Citizens International

Palestine’s future: What are the options?

By Richard Falk



Where differences seem irreconcilable, the common call is ‘to think outside the box’.

An Israeli military checkpoint in the old city in Hebron, West Bank [Getty Images]

For years, influential thought about Palestine has almost exclusively considered variations on the theme of a two-state solution. US Secretary of State John Kerry stampeded the Palestinian Authority and Israel into negotiations that “failed” before they even started a year ago. At least Kerry was prudent enough to warn both sides that this was their do or die moment for resolving the conflict on the basis of two states for two peoples.

The Israeli government having become virtually inseparable from the settler movement has long appreciated that the function of endorsing a Palestinian state was little more than a way of appeasing world public opinion, given its belief that a political solution was possible and necessary, and could only happen if the Palestinian got their state. The Palestinian Authority seems to sing the same lyrics, although with a certain solemnity. The Palestinians in recent years have lost even the ability to say “no”, despite having nothing to gain, and quite a bit to lose.

With what seems like the end of this peace process, silence in high places about how the conflict might end has for the present replaced earlier false hopes invested in diplomatic negotiations. In retrospect, it is easy to conclude that political preconditions for conflict-resolving negotiations never existed on the Israeli side. This is mainly because the expansionist vision of the right-wing settlers had become official state policy in Tel Aviv, and there was no longer pressure mounted by Palestinian armed struggle.

On the Palestinian side, there was an eagerness to end the occupation and become a fully sovereign state, but confusion as to what this meant as a practical matter, and whether a deal like this could be sold to the Palestinian people if it left the several million Palestinians living in foreign refugee camps out in the cold.

Israel’s security logic

The security logic of the Israeli right is that Israel will only be able to maintain its security over time if it continues to control all or most of the West Bank.

This reflects the view that real threat to Israel no longer comes from Palestinian armed resistance. It comes from the surrounding Arab world that is moving toward more advanced weaponry, and at some point is almost sure to again turn its guns and missiles in an Israeli direction.

 Peace through diplomacy and negotiations has long seemed bankrupt, but after the recent collapse of the talks, it seems totally discredited. This raises the question “What now?”

In situations of this sort, where differences seem irreconcilable, the common call is “to think outside the box”. The old box was the consensus associated with the two-state mantra. Now there is no box at all, and future alternatives need to be imagined and appraised. Five seem worth pondering, and each has some plausibility.

Israeli one-state: This involves extending Israel’s border to incorporate most of the West Bank, keeping the settlements except a few isolated outposts. This vision takes on heightened political relevance considering that Reuven Rivlin, the new Israeli president, is an open advocate of a supposedly humane version of an Israeli one-state outcome. This benevolent version, spelled out in some detail by an influential settler advocate, Dani Dayan, calls for a radical easing of Palestinian life in relation to day-to-day humiliations (numerous checkpoints, restrictions on mobility, etc) and even anticipates the dismantling of the separation wall. It promises to raise the Palestinian standard of living significantly, and admits that this type of “economic peace” will never satisfy Palestinian political/legal grievances relating to territory, independence and the right of return. It is essentially offering a Faustian bargain in which Palestinians give up their struggle for self-determination in exchange for the tangible psychological and economic advantages of living in material comfort and some dignity within an Israeli structure of governance.

Binational one-state: The more idealistic version of the one-state solution presupposes a secular state that encompasses the whole of historic Palestine, establishes a unified government with democracy and human rights for all and creates semi-autonomous regions where Jews and Palestinians can exercise self-administration and separate national and ethnic identity. There are several obstacles: given the realities on the ground and the attachment of an overwhelming majority of Israelis to the Zionist Project of a Jewish State with an unlimited right of return for Jews, the proposal seems utopian, lacking political traction. Furthermore, the disparities in wealth and education would likely lead to Israeli dominance in any process that purported to unify the country on a non-Zionist basis.

Israeli withdrawal from occupation: In this proposal, there would be no explicit shift in the structures of governance. In a manner similar to the 2005 Sharon Disengagement Plan for Gaza, this new initiative would apply to those portions of Palestine that Israel seeks to incorporate within its final international borders. This arrangement would leave the Palestinian Authority in charge of the remnant of the West Bank, as well as Gaza. It would maintain the occupation regime and the separation wall, imposing rigid border controls and continue repression, effectively depriving Palestinians of the enjoyment of their most basic human rights. The main obstacle is that Palestinians would have no incentive to accept such an outcome, it would be denounced in most international settings, including the United Nations, and it would isolate Israel as a pariah state.

Palestinian self-determination: There is some new thinking in the Palestinian camp, most articulately formulated by Ali Abunimah in his important book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine. The emphasis is on civil society activism and nonviolent Palestinian resistance as building global support for a solution that is responsive to the Palestinian right of self-determination. What form self-determination eventually assumes is a matter, above all, for Palestinians to decide for themselves. The realidation of self-determination presupposes leadership that is accepted by authentic representatives of the whole of the Palestinian people. The contours of the territorial division or unity that emerges would be the outcome of negotiations, but its embodiment would address the legitimate grievance of the Palestinian people and an acknowledgement by Israel of past injustices. The obstacle here is one of hard power disparities, and the Jewish worldwide engagement with the Zionist Project. The way around such an obstacle is to gain worldwide support that mounts such pressure on Israel, the US, and Europe as to induce a recalculation of interests based on a new realism associated with growing Palestinian soft power capabilities.

Peaceful co-existence: In recent years, Hamas, strangely seems to be the last holdout for a version of the two-state solution, although in its maximalist form. Israel would have to withdraw to the 1967 borders, end its blockade of Gaza, and give Palestine control over East Jerusalem. The main obstacle here is that Israel would have to give up its expansionist goals and dismantle the settlements, although it could retain the Zionist Project in its more limited form. The secondary obstacle is that the Hamas Charter calls for the total removal of the entire Jewish presence from historic Palestine, making the proposal seem tactical, and meant to be an interim arrangement and not a sustainable peace. It is impossible to imagine Israel accepting such a blurry outcome that rolled back the weighty facts on the ground. Besides, whatever its content the very fact that Hamas was the source of the proposal would by this alone produce an Israel rejection.

In conclusion, it seems obvious that none of these five approaches seems either attractive enough to challenge the status quo or politically persuasive enough to shift the balance of forces bearing on the conflict. Yet, signs exist that the Israelis are moving toward a unilaterally imposed option and the Palestinians are more and more inclined to combine non-violent resistance with support for militant global solidarity.

On the one side, the Israeli settler movement is on the front line, and on the other, the Palestinian BDS campaign. In both instances, at this time governments have been temporarily marginalised as political actors in relation to the struggle. This is itself a momentous development.

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies.He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.