Arab and Israeli commentators have pretty much outlined the speech Barack Obama will deliver in Egypt during his June visit, even though he is still meeting with the region’s leaders in Washington. While some are optimistic, many are fearful.
Israelis fear that Obama will make them recognize Palestinian rights and force them to give up the Palestinian and Syrian territory they have been busy colonizing since 1967.
Arabs fear Obama will announce that their leaders plan further concessions in the form of expanded normalization with Israel in the Arab and Islamic worlds before a full withdrawal and comprehensive peace. They also fear his speech will nix the Palestinian right of return, which is both an individual and a collective right under international law, and support Israel as a “Jewish state” instead of the state of all its citizens.
There is agreement on one thing: The Obama administration wants to see a comprehensive peace centered on a two-state solution in its lifetime. If this is indeed the case, Palestinians and Israelis face an existential question: What kind of state will each have?
It appears that the “Palestine” taking shape will have an under-sized territory with an over-sized internal security force. The size of the territory will depend on how successfully the Palestinian leadership narrows Israel’s definition of the major (illegal) settlement blocs it wants to keep, whose boundaries extend far beyond the actual buildings.
The size of the population will depend on whether Palestinian leaders uphold the Palestinian right of return to what is now Israel and how many refugees and exiles they can bring to the nascent Palestinian state.
A crucial issue is how sovereign this Palestinian state would be. Would it exercise full control over its borders? Recently, for example, Israel stopped Mahmoud Abbas’ envoy from traveling to South Africa to attend the inauguration of its new president. It has also introduced a rule that makes it even harder for West Bank Palestinians to enter Jerusalem.
And if the new Palestinian state does control its own borders, would it be forced to accept Israeli behind-the-scenes monitoring of all travelers, an approach initiated in Gaza before Israel sealed its borders?
Other issues regarding sovereignty include control of the population registry, water resources, and the economy, all of which Israel currently controls.
In fact, the achievement of a sovereign Palestine would require breaking with the Oslo accords in which Palestinian negotiators signed away most aspects of sovereignty during what was supposed to be a short interim period. Since many of the same leaders that negotiated those Oslo accords are still in power, the prospects are not promising — unless either Hamas or Palestinian civil society block a minimalist state and push for full independence.
However, while Hamas is in favor of a two-state solution and may be willing to accept pragmatic compromise, many civil society leaders — particularly in the increasingly powerful boycott and right of return movements — now believe in a one-state solution and appear unwilling to invest energy in the two-state project. Unless there is a shift in strategy, truncated statehood may be in the cards.
As for Israel, its territory would cover over three-quarters of mandate Palestine, much larger than envisaged by the United Nations partition plan of 1947. Israel would have defined borders for the first time in its existence — which would spell the end of the Zionist project to gather world Jews into what was once Palestine.
Israel’s insistence on being recognized as a Jewish state aims to keep the Zionist dream alive in the event of a two-state solution. A Jewish state would continue to give primacy to its Jewish citizens plus any Jews anywhere that want Israeli citizenship under its law of return.
This project is of course resisted by the 1.45 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are still second-class citizens. And they have the support of a growing number of Israeli Jews who believe in equal rights for all Israelis.
Several issues would challenge an Israel at peace. There are divergences among Jews themselves regarding the claim that Israeli nationality equals Jewish nationality. Many Jews continue to view Judaism as a faith not a national identity. And many Jews that maintain family or cultural ties to Israel do not see themselves as potential Israelis but rather as citizens of the country in which they live. Meanwhile, the debate over “Who is a Jew?” resurfaces repeatedly in Israel and elsewhere.
So long as Israel could point to external threats, it was possible to put such issues on the back burner. However, if and when the peace process now led by the Obama administration nears a final status agreement, these will become increasingly sharp and divisive questions for Israel.
If Obama achieves two states, he may find he is at the beginning rather than the end of the road.
NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.