Much of the debate about US President Barack Obama’s push for Middle East peace resembles the proverbial argument about whether the glass is half full or half empty. But even a full glass is not very useful if you need to fill an entire reservoir.
A common assumption is that earlier American administrations were insufficiently “engaged.” Obama’s early moves, including the appointment of former Northern Ireland mediator George Mitchell as his envoy, have therefore been widely welcomed.
The problem was never a lack of American engagement, but what kind. Indeed, the Bush administration took engagement to unprecedented lengths. It pushed for Palestinian elections, and then when Hamas defeated the US-backed Fatah faction, America attempted to overturn the result. The Bush administration helped arm and train Palestinian militias opposed to Hamas and vetoed a Palestinian “national unity government.” It supported the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and politicized financial aid to bolster Palestinian leaders whose legitimacy, as they have effectively become Israeli quislings, has all but vanished. At the same time, the United States and the Quartet imposed lopsided preconditions for dialogue that they well know Hamas cannot accept.
Absolutely none of this has changed under the Obama administration. Despite lip service about easing it, the United States continues to support Israel’s criminal blockade of the Gaza Strip, and like the Bush administration, Obama has never criticized Israel’s attack on Gaza despite incontestable evidence of atrocities and war crimes.
America continues to funnel arms and money to Fatah-controlled militias, encouraging them to attack Hamas in the West Bank, sabotaging the possibility of intra-Palestinian reconciliation.
And while the Obama administration and the British government prepare for negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, they intransigently reject talks with Hamas despite that group’s electoral mandate, its repeated offers of a reciprocal long-term ceasefire with Israel and its acceptance of a two-state solution.
The Obama administration has used up its first six months negotiating a settlement freeze with Israel (with little to show). At this rate, how long would it take to negotiate the core issues in the century-long conflict resulting from the Zionist effort to transform an almost entirely Arab (Muslim and Christian) country, into a “Jewish state” with a permanent Jewish majority?
The constant focus on process and gimmicks — like trying to get Arab states to normalize ties with Israel — has obscured the reality that Obama’s stated goal — a workable two-state solution — is almost certainly unachievable. The idea of separating Palestinians and Israelis into distinct ethno-national entities has become an article of faith within peace process circles, but rarely are its supporters asked to justify why a “solution” that has eluded them for decades has any merit.
Today, as a result of natural growth, Palestinians form half of the population living in historic Palestine despite decades of expulsion and exile. Within a few years they will once again be the majority. A two-state solution as currently envisaged would leave Palestinians with a state on no more than a fifth of the land, with less of the water and no real sovereignty. Even if Palestinian refugees agreed to return to such a state, there would be no room for them.
Nor would repartition actually separate the populations: no one involved in the “peace process” is talking about removing all, or even most of the half million Israeli settlers implanted illegally in the West Bank — especially around Jerusalem — since 1967. There is talk of compensating Palestinians for the land taken by settlers with “equivalent” land elsewhere. But whoever can find land that can “compensate” Palestinians for Jerusalem, would be just as likely to find land that could “compensate” the British for London or the French for Paris.
As for the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, a two-state solution would only make their situation worse. Already treated as second-class citizens, they face escalating racist campaigns and a raft of legislation proposing to ban them from commemorating Israel’s near-destruction of Palestine in 1948, forcing them to take loyalty oaths, or even to sing the explicitly Jewish Israeli national anthem. If Israel remains an unreformed ultra-nationalist “Jewish state,” its Palestinian citizens are more likely to face apartheid conditions at best or ethnic cleansing at worst, than be allowed to live as equal citizens in the land of their birth. Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman represents the growing number of Israeli Jews who think a Jewish state should be cleansed of non-Jews.
This is why an increasing number of Palestinians, conflict resolution experts, and a small but growing number of Israelis are giving serious attention to the idea of a one-state, or bi-national solution for Palestine/Israel. This would dismantle the current system of Israeli ethno-religious domination and institute a democratic system guaranteeing the civic, political, religious and cultural rights of all citizens and communities.
Although peace process insiders constantly dismiss these ideas as far-fetched, utopian or naive, they continue to gain adherents. After all, similar, but even deeper-rooted conflicts between settler-colonial and indigenous communities were resolved peacefully along such democratic principles in Northern Ireland and South Africa.
As George Mitchell surely knows from his experience in Northern Ireland, when two national communities lay claim to the same land and one dominates the other by force, partition only changes the contours of the conflict. It was by dismantling the “Protestant state for a Protestant people” in the north of Ireland and replacing it with a bi-national democracy, increasingly integrated with the rest of the island, that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended a conflict long thought to be insoluble.
Neither South Africa nor Northern Ireland offer exact analogies or ready-made blueprints for Palestine/Israel. But to continue to pretend that these working bi-national and one-state models have nothing to teach is to condemn Palestinians and Israelis to decades more of conflict, as diplomats chase mirages and Israel pursues its colonial policies unchecked.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah is author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. This article was originally published as part of debate hosted by The Economist and is republished with permission.