Forty years ago this week, Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip, re-establishing a political system in which one sovereign ruled over all of former Palestine. Unnoticed by the world, this brought about a version of a “single state solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — albeit one in which Palestinians and Jews do not have equal rights.
Instead, Israel has ruled the West Bank and Gaza Strip through military governments that control the daily lives of millions of Palestinians in every aspect, yet in which they have no say. Although Palestinians now elect representatives to a Palestinian Authority, these officials administer the tiny Gaza Strip, and less than 20 percent of the West Bank. Their powers scarcely exceed those of county supervisors.
Meanwhile, international opinion has steadily solidified behind a “two state solution.” In this scenario, independent Jewish and Palestinian states would divide the land between the Mediterranean coast and the River Jordan. By the mid-1970s, most states in the U.N. General Assembly supported Palestinian nationhood. In 1988, the PLO explicitly recognized Israel within its pre-1967 borders, agreeing to sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, together comprising just 22 percent of former Palestine.
The United States finally joined the bandwagon in 2002, when President Bush called for two democratic states living side by side in his “Roadmap to Peace.” Even Israel has signed on, although its conception of what territory and powers a Palestinian state should possess is more constrictive than anyone else’s.
Ironically, this unanimity, so laboriously assembled over decades, upholds a solution that is now impossible to achieve. Israel’s program of colonizing the West Bank has become irreversible, and the land base for a viable Palestinian state has disappeared. Some 450,000 Israeli settlers now occupy more than 140 settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. These Jewish settlements, the security swaths around them, the roads linking them to each other and to Israel, and the “separation wall” that pens Palestinians into discontiguous islands of land, cover more than 40 percent of the West Bank. Much of this is either private Palestinian property, seized without compensation, or state lands in which Palestinians hold traditional use rights that Israel refuses to respect.
Meanwhile, Israel’s colonizing juggernaut rolls ahead. Recently, plans to build 2,500 new homes for Israeli settlers east of Jerusalem were announced, and orders were given to continue construction of the “separation wall” in the Jordan Valley. There appears to be no political force capable of slowing, let alone halting, this movement.
A comforting illusion has been fostered that if Palestinians and Israelis could only be coaxed back into negotiations, the elusive two-state solution would somehow materialize. The interests of leaders on all sides are served by this fiction, although for different reasons. For President Bush, an appearance of progress toward Palestinian-Israeli peace quells hostility toward the United States in the Middle East, and eases policy options elsewhere in the region, including Iraq. The PLO leadership, personified in the hapless Mahmoud Abbas, staked its entire political legitimacy in the Oslo accords and the endless “peace process” it inaugurated. Abandoning negotiations toward a two-state solution would constitute an admission that it had led the Palestinians into a terrible dead-end. Israel mollifies the United States by engaging in the negotiation charade, exploits the continuing indeterminacy to continue colonizing the West Bank, and advances its strategic objective of permanent control over most or all of former Palestine. Like the shimmering waters of a desert mirage, the two-state solution moves just out of reach with every apparent advancing step.
The tragedy is that temporizing in the face of this inevitable truth ultimately serves neither Israeli Jews, nor Palestinian Arabs, nor Americans. Continued conflict in the region hurts the direct parties in obvious ways, and also deeply undermines the status of the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Our reflexive support of Israel, even in its self-destructive policies, is a prime cause of hostility against us.
The number of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs living within the borders of former Palestine are now roughly equivalent, at just more than 5 million each. The question is: Will political power within this single political system continue to be exercised in what former ANC member and current South African Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils and others have described as an acute form of apartheid? Or will Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews enjoy equal rights and share power fairly in what is already a joint polity? For those who support peace, justice and respect for international law, the choice should be obvious.
GEORGE BISHARAT is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law, and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.