This article was originally published on Truthdig (www.truthdig.com).
How can the Palestine solidarity movement win? What should it demand in order to combine the maximum of justice with political feasibility, and how should it frame those demands in order to reach a broad public?
These are questions of political judgement rather than science. But sound political judgement will be rooted, so far as possible, in a clear-eyed assessment of current (or incipient) public opinion. A movement that wants to persuade a mainstream audience will position itself within or just beyond the spectrum of mainstream public opinion, taking care not to isolate itself by adopting language and demands which lack political resonance.
What in the end matters, moreover, is not merely public opinion, but public opinion mobilised and expressed in the realm of politics.
The Swedish government’s decision in October 2014 to unilaterally recognise the State of Palestine triggered a succession of European parliamentary motions urging governments to follow suit. Lawmakers in the UK, France and Ireland called for immediate recognition, while Portuguese MPs urged recognition ‘in coordination with the European Union’. Weaker motions were passed in Spain,1 Belgium2 and Italy, while in Denmark a resolution calling for immediate recognition was rejected.
This wave of European support for Palestinian statehood, which came after the collapse of the US-sponsored diplomatic process last April and in the wake of Israel’s bloody summer offensive in Gaza, demonstrated the degree to which anger at Israel’s behaviour has filtered through to Europe’s political classes. As Sir Edward Leigh MP observed during the UK House of Commons debate in October,
Virtually everyone who has spoken—not just lefties waving placards in Trafalgar Square, but virtually every Conservative MP—has said that now is the time to recognise the justice of the Palestinians’ cause.
Israel is ‘losing the argument and public opinion not only in Britain’, warned UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in December, ‘but in Europe and… the United States’.
The principal task now for activists in Palestine and abroad is to ensure that this growing frustration with Israel redounds to the Palestinians’ benefit. The resolutions listed above and, still more so, the parliamentary debates they generated offer valuable strategic insights on this score.
Four lessons are of particular importance for solidarity activists seeking to maximise their political efficacy.
A one-state solution does not feature in the mainstream debate.
One prominent strategic debate within the Palestine solidarity movement concerns whether to call for a two-state solution or a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
To judge by the mainstream resolutions for recognising Palestine3 tabled in parliaments across Europe, legislators do not share this preoccupation:
This will not surprise most proponents of a one-state strategy. Much of the appeal of that approach lies precisely in its opposition to what is perceived to be a hopeless and cynical establishment consensus.
Indeed, advocacy for a two-state settlement is increasingly viewed within the Palestine solidarity movement as being somehow unambitious, conservative or even—ugh!—liberal.
But is this true?
A one-state solution does not feature even at the most ‘radical’, most ‘pro-Palestinian’ end of the mainstream political spectrum.
A number of European parliaments considered, in addition to the most popular resolution for recognition of Palestine, alternative motions that took a more ‘radical’ (i.e. more strongly ‘pro-Palestinian’) line.4
But even here, at the most ‘pro-Palestinian’ end of the parliamentary spectrum, there was no controversy over the desired political framework:
An examination of the parliamentary debate transcripts confirms this picture.5
In France, those most in favour of recognition, most critical of Israel and most emphatically supportive of Palestinian rights—these groups being one and the same—backed a two-state settlement and presented recognition as promotive of it.6 Thus, François Asensi of the Democratic and Republican Left (GDR), a grouping of primarily Communist and other left-wing MPs, proclaimed his ‘profound and unshakeable conviction’ that ‘a lasting peace’ requires ‘the immediate recognition of Palestine as a sovereign and independent state within the 1967 borders, and with East Jerusalem as its capital’, while the chair of the grouping which introduced the motion (the centre-left Socialist, Republican, and Citizen group) insisted that ‘peace is inconceivable without mutual recognition’—this means ‘recognition of the State of Palestine’ and ‘full recognition of the State of Israel by all parties’. A vote to recognise Palestine, Asensi stressed, is ‘a vote for the security of the State of Israel’.
In Denmark, the socialist Red-Green Alliance (EL) emphasised that recognition is directed against ‘the occupation, not against Israel’, and indeed represents ‘an acceptance of Israel’.7 The Socialist People’s Party (SF) likewise framed recognition as ‘an instrument to revive… negotiations’ for ‘a two-state solution’. In the Belgian federal parliament, too, calls for a two-state settlement were pervasive.8 Wouter De Vriendt of the Greens (Ecolo), one of the most ‘pro-Palestinian’ of the MPs who participated, insisted that recognition ‘is no more than the confirmation of the internationally recognised borders of 1967’.
In the House of Commons, Labour Friends of Palestine chair Grahame M. Morris, who tabled the recognition motion, described a ‘two-state solution’ as ‘the only viable solution’. Most participants explicitly endorsed a two-state settlement—‘Every speaker has spoken in favour of a two-state solution’ (Jonathan Ashworth, Labour); ‘all sides want a two-state solution’ (Julie Elliott, Labour); ‘I think that all of us in this House, to a man and a woman, recognise the state of Israel and its right to exist’ (Alan Duncan, Conservative)—and none rejected it. Where a one-state solution was mentioned, it was strictly as a nightmare scenario that might materialise should a two-state solution fail: a one-state outcome was described, variously, as ‘disastrous’; ‘morally repugnant and politically untenable’; ‘a continuation… of war and violence’ that would entail ‘genocide and ethnic cleansing’; and ‘in no one’s interests’. These statements were made by supporters of Palestinian recognition; the ‘one-state solution’ to which they mostly referred was the Israeli right’s vision of a Greater Israel—evidently, the only version deemed politically relevant enough to warrant discussion. Notably, in a later debate on Palestine George Galloway (Respect)—perhaps the Commons’ most severe critic of Israel—did not call for a one-state solution, confining his remarks strictly to the occupation and associated violations of international law.
The debate in Ireland’s Dáil Éireann is particularly instructive.9 It was, of all the parliamentary discussions, by some distance the most harshly critical of Israel. ‘Apartheid’ accusations abounded, several MPs demanded ‘economic sanctions’ against what one termed the ‘racist Zionist state’ and more than one accused Israel of ‘genocide’. Yet even here, at the most ‘pro-Palestinian’ end of the most staunchly ‘pro-Palestinian’ parliament, most MPs backed two states. Sinn Féin’s motion itself framed recognition as a ‘contribution to securing’ a two-state solution, and during the debate Gerry Adams (Sinn Féin) declared,
As the Irish people suffered centuries of colonisation and occupation, we… identify with the circumstances confronting the Palestinian people, but that does not mean that we are anti-Israel. On the contrary, our desire is to see two sovereign states established.
In fact, just four MPs across all seven parliamentary sessions10—all of them from Ireland—referred to a one-state solution in a positive or neutral light. Of these, two called for a two-state settlement.11 Thus, only two MPs—in Ireland, and across Europe—called for an alternative to the two-state settlement.12
In short, the one-state solution embraced by elements of the Palestine solidarity movement does not feature in the mainstream debate.
The new heroes of the European Left—Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain—are, incidentally, no exception. Syriza calls for a Palestinian state ‘on the 1967 borders’. Podemos has yet to endorse a framework for settling the conflict, but its general secretary calls for peace ‘based on international law’ and Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-June 1967 borders.
Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories is its Achilles’ heel.
The debate transcripts suggest that, across the seven parliaments examined, MPs’ frustration with Israel is fuelled above all by the settlements and by its violence in Gaza.
By contrast, the Palestinian refugees and discrimination within Israel had relatively little resonance.
The following chart focuses strictly on MPs at the most ‘radical’ end of the parliamentary spectrum:
This suggests a further drawback to one-state advocacy: it encourages activists to direct their fire towards grievances which have little mainstream resonance, rather than concentrating it where Israel is most vulnerable.
The mainstream debate is not between two-states and one-state, but between advocates of a two-state settlement based on international law and advocates of a counterfeit two-state settlement on terms which deny Palestinian rights.
To judge from the European parliamentary record, the most important political disagreements lie not between supporters and opponents of a two-state solution, but along two axes running through self-proclaimed two-state supporters.
The first pits supporters of a two-state settlement based on international law against supporters of a counterfeit ‘two-state settlement’ on terms which violate Palestinian rights. Few MPs declared as explicitly as the UK’s Hugh Robertson (Conservative) their preference for ‘the Kerry peace plan’ as a ‘basis for restarting negotiations’ and their concomitant view that ‘[we] will have to form a new border, probably based on the wall’.13 But the contributions of many MPs were ambiguous and hence potentially compatible with both positions.
More ‘radical’, ‘pro-Palestinian’ MPs were more likely to insist on the importance of international law as the basis for negotiations. Thus, François Asensi of the GDR criticised the Oslo process of bilateral negotiations between fundamentally unequal parties—‘Can the prisoner negotiate his freedom?’—and urged ‘a new approach based on international law’:
Today, we have no other choice but to return to the path of law. The creation of a Palestinian State is provided for in resolutions 242 and 1860 of the UN Security Council, which define this occupied State along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital… Its legality was confirmed by the opinion of the International Court of Justice in 2004.
Richard Burden of Labour Friends of Palestine similarly argued that, while ‘a negotiated settlement is so important’, ‘principles are important too’: ‘First, we should act according to international law and insist that the parties involved do so as well’.
The second division pits declared supporters of a two-state settlement who demand effective and immediate measures to realise it against those who determinedly block all attempts to buttress rhetoric with action. In Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain, leftist parliamentary formations proposed draft resolutions that differed from the majority text by calling for more immediate and more effectual governmental action to have the two-state solution implemented. In Denmark, Christian Juhl of the Red-Green Alliance exclaimed,
[Soon I will] have heard from all parties: We agree on a two-state solution and we will work towards a two-state solution, but it should not be right now, and it should not be this initiative.
Labour Friends of Palestine’s Grahame Morris was equally frustrated: ‘we hear a great deal of talk about the two-state solution’, he pointedly observed, but ‘in politics talk often comes cheap’.
Consistently, then, those elements of the mainstream debate which are most critical of Israel are to be found arguing for material pressure on Israel in the service of a two-state settlement based on international law, against those who favour either no material pressure on Israel (and thus de facto endorse the status quo) or who endorse a settlement on terms which violate Palestinian rights.
Those are the politically relevant arguments; this is where the solidarity movement must intervene.
Far from being conservative or defeatist, advocacy for a two-state settlement based on international law and the international consensus is at the most ‘radical’, most critical end of the mainstream political spectrum. It represents, not the minimum, but the maximum we can aim for while remaining within the parameters of mainstream debate.
Of course, public opinion might change, but, as of now, there is no evidence that it’s changing toward a one-state solution, and it is highly improbable that a consensus that has crystallised over a forty-year period, and is stronger now than ever before, will change any time soon. Nor is it clear that Palestinians now living under the boot of Israel’s military can afford to wait as the decades-long struggle for world opinion is first undone and then waged anew, from scratch.
The author is grateful to Michaela, Norman, Filipe and Cleo for their generous assistance.
Jamie Stern-Weiner is a researcher and editor for Spinwatch and OR Books respectively, and is founding co-editor of New Left Project. His writing has appeared in MERIP, openDemocracy, VICE, Jadaliyya and Le Monde diplomatique.
1 p. 49.
2 pp. 75-76.
3 I.e. those resolutions which, in each parliament, either passed or came closest to passing.
4 Proposed, in Belgium, by the two main centre-left parties (PS, sp.a), the Greens and the Francophone Democratic Federalists; in Italy, by Left Ecology Freedom and the Five Star Movement; in Portugal, by the Communist Party, Left Bloc and Greens; and in Spain, by the Mixed Group, United Left, Catalonia Greens and Aragonese Union (pp. 6-7).
5 The following discussion and figures are based on debate transcripts for Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain and the UK, i.e. not Portugal.
8 De Kamer, ‘Plenary Session – Afternoon’ (5 February, 2015). There was one exception—Filip Dewinter of the far-right Vlaams Belang, who, while conceding that Palestinians have the right to state, added that it can just as well be ‘in Jordan’ or elsewhere.
10 I did not examine the transcripts of the Portuguese debate.
11 Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan (Independent) noted that she had ‘met Palestinians’ who are considering ‘a one-state solution with power sharing’, but stated her own view that ‘I accept… the right of the people of Israel to a state’. Deputy Thomas Pringle urged the government to contribute to ‘a real and lasting peace based on the 1967 borders’, which, he speculated hopefully, might be a stepping-stone towards a one-state solution further down the line: ‘While, ultimately, a single state solution is the best, perhaps by recognising each other’s 1967 borders we might achieve a single state at some stage in the future’.
12 Step forward Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett (People Before Profit Alliance), who maintained that ‘one state… is the only viable solution’, and Deputy Paul Murphy (Socialist Party), who called for ‘a new intifada’ of Palestinians, ‘Jewish workers’ and ‘people across the wider region’ to ‘overthrow’ the ‘barbaric… Israeli regime’. The Socialist Party and the PBPA together occupy three of the Dáil’s 166 seats.
13 Robertson voted in favour of the recognition motion.