Beyond the make-believe of negotiations

Palestinian refugees in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem take part in a demonstration marking 60 years of the Palestinian people’s dispossession of their homeland, 15 May 2008. (Haytham Othman/MaanImages)

Just days before heading off to the United States this week, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert approved the construction of an additional 900 Jewish-only homes in occupied Jerusalem. Indeed, barely a week has passed since last November’s gala relaunch of peace talks at Annapolis without Israel announcing new colony projects on occupied land. Since the media handshake orchestrated by the Bush Administration, construction continues in a hundred settlements across the West Bank and settler caravans have been transported to sites east of Israel’s illegal West Bank wall.

On the ground, Israel is doing all it can to ensure there will be no “two-state” solution. For years, official heads, including those of politicians and diplomats in European capitals and Washington, have remained firmly planted in the sand. Every day the high priests of the Peace Process Industry repeat their testament of faith that there is no solution but the two-state solution.

Today, there are almost half a million Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. According to the Israeli interior ministry, the number of settlers living in the West Bank, excluding Jerusalem, rose by 5.1 percent last year — about three times faster than Israel’s population growth as a whole. For decades, diplomats, including representatives of the EU proposed a “freeze” on settlements but all these efforts, including the Road Map launched in 2003, have failed. US President George W. Bush on his recent visit to celebrate Israel’s creation (and by implication Palestine’s near destruction) said and did absolutely nothing to make good on his commitment to bring about a Palestinian state before he leaves office in January 2009.

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that for the two-state solution “it’s five after midnight and a whole week later” (“Time for Radical Pragmatism,” The New York Times, 4 June 2008). In other words, it’s too late because “The West Bank today is an ugly quilt of high walls, Israeli checkpoints, ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ Jewish settlements, Arab villages, Jewish roads that only Israeli settlers use, Arab roads and roadblocks.” He concludes that “This hard and heavy reality on the ground is not going to be reversed by any conventional peace process.” Blaming Palestinians for building a “Somalia” rather than a “Singapore,” he calls for a return to the Jordanian option — placing the Palestinians under the control of another foreign regime so that Israel does not have to grant them political rights.

Yet the make-believe of negotiations continues. Headlines in the Israeli daily Haaretz last week screamed “Palestinians reject Israeli offer to hand over 91.5% of W. Bank.” The innocent reader might well believe the suggested narrative that once again Israel is doing all it can for peace, while the recalcitrant Palestinians turn down every reasonable offer. But later in the article it emerges that this 91.5 percent does not include Israeli-defined greater Jerusalem and its surrounding settlements — about one third of the West Bank.

So in effect, Israel is negotiating over returning no more than 50-60 percent of the West Bank (11-13 percent of historic Palestine), now even more broken up by the wall, additional checkpoints, new Jewish-only settler roads and colonies. The bantustan that Israel is contemplating, an idea recycled and repackaged since first launched as the Allon Plan decades ago, is far less than even the weak, Israel-dependent Ramallah clique of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can accept, let alone foist onto the rest of the Palestinian people and leadership.

So why are so many still invested in the idea that a two-state solution is attainable despite all the evidence to the contrary? For short term reasons, the beleaguered Olmert and Abbas regimes, lacking legitimacy among their constituents, need to justify their own existence against growing internal opposition. So they maintain the facade of negotiations and hold out the promise of breakthroughs to come.

Israel needs a Palestinian state — or at least the illusion of one — to mask the reality of apartheid where millions of Palestinians, soon to be the majority population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, are ruled by a Jewish sectarian government in which they have no rights.

But because the negotiations are bound to fail, it may be that Israel is once again preparing a new “generous offer” myth so that the failure can as usual be laid at the doorstep of the Palestinians and Israel will be absolved in advance from any responsibility for the continued political stalemate and the violence it produces. At least this will be the case until the “international community” steps in to start the next round of tranquilizing but sterile “negotiations” which take as their starting point the new facts on the ground Israel has built in the meantime.

These games aside, the end of the two-state solution is a reality, but one that is still hard for many people to absorb. This new era requires new ways of thinking about the conflict; it requires recognizing that partition and the effort to separate people into ethnically pure boxes is the problem and not the solution; that imposing a “Jewish state” on a culturally diverse, multi-religious country has only generated and fueled endless conflict, hatred and bloodshed.

It requires moving beyond one-dimensional nationalist visions and creating new ones that are inclusive. It requires calling for redress for grave injustices committed by the strong against the weak, the oppressor against the oppressed, rather than taking comfort in the misleading idea that Israelis and Palestinians form two equal and equally wounded groups who just want to live apart from each other. It requires decolonization, including the transformation of all state bodies — police, army, bureaucracy, education — into democratic ones, rather than Jewish sectarian ones. And it requires return and compensation for refugees.

The post-two-state solution era compels us to recognize the fundamental incompatibility of Zionism with universal human rights. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert knows this all too well, stating recently that the notion of Israel becoming “a state of all its citizens” — in other words a civic democracy — was gaining support among US elites. He warned that “this is a very dangerous process that endangers the continuation of our existence as a Jewish state.” It could not be more plain than that. From the mouth of Israel’s own leader: Zionism and democracy cannot mix in Palestine-Israel, just as apartheid and democracy could not in South Africa. The sooner we absorb this and begin to act on it, the shorter will be the path to peace.

Ali Abunimah and Arjan El Fassed are co-founders of The Electronic Intifada and the authors of respectively One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006) and Niet iedereen kan stenen gooien (Uitgeverij Nieuwland, 2008).