Is the Palestinian national movement about to abandon the two-state solution and demand instead a single democratic or bi-national state throughout Palestine-Israel?
That is the intriguing possibility raised by a new paper published by an ad hoc group called the Palestine Strategy Study Group (PSSG). The New York Times saw the report as another sign that, “Even among the most moderate Palestinians, the credo of a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beginning to erode” (Isabel Kershner, “Support for 2-State Plan Erodes,” The New York Times, 3 September 2008).
The PSSG paper does indeed provide further evidence of the rapid crumbling of the dogma that the two-state solution is just and achievable and moreover that it has no plausible alternatives. And yet it is far less than a full embrace of the one-state solution. Rather, it would appear that among PSSG participants there are quite different and even contradictory goals. This is hardly surprising because as one participant, Sam Bahour wrote, the group included “Palestinians from all walks of life — men and women, on the political right and left, secular and religious, politicians, academics, civil society and business actors, from occupied Palestine, inside Israel, and in the Diaspora.” This group could never meet in one room due to Israel’s travel restrictions on Palestinians. The PSSG workshops were funded by the European Union and convened by the Oxford Research Group, a British non-governmental organization.
Some participants clearly saw the PSSG as an opportunity for a badly needed, sincere and deep reassessment of Palestinian strategy and took part in that spirit. For Bahour it represents a challenge to “a never-ending ‘peace process’ that has created a peace industry in Palestine, all underwritten by taxpayers from around the world.” This peace process, Bahour writes, “has no intention of realizing peace with justice, but rather looks to fragment Palestinians’ national aspirations into bite-sized pieces with state-like trappings — the antithesis of a state with real sovereignty, let alone self-determination” (“Coexistence with occupation not an option,” The Electronic Intifada, 5 September 2008).
The paper does have several strong points that Palestinians and all those who support their cause should endorse and rally around. It calls on Palestinians to seize the initiative and to define the terms of the discourse rather than continue to allow Israel and its backers to do it for them. The PSSG calls for national unity and broad consultation among all Palestinians. It also calls on Palestinians to reject and expose the deceptive language of “peacemaking” and “state-building” that have been used to conceal and perpetuate a lived reality of expulsion, domination and occupation at Israel’s hands. The paper makes the case that by demanding a state on only 22 percent of historic Palestine (East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip) — which is less than half what was allotted to the Arab state in the 1947 UN partition plan — Palestinians have already made an unprecedented concession and no more can be asked of them.
In addition, the paper stresses that the appropriate discourse for Palestinians living under these conditions remains that of “self-determination,” “decolonization” and “liberation.” The paper asserts — correctly — that Palestinians are not as weak as they appear and can prevent Israel from achieving its preferred option of maintaining the status quo by reconfiguring or even abolishing the Palestinian Authority, adopting “smart” resistance and reorienting their goals towards a one-state solution.
In spite of its positive attributes, a close reading of the PSSG final report entitled “Regaining the Initiative - Palestinian Strategic Options to End Israeli Occupation,” (available in English and Arabic at www.palestinestrategygroup.ps) also offers reasons for caution.
While the paper is strong on diagnostics, it becomes more problematic with what it prescribes and at key points Palestinian Authority heavyweights who participated might have steered it in a decidedly less principled direction.
It suggests that one of the key Palestinian “strategic tasks” is to “spell out the minimum terms acceptable for negotiating a fully independent Palestinian state on 1967 borders and to explain clearly why this is by far the best offer Israel will get.” The paper argues for “a final and conclusive push to compel Israel to negotiate immediately and seriously for a swift two state outcome acceptable to Palestinians — or face the reality of a concerted Palestinian strategic orientation in an entirely different direction — and one far less favorable to Israel.”
Using the one-state solution as a tactical threat is unlikely to move Israel and simply discredits such a solution in the long-run by playing into Israeli claims that a democratic state where everyone is equal would be a disaster for Israeli Jews. Indeed, the PSSG report explicitly warns against such an approach. Palestinians ought to be making the case that the one-state solution, as a democratic solution in accordance with universal rights, is the best and most moral outcome for all sides, not a victory for Palestinians and defeat for Israelis. Nor does the paper examine the relative merits of a two-state or a one-state solution from the perspective of achieving fundamental rights and justice for Palestinians.
As long as the two-state solution remains the objective of the Palestinian movement, the report defines three “strategic objectives,” which I will examine in turn. Unfortunately these reproduce the vague and deceptive language that the peace process industry has long used to erode Palestinian rights and expectations. This is compounded by major, substantive discrepancies between the English and Arabic versions. (It is unclear how these came about; I heard from two PSSG participants who were familiar with the Arabic version which they considered authoritative, and both were surprised and shocked to learn of such differences.) First, let’s look at the English — which has been widely circulated and reported in the media:
“The first strategic objective is to end occupation of Palestinian lands.” (p.23)
Notably, this does not say which occupation and which Palestinian lands and fails to insist on a complete Israeli withdrawal from all the lands occupied in 1967.
“The second strategic objective is to establish a fully independent and sovereign Palestinian state.”
“In accordance with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] declaration of 1988,” the report adds, the second objective means “the establishment of a fully independent Palestinian state on 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem.”
The lack of the definite article “the” before “1967 borders” implies that actual borders could deviate significantly. And, the 1988 PLO declaration of independence does not talk about a capital in Jerusalem (whose boundaries Israel constantly manipulates and redefines), but says that Jerusalem is the capital of the Palestinian state.
Most glaring is the third strategic objective which is “to honor the right of return of Palestinian refugees.”
The use of the word “honor” signals a less than firm commitment to actually implement the right of return as guaranteed in UN Resolution 194 among other key instruments of international law.
This is confirmed a few sentences later when the paper notes that the demand for the right of return “rings alarm bells” that it is really a “coded message” to revoke PLO recognition of Israel because any substantial return of refugees would swamp the Jewish state demographically. Yet it assures Israel that “This will not be the case if Israel negotiates seriously and with time-urgency … and has been extensively discussed in earlier Palestinian-Israel negotiations notably those that took place in 2000-2001.”
What is even more shocking is that the Arabic version of this same document contains substantially different language — as if Israeli and Western audiences were supposed to read one thing, and Palestinian and Arab audiences another.
In the Arabic version’s “Strategic Objectives” section (p.26), the three goals are as follows and they use firmer language in line with long-standing official Palestinian positions (my translation):
“The first strategic objective is ending the occupation of the Palestinian lands occupied in 1967 and the realization of national independence.”
“The second strategic objective is the acknowledgment of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination which guarantees its right to establish a fully sovereign Palestinian state whose capital is Jerusalem.”
“The third objective is solving the refugee problem according to a just solution guaranteeing the right of return and compensation.”
More telling is that the paragraph which appears in the English version, assuring Israel that the right of return is merely a threatening demand that would not be pressed if Israel quickly negotiated a two-state solution is omitted from the Arabic version.
Later, in the English text, it is again asserted that various prior Palestinian-Israeli negotiations including those at Camp David “exhaustively and repeatedly clarified” key issues including “the range of options for honoring the rights of Palestinian refugees” (p.27). In the analogous sentence, the Arabic version refers to the “options for implementing [tanfith] the rights of Palestinian refugees” (p.29).
These are not mere discrepancies in translation. They are substantive differences that recall the Palestinian leadership’s long-standing tactic of telling Palestinians that they will achieve their rights, while reassuring Israel and its backers that they will get all their demands which are incompatible with even minimal Palestinian rights.
If anything, such destructive ambiguity indicates that for some the PSSG was a cynical exercise to maintain the peace process industry and the PA, and to conceal that the two-state solution is even less viable than realized, rather than to move in a new strategic direction.
The PSSG document appeared just weeks after Ahmed Qureia, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority’s former Prime Minister and now chief negotiator, issued another of his periodic warnings that Palestinians may abandon the two-state solution. With no chance of an agreement with Israel before the end of the year, PA heavyweights may be trying to use the PSSG exercise to shore up their own positions by scaring Israel into giving them anything at all that could keep the two-state show on the road.
The background to this is that next January the term of US-backed Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas officially ends. His term may simply be illegally extended, just as the elected Hamas-led “national unity government” was illegally deposed and replaced with the appointed US- and Israeli-backed Salam Fayyad “government.” Already the jockeying to replace Abbas among officials who have no regard for Palestinian rights and interests is taking place. With no possibility of free and fair elections, after January, Abbas or his successor will have even less legitimacy than the PA leader does now. Those at the top are also aware that within Fatah grassroots there is growing impatience to rejoin the rest of the Palestinian people as part of the struggle, rather than allowing what is left of their movement to be turned into a tool of Israel.
These maneuverings do not invalidate the need for a fundamental reassessment of Palestinian strategy. Rather they serve as a warning that failed Palestinian Authority leaders in Ramallah will do whatever it takes to reinvent themselves and cling to power, including hijacking any nascent initiative intended to help unify, mobilize and liberate the Palestinian people.
It is up to the Palestinian community collectively, in all parts of historic Palestine and in the Diaspora, to continue to push for and participate in a fundamental reassessment of strategy and objectives that answers to all whose rights and interests have for too long been bulldozed.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli- Palestinian Impasse (Metropolitan Books, 2006).