 100 remaining Palestinian pupils from the neighbourhood’s girls’ school to guard them from the hostile children in the adjoining four settlements. More than 600 Israeli soldiers protect around 850 residents of four distinct settlements. Only settlers can drive their cars on Shuhada Street, and on most of it Palestinians are barred even from walking.

Today, the Hebron settlers are no longer deemed an embarrassment; they enjoy the Israeli establishment’s moral and political esteem. In 2012 Gideon Saar, an annexationist tipped as Netanyahu’s successor who was then education minister, expanded a programme of school visits to Hebron, saying that “the Arabs mustn’t get the mistaken notion that Jews can be uprooted from Hebron.” In 2015, State President Reuven Rivlin, one of Likud’s relative moderates, officially opened a visitors’ centre at the Beit Hadassah settlement. And last November, the government approved a new, fifth settlement in Shuhada Street which would bring another 31 Israeli families to Hebron.

All of which reflects a wider political shift. Israelis often point out that Hamas has never rescinded its notorious charter, pronouncing the whole of historic Palestine as Arab land. But while Hamas did, in May 2017, signal it could entertain a state on pre-June 1967 borders, Likud has never scrapped its own founding document claiming a “Greater Israel,” from the Jordan to Mediterranean. Where even the hardline Ariel Sharon would talk in office about the “occupation,” none of the Netanyahu cabinet would use that term, and some senior ministers simply proclaim the whole land as rightfully Israel’s. “How can you be an occupier in your own country?” is the rhetorical question posed by ultranationalist education minister Naftali Bennett.

Annexation may not happen. Netanyahu seems comfortable with the status quo, continued occupation and expanding settlements, without any change to the legal status. But with senior Israeli politicians freely discussing formalising their conquest, it is becoming easier to imagine this than partition into two states. And right now, the international dynamics only reinforce this sense. In his book last year, The Only Language They Understand, the International Crisis Group’s Nathan Thrall argued it would be “irrational” for Israel to end the occupation, unless the US and the rest of the world imposed costs on it for not making concessions which exceed the relatively modest price—for Israel—of maintaining and entrenching the status quo.

Sometime in the future, that could happen. Among US Democrats the traditionally bipartisan assumption of “Israel right or wrong” is fraying. The EU, in many respects the sleeping giant among Israel’s allies as its biggest trading partner, could at some stage impose a robust ban on trading with companies in occupied territory. However, there is little sign of serious movement in Europe for now, and Donald Trump’s Washington has been doubling down on uncritical loyalty to Israel. Of course Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt are supposedly working on his “deal of the century.” But Trump’s moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and remarkable boast to have taken the defining city of the entire conflict “off the table” makes a mockery of that. He has also cut funding to the UN Palestinian refugee agency, and remains electorally dependent on a fanatically pro-Israel Christian right.

The last time the US actually used its huge potential leverage on Israel—which includes the $3bn a year it spends on Israeli defence—was at the outset of the process which led to Oslo. George HW Bush suspended $10bn of loan guarantees to bring a resistant Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s prime minister, to the table. But the early 1990s proved the high watermark of the conviction that America’s interests were served by using an Israeli-Palestinian solution as a way to stabilise the wider Middle East. Few can believe that today. With Syria, Yemen and Libya ravaged by war and with Islamic State a major security threat to the west, the Palestinians look increasingly marginalised on the world stage. Meanwhile, a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States now regard the Palestinian cause as less important than a strategic alliance with Israel—and the US—against Iran.

Power without a price

All this helps to explain the loss of faith in the two-state solution since Oslo. Even Yossi Beilin, still working away on the conflict at 71, is updating the old blueprint in the light of subsequent events, and thinking anew. Under his new two-state plan, the smallprint of which is being developed in conjunction with London’s Chatham House, Palestinians would get a state on 22 per cent of the total land: the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. So far, so conventional. But there is a twist; any of the settlers beyond the major blocs—nearly 200,000 in all—who wanted to could stay put. They’d retain their Israeli citizenship, but would live under Palestinian sovereignty, without the Israeli military to protect them. Those remaining would then be matched by a similar number of Palestinian refugees who would be returned to Israel proper. The continuation of the idea of “Israel proper,” alongside a new Palestine, means this remains a variant of the two-state model, differentiating it from the Avraham Burg plan (p20). But, with the same emphasis on seeking justice without displacing all the settlers, the line between the two visions becomes a little hazy. Like Burg, Beilin talks about “confederation,” and a series of joint Israeli-Palestinian institutions, covering security, water, and communications, as well as freer movement than today.

But does he seriously think the most ideologically driven settlers would suddenly co-exist peacefully with their Arab neighbours—and vice versa? It would, Beilin admits, be a “real challenge” but in his view “not impossible.” Many settlers, he thinks, would leave for Israel with financial compensation. His plan focuses on them because, he is quite clear, the “biggest fear of any prime minister, left or right, is the evacuation of settlers. This “huge stumbling block,” he believes, “is more of an obstacle than Jerusalem or the refugees.”

But Beilin’s ideas have many critics, on both the left and right. The Hebron settlers’ spokesman Yishai Fleisher sees no need for a negotiated agreement “permitting” the settlers to stay. “Why should we waste our time talking about this? I have to tell some of my leftist friends that there are 600,000 settlers, we have a right-wing government and a right-wing Knesset. We have waged a long struggle, and we’re winning.” On the other flank, the soldier-turned-anti-occupation campaigner Shaul, who describes himself as a “two-state extremist,” is convinced that the settlers have created a myth about the power—and supposed immovability—conferred on them by the recent expansion. The biggest growth in settler numbers, he points out, is in Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit—around 100,000 residents in all—which are both communities bordering the green line, so it would be easy enough to resettle them in Israel itself or—by trading land—to draw a future border incorporating them in Israel.

Living without protection?

Those numerous settlers in Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit are principally there not for ideological reasons, but for cheap and effectively subsidised housing. Indeed all the settlements depend on Israeli government subsidised utilities, education and other services provided—at formidable taxpayer cost—by Israel under laws and military orders which could, if the politics changed, easily be reversed. Convinced the settlers can indeed be evacuated if the will exists, Shaul rejects Beilin’s plan for a settler right to remain “because it legitimises the settlements,” and potentially does so ahead of negotiations with the Palestinians. Most fundamentally, he is convinced it is a “fantasy.” “Do you really see a scenario when Israel leaves its citizens living there without its protection?”

Shaul, like many frontline Israeli anti-occupation activists, is no fan of the alternative of a binational state, in which an Arab majority would be wholly possible, effectively spelling the end of Israel’s existence as we know it, a prospect he thinks his compatriots would never accept. “For 50 years you couldn’t remove Israel from the occupied territories,” says Shaul. “Now you think you can dissolve the state. Are you nuts?” Unlike Beilin, the crucial obstacle for Shaul is not the evacuation of the settlers, but rather Israel’s continuing stubborn reluctance to offer the Palestinians a fully-fledged state. Even Rabin never made an offer like that, but—Shaul thinks—under him the dynamics were pushing that way. Today’s central problem, he insists, “is a lack of political will by Israel to end its control over Palestinians. If Israel doesn’t have an incentive to end the occupation, or a disincentive to continue, why would Israel give it up?”

Back in Susiya, Nasser Nawaja, as a refugee, no doubt dreams of a single, if binational, Palestine, stretching from “the river to the sea.” But he says bluntly: “It won’t happen; Israel doesn’t want it. And it doesn’t matter what I want but what the Palestinian people will accept.” He does believe that they would buy “a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel.” And so they might, but only if the world gives Israel a formidable “incentive” to agree to it too. Western politicians repeatedly assert that “time is running out” for the two-state solution. Without action as well as words, they are willing that warning to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Donald Macintyre is the author of Gaza: Preparing for Dawn (Oneworld paperback out in October 2018)