If the two-state solution is dead, what comes next?
While the world’s attention has been focused on Syria, three things have happened that point to the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Since 1974 peacemaking efforts have focused on the so-called two-state solution, implying that a Palestinian state would take its place beside Israel.
That has looked increasingly unlikely since the collapse of efforts by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, to make any progress with his peace mission and the inexorable rightward drift of Israeli governments. But what would take its place?
The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has now declared the two-state solution dead and buried. Those who follow the conflict will no doubt be rolling their eyes and mouthing, So what else is new? Indeed, the death notice may be a decade or so late – Edward Said, the Palestinian academic, wrote off the two-state solution back in 1999.
Friedman is widely mocked in the Middle East for his sometimes bombastic style and envied by journalistic peers for his professional success, but he is a bellwether of US opinion on foreign affairs. He accords significant blame for the failure of the two states plan to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and writes: “Let the one-state era begin. It will involve a steady low-grade civil war between Palestinians and Israelis and a growing Israeli isolation in Europe and on college campuses that the next US president will have to navigate.”
It does not matter what Friedman or any other journalist – including me – says. It is up to the Israelis and the Palestinians to work out their fate. The point here is different – it is about how the outside powers and their publics relate to the conflict.
The history of the peace process is the US trying to herd the two sides to a deal, while never ceasing to see the conflict from the Israeli point of view. That belongs to the past. No US secretary of state will devote the time that Mr Kerry has, nor is there any conceivable Israeli government that would agree to peace terms acceptable to the Palestinians. The struggle will be disjointed and confused.
Friedman’s mention of college campuses is a clear reference to the locus of the future struggle – the movement calling for South African-style sanctions against Israel. This is growing on university campuses in Europe and in the US under the banner of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement.
There are many differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa but the absence of the prospect of a two-state solution means that there is no distant goal to distract attention from the fact that Israelis and Palestinians are now living in one political entity and will be for the foreseeable future. And in that entity, the Palestinians are deprived of political rights.
The growing support for BDS, even among young Jewish people, is a concern for Israeli lobbyists. If college kids are happy to label Israel an apartheid state, will the next generation of US senators still vote unanimously for pro-Israel legislation?
The US congress has now approved a trade bill that has anti-BDS measures tacked on to it to discourage companies or state-affiliated bodies from giving in to political pressure to stop trading with Israel. More significantly, it includes wording that wipes out the distinction between Israel and the Jewish settlements. It extends agreements with Israel into “Israeli-controlled territories”.
Hitherto the US government has been careful to maintain the formal distinction between Israel and the occupied territories. But the White House has announced that president Barack Obama will sign the trade bill despite it contravening US policy on the settlements. The explanation is that the trade bill is too important to veto. But this will be seen as a sign of weakening US resolve to maintain the line that the occupied territories are reserved for a future Palestinian state.
The settlements issue has been pushed up the congressional agenda by the European Union decreeing that settlement products should be clearly labelled as such, rather than being illegally described as being of Israeli origin. The enforcement of correct labelling is really the only leverage that the EU has over Israel.
But in the distorting mirror of Washington politics, the EU is cast as a 1930s-style anti-Semitic bully. Senator Marco Rubio, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, had this to say in December about the labelling issue: “Discriminatory laws that apply only to Jews are now being written into European law for the first time in more than half a century.”
Finally, anti-BDS legislation has reached Britain, where the government is cracking down on local authorities joining politically inspired trade boycotts. The spending power of local authorities is small as a proportion of total trade. The valuable business between Britain and Israel is not in dates and oranges but in the military sphere. Britain is, for example, described as a “primary market” by the Israeli drone maker Elbit Systems.
But this is not about money. It is about reducing the leverage that campaigners can use to exert pressure on the Israeli government or, as Mr Netanyahu likes to say, to “delegitimise” Israel.
By all accounts the position of Israel is strong: flourishing high-tech industries, in sectors much in demand abroad; a chaotic region where it appears as an island of stability; and ever decreasing pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians who are in a state disarray.
But in the harsh optics of the one-state solution, pressure will come not from states but from globally connected campaign groups who dream of repeating the South African campaign.
In response to the Friedman article, Gideon Levy, a leading journalist of the Israeli left, wrote that the sanctions were the only non-violent way to achieve equal rights for all in the one-state environment. He said: “The carrots have all been devoured by Israel, only the sticks remain.”
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
On Twitter: @aphilps
Updated: February 18, 2016 04:00 AM