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The Myth of International Consensus
Among the panoply of reasons put forth against advocates of a one-state solution for Palestine-Israel, perhaps the most disingenuous is the injunction, repeated by well meaning commentators who believe they speak in the Palestinians’ best interests, that Palestinians would simply be irritating the international community by pressing for such a solution, because the so-called international consensus supports, and indeed is based upon, a two-state solution. At a time when the "international consensus" could not be less interested in securing any Palestinian rights, particularly in forcing Israel to withdraw from enough territory to provide for real Palestinian statehood and genuine freedom from Israeli domination, this call for compliance with the wishes of an uncaring international community is at best an empty argument, at worst a hypocritical dodge that undermines the Palestinians’ right to struggle for equality and self-determination. By telling the Palestinians that they cannot even speak out for one state without antagonizing some mythical consensus around the world, this line of argument undermines their right simply to think about an alternative solution.
The one-state solution is envisioned as an arrangement that would see Palestinians and Jews living together as citizens of a single, truly democratic state, with guaranteed rights to equality and guaranteed equal access to the instruments of governance. Such a solution would mean the end of Zionism as currently conceived and the end of Israel as an exclusivist Jewish state, but it would guarantee equal civil and political rights for Israeli Jews and the right to encourage further Jewish immigration, just as it would guarantee — for the first time — equal civil and political rights for Palestinians and the right of Palestinian refugees exiled over the last 60 years to return to their homeland.
The notion of establishing a single state for Palestinians and Jews, although historically not a new idea, has regained currency in recent years as it has become increasingly obvious that Israel’s absorption of more and more Palestinian land in the occupied territories — land stolen from Palestinians for constantly expanding settlements, a vast network of roads for the exclusive use of Israelis, the monstrously destructive separation wall, and Israeli military bases and closed security zones — has made the vision of "two states living side by side in peace" a cruel joke.
Establishment of a single state is strongly supported by a small but growing core of scholars and activists. Virginia Tilley raised the idea in her 2005 book The One-State Solution. Ali Abunimah continued the discussion with One Country the following year, and Joel Kovel contributed Overcoming Zionism in 2007. In the last few years, numerous articles, international conferences, and debates between advocates and opponents of one state, largely in Europe and Israel, have addressed the possibilities. An emerging grassroots movement in Palestine is directing its energies toward promoting one state, working with scholars and solidarity activists around the world.
But many treat the idea with casual disdain, dismissing it as "naively visionary," "an illusion," or simply "a non-starter." Other opponents at least give the idea more thought and have put forth some reasoned, and often quite soundly reasoned, argumentation for their opposition. This article will address only one of the objections: one of the most commonly heard, that a single state would violate an "international consensus" supporting the two-state solution.
This argument holds that international bodies such as the United Nations and its subsidiaries, as well as human rights organizations and the leaderships of most nations in the world — including, not least, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority themselves — want the end of the occupation and support Israel’s continued existence inside its 1967 borders, along with the establishment of a Palestinian state in the one-quarter of Palestine that would thus be left to the Palestinians. This international consensus is automatically assumed to be sacrosanct, apparently simply because it is international (and perhaps also because it does not endanger Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state).
The most obvious response to this honoring of the international consensus is that in actuality the international community is not in the least interested in what becomes of the Palestinians, now or ever in the past, and does not give more than lip service to any particular solution. Whatever "international consensus" exists has never been interested in specific positions but primarily in accommodating the U.S. and its policies — which ultimately means preserving Israel’s existence above all, supporting a two-state solution because that is the position to which the U.S. and Israel currently themselves pay lip service, but not exhibiting concern for Palestinian rights in any respect. The international community does not initiate policies; it merely parrots and goes along with the positions promoted by the centers of international power, in this case the U.S. and Israel.
There is in fact no international consensus supporting two states for Palestine-Israel. Those who cite UN Security Council Resolution 242 as the basis for two states ignore the reality that the resolution never imagined two states. When it was adopted in the wake of the 1967 war, during which Israel captured territory from Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, it called for Israel’s withdrawal "from territories occupied" in the war and affirmed the right of all states in the region "to live in peace within secure and recognized borders" (a formulation later twisted into the demand that Palestinians and other Arabs recognize Israel’s "right to exist"). Although it became the basis for future peace initiatives, as well as the basis for future UN resolutions, Resolution 242 did not even mention Palestinians except as "the refugee problem" and clearly did not put forth a proposal for two states in Palestine-Israel. The international consensus at this point acted as though it had never even heard of Palestinians. At the time, any consideration of the fate of the occupied West Bank and Gaza was directed solely at ending Israel’s control and returning these territories to Jordan and Egypt respectively, their original occupiers.
If there was ever an international consensus in favor of two states in Palestine, this was during the year or so surrounding passage of the 1947 UN partition resolution, which divided Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. This period of support for two states ran from mid-1947, when a UN committee recommended partition, until early 1948, when Israel and Jordan began what became the theft of the territory designated for the Palestinian Arab state, each taking approximately half of it (except for Gaza, which Egypt controlled, but did not annex, until Israel captured that tiny strip of land in 1967). The international community expressed absolutely no concern over this dismemberment of the second state supposed to be established in Palestine — or over Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population, or over the fate of the 750,000 Palestinians forced into exile and consigned to refugee camps in surrounding Arab countries, or over Israel’s and Jordan’s continued control over territories stolen from the Palestinians. So much for the international consensus.
Today, whatever international consensus exists in support of two states arises not out of any true international interest in seeing a Palestinian state formed alongside Israel, but from the Palestinians’ own formal decision in November 1988 to accept the two-state formula. This came at the height of the first Palestinian intifada and immediately after Jordan had relinquished any claim to the West Bank. Even then, neither the U.S., Israel, nor the international community accepted the idea of allowing the Palestinians a state until several years later, when the notion of two states gradually came to be accepted implicitly as the logical outcome of peace negotiations that continued through the 1990s. Throughout the Oslo peace process, Palestinian statehood was still rarely if ever explicitly mentioned as a likely outcome.
It was not until the last days of President Clinton’s term in January 2001 — more than 30 years after the occupation began, over 50 years after Palestine had been dismembered — that a U.S. president first publicly and explicitly advocated Palestinian statehood. (George Bush has been claiming to be the first president to call for a Palestinian state, but Clinton beat him to it by more than a year. Clinton does not boast about being first on this issue, presumably because no one wins political points in the U.S. by seeming to advocate any benefit for Palestinians or demand any concessions from Israel. Both Clinton and Bush have specifically ruled out the likelihood that the Palestinian state would include all of the Palestinian territories captured in 1967, as both have asserted that Israel will retain control of major settlement blocs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.)
The "international consensus" had little to say about the Palestinians’ fate throughout the dozen years between the PLO’s acceptance of the two-state formula in 1988 and the collapse in 2000 of the only serious peace process that might have led to genuine Palestinian statehood. The international community did not press for a Palestinian state; it did not object to Israel’s continued expropriation of the territory where such a state would have been located; it did not object to the fact that the number of Israeli settlers in that territory doubled during the years of the peace process intended to resolve the questions of land and settlements.
The so-called international consensus can hardly be said ever to have stood for Palestinian statehood in any meaningful way. It is engaged today, in fact, in an active effort to undermine any prospect of genuine Palestinian statehood. By continuing to support Israel as it makes a two-state solution an utter impossibility and by turning away as Israel perpetrates what in any other context would be recognized as war crimes against a powerless civilian population, the vaunted international consensus is in actuality helping to perpetuate support for the decimation of an entire people and its national aspirations. The humanitarian disaster that is Gaza is entirely the result of the international community’s supine refusal to stand up to Israel and the U.S. and its active support for an embargo on Gaza that is imprisoning and starving 1.5 million inhabitants and devastating the Gazan economy.
In an interview at the new year began, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert crowed about how much international support Israel enjoys for its program of oppression. The international constellation of world leaders supporting Israel, he said, is almost a kind of divine intervention. "It’s a coincidence that is almost ‘the hand of God’ that Bush is president of the United States, that Nicholas Sarkozy is the president of France, that Angela Merkel is the chancellor of Germany, that Gordon Brown is the prime minister of England and that the special envoy to the Middle East is Tony Blair." How could Israel have asked, he wondered, for a "more comfortable" combination? The fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority apparatus in Ramallah support and encourage this nice comfort zone in which Israel relaxes and encourages the humanitarian disaster being imposed on fellow Palestinians in Gaza does not lessen the responsibility of the "international consensus" for its part in going along with these horrors.
Those who tout the international consensus as something to be heeded point out that public opinion polls in Israel, the U.S., and Europe show strong popular support for an end to Israel’s occupation and consistently support the two-state formula by large majorities. This is accurate, but these polls are essentially meaningless. On Palestinian-Israeli issues, as on the march toward war in Iraq, international public opinion has virtually no impact on the policies pursued by governments, and in any case public opinion on this issue is merely reactive. In the minds of most people in liberal western societies, Palestinian statehood is a nice concept in a vague sort of way, but few understand what is happening on the ground in Palestine and fewer still are willing to go out on the streets to back up their casual "yes" answers to pollsters with anti-occupation protests. Moreover, support for statehood drops off when the precise nature of the Israeli concessions required is spelled out. It is also worth noting in any consideration of the importance of polls on this issue that in Israel polls show the same large majorities for ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank as they do for permitting the Palestinians a state.
Invocation of the international consensus to induce Palestinians to stop advocating true equality in a single state in all of Palestine comes out of a kind of denial, a refusal to acknowledge that the international consensus is so oblivious to the injustice being perpetrated against the Palestinians that it has not noticed and does not care that the possibility of establishing two states died quite some years ago. A real two-state solution — in which a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem would enjoy full sovereignty and independence in a contiguous territory not segmented and not totally surrounded by Israel — is now a forlorn dream from which the international consensus has yet to awaken.
KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.