The following is the text of Dr. Tony Klug’s opening remarks at a Balfour Project webinar that took place on September 15, 2022.
Before getting into the substance of the matter, I thought I would provide some background context to my involvement in Palestinian-Israeli issues, which goes back to the war of 1967 and even before then.
I am not a direct stakeholder in this conflict, unlike Sam, and so am circumspect about trying to impose my own values, preferences, or solutions on peoples from different cultures and in different parts of the world. I am conscious that, for centuries, Westerners, and other imperial powers, have habitually intervened in the affairs of other societies which, in the round, has unhappily wreaked havoc around the world.
The instinct to foist our own views or structures on others still seems to be integral to our way of thinking, whether we hail from the political right, the political left, or somewhere in between. This neo-colonial mindset is predicated on the implicit assumption that we in the West know best. But it ain’t necessarily so. I expect we would do less harm if we learned to constrain ourselves and discovered how to listen.
This said, I have historically had a close affinity with both peoples and have many Israeli and Palestinian friends and colleagues. My enduring interest has been to see the conflict resolved with a measure of justice and security for both sides, to enable Palestinians and Israelis to live in relative harmony alongside each other in one way or another, and to bring to a conclusive end the decades of killings, terrorizing, occupying, and demonizing.
The Solution Has to Satisfy the Core Aspirations of Both Peoples
I do not think this aim is fanciful. What I do think, though, is that for a solution to be plausible and sustainable, it has to satisfy the minimum core aspirations of both peoples and allay their maximum fears, even if each party regards the core claim of the other to be essentially bogus and the fears to be groundless.
Viewing the conflict through the lens of each people in turn, and in line with the principle that whatever right either side demands for itself it cannot reasonably deny to the other, I authored a pamphlet – Middle East conflict: a tale of two peoples — published by the Fabian Society in January 1973, almost exactly 50 years ago, that called for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel — what in later years came to be known as the “two-state solution.”
This term, which I did not use myself, can be misleading, for it was not and is not just a matter of “solution.” For me and the small number of Palestinians and Israelis who were also advocating the two-state formula at that time, it was as much about framework as eventual outcome, as much about means as end. For, in the absence of a Palestinian state, the Palestinians – unlike the Israelis – did not have effective agency, without which all negotiations over the range of problems, whatever the wished-for endgame, were bound to fall apart, as indeed they have on every occasion.
A Palestinian State Is the Missing Parameter for Progress
The enduring reality is that a Palestinian state has always been the vital missing parameter for progress on any other matter. Accordingly, four years after the first pamphlet, I authored a second pamphlet – Middle East impasse: the only way out – which, in a crude nutshell, called for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the bulk of the landlocked West Bank to enable a Palestinian state to emerge under the broadly popular leadership of the PLO. In the circumstances of the time – this was 1977 – it was the only way I could see to bring into existence a Palestinian state and achieve some sort of parity as the bedrock for future negotiations.
Imagine that Pakistan, instead of being a sovereign independent state, was Indian-occupied territory to this day, with a largely toothless Pakistani Authority. How would they ever reach, let alone deliver on, substantive agreements on critical matters? The power balance would be far too skewed in one direction.
Recognize a Palestinian State
So, in line with this thinking and to jump forward to today, I think the Balfour Project policy to urge the UK Government to recognize a Palestinian state forthwith – as it has for decades recognized the Israeli state – is exactly right. That would belatedly fulfill the promise of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, which authorized the division of Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state to replace the British Mandate.
The standard UK Government response that this is not the right time for recognition – as if the right time was lurking just around the corner – is a sham, not to be taken at face value. I call into evidence two separate conversations I had in 1975 with the two ministers of state at the Foreign Office, first Roy Hattersley and later David Ennals. Both had read my first Fabian pamphlet and both broadly accepted its arguments and conclusion. So, I asked, will the UK Labour government therefore press without further ado for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel? Now, they each responded, is not the time. That was 47 frigging years ago. In reality, it’s never the time and it’s always the time. For it’s not a matter of time but of attitude and political will, which are susceptible to concerted pressure.
Cherry-Picking the Geneva Convention
I originally met the esteemed Palestinian thinker Sam Bahour about 10 years ago, I believe, at a series of meetings in Ramallah, Gaza, and Istanbul of the Palestine Strategy Group, of which he was a leading member and to which I was invited as a consultant together with my colleague, the conflict-resolution guru Professor Oliver Ramsbotham. It transpired that while Sam and I had different starting points, of course, in important respects our thinking ran along similar lines.
In anticipation of the breakdown of the much vaunted talks in 2014 between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, engineered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, we agreed to put our heads together to see if we could devise an international strategy to replace what we regarded as doomed bilateral negotiations, not only in that case but in general, as the prime method for breaking the Palestinian-Israeli deadlock.
We noted that Israel, uniquely, held that its rule over the captured West Bank and Gaza was not technically an occupation on the grounds that the Geneva Convention speaks of the sovereign territory of a High Contracting Party, and that Jordan and Egypt, who previously governed these territories, never had sovereign title over them.
According to this reasoning, the prohibition on the occupying power from expropriating or settling parts of the captured territory, therefore, did not legally apply in this case. But this reasoning was selective, for Israeli Governments shielded themselves behind other provisions of the Geneva Convention – notably the clauses that prohibit altering the legal status of an occupied territory’s inhabitants – to justify withholding from the occupied Palestinians the political, civil, and legal rights enjoyed by Israeli citizens.
So Israel was cherry-picking the Geneva Convention to suit its purposes. And the international community, by remaining silent about this transparent duplicity, has in effect been complicit in it for decades.
So we posed the question that we felt the international community should have posed long ago: “Is it or is it not an occupation in Israel’s eyes?” The laws of occupation either apply or do not apply. Successive Israeli Governments have been allowed to have it both ways for more than 55 years and will probably be quite content to continue having it both ways for a further 55 years unless this stance is robustly challenged. It has been a colossal bluff waiting to be called.
Israel Must Choose
We held that there was no justification for further delay in pressing Israel into making a definitive choice – one way or the other. If Israel deemed its rule over – let’s limit it for the moment to the West Bank – to be an occupation, with its connotation of temporariness, then it was way beyond time for its provisional custodianship to be brought to a swift end by announcing its intention to withdraw, and then withdrawing. If it deemed it not to be an occupation, then there was no justification in international law for not granting full and equal rights to every inhabitant of the whole space under Israel’s control, regardless of ethnicity.
In the first case – where it is deemed to be an occupation – we argued the Israeli Government should be called upon to publish plans for promptly ending its occupation by a designated date. We had originally proposed – this was some eight years ago – a deadline of the 50th anniversary of the occupation, but that has now passed, so a new deadline needs to be designated, let’s say Jan. 1, 2025.
In the second case – where Israel denies its rule is an occupation – the international community is entitled to hold the Israeli Government accountable to the equality standard, meaning that, pending a final resolution of the conflict – whenever and whatever that might be – equal treatment for everyone under Israel’s jurisdiction should replace ethnic discrimination as the default position.
In either case, the very unequal status quo would no longer be an acceptable option – a take, by the way, that is entirely consistent with Israel’s own foundational values. Here I call into evidence the Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948 which proclaimed that the State of Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
An important aim of the strategy Sam and I have proposed was to spark new political currents within Israel that, in the face of the stark alternatives, may hasten the return to the national agenda of two neighbouring states, probably within the framework of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, for which there has in the past been polling evidence of growing support among the Israeli population. More than a hundred retired Israeli generals have endorsed the approach embedded in that initiative.
To draw an imperfect analogy, if the Scots in the UK and the Catalans in Spain enjoy full and equal citizenship rights pending possible independence for their regions in the future, what is the moral case for treating the Palestinians differently pending a final outcome in their case?
Needless to say, concerted external pressure would be needed, maybe triggered by civil societies lobbying their respective governments. But it should be borne in mind that pressure would be required for any scenario that attempted to alter the status quo. What is important is that the aim should be clear, focused, and capable of attracting support at the highest levels and that the pressure should be smart, systematic and strategically targeted, not scattergun or blunderbuss. It should include not just prospective penalties but incentives, too, such as the promise of involving Israel in regional programmes and broadening diplomatic recognition.
The alternative is to carry on as things are, meaning Israel would continue to rule over the Palestinians indefinitely without granting them civil or political rights. It would mean the continuation of the belligerent settlement project and further expropriation of Palestinian land. In short, it would mean perpetuating Palestinian dispossession and suffering. It would also mean endless conflict, whose toxins would continue to seep into other countries, as they have been doing for too many years.
For Israel’s Jewish citizens, it would mean their further isolation, an expanding boycott campaign, growing challenges to the legitimacy of the state itself, spreading accusations of apartheid and the steady erosion of internal democracy, a telling symptom of the moral damage exacted on a society that daily enforces a despised military rule over another people.
For Jews outside Israel, there is the depressing prospect of further manifestations of anti-Jewish sentiment within the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as within other countries. Public demonstrations in support of repressive Israeli policies by some Jewish groups – even if they speak for only a minority of Jews – only serve to feed this sentiment, which could do without this extra boost. More ominous still is the potential for the sentiment to tip into the vile, age-old ideology of antisemitism and fuel its noxious flames. The parallel rise of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the Jewish world and further afield is not a coincidence. Ultimately, only a resolution of the conflict will reverse the spiral.
Is the Two-State Solution Dead?
To anticipate the question: Isn’t the two-state solution dead and buried and why not agitate definitively for one unitary state now, or at least nominate it as the default alternative to two states in preference to equal rights as an interim measure? In other words, why not advocate a Palestinian state now or, failing that, one state now? This is an option we considered but ruled out. It’s a big question which I will address briefly.
First, for every authoritative claim that the two-state solution is dead, there is an equally authoritative claim that there is no alternative to the two-state solution. These robust convictions have evolved in recent times into absolutist mantras but are not necessarily absolute truths. This said, my fear is that they may both be right, in which case the two peoples would be condemned to eternal conflict. Then again, they may both be wrong. We cannot afford to stubbornly close our minds.
Second, to be exact, what our proposal calls for in the case that Israel – when forced to a choice – acknowledges that its rule is an occupation is for Israeli governance over the occupied territory to be withdrawn and replaced by Palestinian governance. You can call that a “two-state solution” if you like, but the terminology is not what matters. An apposite model may be the division of Czechoslovakia in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which was a peaceful transition based not on ethnic discrimination and enforced population transfers but on political sovereignty over agreed, demarcated territory. If we view the future of Israel-Palestine in these terms, we may find the problems are less intractable than is often thought.
An interim option, if necessary, could be to replace Israeli governance with a temporary international trusteeship or protectorate for a limited period, pending Palestinian independence.
Third, it is worth recalling that the two-state formula at one time attracted more than two-thirds support among both Palestinians and Israelis and is the long-standing international consensus. To start all over again with a different goal – a much more contentious goal – would be a mammoth task which may put off a resolution indefinitely. In reality, it is not the two-state outcome that has failed thus far – for it has never been tried – but the process.
Fourth, the default alternative we postulate of equality until there is a solution is simple to grasp and has a natural appeal as an interim measure, grounded in international law, human rights conventions, and any notion of fairness. By contrast, a permanent alternative of one state now, simple though it may sound to the ear, is seriously complicated, although our proposal does not rule it out for the future if that is what both peoples eventually genuinely want.
The foremost problem is that there is no consensus on the meaning of one state. It could mean a Muslim state – favoured by Hamas; a Jewish state – popular among Israelis; an Arab state – popular among Palestinians; a secular, unitary, democratic state – popular among some liberal and leftist Westerners; or a multi-confessional state, like in Lebanon, favoured at one time by Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader. The state could be federal, bi-national, cantonal, or unitary.
A confederation model, an idea which seems to be growing in popularity and which I personally find appealing, especially if it were to include Jordan, is not one state but a voluntary arrangement between two or more states, meaning there would have to be an independent Palestinian state first.
The diverse one-state options conflict with each other and almost all of them are ill-thought-out. Some would deny national rights to either or both peoples and are thus perceived as deeply threatening by one side or the other or, in some cases, by both sides. How Israelis and Palestinians wish to live alongside each other – and neither of them is going away – is for them to decide, and indications are that there is little authentic support for one unitary state, where there would be no institutional provision for communal identity.
Israelis would fear it would mean the instant eradication of their state and their becoming a minority again in someone else’s land – which hasn’t always worked out well in the past – and Palestinians would have good reason to believe that, in the light of the huge economic disparities, it would be an Israeli hegemonic state, not so different in some respects from living under occupation. The indications are that both peoples still prefer to exercise their self-determination in their own independent states, whether confederated or not.
Our Proposal Could Attract a Broad-Based Coalition of Support
Our proposal would not foreclose this option. On the contrary, it is designed to expedite it by bringing matters to a head and enabling people to advocate equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis, in one form or another, free of the implication that this necessarily carries a threat to the existence of the State of Israel or a future State of Palestine.
Potentially, we believe it could attract a broad-based coalition of support at the level of civil societies – including among Palestinians, Israelis, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, and many others – as well as, crucially, at the level of governments. The aim would be to build a momentum and trigger a bandwagon effect.
In our Le Monde Diplomatique article in April 2014, in which our proposal first appeared, we argued that the equality principle should extend throughout the region. The stateless Palestinians – not just the nearly 5 million living under Israeli military occupation (if Gaza is included) but also the more than 5 million who have been living as refugees in the surrounding states for the past 74 years – suffer discrimination all over the Middle East and from time to time have been subjected to mass expulsions by one Arab country or another. In the absence of their own state, they have no refuge. This is part of the Palestinian tragedy.
In almost every Arab state, their rights are severely curtailed, and they are mostly denied citizenship, Jordan apart, even where they, their parents, their grandparents, and in some cases their great-grandparents were born in the country. Whatever may have been the original justification, their continuing limbo status is shameful so many years on.
The bottom line is that until the Palestinians, like the Israelis, achieve their primary choice of self-determination in their own state – if ever they do – they should no longer, in the modern era, be denied equal rights in whichever lands they inhabit. In the case of Israel and its indefinite occupation, this means putting an end to the cherry-picking of international law and the resultant inequities that have lasted for far too long.
This is the link to the entire Balfour Project webinar: