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The demise of the West Bank construction freeze and the emerging building boom is driving the final nails into the coffin of the Palestinian State, at least as previously conceived. If Israelis and Palestinians truly want to see a future based on democracy, justice, and security, then we better start looking at options to the muck that our politicians have been dishing up to us for decades.
The proposed state of Palestine has been based on a ‘classic’ two-state solution, one in which the vast majority of settlers would be removed from their communities and relocated to Israel proper. This idea is currently being made redundant by the facts on the ground. Peace Now, the mainstream Israeli peace organization, recently released data showing that housing starts in the West Bank during the last three months of 2010 equal to average housing starts for twelve-months in previous years. This is due in part to the large number of approvals that were delayed during the 12-month partial freeze, which ended in September 2010. In mid-March 2011, the Israeli government announced an additional 500 new housing approvals in response to the slaughter of a settler family in Itamar. There are thousands more units in the pipeline. The building boom is picking up steam.
This growth is now propelling the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank into a post-colonial period, and the consolidation of an expanded nation-state. Over half a million Israeli Jewish citizens live in the conquered territories between the Green Line (1949 Armistice line) and the Jordan River. Seventy square kilometers to the north, east, and south of West Jerusalem have been formally annexed and surrounded by an 8-meter (25 ft.) wall, while the Israeli population growth in the West Bank has averaged over 5% annually for the past two decades. Huge Jewish-only towns and cities have been built in strategic locations in the West Bank, and four-lane highways connect these settlements to Israel’s urban regions where most settlers work. The situation suggests wholesale annexation. The West Bank has essentially become part of the state of Israel, albeit with enclaves for two and a half million Palestinians who lack political freedom.
Anyone who still thinks that there will be a Palestinian state with contiguous territory free of Jews is indulging in some wishful thinking. It is highly unlikely, even impossible given the present political trends and the power of the Israeli state, to imagine that any Israeli government will remove more than a fraction of the settlers.
The occupation is virtually over, and Israel is entering a period of state consolidation, much like the USA consolidated its sovereignty over their western territories during the decades after they threw out the British in the 18th century. There was also a massive influx of European immigrants to the USA in the 19th century, which helped consolidate the Western Territories into states, condemning the native population to a marginal existence. This is similar to Israel’s process of sending settlers, many of them immigrants, to establish Jewish communities throughout the West Bank in a planned and coordinated annexation of territory. The USA used to offer a subsidy of ’40 acres and a mule’ to settlers in the old western territories. Today the West Bank settlers buy subsidized homes with infrastructure paid for by the Israeli state – water supply, roads, electricity, tax breaks etc, making the homes ridiculously cheap and attractive to Israelis.
Like the USA, Israel has also created reservations for the ‘natives’, and came up with the ingenious idea of the Palestinian Authority to manage the parts of the West Bank that are predominantly Arab, thus relieving itself of administrative responsibilities. These areas are surrounded by Israeli controlled territory where Israeli law prevails for the Jewish settlers but not for their Palestinian neighbors who remain under military rule. There is a parallel to the ‘sovereign’ Native American enclaves established in the USA, which denied the residents political rights enjoyed by European immigrants. Native Americans belatedly received citizenship in 1924 after their nations were thoroughly decimated.
Israel however, has no intention of granting citizenship to almost half the people under its control, at least not yet. This would negate the foundation of the Jewish state as presently conceived. It is possible though, that the Palestinians might turn the tables at some point, and demand citizenship. Support for this idea has come from a surprising source, the settlers themselves. In late 2010 the Israeli press published accounts from right wing Israelis indicating that at least some of the settlers support a gradual absorption of Palestinians into Israel. Of course their notion is that potential citizens will have to ‘prove’ their loyalty to the Zionist state first, perhaps sign a loyalty oath, and generally give up on Palestinian nationhood and resistance to Israeli domination. The Israeli Left, arguing that such a process will only deepen the institutionalization of the emerging Apartheid regime, has denounced the whole idea and continues to advocate for the removal of settlers. As a result, it is possible that the land will first descend into the depths of Apartheid before emerging within a democratic framework.
Palestinian voices have also been raised to announce the demise of the two state solution. During a recent speech at Tel Aviv University, Sufian Abu-Zayda, a former Israeli prisoner and Fatah official declared: “From my side, from the Palestinians’ side—let there be one state, not two.”
Many former colonial countries went through a similar process, passing through colonialism, structural discrimination/Apartheid, to a struggle leading to liberal democracy. To imagine that Israel and the Palestinians will somehow short circuit this process through a ‘negotiated peace’ is perhaps naive, given the present realities on the ground and the political trends in Israel. The best Palestinians can expect at this point, is the same kind of ‘negotiated’ peace treaties that were forced on the Native Americans.
The near future could bring one of several scenarios.
1. In an attempt to forestall the ongoing annexation, the Palestinian Authority could declare a state in the West Bank and Gaza with defined borders, and seek recognition from the UN. Many countries have already recognized a Palestinian state, although it does not yet exist.
2. Israel could continue on its present path of nation building in the West Bank resulting in another half-million settlers in the next fifteen to twenty years, completing the annexation.
3. More violence could erupt, a third Intifada with its attendant terrorism, which will play into Israel’s hands through yet another round of attacks by the IDF, and further subjugation of the Palestinian population. The last Intifada resulted in the destruction of the Palestinian Authority’s institutions and its ability to govern. Of course the present pliable Palestinian government might also work with Israel to suppress a renewed surge of popular resistance by Palestinians.
Some combination of these scenarios is likely to happen. Keep in mind that Israel continued its settlement expansion though the first and second Intifadas, and through all the ‘peace negotiations’ since the Occupation began in 1967. This relentless growth has determined the reality on the ground, and the inevitable post-colonial consolidation of an expanded state of Israel. The Occupation is over, in the same sense that the Occupation of North America was over by the end of their first 60 years as a state. We need to get used to it and prepare for a different future.
The character of this future will depend in large part on the international community, in particular Israel’s best ally, the USA. If they remain stuck in promoting the classic two-state scenario then they will play into Israel’s hands and the inexorable annexation will continue. There needs to be a paradigm shift among all international and regional stakeholders in order to develop a new and innovative end game. Since the UN debates of 1947 there have been discussions of a possible ‘economic union’ between an Arab and a Jewish State. Indeed this was embodied in the original Partition Plan of 1947. In recent years, Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals, activists, and second-track negotiators have also been discussing a possible con-federation between the Palestinian and Israeli state.
However they have mostly focused on first creating a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, then postulating a future confederation. The idea has not gained much traction among the general public, politicians on both sides, or the international community. Ideology, engrained and chauvinistic viewpoints, all serve to narrow a collective vision. In fact there is no vision from anyone of stature regarding a possible civilized outcome to the situation.
This needs to change. There are alternative futures that could serve all the people of Israel and Palestine, and give most of the people, most of what they want.
Consideration of certain fundamentals is a pre-requisite for any just and democratic solution.
1. Both Israelis and Palestinians have a deep need for their individual national identities, with all the trappings of sovereignty.
2. Both Israelis and Palestinians believe in their hearts that they have a right to all the land, although most are willing to make some compromise.
3. Both Israelis and Palestinians want their capital to be in Jerusalem.
4. Palestinians believe they are entitled to a just resolution for the loss of property and the creation of refugees in 1948 and 1967.
5. Israelis and Palestinians want security from political violence.
Within these parameters various outcomes are possible.
Since the Oslo Accords (Declaration of Principals – September, 1993), The Palestinian Liberation Organization, and subsequently the Palestinian Authority, have compromised their former positions, and declared themselves ready to accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps with minor mutual exchanges of land, for the Palestinian State, with a capital in East Jerusalem. Since then several Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen, have said that Jews would be welcome in the new state of Palestine, not as occupiers but as residents or citizens. Similarly, Israel already has about 1.2 million Palestinian Arab citizens. This can be a starting point for new emergent paradigm.
Leaving aside the complexities of International law, the issue of sovereignty, and ownership of land in the West Bank needs to be separated. There is a difference between imposing a ruling regime on a defeated people, and then stealing their land for private purposes such as the provision of private homes for Israel’s citizens.
The vast majority of settlements are built on land that Israel defines as public or state land. Some of it was inherited after 1967 from the Jordanians, who claimed it from the British in 1948. Such land was originally administered by the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after the First World War when the British Mandate was established. In other words some of the land used for settlements was public land that pre-dates the state of Israel.
Other tracts of land used for settlements were under private Palestinian ownership but were never registered in the land registry, and no taxes were paid on the land. This was common under the previous regimes, but Israel confiscated such land and claimed the right to use it for ‘public purposes’. Of course the public purpose was often the establishment of settlements for the sole use of Israeli citizens.
Some land was simply stolen by the Israeli government or annexed to settlements with legal impunity by the settlers themselves. In some rare cases Palestinians have successfully regained their land through the Israeli courts.
Since the Israeli settlers are now entrenched in the West Bank in vast numbers, and unlikely to be removed by any Israeli government, why not leave them where they are for the time being, and establish a tribunal or other framework of jurisprudence to work out the land ownership/compensation issues within the context of a political agreement. The same framework could deal with the issues of compensation for the Palestinian refugees.
That would leave 500,000 Israelis living in the West Bank and the Occupied parts of Jerusalem. This begs the question of how to evolve a just and democratic future with so many Israelis left inside Palestine. Obviously the Occupation has to end. Obviously justice needs to be served.
Let’s start from the basic formula of two states, Palestine and Israel, with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip forming Palestine, and Israel within the pre-1967 borders. Now imagine a third state encompassing both of them. Let’s call it the Middle East Union (MEU), a federation of two sovereign states, with Jerusalem the capitol of both states.
Then take a look at the Europe Union. Each country with that union remains sovereign but citizens may live and work other countries within the union, without permission from anyone. The right of abode and the right to earn a livelihood are protected. Thus a citizen of France may move to Holland, or Spain to live and work while remaining a citizen of France. This happens within the legal and regulatory framework of the European Union.
If we extrapolate to the Israel/Palestine dynamic then such a scenario would allow citizens of Palestine, from Ramallah or Jenin, to relocate to Tel Aviv or Haifa for as long as they want while remaining a citizen of Palestine. The reverse would also be true. Israelis, including the present settlers, could live and work in Palestine, but under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian government within agreements and frameworks of the MEU.
Jerusalem could be the capital of Israel, Palestine, and the MEU, perhaps conferring a special status on the municipality, similar to Washington DC in the USA, which is not a state.
Security could be dealt with within the framework of the MEU. Perhaps a joint military to protect the external borders of the Union, with an MEU security service monitoring extremist activity in both countries, perhaps modeled on the trans-sate security services in the USA or Europe. Each country could retain policing authority and internal security within their respective borders.
The devil is in the details but such an arrangement would give most of the people, most of what they want.
1. Palestinians would have a state.
2. The state of Israel would remain intact.
3. Jerusalem would be a shared city
4. Both Palestinians (including refugees) and Israelis could live anywhere in Israel and Palestine
5. Refugees would receive just compensation.
In order to achieve this, or a similar scenario, both peoples will need to compromise. It is likely also, that the creation of a Union needs to be accomplished simultaneously with the creation of a Palestinian state. This is possibly the only mechanism that could enable a framework to be put in place that might satisfy the concerns for security. Thus two negotiation tracks might need to be created. The first track would define the parameters of the Palestinian state, and second track would create the framework for the MEU. Each track would inform the other as progress was made and Independence Day for Palestine would also initiate the Middle East Union.
Various political forces have recently been marshaling that could propel the situation to a new level and permit brave politicians to ‘step out of the box’. The first sign has been the proposals by the Palestinian Authority, with support from many countries, to unilaterally declare a state within the 1967 borders and Gaza. The resulting political turmoil in Israel could provide the conditions for a cusp of history, a pivotal time-limited possibility of turning the situation around in a relatively short time.
Another key element that could lead to this cusp is the recent PR emanating from the Israeli Government. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been preparing the public for a major announcement, a new ‘peace proposal’. Most analysts assume that he will declare Israel ready for a Palestinian state now, with borders that leave the Israeli settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty. The offer is likely to include 60-70% of the West Bank as the new state of Palestine, and be defined as a new ‘generous offer’. The Palestinian Authority will reject this, and possibly react with it’s own announcement of a state on 100% of the West Bank and Gaza. This scenario could result in renewed violence, or set the stage for a new direction, a cusp, a possibility for a sane future.
2011 will therefor be a pivotal year. Either Israel will plow ahead with the expansion of the state regardless of the consequences, or the people of Israel and Palestine will emerge from their doldrums and demand a new leadership to light the way to a brave and democratic future. The future is hanging in the balance. Are we going to lower the Palestinian coffin into the grave and shovel in the dirt, or do we make the shift that’s needed, and foster the emergence of an enlightened Palestine and Israel?