Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had accepted the two-state solution five years earlier, and Europe had adopted it eight years prior to that in the Venice Declaration. Since then, the reality in the territories Israel occupied in 1967 has changed radically. Readers of this journal are very familiar with these changes and there is no need to repeat them here. The argument about apartheid vs. settler colonialism, and whether the apartheid includes the 1948 territories, is interesting but not relevant to this article. What is relevant is the reality of the new situation. And a new situation demands that we courageously examine the validity of our past thoughts and actions.
The international system has changed as well. The efforts of Western Europe and the United States to advance a political solution have ceased in recent years. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not on their agenda. Occasionally their representatives publicly declare their commitment to the two-state solution, but off the record they admit that it is irrelevant. European Union (EU) officials say that “the price for adopting new positions is too high for decision-makers in European capitals.”1 Beyond the internal debate between EU member states regarding Israel’s policy, they fear the unknown should the PA collapse under their pressure.2 The Ukraine war and other pressing problems disturb the West more than the Middle-East confrontation. Moreover, they despair of finding a solution after all their attempts at mediation have been foiled by the two protagonists, for whom violence seems to have become second nature. EU states also have no desire to confront a strong Israel, particularly when the Palestinians are deeply divided and its international policy is ineffective. No less important is the fact that the two societies have moved very far apart from one another. If in the past the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians gave a chance to negotiations over a two-state solution; today we are talking about an ever-declining minority. The generation that authored and advanced the Oslo Accords is aging, if it has not already passed from this world. Is failure all that it has left to bequeath?
When the two-state solution was first proposed it was subversive and exciting. Today it is nostalgic for those who once advanced it, while it is perceived as irrelevant by the generation which has followed. On the Israeli side, these proposals have been significantly watered down and currently lack weight and content. In order to appease the right wing, adherents of the center-left have abandoned discussion of the question of the 1948 refugees and ignore the need to recognize Palestinian sovereignty over al-Haram al-Sharif. The demand of extreme Third Temple advocates that, in the name of religious freedom, the Israeli government must allow Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, is taking root even among past supporters of the two-state solution. In Palestinian discourse, the distinctions between Israelis and Jews, as well as between them and settlers, have become blurred. The Palestinian public identifies the two-state solution with the failed Palestinian Authority (PA). For many Palestinians, the Oslo Accords worsened their situation compared to the reality that existed prior to their signing.
A new vision is necessary — unconventional and exciting. When the idea of two states was put forward the principle itself was enough to garner support. Today, it is not enough to throw around the idea of “one state” or an “Israeli-Palestinian confederation.” Two additional things are needed: first, explaining the price which will have to be paid to implement it — not simply painting the target in optimistic colors, but presenting it, speaking truth to the public even if this is difficult; and second, demonstrating how the target is to be achieved from the current difficult situation.
These things are true for the two-state solution as well. The proposals from the 1990s must be significantly updated, and we must show how we are to arrive at two states, given the reality of a failed PA, political paralysis, and a deep social divide. On the Israeli side, we must cope bravely and honestly with the price two states will incur, including the possibility of armed rebellion by settlers and army units against the decision of a democratic majority. This is what happened in Algeria when de Gaulle reached an agreement with the local nationalist movement. There is no reason to assume that such a rebellion or a small-scale civil war will not break out in Israel. It is worth remembering that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated without having evacuated even one small room in a settlement, without having divided Jerusalem, and without having allowed the return of a single aging refugee. Public discussion in and outside of Israel focuses on the number of settlers and whether, because of their great numbers, the situation is irreversible or not. It is a mistake to view the number of settlers as the deciding factor. On one hand, some of them, with heartache and tears, will obviously agree to evacuate if the majority of Israeli citizens so decide. On the other hand, it should be recognized that within Israel’s 1948 borders there also exist large communities of the hardcore national-religious right.
The new vision must not give rise to illusions. This was one of the reasons for the failure of the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords were not a peace agreement but an interim agreement, marketed by its creators and the White House as a peace agreement. When Oslo exploded on the landmines laid by its opponents, the “peace,” too, was killed. The illusion of peace was, to a great extent, predicated on the PLO’s recognition of Israel. It is fitting that the PLO institutions have annulled this, as it was not really mutual recognition, but Arafat’s surrender to the dictate of the stronger side. Israel never recognized a Palestinian state, only the fact that the PLO was the representative of the Palestinian people.
Moreover, in the permanent settlement talks, from Camp David 2000 to Annapolis 2008, Israel insisted that the final agreement put an end to all claims. Clearly, in light of the positions Israel put forward, it was impossible to achieve this. The all-or-nothing approach was a mistake. In the future, the end-of-claims demand should be abandoned on very specific points, such as the maximum number of refugees permitted to return to the State of Israel as citizens. It’s possible to start
with an agreement on a minimum number and conduct ongoing negotiations on the maximum number. I do not support postponing to the future the entire issue of the refugees or the question of sovereignty over the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif. Any postponement should not be a path for avoiding difficult issues, but for removing obstacles on the way to creating a new situation. It is to be hoped that the return of a certain agreed number of refugees, alongside Israeli recognition of the injustice done to the Palestinians, their connection to the land, and the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative, will soften the disagreement over the maximum number of returning refugees.
Finally, if Hamas is to be included in the peace talks, directly or indirectly, based on the way that the movement has shifted from the Islamic charter of 1988 to its new political program in 2017, the negotiations’ goal has to change. Reaching a comprehensive end of claims that directed the final status talks since the 1990s is likely impossible to achieve with Hamas on board. It would be better, therefore, to leave few claims open for future negotiations.
Update the Two-State Solution
The political agenda that characterized the Oslo period has fundamentally changed. If the political process resumes, the challenge the two sides face is not how to move from a strictly military occupation to an agreed-upon political border, but from the single regime to a reality of two states or a confederation. Therefore, conclusions on dismantling Israel’s de facto annexation and exclusive control over the Palestinians should precede discussions on the location and demarcation of the border. Unfortunately, neither the two sides nor the international community paid enough attention to meeting this challenge, which entails, first, reverse engineering, i.e., from the agreed end to the present, rather the other way around, as the Oslo agreement put forward. Second, In the Oslo process there was a
contradiction between the security arrangements Israel wanted to dictate and the full sovereignty the Palestinians wanted to achieve. It is impossible to arrive at a solution of two sovereign states, a confederation, or a single non-apartheid state without security arrangements that are not based on Israeli control of the territory and population in the State of Palestine, and which do not view all Palestinians as suspects until an Israeli security check has cleared them. Third, it calls for extensive Palestinian capacity building, including comprehensive reconstruction of the present dysfunctional political institutions.
Instead of shouting “Save us;” instead of appealing to Europe and the U.S. with the desperate cry, “It will soon be impossible to implement the two-state solution because of the expanding settlements” — as if this still fazed them — it is incumbent on Israelis and Palestinians to explain how it is possible to create a two-state reality with the expanded settlements. And we should begin with Jerusalem, where in many neighborhoods Jewish and Palestinian homes stand alongside one another. Instead of postponing resolving questions around Jerusalem to the end of the negotiations, as was done in the Oslo process, we should examine how it is possible to separate Jerusalem into two capitals without a hard border. No city in the world has been able to prosper with a hard border running through it. This also holds true for the 1948 refugees. In contrast to the 1990s, the Nakba is today part of the public discourse, and it is therefore appropriate to begin the discussion of a permanent settlement with the refugee issue as well as the question of Jerusalem. Again, it would be helpful to make use of solutions achieved elsewhere in the world regarding the acknowledgment of injustices and the right to hold a different narrative.
Furthermore, security arrangements must not be based on the rigid separation of Israelis and Palestinians, as in the current Israeli formulation, “We are here, they are there, and between us is a wall.” In other words, security arrangements should not hinder forming connections between the two states and populations. This is no small challenge, given the power and high social status of the security establishment in Israel, the psychology of the conflict and its destructive influence on the Israeli soul, and the automatic capitulation of Europe and the U.S. when they hear Israeli leaders mouth the phrase “security needs.”
Overcoming the Division that Israel Created
Part of the reality check for all sides involves the recognition that Israel maintains a single regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This regime has three characteristics: demographic equality between Jews and non-Jews, ethnic privilege for the Jewish half, and the division of the Palestinians into four sub-groups: Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, the residents of the PA and the Gaza Strip. Israel allocates different rights and prohibitions to each group. The demographic equality pushes Israel to accentuate Jewish privilege within the single regime and to deepen division among the Palestinians. Palestinian society, like every human society, is not of one piece. Even each of the subgroups is heterogeneous. But the division maintained by Israel is primary and done by state mechanisms, while the inner Palestinian diversity is social, voluntary, and secondary. The division dictated by Israel prevents
the Palestinians from finding a common denominator to challenge Israel. Israeli Palestinians, and to a lesser degree East Jerusalemites, are increasingly assimilating into the majority society. However, as they do so their expectations of achieving civic equality rise, while the Jews reject them out of ethnic and demographic fears.
One of the ways to overcome this division is to include Palestinian citizens of Israel in forums discussing the solution to the conflict. Unfortunately, to date they have been absent from these frameworks. Despite the fact that settling the conflict between their country, Israel, and their people, the Palestinians, is in their clear interest, there is no Israeli-Palestinian civil society organization that prioritizes this issue. Furthermore, the need to settle the issue of the 1948 refugees directly affects them. Within 1948 Israel, there are hundreds of thousands of citizens who are refugees from the 1948 war. They lost their property and some of them are not permitted to return to their former homes even though no one lives there. The State of Israel and even the peace organizations supporting the Oslo process deny their rights and their narrative. This is so even though Palestinian citizens do not constitute a threat to the current demographic balance within the 1948 borders, since they are Israeli citizens. In addition, since the 1990s Israeli Palestinians have maintained commercial and higher education relations with West Bank Palestinians. Israeli Palestinians live in West Bank cities and participate in cultural, academic, and political symposiums with intellectuals and politicians from the PA. The exclusion of Palestinian citizens of Israel — by both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territories — from joint discussion groups about a peace agreement is unjustified and does not serve the common purpose.
The Ball Is in the Palestinians’ Court and They Must Act First
Abbas’ political strategy has failed. He pleaded for the help of Europe and the U.S. and asked them to recognize a Palestinian state, but they have not met his expectations. China and Russia have also chosen not to help him. Among the Arab states, only Jordan stands by his side, and is only influential in stopping further deterioration on al-Haram al-Sharif. Abbas plays the game of a state-in-waiting by adopting the ceremonies and decorum of a head of state. In reality, everyone understands that this is a fiction. The PA functions as a sub-contractor for Israel and its political institutions are paralyzed. The Palestinian national enthusiasm with the establishment of the PA in the mid-1990s has changed into massive disillusionment. Abbas’ PA occupies itself with personal and political survival, and not with the question of how to liberate itself from Israel. If this issue does not interest the Palestinian establishment, why should it interest the Europeans and Americans? They are not going to liberate Palestine and present it on a silver platter to Abbas. The Israelis benefit from the current situation and any concession would create serious problems for them, so why should they make any concessions? The Palestinians, by contrast, are suffering terribly, and it is in their clear interest to put an end to this cruel reality.
Given the huge discrepancies in power, however, can they really do anything? Let’s learn from history. The situation of the Palestinians after the Nakba was much worse than it is today. Even so, the young Palestinian generation preserved Palestinian identity, established Fateh, and transformed the PLO. Fateh, and from 1968 on the PLO as well, stood for the independence of Palestinian decision-making, rejecting feelings of helplessness and total defeat, and self-reliance. Salvation would not come from the outside. They had to rely on themselves and act. In the 1960s the chosen method of action was armed struggle. In the historical balance, armed struggle did not liberate Palestine and took a heavy toll on the PLO and Hamas, but it also demonstrated that the collective rights of the Palestinian people could not be ignored. History also teaches that the unarmed intifada beginning at the end of 1987 achieved what armed struggle had not succeeded in achieving: respectable international status, the entry of the PLO leadership from abroad into the area where it wanted to establish the Palestinian state, and the opportunity of administering Palestinian land and population. The unarmed intifada forced Israel to allow the PLO to transition from an organization operating by remote control from Tunis to an institution administering territory and population within Palestine. One should not disparage this achievement, and it is important to recall it precisely at a time when the PA’s reputation is at an all-time low. In recent years public opinion surveys show increasing support for a renewal of armed struggle. In my opinion this stems from frustration and disappointment, not from clear rational analysis. The mission of Palestinian civil society
organizations in the PA, Jerusalem, and Israel is to propose, with or without the participation of their Israeli Jewish counterparts, ways to leverage the achievements of the first intifada.
1 International Crisis Group, Realigning European Policy toward Palestine with Ground Realties, 23 August 2022, p. I in Realigning European Policy toward Palestine with Ground Realities (icgprod.s3.amazonaws.com).
2 Ibid, 7.