Tomorrow’s conference at Ben-Gurion University, hosted by the Haim Herzog Center for Middle Eastern Studies, will focus on alternative paths to resurrecting peace scenarios beyond the traditional two-state solution.
During the past 20 years the notion of two independent states, separated by a single physical border along, or in close proximity to, the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank, has become the commonly accepted mantra for an eventual resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many hours of discussions and back-room negotiations have been spent trying to demarcate a border which would be acceptable, or perhaps equally unacceptable, to both sides, taking into account such critical issues as settlements, potential land swaps, security considerations and demilitarization, as well as creating some form of territorial corridor linking the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, for as long as the two disconnected areas continue to be considered part of a single solution.
There have, of course, always been opponents of the two state scenario – from both sides of the political spectrum. On the Israeli far Right, and increasingly within the present government, there are groups, especially among the settler movement and in the world of religious Zionism, who are in principle opposed to the idea of anything but Jewish sovereignty between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. The establishment of settlements, which commenced shortly after the Six Day War in 1967 and which has continued unabated since that time, was designed to prevent any form of Israeli territorial withdrawal.
Despite the hiccup of the Oslo process along the way, the settlers can claim to have achieved their goal, bringing almost 400,000 residents to the regions (not including east Jerusalem ) and making it almost impossible for any Israeli government, even of the Left, to undertake a forceful evacuation of these communities without bringing about a civil war. Today, senior ministers within the Likud government, such as Ze’ev Elkin and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, are outspoken in their opposition to a two state solution and have even suggested the formal annulment of the Oslo Agreements.
On the far Left, as well as in many Palestinian circles, there has also been opposition to a two state solution, opting instead for a single binational secular democracy between the Mediterranean and the Jordan in which all Jews and Arabs have equal citizenship and in which power is shared, through a process of full democracy and equality, between the different religious and ethnic groups residing in the territory. This solution rejects the notion of nation states, be they Jewish or Arab. Its implementation would mean the end of the State of Israel as a Jewish state and is therefore opposed by the vast majority of Jewish residents of Israel, including those on the Left who believe that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and allow the Palestinians to have their own state, precisely because they desire to maintain a state within which there is an overwhelming Jewish majority.
As such, the two state solution has never been perceived as constituting anything other than the least bad option. Since the alternatives – the continuation of occupation and the extension of Israeli sovereignty over all the region (the far Right), or the annulment of the State of Israel and the establishment of a single binational state in which there would be no self-defined security for the Jewish people (the far Left), the notion of territorial separation has always appeared to be the best option. The two state solution was boosted in the post-Oslo period (although it was never proposed as such in the agreements), and strengthened even further just a decade ago when prime minister Ariel Sharon was in power. His (and his successor Ehud Olmert’s) eventual support of a Palestinian state was pragmatic rather than ideological, accepting the link between security and demography and understanding that a failure to withdraw from the territories would eventually bring about parity between the two populations, resulting de facto in the end of the Jewish majority and the annulment of the Jewish state.
Assuming that Israel indeed desires to continue to be portrayed as a democracy and to grant equal rights to all the people under its control, the alternatives under such a scenario would mean either that the country loses its Jewish majority or that the present system of control continues in a discriminatory fashion, drawing comparisons with other regimes and other periods of history which Israel strongly rejects.
Each of the alternatives outlined above, both of which are rejected by the majority of the Jewish population in Israel, have one characteristic in common. Neither require the demarcation of a border between separate territorial entities, as they both envisage the entire area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River as constituting a single territorial entity.
But today the two state solution is becoming even more difficult, perhaps impossible, to implement, by the majority who continue, albeit in decreasing numbers, to support it. More and more people, including military experts and diplomats, are reaching the conclusion that it is no longer possible to implement this solution. The conditions on the ground have become far too complicated and it is necessary to seek political and territorial alternatives. As with so many previous opportunities, time has passed us by, changes have taken place, and the two state solution has, for many, become too complicated to implement in practical terms.
One factor which has contributed more than any other to this has been the continued construction and expansion of the settlement network, which means that today no Israeli government, even of a left-wing persuasion (and it is hard to envisage any such government rising to power in the foreseeable future) would be able to forcefully evacuate even a quarter to a third of the settlers who would remain on the “wrong” (Palestinian) side of the new border, even after taking land exchanges into account. These settlements, the heartland of the ideological Gush Emunim-based settlements, would resist any attempt to force them from their homes and would probably draw tens if not hundreds of thousands of supporters to their cause, far beyond anything that was experienced at the time of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
So what, if any, are the alternatives? Is it possible to envisage some form of power sharing between two peoples, one within each maintains its own national status? Can there be a single territory but two political entities – one land two peoples – an idea which is being shopped around at the moment? The idea that the national groups, regardless of their geographical location, would retain citizenship of a single state – Israeli or Palestinian – with a system based on numerous enclaves and exclaves, perhaps cantons under a Swiss-type federal arrangement , is one idea which has been raised. Notions of federalism and confederalism, which were initially discussed as far back as the 1970s, especially by professor Daniel Elazar of Bar-Ilan University, a world expert on federalism, but were largely dismissed at the time as being unrealistic have resurfaced in many of these discussions.
Ironically, they would have been much easier to implement at that time than they would be today.
Any form of arrangement which is non-territorial based seems like a remote dream, even more problematic than what used to be thought of a simplistic exercise in drawing a line on a map. But we need to think beyond the classic territorial box if we wish to break away from the current inertia, accepting that the solutions of the far Right and the far Left remain ideologically unacceptable to the majority, while the physical separation of the two state solution becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to implement.
Time takes on a critical factor, as settlements continue to increase on the one hand, but so too does the demographic gap between the two populations decrease. The right- and left-wing scenarios are taking place before our very own eyes, and without a real alternative the day of reckoning between the extension of Israeli sovereignty or a single binational state will draw ever closer, with the eventual confrontation being even bloodier than anything we have experienced until now.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.