With No Solution in Sight: Between Two National Movements

There is more than one reason for the failure of the Oslo Accords, but at the basis lies a fundamental difference in how each side views the conflict.

Shlomo Avineri
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Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the ceremony marking the signing of the Oslo peace accord on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993.
Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the ceremony marking the signing of the Oslo peace accord on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993.Credit: AP
Shlomo Avineri

Twenty years after the Oslo Accords, the time has come to ask why they did not bring about the historic compromise envisaged by their initiators and supporters. This is a question to be asked especially by those who supported them and viewed them, justifiably, as the opening toward an epochal reconciliation between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples.

There is more than one reason for the failure to achieve an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians: mutual distrust between the two populations, internal pressures from the rejectionists on both sides, Yasser Arafat’s repeated deceptions, the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the electoral victories of Likud in Israeli elections, Palestinian terrorism, continuing Israeli settlement activities in the territories, the bloody rift between Fatah and Hamas, American presidents who did too little (George W. Bush) or too much and in a wrong way (Barack Obama), the political weakness of Mahmoud Abbas, governments headed by Netanyahu that did everything possible to undermine effective negotiations. All this is true, and everyone picks and chooses what fits their views and interests – but beyond all these lies a fundamental difference in the terms in which each side views the conflict, a difference many tend or choose to overlook.

Most Israelis view the conflict as a struggle between two national movements: the Jewish national movement – Zionism – and the Palestinian national movement as part of the wider Arab national movement. The internal logic of such a view leads in principle to what is called the two-state solution. Even if the Israeli right wing preferred for years to avoid such a view, eventually it has been adopted by Netanyahu, albeit reluctantly, and is now the official policy of his government.

The point is that those Israelis who see the conflict in the framework of a struggle between two national movements assume that this is also the position of the other side; hence when negotiations fail, the recipe advocated is to tinker with some of the details, hoping that further concessions, on one or the other side, will bring about an agreement.

Unfortunately, this is an illusion.

The basic Palestinian position, which usually isn’t always explicitly stated, is totally different and can be easily detected in numerous Palestinian statements. According to the Palestinians’ view, this is not a conflict between two national movements but a conflict between one national movement (the Palestinian) and a colonial and imperialistic entity (Israel). According to this view, Israel will end like all colonial phenomena – it will perish and disappear. Moreover, according to the Palestinian view, the Jews are not a nation but a religious community, and as such not entitled to national self-determination which is, after all, a universal imperative.

According to this view, the Palestinians see all of Israel – and not just the West Bank and Gaza – as analogous to Algeria: an Arab country out of which the foreign colonialists were ultimately expelled. Because of this, Israel – even in its pre-1967 borders – never appears in Palestinian school textbooks; because of this the Palestinians insist never to give up their claim to the right of return of 1948 refugees and their descendants to Israel.

Not a people

This is also the reason for the Palestinians’ obstinate refusal – from Abbas to Saeb Erekat – to accept Israel as the Jewish nation-state in any way whatsoever. At the end of the day, the Palestinian position views Israel as an illegitimate entity, sooner or later doomed to disappear. The Crusader analogy only adds force to this claim.

One expression of the gap between the Israeli and the Palestinian perception is evident in the diplomatic language of both sides when they refer to the two-state solution. The Israeli version talks about “two states for two peoples,” sometime adding “a Palestinian nation-state living next to the Jewish nation-state.” The Palestinian version refers only to a “two-state solution,” never to “two states for two peoples.” It is obvious: If the Jews are not a people, they are not entitled to a state.

This is also the reason why there is no regret among the Palestinians for their rejection of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. As far as I know – and I would be happy if proven wrong – there has until now not been any serious Palestinian debate around their rejection of partition: There have been innumerable discussions and publications about their military defeat in 1948 in their attempt to prevent the establishment of Israel, but no Palestinian leader or thinker has openly admitted that the decision to reject the UN Partition Plan and to go to war against it had been politically or morally wrong.

To this very day, no Palestinian intellectual or politician has dared to admit that had the Palestinians accepted partition then, on May 15, 1948 a Palestinian Arab state would have been established in a part of Mandatory Palestine, and there would have been no refugees and no Nakba (“catastrophe”). It is much easier to deny moral responsibility for the terrible catastrophe the Palestinian leadership has brought upon its own people.

This is not just a matter of historical narrative: It has political implications for the here and now. If Israel is not a legitimate state based on the right to national self-determination but an imperialist entity, there is no ground for an end-of-conflict agreement based on compromise.

Most Israelis who maintain that the conflict is a territorial conflict between two national movements tend to believe that a territorial arrangement, linked in one way or another to the pre-1967 Green Line, is the way to reach an eventual resolution of the conflict. Yet the Palestinian behavior under Arafat at Camp David 2000, as well as during the negotiations between Abbas and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, suggests that something much deeper is at stake.

When Abbas insists repeatedly that his movement cannot give up the claim to the Right of Return because this is “an individual right” reserved to every Palestinian refugee and his descendants, the implication is that even if there will be an agreement on the territorial issues, and even if all West Bank settlers will be evacuated, the conflict will continue to exist and fester. This is also the reason why Abbas refuses to follow Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and address the Knesset as a symbol of reconciliation – this would imply accepting Israel’s sovereignty and legitimacy.

I am well aware that the moderate public in Israel – which acknowledges the Palestinian right to self-determination, opposes Jewish settlement in the territories and supports the two-state solution – finds it difficult to internalize the fact that the Palestinians basically do not accept Israel’s right to exist. But there is no way to deny this uncomfortable truth. Yet this should not lead to despair or the acceptance of the status quo because “there is nothing we can do.”

Multidimensional conflict

One can learn from similar current national conflicts, but unfortunately most Israelis are so immersed in internal debates that they are not aware of some of the similarities. The national conflicts in Cyprus, Kosovo, Bosnia and even faraway Kashmir have certain similarities to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In all of them a territorial dimension is evident: the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, the territorial aspect of the multinational conflicts in Bosnia, the Serbian perception of Kosovo as part of their historical homeland, the Indian occupation of parts of Kashmir.

But all these conflicts are multidimensional, not just territorial – they are conflicts between national movements on which usually one side does not accept the very legitimacy of the other group. All these conflicts relate to contrasting narratives and historical memories as well as to claims to sovereignty; they imply occupation, ethnic cleansing, settlers, resistance to occupation, terrorism, reprisals and guerilla warfare. They are not religious conflicts as such, but every one of them has a religious dimension, linked to holy sites and religious memories which usually exacerbate the conflict and make pragmatic compromises even more difficult.

The multidimensionality of all these conflicts is the reason why no resolution has yet been found to any of them, even after decades of sincere, though sometimes nave, international efforts: the Annan Plan for Cyprus, the Dayton Accords in Bosnia, etc. All these plans usually focused on the territorial aspect, mainly because of its obvious visibility, but overlooked the much deeper roots of the conflicts which are far more difficult to solve. Yet this did not prevent some practical ways of finding partial agreements of different sorts, aimed at attenuating the conflict and preventing violence and open warfare.

The Israeli right wing is interested in maintaining the status quo, and Netanyahu’s aim is clear: to increase the number of Jewish settlers, prevent handing over control over the territories to the Palestinians and prevent – or delay as much as possible – the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Those who think that the sole aim of Netanyahu is to survive in power are wrong (after all, this is the aim of every political leader). He views his staying in power as a national mission to maintain Israeli control over as much territory of the Land of Israel as possible. His focusing on the Iranian threat is, among other things, a ploy to divert attention from the Palestinian issue, even when it is clear that he is not ever going to attack Iran.

Thinking out of the box

The opposition under Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union does not propose an alternative to this policy. Herzog is right in repeating his insistence that Israel should return to the negotiating table. But this does not suffice, as this is not a political plan. Does Herzog believe that if the Netanyahu government returns to negotiations, the result would be an agreement based on the two-state solution? Moreover, even if he himself would become – as I hope he would – prime minister, can he offer to the Palestinians more than Ehud Barak offered at Camp David and Olmert offered to Abbas – offers that have in both cases been rejected by the other side?

Similarly, the understandably enticing idea of embracing the Arab League Peace Initiative is a chimera: At a time when the Arab world is rent by internal strife and violent civil wars, and at least four Arab countries are in various stages of radical disintegration, the Arab League is not a real player, though Israel should address the challenge posed by the initiative, despite the fact that it is basically a dead end.

Herzog should go beyond the mantra of “returning to negotiations” and initiate an alternative calling for creativity and political courage. He should declare that, yes, one should return to negotiations, but being aware of the difficulties of reaching a formal agreement, a government headed by him would initiate the following policies:

* A total and unconditional cessation of all construction in the settlements.

* Dismantle the illegal outposts, as promised by previous Israeli governments.

* Encourage a generous program of financial support for settlers who would agree to voluntary resettle in Israel proper (“pinui-pitzui”).

* Prevent Jewish takeover of Arab houses in East Jerusalem, which provokes riots and violence.

* Declare activities linked to organizations like “price tag” illegal, in accordance with existing laws and regulations.

* Encourage and facilitate foreign investments in the West Bank.

* Abolish the remnants of the blockade of the Gaza Strip and try to establish, with the European Union and Egypt, a sustainable mechanism of entry and exit of people and goods to and from the Strip.

These steps are not “concessions” to the Palestinians. Since there are not going to be meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future, they are aimed at not accepting the Palestinian veto on an agreement as a cause for a continuing Israeli control over millions of Palestinians. Such steps will also clearly indicate that Israel is not interested in extending or perpetuating its rule over areas populated by Palestinians.

I am aware that these are not easy steps and will not be welcome by many Israelis – nor are they a “solution” of the conflict, but they constitute an alternative to the existing status quo that is undermining the fabric of Israeli society as a Jewish and democratic country.

Confederation not a solution

A last word about an idea recently floated, among others by President Reuven Rivlin – confederation. I greatly appreciate Rivlin’s humane and Zionist campaign to ensure the equal rights of Israel’s Arab citizens – in that he is a true follower of the liberal aspects of Jabotinsky’s legacy. But Rivlin is also an adherent of continuing rule over all the Land of Israel and opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. When asked how he squares the obvious contradiction between these two positions, he occasionally mentions the idea of a confederation.

On a verbal level this appears a plausible, even pleasant, way out. But it’s a mirage. First of all, there exists no confederacy anywhere in the world (for historical reasons, Switzerland refers to itself as a confederacy, but it is a federation). Confederative ideas have been raised during the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, but they all failed. The main reason was that setting up a confederation implies establishing mutually accepted frontiers among the various members of the confederation, and this, after all, is one of the main sticking points in national conflicts.

Does anyone imagine that the Palestinians will agree to a Palestinian entity within the confederation that would not include the Jewish settlements? On the other hand, will Israel agree that the settlements will be under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian entity of the confederation? It is equally obvious that a confederal scheme will not be able to address the issue of Jerusalem. Furthermore, in a confederation – as distinct from a federation – each confederal entity is considered an internationally recognized state, including possible UN membership. Will Israel agree to this? Such a confederation, if it ever comes about, will occasionally have a Palestinian president (probably on a rotating basis): Is this something most Israelis would find acceptable?

A further and unpleasant element would be the different political structures of the two entities of such a confederation. How can one imagine setting up the common institutions of an Israel-Palestine confederation when one entity (Israel) is a pluralist democracy, while the other would be something else, in all probability run as a Mukhabarat-type regime like most Arab countries? I cannot imagine many Israelis being willing to be linked as citizens in any way to such a despotic structure. In short, with all due respect for President Rivlin, such an idea cannot come about due to its overall intrinsic and built-in contradictions.

There is no choice but to admit there is no chance for any mutually accepted agreement in the foreseeable future. Such a pessimistic prognosis calls for the opposition, and its leader, to acknowledge that they have to think outside the box and offer alternatives not in order to “solve” the conflict, but to mitigate its severity and perhaps move both sides eventually to an agreed solution.

But there should be no illusion: So long as the Palestinians maintain that they are fighting – militarily or diplomatically – against a Zionist colonial and imperialistic entity, an historical compromise is unfortunately not on the agenda. Hence a call for creative and bold alternatives is necessary in order to get beyond the status quo and insure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.

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