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Sunday, January 23, 2022

A new conversation on the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict

 Despite many efforts at resolving the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, there have never been any comprehensive solutions proposed that were acceptable to all sides

That however, does not absolve us from continuously searching for potential solutions, because leadership changes; civilian influence changes; geopolitics change and generations change, and with those changes come new perceptions, perspectives, paradigms and priorities that can drive serious consideration of solutions today that were unacceptable yesterday. 

With these changes, occasionally entirely new and different ideas emerge, which can potentially advance productive and purposeful talks. It is one such idea that I humbly propose in this article in the hope that it might be a foundation upon which to build further.

A brief history about the ubiquitous one-state and two-state solutions is a good place to start.

The very first proposed solution goes back to 1947 when the British Mandate was looking to withdraw from what was then Palestine. At that time, British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, after numerous failed diplomatic efforts, told Parliament that any further attempt at resolving the Jewish/Arab conflict in Palestine through a negotiated settlement was futile. He then urged Parliament to submit the issue to the United Nations.

In response, the UN created the UN Special Committee on Palestine. UNSCOP created two proposals, one favored by the Security Council majority and the other favored by the minority. The majority plan became known as the Plan of Partition, which comprised two independent states with an economic union outlined in a map drawn up by UNSCOP. The minority proposal was a plan for one federal union with Jerusalem as its capital. Although a two-state solution was the framework used in the Treaty of Jaffa to resolve the Crusade War in 1192, these two UNSCOP proposals were the recent genesis of the two-state/one-state solutions still talked about today. The Jewish side accepted the Plan of Partition while the Arab side rejected both proposals.

On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, then executive head of the World Zionist Organization, using the UN Plan of Partition as justification and legitimacy, unilaterally declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The newly established state immediately found itself at war with five Arab nations and the War of Independence was fought. 

In this war, the Arabs were left worse off than had they accepted the UN Plan of Partition since Israel gained some territory formerly granted to Palestinian Arabs under the plan. It was not until 1988 that the PLO declared its own independence also based on the 1947 UN Plan of Partition, but rejected by Israel at that time due to the PLO’s call for the destruction of Israel, as was unambiguously stated in its 1964 National Charter.

The boundary lines established in the armistice at the end of the 1948 war remained in place until 1967 when, during the Six Day War, Israel gained further land west of the Jordan River known as the West Bank. With this, while Israel achieved an additional buffer of security not enjoyed since the establishment of the state, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict conflagrated.

THE SECOND peace proposal between Israel and the Palestinians after the UNSCOP Partition Plan was UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967. This resolution under Chapter VI of the UN Charter (a recommendation, as opposed to under Chapter VII, which would have been a UN order), also broadly advocated for a two-state solution calling for “the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and “respect for and acknowledgement for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries, free from threats or acts of force.” In other words, land for peace.

In addition to the immediate rejection of the resolution by the PLO on the grounds that it was “fundamentally and gravely inconsistent with the Arab character of Palestine, the essence of the Palestinian cause and the right of the Palestinian people to their homeland,” it was also deliberately ambiguous. This created a catastrophic disagreement between the Israelis and Palestinians as to its interpretation, a dispute that was never resolved. However, Resolution 242 continues to be referenced in any talks and discussions about peace in the Middle East and supports the Partition Plan’s two-state solution.

Although there were the Camp David Accords of 1978, which resulted in a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and the Madrid Conference of 1991, which led to a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, there were no further direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians until Oslo in 1993.

The Oslo two-part accords were essentially a pair of negotiated agreements for an eventual two-state implementation. It stipulated that Israeli troops would withdraw in stages from the West Bank and Gaza, while the Palestinians would establish an interim self-governing authority for a five-year transitional period. The goal was an eventual permanent settlement based on Resolution 242. It also included statements from each to recognize the rights of the other to “exist and to live in peace and security.” The accords however left final-status issues such as borders, Jerusalem and refugees for negotiation at a later date.

Despite the near success of Oslo, it too failed due to political turmoil in Israel with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s political assassination in 1995; the parties’ inability to reach agreement on the final status issues, US president Bill Clinton’s efforts notwithstanding; and prime minister Ehud Barak fighting an election campaign.

As close as Oslo came, the fact is that neither the one-state nor the two-state solution invented by UNSCOP in 1947 has ever been implemented due to the opposition to both solutions by strong voices on both sides.

The one-state solution never gained much traction largely due to Israel’s concerns about dilution and losing its identity as a Jewish state, coupled with internal security issues. These are the same concerns about granting refugees the right of return.

Besides formidable trust issues, a major impediment to a two-state solution is the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, which now makes the land swap component proposed in the Oslo Accords, all but impossible. Furthermore, many Israelis could not fathom waking up to a Palestinian state made up of what they perceive as sworn enemies and a people with whom they share a long history of animosity and hatred, in their immediate backyard.

(There are also obstructionists in both camps, the positions of whom are antithetical to any peace process: Palestinians who see a continued fight for the entire liberation of Palestine as the ideal; Israelis who see the status quo with which they have lived with for so long as a perfectly viable and preferable alternative to any negotiated agreement; and Palestinians who still insist on the full right of return).

It would follow, that any solution from Israel’s perspective would need to preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish state and also address the settlements issue with minimal upheaval while also building a degree of trust that allows for a modus vivendi.

From the Palestinian perspective, any solution, in addition to building trust, would ultimately need to advance an eventual viable independent state and Palestinian sovereignty that could peacefully coexist with Israel. It would also seem that given the failure of either existing solution to resolve the conflict over so many years, we need to invent an entirely new framework to explore.

A further consideration that must be acknowledged in seeking any resolution to the conflict is that in a region with a history of over 3,000 years, any attempt at an abrupt and dramatic change will not be durable or compliant. A gradualist and evolutionary approach should be adopted and parties need to be conditioned for patience and perseverance.

With this understanding and analysis, an innovative idea upon which to build, might be a two-phased evolving solution which would begin with a jointly governed, power-shared one-state territory in the West Bank only.

Under this plan, Israel would retain her identity as a Jewish state within the pre-67 borders, a key interest that it will not cede. Israel would also not need to contend with a perceived hostile entity in its backyard overnight, as would be the case in a conventional two-state solution.

From the Palestinian standpoint, this will allow them to transition from a people without any state and living under what they perceive to be a repressive regime, to equal power-sharing partners in governing; in state-building; in creating political processes; and jointly developing post-conflict sustainability and stabilization. Although their stated interest of a completely independent state will not be immediately satisfied, a transition will have begun with Israel yielding autonomous rule in the West Bank.

Furthermore, under this proposal, the Palestinians and Israelis would have to learn to work together and to develop protocols for coexistence, all of which would create a kernel upon which trust could germinate and grow. This new modus vivendi would also spawn a new generation of leadership in which adversity and enmity might be replaced by cooperation and collaboration, which could set the stage for an eventual successful two-state arrangement.

Although there are many complex details that would need to be hammered out in further negotiations, this proposal is intended merely as a high-level framework to allow for a new conversation so badly needed, to replace the old, exhausted and depleted one.

Nelson Mandela said about his successful negotiations with the white Nationalist government in South Africa: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” A jointly governed one-state territory on the West Bank as outlined in this article, premised upon a genuine desire for peace might be a good beginning.

The writer is a Harvard-trained international negotiation and dispute resolution scholar and specialist who has studied and written about regional conflicts around the world.

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