9 November 2023
By Jeff Halper
Even while the destruction of Gaza and its people goes on unchecked by the international community, and particularly by the United States and its G-7 allies, we must begin focusing on the day after. Everyone agrees that the Hamas operation of October 7th has fundamentally changed the political game in the Middle East. No longer can the Palestinians be excluded; “normalization” can no longer be pursued without dealing first and foremost with the status of Palestine.
This important political development opens the door to new political possibilities and initiatives – yet a door that Israel, the US and Europe are already preparing to slam shut. At a White House press conference on October 25th, as the world was still reeling from the trauma of the October 7th attack by Hamas and Israel’s devastating retaliation, President Biden announced that “when this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next, and, in our view, it has to be a two-state solution.” He asserted that the US, supported by the European Union, will convene “Israelis, Palestinians, regional partners, global leaders” for “a concentrated effort to put us on a path toward peace.”
Now, in principle, the two-state solution cannot be dismissed out of hand. While not just – the Palestinians receiving only 22 percent of their homeland – it did offer them a potentially viable state with borders on Jordan, Egypt and Israel as well as access to the sea. When the PLO accepted it in 1988, thereby relinquishing 78 percent of their country, an unprecedented concession for peace by a colonized people, a Palestinian mini-state may still have been feasible. Back then there were less than 100,000 settlers in the West Bank. The Arab core of East Jerusalem, the Old City and its urban environs, was still intact. And only about 4000 Israelis lived in isolated pockets of Gaza. Logistically (if not, in hindsight, politically), the idea of detaching a coherent Palestinian territory from Israeli control without touching a single inch of sovereign Israeli territory appeared an eminently workable solution.
A Sovereign and Viable Palestine
The ability of a Palestinian state to address Palestinian aspirations for self-determination cannot be determined theoretically, however. Only if the idea assumes the form of a truly sovereign and viable state capable of meeting the needs of its growing population over the generations – while also providing for those of Palestine’s seven million refugees and their descendants who choose to return – can it be accepted as a legitimate political solution. If Biden’s attempt is to be more than a cosmetic maneuver to present a chain of Israeli-controlled bantustans as a Palestinian “state,” it must embrace the following conditions:
- A Palestinian state must have control over its internationally- recognized borders, a fundamental criterion of sovereignty and vital to its economic viability;
- It must be territorially contiguous. In order to make the West Bank a coherent state territory, most or all of Israel’s settlements will have to be removed since their very location was strategically planned so as to guarantee permanent Israeli control. And an extraterritorial passage for people and goods would have to established between the West Bank and Gaza.
- Within its national territory it must exercise sovereign control over all its resources, from natural resources such as water, land and minerals to sacred sites and tourist attractions.
- In that vein it must include East Jerusalem, the most significant symbol of Palestinian national and religious life and a major part of its economy, tourism being Palestine’s largest industry. (At the least an arrangement for shared sovereignty over the Old City may be negotiated.)
- As opposed to Israel’s demand that the Palestinian state be demilitarized, it must have the ability to defend its sovereignty and territory. At the least a Palestinian armed force is required that has policing capabilities within the state’s borders and sovereignty of action on them, backed up by international guarantees of the state’s sovereignty.
- And, of course, the non-negotiable right of the refugees and their descendants to return or receive compensation if they choose to remain in Jordan and other countries where they have created new lives; or resettlement elsewhere.
This is where, as they say, the rubber meets the road. Each of these conditions require complete Israeli withdrawal from all the territory conquered in 1967 (with perhaps some minor border adjustments and, in the best of circumstances, shared sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Old City). Yet every attempt to establish a Palestinian state has failed precisely because Israel, unswervingly supported by the United States which both countries insist must be the sole mediator, has steadfastly rejected them.
Why Israel Will Never Support a Viable Palestinian State
To be precise, although the establishment of a Palestinian state is logistically possible, it will never emerge for four insurmountable reasons:
- The Very Purpose of Zionism and its Success in Judaizing Palestine
Zionism is a national and settler colonial project dedicated to taking over Palestine: displacing its Arab population, seizing its land, settling it with Jews and, ultimately, transforming an Arab country into a Jewish one. As a settler project, it is not a conflict in the sense of two roughly symmetrical “sides” fighting over some source of disagreement or interest. There is no Israeli-Palestine conflict. Settler colonization is a unilateral process. In order to replace Palestine with Israel, Zionism/Israel must by definition deny the indigenous population’s national existence, move them off their land and replace them with Jews. Then, having erased the physical and cultural presence of the Palestinians from the landscape, normalize its existence as a peace-loving, democratic country.
Israel has achieved that, and that is the way the United States and Europe relate to it. In this context, resistance on the part of the Palestinians, who can never reconcile with the loss of their country, the denial of their national rights and their erasure as a people, is easily criminalized as “terrorism,” their claims to their country effectively de-politicized and delegitimized. As a result, when the two “sides” meet in negotiations, Israel, the state party enjoys crucial advantages. It possesses international legitimacy, a negotiating position of asymmetrical strength based on its sovereign right to protect its “national interests,” and the ability to determine the outcome of negotiations, whether because of the massive settlements and infrastructure it strategically laid down in order to create immovable “facts on the ground” or because of the overt support it enjoys from the power brokers, the US and Europe. All that the Palestinians lack. As a result, despite the illegality of colonization, settlement and annexation of an occupied territory, the imposition of an apartheid regime over historic Palestine and, it could be argued, genocide (the destruction a people in whole or in part), Israel has succeeded in completing its take-over of Palestine with no sanctions from the international community whatsoever. “Two states” can only be accepted by Israel in the form of apartheid, and nothing indicates that the Biden Administration will challenge that reality.
- Israel’s “Facts on the Ground”
Although the idea of two states obviously differentiates between the state of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Israel does not. On the contrary, it annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, and in 2019 Netanyahu announced plans to annex the Jordan Valley, almost a quarter of the West Bank. Successive governments have imposed a Matrix of Control over the OPT. A grid of massive settlement blocs incorporates the West Bank into Israeli proper even as it locks the Palestinian population into some 185 tiny and disconnected enclaves. Overall, Israel’s 7.2 million Jews control and live on 85 percent of the country’s land, while 7.5 million Palestinians are confined to just 15 percent of the land, 75 percent of them stateless persons. In practice, there now exists only one governing regime over historic Palestine – that of the state of Israel – and it is clearly an apartheid regime.
- Israel’s Military Doctrines
Palestinian sovereignty over the OPT contradicts Zionism’s purpose of establishing a Jewish state over all the Land of Israel. Rather than leaving Israeli control to the vicissitudes of negotiations – who know if events such as the current Gaza War will change the political landscape? – Israel has embedded its demands for Israeli control and settlement over the entire country in military doctrine. “National security” is defined in such broad and exaggerated terms that it eliminates any possibility of a political resolution based on a sovereign Palestinian state, even a mini-state on just 22 percent of historic Palestine. Specifically, Israel’s security establishment has set out the following military tenets:
- The Palestinians, like all the peoples and governments of the Middle East, are Israel’s permanent enemies and constitute a permanent security threat.
- No return to the “indefensible” armistice lines of 1949 or the 1967 Green Line, i.e., permanent military control over the OPT;
- Control over “defensible borders” with Arab states; meaning Israeli control over the borders of the Palestinian state. Israel must also control Palestinian airspace and the electro-magnetic (communications) sphere;
- A Palestinian state must be demilitarized and Israel must retain security control; Israel must also maintain an active and constant military presence in the OPT;
- Even if a Palestinian state were to emerge (so as to give cosmetic legitimacy to the two-state solution), it will not have territorial contiguity, either between the West Bank and Gaza (“safe passages” will be extraterritorial) or within the West Bank. It may enjoy only “transportational contiguity” under Israel supervision. That is, Palestinians could drive from Jenin to Hebron, but their movement would be controlled by checkpoints and various kinds of surveillance, and Israel would retain the right to arrest Palestinians as they traverse “Israeli” space;
- Israel will retain its major settlements and the settlement “blocs”;
- Israel must control Palestinian foreign policy, particularly its ability to make military treaties;
- The Palestinians must not only recognize the State of Israel but recognize it as a “Jewish state” – in other words, surrender all claim to Palestine as a national homeland and accept that it belongs, and legitimately belongs, to the Jews.
In terms of sovereignty, the best Israel might entertain is “autonomy” over a limited territory. Both Netanyahu’s Allon-Plus Plan and Trump’s Deal of the Century offered a Palestinian state (or “entity”) on 15% of historic Palestine truncated into four cantons – three in the West Bank and Gaza, all separated and controlled by Israeli settlements and highways. Few, if any, Israeli settlers will be removed, and Israel, of course, will retain control of the borders. Palestinian “autonomy” within these parameters amounts to nothing less than apartheid, even if dressed in a Palestinian state-minus.
- No international will
In an ideal world, where international relations operate in accordance with international law and UN resolutions, two things would have happened to pave the way to a just peace in Palestine/Israel: Israel’s occupation would have collapsed under the weight of its own illegality and Palestinian national rights would occupy the center of negotiations. Indeed, the Rabin government refused to enter into the Oslo negotiations until the Clinton Administration reclassified the OPT from occupied to “disputed” territory. Otherwise, there would be no need for negotiations at all; merely enforcing the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention would have dismantled Israel’s Matrix of Control and empowered the Palestinians – perhaps – to negotiations towards the two-state solution that Biden, now 30 years later, sees the importance of promoting. As it is, there has been no international will to oppose or even slow Israel’s relentless Judaization of Palestine or its imposing of a permanent regime of apartheid.
On the contrary, Biden’s threat to impose apartheid in the guise of a two-state solution represents nothing if not a backsliding into a failed, unjust and woefully dated “solution.” This time, however, there will be no “peace process,” no drawn-out “negotiations.” There are far more pressing regional and global concerns to pursue without the interference of the pesky Palestinian issue: establishing a Middle Eastern NATO led by Israel and Saudi Arabia to counter Iranian influence as well as Russian and Chinese challenges in the region; ensuring Western access to oil; addressing the aspirations of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to become global economic hubs; and the need for Israeli military technology, not least for domestic repression. All that requires “normalization,” a militarily hegemonic Israel integrated “peacefully” into the region.
Signs are, then, that the US and its allies are reasserting their authority in determining global realities. When Biden declares “There’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on Oct. 6,” what he means is that the United States will defend Israel’s security and international legitimacy as against any serious initiative to secure Palestinian national rights.
Can the popular support so evident in popular demonstrations be translated into political clout in the global arena? One source of power is certainly the ability to say “no,” to gum up the transactional works. That is what Hamas did in its October 7th attack. That refusal to end resistance and thus frustrate the attempts of states to pursue their own agendas to the detriment of the oppressed explains the determination of the US, Israel and their Arab allies to eliminate it as the Palestinians’ only remaining resistance movement, whatever one feels about its political and religious agenda and actions. More powerful, however, would be a Palestinian “yes” to a political program around which the international grassroots could mobilize.
The Alternative to Two-State Apartheid: One Democratic State
In the view of the Palestinian-led One Democratic State Campaign, the only just and sustainable resolution to Zionist/Israeli settler colonialism is decolonization followed by the establishment of a shared civil democracy that offers equal rights to all the country’s inhabitants (including, of course, the returning Palestinian refugees). Whether a political program takes this form or another, the elements it must embrace are clear:
- End Zionist colonization of Palestine;
- Dismantle the colonial structures of domination and control erected by Zionism/Israel through a process of thorough decolonization;
- Establish a civil democracy between the River and the Sea;
- Bring the refugees and their descendants home;
- Restore to them their lost properties or provide the material support and compensation necessary for their rehabilitation;
- Facilitate the long process of reconciliation in which Israeli Jews must acknowledge their genocidal history towards the Palestinians;
- Address the issue of Palestinian and Israeli national identities; and, ultimately,
- Allow the two peoples to finally build a shared existence in a common polity and society.
Formulating and organizing around a political program is a tall task. Palestinians lack the unifying political vehicle that the PLO once was, capable of reconnecting a people whose forced dispersal and political fragmentation pose formidable obstacles to a coordinated political campaign. Any popular movement would have to deal with the Palestinian Authority, whose very role is to bring “stability” to Israel’s occupation and prevent any interference in the process of normalization. And, of course, the international system itself rests on the exclusive power of states – and in reality the most powerful states – to negotiate inter-state agreements, thus excluding non-state actors such as the Palestinians. Given these realities, the Palestinians’ liberation struggle is far more complex and difficult than that of any colonized people before them. It does command, however, a major political ally: the peoples of the world, including the vast majority of UN member states. Like the FLN in Algeria and the ANC in South Africa, the Palestinian people is capable of mobilizing them into an effective force for securing its national rights.
In the meantime, the immediate challenge facing us on the Day After will be the struggle against American and Israeli attempts to impose a two-state apartheid