In his ground-breaking speech at the Bar-Ilan University (June 2009), shortly after his second term as PM had begun, Benjamin Netanyahu accentuated the Jewish narrative as the bedrock of Israel: 3500 years of bonding between the Jewish people and the Promised Land. Then he added: “the truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians. We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them.”
In this sentence Netanyahu offered us a glimpse into the crux of his perceptions concerning the conflict. It is not merely a security issue or a territorial dispute that needs to be settled. It is a dispute over narratives. In his mind there is no room for any other narrative but the Jewish in relation to this Holy Land.
Netanyahu, as the PM of Israel for a decade and currently the most influential political leader in Israel, for years has been moulding the Israeli political Zeitgeist. Under his leadership, the centre point of Israeli political discourse has gradually but consistently shifted towards the nationalist illiberal end of the spectrum. This has eroded the legitimacy of the two-state paradigm, as well as the pro-peace pro-human rights and anti-occupation discourse, which has increasingly been targeted as disloyal to the very existence of the State of Israel. In his Bar-Ilan speech Netanyahu encapsulated the toxic confluence of obsessive nationalism blended with ethno-centrism which by definition does not tolerate any form of compromise with a neighbour who is regarded as a mortal enemy, self recruited to obliterate Israel and annihilate its Jewish citizens.
This Zeitgeist is the prime cause which is simultaneously reflecting and inflating this Israeli core paranoia. It feeds the political paternalistic discourse both domestically and in its relations with the Palestinians: a narrative of exclusivity, an unmatched and never satisfied need for self-reliant security through hegemony in the land, the sea, the air and the cyber space. Ultimately it is a discourse of survival through eternal conflict relying on military might and technological prowess, inevitably leading towards a horizon of doom.
But there is an alternative prescription for survival in the unique circumstances we live in: reconciliation with our adversaries in the land, through moderation and co-existence based on mutual recognition and parallel self-determination. The Netanyahu Zeitgeist is driving us away from any chance to achieve such reconciliation with the Palestinians. The consequences awaiting us are detrimental to our vision, values and objectives.
No Palestinian leader, now or in the future, will ever agree to this definition of the Palestinian people as a “large population of Palestinians” camped on the ancestral land of the Jews. The Palestinians have universally been recognized as indigenous in Palestine. This fact has been reflected already one hundred years ago in the Balfour Declaration: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…..it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 1947 – leading to the creation of Israel – and indeed all pertinent UN Security Council Resolutions reflect the universal acknowledgment of the fact that there is no exclusivity for Israel in the land. The majority of Palestinians can prove ancestral presence in the land for centuries. In the absence of conditions for Palestinian self-determination in an independent state alongside Israel, the Naqba (Catastrophe) narrative of 1948 and the Naksa (Setback) narrative of 1967 have become the monumental memorial driving Palestinian national self-perception as being uniquely indigenous in this land.
Clearly on the Palestinian side we also find a discourse of exclusivity, sanctifying their bond to the land while regarding the Jews as alien colonialists. We deal here with two contradictory and mutually exclusive narratives, glorifying the collective self and casting doubt on the opposite altogether. Furthermore, for many Jews and for many Palestinians the narrative is embedded in their respective nationalist religious discourse, which claims absolute commitment to a divine authority which tolerates no pragmatic approach to negotiations or indeed any political compromise on this Promised Land. The religious dimension makes the Palestine/Israel conflict of narratives even more combustible. It will take a great amount of political currency and spectacular leadership on both sides, if the parties are oneday to come to the conclusion that reconciliation rather than confrontation is the right prescription for our own survival.
Three fundamental political paradigms have been debated in the last decade in Israel, when ending the occupation is at stake: first the two-state solution with territorial partition based on the 1967 borders; second the one-state solution which merges the occupied Palestinian territories with Israel itself and creates one geographical, administrative and political entity within the boundaries of what used to be British Mandate Palestine. The precondition for success is a new breed of democracy, based on “one person one vote” with Jews and Arabs enjoying equal rights; and third the “one homeland two-states” paradigm which allows both Palestinians and Israelis freedom of movement and dwelling in the entire Land of Israel/Palestine, with two political entities running in parallel and separate governing democracies for the Jewish and for the Arab citizenry.
The fourth option is the continuation of the status quo: Israel’s de facto overriding dominance over the entire land, partly as a sovereign state (within the 1967 borders with Palestinians as one fifth of the population) and partly as an occupying power in Gaza, and the West Bank including East Jerusalem (Jewish settlers are approximately one fifth of the population in the West Bank – ca. 600, 000).
Evidently the status quo, which is based on the Oslo Accords, paralyses the Palestinians and gives the settlers a free hand to practise the creeping annexation of Area C – over 60% of the territory of the West Bank – and consolidating control over annexed East Jerusalem. This requires the mobilisation and operations of a large military force. In such circumstances, human rights violations are inevitable, when Israel’s military apparatus selectively implements policies of expansion and consolidation of Jewish settlements, while carrying out forced evictions of Palestinian communities from area C. Military control aiming to maintain relative security and prosperity for the settler population requires a regime of restrictions, permits, barriers and checkpoints, separate legal systems, school systems, health networks, infrastructure – in short enforcing and consolidating segregation of the two populations; a disturbing reminder of the Apartheid regime in pre 1994 South Africa. In this set-up the Palestinian Authority is administering one third of the West Bank in areas A+B, with “Bantustan”-like limited autonomy.
The one-state solution, setting aside its consequences for the Palestinians, is problematic from the Israeli point of view, as it cannot in reality sustain a democracy based on “one person one vote”, without jeopardising the Zionist vision of a Jewish state, which will be fundamentally compromised.
The “one homeland two-states” option faces a similar problem: the Israeli expected insistence on undisputed exclusive hegemony over its handling of state security across the homeland will undoubtedly undermine any attempt to generate Palestinian self-determination on the basis of equality of its citizenry with that of the Jewish Israelis. There is merit in this paradigm, as it could lead eventually to the formation of a confederate state, with two equal partners creating a joint superstructure of government with marginal and mutually agreed compromise on sovereignty. It is my view that such a confederated government should be a “phase 2” of the two-state paradigm in order to secure success.
This leaves us with the two-state solution. From the outset, it seems that this is the only option that allows the Palestinians to develop their national self-determination through full scale sovereignty albeit on a limited territory, within the 1967 borders, given the land swaps that any peace agreement will entail. But the prime gain for Palestine, on the basis that their independence is secured, would be their ability to enjoy full liberation from the yoke of the generational Israeli occupation. This could serve as the launching pad for prioritised Palestinian nation-building, as well as a liberated education system that focuses on writing a narrative that is no longer uniquely responsive to generations of relentless subjugation, and thus intensely regimented against Israel. Instead, we can look for the emergence of a healing process leading gradually towards reconciliation with Israelis and the State of Israel, coming to terms with its right to exist (NB the PLO recognised the state of Israel as part of the Oslo Accords, and still does so).
In itself, the two-state paradigm gives Israel the safest opportunity to develop a defence strategy based on the mutual interest of two separate, independent and interdependent states – Israel and Palestine. Parity will open the way for long term investment in reconciliation between equals and the emergence of a new, nonbelligerent narrative on both sides of the divide.
It is not a secret that the Israeli government under Netanyahu has succeeded in eroding the two-state discourse almost to the point of no return. Netanyahu is doing precisely what he said at Bar Ilan that he did not want to do. It is deeds, not words, that count. The Trump administration has contributed to Netanyahu’s efforts in this respect enormously by claiming that it is for the two parties to decide, thus giving Israel the power of veto over it. This only serves to underline the need for us to redouble our efforts to bring this paradigm back to the Israeli/Palestinian and indeed the international debate.
It is in this context that the act of recognition of the State of Palestine alongside Israel by the international community led by the British government, is essential. Almost 101 years ago, the Balfour Declaration handed to the Zionist leadership Israel’s birth certificate. Today there is need for yet another show of leadership by the British government: recognise Palestine.
Ambassador (ret.) Ilan Baruch was a career diplomat and served as the Ambassador of Israel to South Africa. Currently he is chairing the Israeli Policy Working Group, an advocacy team on MEPP, advocating for the two-state solution. This essay is based on a talk Baruch delivered in London on June 27th, as a guest of the ECFR and the Balfour Project.