Media organizations often maintain an inventory of updated obituaries to newsworthy public figures — just in case. Obituaries to an expired idea, like the partition of Israel and Palestine, are harder. That’s because there is no single moment of death, just a long drawn out illness. One day, even the most ardent believer can’t avoid the reality that there is only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea: a state whose population may be differentiated by legal and political status, but which is intermingled by living geography.
With that recognition, the blame game starts. How did this happen, who is to blame? And in the United States, whose policies have made it a sometimes willing, sometimes unwilling architect of the demise of the “two-state solution”, pundits whose careers were built on chronicling the fabled “peace process”, now write ruefully about missed opportunities. But no fair-minded history can avoid what, in US domestic politics, is an inconvenient truth: that successive Israeli governments have, through their conscious actions, killed off the two-state idea. Still, the same domestic political calculation prompts many of these pundits to blame the Palestinians equally, and to excuse the Americans. In this self-serving narrative, both parties are to blame; the US did its level best to bridge the divide, and now has no choice but to let might determine right, however sad that might be.
Such a telling, however, like much of our dominant national narratives on racism, sexism, occupation and colonialism, is a mythology designed to rationalize the moral failures of the powerful. And just as America’s blind spots on those issues have made it that much harder to address the systematic injustices at the core of our current predicaments, a similar blindness to the reasons behind the demise of the two-state solution make it that much harder to address a post-partition future and the question of equality for Palestinians and Israelis.
My direct insights into this issue were gathered while working as an attorney advising the Palestinian negotiating team between late 2000 and early 2004, and subsequent work with Palestinians, Israelis, and the international community. These were not the “good years” of the peace process.
Ehud Barak had convinced himself he could bully and trick the Palestinians into an agreement on Israel’s terms at the ill-prepared Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. Ariel Sharon, whose provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif marked the onset of the second Intifada that same summer, then beat Barak in an early election six months later, and implemented his stated goal of burying the Oslo Peace Process. He launched a broad military offensive against the Palestinians, and set about dismantling the proto-state the PLO had been building since 1993. Sharon’s forces literally took over Ministry buildings and removed their computers, occupied Orient House in East Jerusalem (the unofficial seat of Palestinian presence in the city) and the removal of all land records and deeds of Jerusalem Palestinians. He began building a wall, which in conjunction with Jewish-only roads and Jewish-only cities (some of them metropolitan areas and suburbs so large that they mocked the term “settlement”) would confine the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank to a handful of cities.
Sharon also imprisoned the leader of the Palestinians, Yaser Arafat, in his compound under dire physical conditions, and redeployed Israeli troops into areas they had previously left to the Palestinian Authority to administer. And in a move designed to cement Israel’s grip on the West Bank, Sharon unilaterally redeployed settlers and their accompanying military and paramilitary units there from the Gaza Strip — not as an intermediate step towards independence, but as a final-status arrangement. All this was easily justified in Washington by the suicide bombings being committed, often against civilian targets inside Israel, by various Palestinian factions, including some who were happy to promote the demise of the Palestinian Authority. Violence against Palestinian civilians, of course, did not get the same coverage or empathy.
Throughout my time with the Palestinian negotiating team, watching the Oslo process being violently dismantled by Sharon, the leadership was focused on two priorities. The first was survival. Sharon’s end game seemed to be the annexation of the West Bank and the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority — a scenario that left uncertain the physical safety and well-being of Palestinian leaders trapped under occupation. The second priority was stepping around Sharon and his tanks to reiterate the idea that a two-state solution was still possible – a message directed at the Israeli public, the Palestinian public, the Arab world, the Europeans and, of course, the United States, which was mistakenly seen as the only power that could check Israeli aggression.
During those three years, Mahmoud Abbas, then Secretary General of the PLO, sent lawyers into Tel Aviv to explain the official Palestinian position on a two-state deal at public gatherings of Israelis. The PLO worked with Saudi Arabia to promote an Arab League resolution codifying the general terms of the Palestinian position, and offering Israel normalization with the Arab world in return. Countless meetings and negotiations took place with various US envoys including Senator George Mitchell (then heading the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact Finding Committee), Ambassador Bill Burns, and General Tony Zinni to find a way to de-escalate the conflict, and maybe jump right into statehood. Countless second-track negotiations with past Israeli negotiators continued, and ultimately led to the Geneva Initiative, an effort by a group of official Palestinian figures from the PLO, the PA, various Palestinian parties and civil society and mostly out-of-office Israeli officials, military figures as well as Israeli cultural leaders that outlined an “agreement” over partition.
These efforts to rekindle the process snuffed out by Sharon were not necessarily popular with the rank and file Palestinians suffering under sieges, confinement, assault and killings. If anything, for many these wan efforts at diplomacy seemed a confusion of priorities.
Statehood on 22% of historic Palestine had become such a priority, in fact, that the Palestinian leadership was willing to consider compromises that would have been almost impossible to sell to a skeptical public. The 1993 Oslo Agreements included similar compromises, but those were not as obvious. The Oslo deal seemed to promise, as far as any Palestinian was concerned, five years of increasing autonomy in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, concluding in a sovereign state on the 1967 borders including East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. Each year was supposed to be better than the year before. After watching the settler population grow faster than the dot.com bubble, and with increasing details coming out about the Israeli redlines, a new level of skepticism had become the order of the day by 2000.
Over time, it became clear to virtually everyone that no Israeli government would find the political will or desire to remove the Jewish-only cities they had created in the West Bank, especially those sitting atop water sources. And in a profound miscalculation, Palestinian negotiators had too often made explicit in private that the right of return of Palestinians to their homes in Israel could be sacrificed in exchange for the 1967 borders. This is where the Palestinians struggled most with symbolic efforts to afford the refugees some type of recognition and compensation instead. Whatever your beliefs on the rights and wrongs of ceding the right of return, doing so upfront was a practical miscalculation because Israeli negotiators pocketed that concession and then began negotiating changes to the borders. And when Israel said that Jerusalem was its eternal and undivided capital, they actually meant it.
Then, there was the question of security: Israel had no intention of allowing Palestinians sovereign control of their own state. They insisted that security, including borders, airspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum, would have to remain under Israeli control. Israel expected specially designated access roads for permanent Israeli pre-positioned military bases in the state of Palestine. In many ways, Israel’s military footprint would grow in an “independent” Palestine.
On all these issues, the Palestinians were willing to be “creative” although many Palestinian critics have used harsher assessments. Even on East Jerusalem, already home to a large Jewish settler population, Palestinians were at least willing to entertain various convoluted arrangements further dividing up the eastern half of the city.
Ultimately of course, none of these talks went anywhere because the negotiations were as divorced from the facts on the ground as the US role was from being an honest broker. The Palestinian leadership’s greatest mistake was substituting hope for analysis. As successive Israeli governments of the center and the right took steps to consolidate the occupation, dismantle and humiliate any semblance of Palestinian autonomy and leadership, and create today’s facts on the ground, the Palestinian leadership assumed that the US, and to a lesser extent Europe, would buttress what appeared to be a world-wide consensus on Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They also assumed that the Arab nations, despite various quiet arrangements with Israel, would not cross Palestinian red-lines on Jerusalem and sovereignty.
And this is where we were wrong.
Israel’s actions revealed Israel’s intent. And, what appeared, sometimes, to be US inaction, confusion, impotence, and misdirection when it came to restraining or confronting Israel was, in fact, US policy.
Europe, as supportive as many of its governments and the overwhelming majority of its citizens were of Palestinian statehood, lacked both the will and the capacity to take the driver’s seat on the issue.
And the Arab states… yes, the Arab states. In the last month alone, it has become clear that Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been willing to throw out Palestinian and longstanding Arab redlines on Jerusalem and sovereignty. In fact, they may not even recognize that what they have been agreeing to is the transfer of responsibility for the Palestinian population in the West Bank to Jordan and in Gaza to Egypt while Israel maintains the land of the West Bank and overall security control. Such an outcome would provide the Israelis with extra political cover for the PR battle against the inevitable anti-apartheid struggle looming at home and in Western countries.
So, yes, of course Palestinians have made mistakes. Perhaps even agreeing in 1988 to accept the partition along a 78 percent-22 percent partition of Palestine was a mistake. But the obituaries for a two-state solution should not make the mistake of blaming the Palestinians for its demise. In fact, despite the PLO’s acceptance of the 1967 borders, a two-state agreement with a sovereign Palestine was never even on the table. And the alternatives of either Bantustan cities in the West Bank and Gaza or transferring responsibility for those populations to Jordan and Egypt were never part of the Palestinian, or international, consensus.
But the Palestinian leadership(s) should remember at this time that the international consensus, the consensus of the Arab League, of the Muslim-majority nations, and of the Global South was always predicated on the original Palestinian nationalist goal for equality and freedom. When the PLO legitimized the idea of a 22% state in 1988, it opened the door for its allies the world over to also make that compromise. As the obituaries are written for the past, the Palestinians need to write the script for the future. The idea of partition may have died, but not the goal of freedom. And it is once again up to the Palestinians, themselves, through their actions in the coming months and years, to determine what direction that desire for freedom takes.