Can We Imagine a Just Peace for Palestine?


While waiting without even a glimmer of hope for the Trump ‘deal of the century’ the Palestinian ordeal unfolds day by day. Many Israelis would like us to believe that the Palestinian struggle to achieve self-determination has been defeated, and that it is time to admit that Israel is the victor and Palestine the loser. All that needs to be done is to force feed a bitter pill of defeat to the Palestinians, and all talk from Trump or otherwise about a deal will become irrelevant.

Recent events paint a different picture than this premature Israel triumphalism. Every Friday since the end of March 2018 the Great March of Return has confronted Israel at the Gaza fence. Israel has responded with lethal force killing more than 250 Palestinians and injuring over 18,000, repeatedly using grossly excessive force to deal with almost completely nonviolent demonstrations protesting the denial by Israel of fundamental human rights belonging to the Palestinian people.

The political organs of the UN have remained awkwardly silent for a year. Yet finally on February 28, 2019 the report of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2018 Gaza Protests was released. The Commission established by the Human Rights Council in Geneva to examine allegations of excessive force used by Israel in response to the Gaza weekly demonstrations of the Great March initiative during 2018. The Report based on extensive factual documentation reached the principal conclusion that Israel had “no justification to shoot protesters with live ammunition.” The implication of such a finding is that criminal violations of international humanitarian law, as set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, had been massively, flagrantly, and repeatedly violated by Israel’s response to the Gaza protests.

It is unlikely that prosecutions will follow either in Israel or internationally, but it is at the very least a major victory for the Palestinians in the ongoing Legitimacy War to gain the high moral and legal ground with respect to world public opinion. Whether the Report causes enough of a public stir to prompt the UN to take some further action in the General Assembly or the Security Council remains to be seen. As the Great March protests have continued on Fridays so far in 2019, increasing the casualty levels, there are already calls for an extension of the Commission’s mandate so at least a complete documentary record of the continuing Israeli abuses will be available.

It would seem that there is a feeling in international circles that nothing much can be done to bring about a peaceful and just solution at this stage. Such a conclusion might explain the various recent moves in the Arab world toward an acceptance of Israel as a legitimate state, which has included steps toward diplomatic normalization. Beyond these developments, Israel has joined with Saudi Arabia and the United States in a war mongering dangerous escalation of an already unwarranted and provocative confrontation with Iran. In addition, Israel and Egypt are collaborating on security issues at the border and in the Sinai, as well as in the joint development of off shore oil and gas projects. It should be noted that this warming of the Arab world to Israel has been occurring at the very time during which abuses of the Palestinian people has achieved their highest level of harshness ever.

This puzzling recent background make this an opportune moment for stocktaking with respect to this conflict that has gone on for more than a century, and assessing what would be the best way forward. The assumption here is that the only acceptable objective remains what it has long been—namely, a sustainable and just peaceful coexistence between the two peoples.

The most daunting challenge given present realities, is how peace might be made in a manner that realizes the fundamental right of the Palestinian people to achieve self-determination in a territorial space that was for centuries their place of residence, their own homeland. The prevailing international consensus had been that a solution would be achieved by geopolitically framed negotiations between Israel and accepted governmental representatives of the Palestinian people. The authoritative framing of such an approach was entrusted to the United States, which itself unavoidably insinuated a fatal flaw into the diplomatic process if the goal was to achieve a peaceful compromise that was fair to both sides and juridically sensitive to Palestinian claims of right under international law. It is reasonable to ask, ‘How possibly could such a compromise emerge if the stronger party had the unconditional backing of the geopolitical intermediary and the weaker party was not even clearly the legitimate representative of large sectors of the Palestinian people?’ Another unacknowledged obstacles to this Oslo approach was the degree to which its presuppositions collided with the true agenda of the Zionist Project, which was to gain sovereign control of all of the biblically promised land, a goal that was glaringly inconsistent with maintaining political space for some reasonable expression of the Palestinian right of self-determination.

Additionally, this already flawed framework was further abused by subordinating the so-called peace process to Zionist expansionist goals, expressed by annexing Jerusalem, denying refugee rights of return, and expanding unlawful settlements in occupied Palestine. These anomalies were accentuated by the American insistence that Palestinian objections to such unlawful Israeli moves be deferred until the last stage of negotiations on the supposed grounds that such objections would disrupt the peace process. In retrospect, it is clear that these patterns of violation by Israel were, on the contrary, themselves intended to prevent the peace process from ever reaching ‘final status negotiations,’ much less actually achieving a negotiated peace. This disrupted diplomacy is exactly what transpired, perhaps disappointed some naïve Palestinians, but not at all surprising the Likud leadership, which always expected, and worked to achieve, such an outcome.

This geopolitical framework, as resulted from the faulty implementation of the Oslo Framework of Principles, as adopted in 1993, has by now been widely discredited by most objective observers as well as by the participating governments. This abandonment of Oslo did not occur, however, before Israel had used the past 25 years to pursue unimpeded their expansionist goals. In this process, Israel succeeded in making the establishment of an independent Palestinian state a political impossibility, with the secondary desired effect of putting the Palestinians in a far weaker position than before the Oslo approach was adopted.

The perverse failure of the top down approach to reach a sustainable outcome has led to a public attitude of defeatism when it comes to achieving a peaceful compromise. The residual post-Oslo top down option is the coercive imposition of ‘peace’ by declaring an Israeli victory and a Palestinian defeat. In other words, if diplomacy fails, the winner/loser calculus of war is all that is left over other than an indefinite continuation of a simmering status quo.

Peace from Above versus Peace from Below

Such thinking, although prevalent in elite circles, overlooks the historical agency of people, both those resisting injustice and those mobilized throughout the world in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. It is these bottom up kinds of political dynamics that were responsible for the most momentous changes in the history of the last century. It was national mass movements that challenged successfully, although at heavy human costs, the unjust structures of colonialism and South African apartheid, and eventually prevailed despite their military inferiority and the fierce geopolitical resistance they encountered. In other words, people manifested and exercised superior historical agency despite inferior capabilities on the battlefield and diplomatically. This potency of popular movements is a reality with a potential to subvert the established order and for this very reason is treated as irrelevant by mainstream thinking and policy planners.

It is precisely on the basis of this deconstruction of power and change that hope for a brighter Palestinian future lies. The strength of the Palestinian national movement is, and always has been, on the level of people as fortified by the growing international moral consensus that Israeli apartheid colonialism is wrong, indeed a crime against humanity according to international criminal law [see Article 7 of the Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court and the International Apartheid Convention of 1973 on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid] It is this bottom up process of struggle, spearheaded by Palestinian resistance and given leverage by global solidarity initiatives such as the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] Campaign as it gains momentum and heightens pressure. Historical outcomes are never certain, but the flow of history has been against this Israeli/Zionist combination of colonial appropriation of Palestine and the apartheid structures relied upon to ensure the subjugation of the Palestinian people.

On this basis, some general observations follow.

The Two State Solution should be pronounced ‘Dead.’ For several years, at least since the de facto abandonment of the Oslo diplomacy in 2014, the two-state solution cannot reasonably be continued to be put forward internationally and in liberal Zionist circles as a viable political option. Yet it continues to be affirmed by many governments and at the UN. This is not because there is any informed belief that it might finally happen, but rather because every other outcome seemed impossible, too horrible to contemplate, or calls upon Israel to give up its claim to be an exclusivist Jewish state. In other words, many leading political figures and opinion leaders hold onto the two-state approach as an alternative to what they viewed to be zero. This reflects an impoverishment of the political and moral imagination, only capable of conceiving a solution to prolonged struggle of this type as deriving from top down approaches; bottom up approaches are not even considered, and if mentioned, are derided as irrelevant.

It seems far more realistic, and hence honest, to admit the defeat of two-state diplomacy and take account of the existing situation confronting Palestinians and Israelis so as to consider alternatives. To come to this point, it might be helpful to explain why the two-state solution has become so irrelevant. Above all, it seems evident that the Likud, which has been long in political control of Israeli never wanted an independent Palestinian state to be established, yet recognized the public relations advantages of not acknowledging this in public or even in private diplomatic communication. Netanyahu let the cat out of the bag when he pledged during his 2014 presidential campaign in Israel that a Palestinian state would never come into existence as long as he was Israel’s leader. This pledge ratified for those Israelis in doubt what was in any event Israeli policy, hoping that making if official only in Hebrew internal discourse would minimize any international backlash. This enabled Israel after the 2014 election to reiterate cynically its receptivity to negotiations within the two-state mantra while continuing to engage in behavior that confirmed for Israelis that such an outcome would never occur.

Perhaps, more fundamental, the settler movement has long passed a point of no return. There are currently in excess of 600,000 Israeli settlers living in more than 130 settlements spread all over the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Settler leaders believe that the settlements have so changed the map of Israel to exclude any possibility of an independent Palestine. Their leaders are now so confident that they openly envisage the settler population becoming 2,000,000. This should finally drive the point home to Palestinian two-staters as well as to world that Israel no longer pretends to be willing to allow a Palestinian state to be established.

True, the Palestinian Authority has long seemed ready to accept even a territorially abridged state, ceding sovereignty over the settlement blocs near the border, although continuing to insist that a the capital of a Palestinian state must be located within Jerusalem. A broad spectrum of Israeli political leaders agree that the future of Jerusalem is non-negotiable, and that the city will remain forever unified under sole Israeli sovereignty and administration. Under these conditions it can be safely concluded that it is no longer plausible for even the PA to continue to support the position that the two-state path to peace between the two peoples can somehow still be revived as the basis of a negotiated resolution of the conflict.

The Arab Accommodation is Tenuous. Israel feels little pressure to seek a political compromise given present conditions. With Trump in the White House and Arab governments scrambling toward normalization and accommodation, Israeli leaders and public opinion seem ill-disposed to make concessions for the sake of peace. As such keeping the two-state non-solution alive as a Zombie scenario is a way to proceed with Israel’s continuing efforts to expand further the settlements while in actuality implementing its coercive version of a one-state solution.

There are strong reasons to feel that this Israeli confidence that the Palestinian demand for rights can be indefinitely ignored is premature and likely to be undermined by events in the near future. For one thing, the Arab moves toward normalization are unstable as is the entire region. If there is a renewal of Arab uprisings, in the spirit of 2011, it is quite possible that support for Palestinian self-determination would abruptly surge to the top of the regional political agenda, likely in a more militant form than ever before. The Arab people, as distinct from the governments, continue to feel deep bonds of solidarity with their Palestinian brothers and sisters, and at some point are almost certain to make their weight felt. As argued earlier, it is people and soft power, not governments, elites, and hard power, that have eventually prevailed since 1945, especially in struggles against colonialism. The Palestinian struggle is the one remaining unfinished colonial war, and there is no reason to believe that it will contradict the pattern of victory for the anti-colonial movement of national empowerment.

Beyond this, should the Trump presidency be defeated in 2020, there is likely to be an Israeli reevaluation of their interests. Such a prospect is heightened by signs that Jewish unconditional support for Israel is dramatically weakening, including in the United States. Furthermore, the global solidarity movement supportive of the Palestinian national movement is spreading, deepening, and growing. It is becoming more militant, engaging moderate global public opinion, and has the symbolic benefit of strong backing in South Africa, which sees the fight for Palestinian rights as analogous to, and even in some ways a continuation of their own anti-apartheid campaign.

What Next?. Two conclusions emerge from this analysis: first, a continued reliance on the two-state diplomacy within a framework that relies on the United States as an intermediary or peace broker is long overdue to being regarded as irrelevant and discredited. Its continued endorsement serves only as a distraction from what might be both possible and desirable. Secondly, despite Israel’s recent gains in acceptance within the Middle East and its absurdly one-sided support in Trump’s Washington, the Palestinian national movement persists, and under certain conditions, could mount a serious challenge to Israel’s colonialism and apartheid structures of governance.

In light of these conclusions, what Is the best course of action? It would seem that only a democratic and secular single state could uphold self-determination for both peoples, holding out a promise of sustainable peace. It would need to be carefully envisioned and promoted with international safeguards along the path toward realization. It does not seem a practical possibility at present, but putting it forward as a reasonable and responsible outcome that can be regarded as just avoids despair and holds out hopes for a humane peace when the time is right. It is helpful to recall that opinion was united in South Africa that the governing elites would never voluntarily abandon their reliance on apartheid, until they did. For such an outcome to happen presupposes a major modification of Israeli identity, above all the acceptance of a secular state implying the abandonment of the statist dimension of the Zionist project.

In such a binational (one state, two nations) situation, the newly created single state could offer national homelands to Jews and Palestinians, while finding a name for the new state that is congenial to both peoples. Maybe this will never happen, but it is the most just and sustainable vision of a peaceful future that responds to decades of diplomatic failure, massive Palestinian suffering and abuse. Above all, such a solution recognizes that is people that possess the moral authority and fulfill political promise of national resistance and global solidarity. Such an understanding would be tantamount to a legislative victory by that still unacknowledged, yet powerful, Parliament of Humanity.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. For six years (2008-2014) he acted as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine


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