U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has, to the surprise of many, made the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a priority, just as the many regional crises — especially in Egypt and Syria, but also Tunis and Libya — steal the headlines. Since March, Kerry has visited Jerusalem on six occasions. Not since James Baker has a US secretary of state invested so much time and energy in achieving what many now believe is unattainable — a two-state solution.
For years, disagreements have taken place over how and when to hold peace negotiations, and under what pre-conditions, but everyone seemed to agree on one thing: the two-state paradigm is the only game in town. Many resolutions, initiatives and peace plans later, more prominent Israeli and Palestinian voices have emerged, casting doubt on the viability of this approach, albeit for different reasons.
The idea of a bi-national state that extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River is being raised more regularly these days. Many have written in support of it; others argue that one already exists on the ground, among them former Israeli defence minister Moshe Arens in a recent Ha’aretz op-ed. One thing these opinions make clear is that any final status agreement based on the concept of one state for two peoples will mean different things to different people.
To many in Israel’s current governing coalition, it means annexing the West Bank and retaining control of the Jordan Valley. Some 17% of the coalition’s members now live in settlements, and many belong to the Land of Israel caucus, which supports keeping all these settlements. The country’s economics and trade minister, Naftali Bennett, declared the idea of a Palestinian state had reached a “dead end” and negotiations towards achieving that goal were “futile.” He leads the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization for the West Bank settlements, and is one of the most outspoken opponents of a Palestinian state. Last June he told a settler conference that Israel should annex large parts of Area C — some 62% of the West Bank (1). “The most important thing in the land of Israel is to build, build, build. It’s important that there will be an Israeli presence everywhere,” Bennett said. Two decades after Oslo, Area C includes the largest of the settlement blocs, highly fortified city-like colonies peppering the West Bank ridges.
There are further examples of this hostility to a two-state solution in Israeli political circles. Just before Bennett’s comments, Danny Danon, Israel’s deputy defence minister, told the Times of Israel that the country’s ruling party and its governing coalition were staunchly opposed to a two-state solution and would block a move to bring about a Palestinian state.
Israel’s defence minister Moshe Ya’alon dismissed the Arab Peace Initiative as spin, adding that Israel should be prepared to “manage the conflict” at some point — a euphemism for further entrenchment of the status quo. This initiative was unveiled in 2002 by the Saudis, and promises full normalized relations with 22 Arab countries in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, using the internationally agreed-on parameters for negotiation (1967 borders, land swaps, etc.). The Palestinians, Arabs and Kerry have long been using the Arab Peace Initiative as their basis for peace talks.
And even though prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly disassociated himself from Bennett and Danon’s comments, his push for settlement building — unmatched in its size or pace in many years — has proved that his government is unwilling to reach a negotiated two-state solution based on the Arab Peace Initiative. Throughout his re-election campaign in December, Netanyahu reiterated that continued settlement construction was essential, going as far as to proclaim: “With God’s help we will continue to live and build in Jerusalem, which shall remain united under Israeli sovereignty…In recent years, we did much to strengthen settlements [in the West Bank], and we will continue to act to strengthen the settlements.”
Ironically, this state-sanctioned push against an independent Palestinian state could spell the end of Israel’s Jewish character: almost equal amounts of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis now live between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, and the Green Line (the West Bank’s 1967 border) has been erased by settlements. Though Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip have become institutions in themselves, they are not sustainable in the long term. This leaves a single state as the next option, if Israel wants to avoid being viewed as an apartheid regime.
Just as a one-state solution is a non-starter for many Israelis, it is also unacceptable to most Palestinians. This, however, is changing. Many academics and activists have been calling for a single state that provides equal rights to all its citizens for some time. Prominent politicians have followed suit in the past months. Senior Fatah members calling themselves the Popular Movement for One Democratic State have called for “the establishment of one democratic country in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.”
A 2012 poll published by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre showed that about a third of Palestinians now support a bi-national state (up from 22% a year earlier). Another poll, conducted jointly by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, showed that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians (68 and 69% respectively) think the chances of two states in the next five years are low or non-existent. Fifty one per cent of Israelis said they thought a two-state solution was bound to fail because of settlements.
There is now widespread apathy among Palestinians and Israelis, and most believe Kerry’s mission is doomed. Despite his rigour and optimism, and his latest effort to secure an agreement from Palestinians and Israelis to hold talks, Kerry’s insistence on a two-state solution may have a perverse effect: it will detract attention from Israel’s own efforts to scuttle the very talks he is working on, through settlement building and land annexation.
If chances for resuscitating the peace process are higher than they were a few weeks ago, to what gain? Will the Israelis be willing to exchange contiguous territory suitable for an independent state for peace? If past is prologue, it’s hard to be anything but pessimistic. The illusion of progress may have already proven to be just that. At the same time (some) Palestinians and (some) Israelis agree on one thing: the two-state solution is no longer viable.