THE STRUGGLE FOR PALESTINE: WHAT’S WINNABLE, WHAT’S NOT

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:

Figure 1

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:

fig 2

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

fig. 3

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:

fig 4

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.


References

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.

6 The National Assembly discussion spread over two sessions, one on 28 November, 2014, the other on 2 December, 2014.

7 Folketinget, ‘Meeting no. 34 – Proposal B 21’ (11 December, 2014).

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.

9 The debate took place over two sessions, on 9 December, 2014 (http://tinyurl.com/lzsokzl) and 10 December, 2014 (http://tinyurl.com/nqent7s).

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.

6 comments

  1. Matt Rowland Hill · · Reply

    I have to say, I have a problem with this argument about carefully reading “current or incipient public opinion” and building policy around that. I think it is bound to be a losing argument with the one-staters.

    If you’re on the radical left, you’re used to supporting all kinds of ideas that are way beyond horizon of current public opinion. In fact, it’s almost – for many people – part of the definition of being leftwing, and therefore politically righteous: that you support causes that are diametrically opposed to mainstream thinking.

    For instance, I think most people on the left believe that in order to deal with the two major challenges facing or times – climate change and radical wealth inequality – we need to radically reform our economic system, our democracy, our whole conception of what constitutes a good society. This will require serious work, and the public doesn’t seem to be ready yet. This hardly means that I’m going to recalibrate my aims, for the simple reason that species survival may well depend on keeping global average temperatures with strict limits, perhaps 2 degrees, of pre-industrial levels. It seems to me that this will require all kinds of radical reform, and if the public isn’t ready – then, tough. The public’s views need to change, and it’s our job as leftists – or morally conscious people – to help effect that change.

    And I think many Palestine solidarity types see one vs two states in the same way. Quite simply, they view the two state solution as unjust, because in their view the Palestinians were the overwhelming majority in the land since time immemorial (to coin a phrase) and that modern Jewish immigration was illegitimate. And that therefore a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza – 22% of Mandate Palestine – plus a limited right of return to Israel proper is simply unjust. If that outcome could be magicked out of the air tomorrow, they would mourn, because they believe essentially that Palestine belongs to the Palestinians and any solution that doesn’t recognise this isn’t worth fighting for – just like a world that doesn’t limit global warming isn’t worth fighting for.

    So I think you need to reframe the way you argue about this. There is surely a hidden premise in your argument: that a two-state solution, though imperfect, is the best one available – not just in terms of public opinion, but in utilitarian terms.

    I plan to write an article on this soon, but I would just point out two things. The one-state argument has two legs. The first is the the 2ss is impossible – due to poliics, or on-the-ground realities, whatever. The second is that the 2ss is unjust – because it doesn’t presuppose the total elimination of all forms of oppression of all Palestinians, it doesn’t satisfy the maximal imaginable Palestinian terms for redress.

    There are two huge obvious logical problems with these arguments. First, the idea that the 2ss is impossible, and that therefore the 1ss is the only tenable option. This argument is self-defeating. Because *any argument you can raise to demonstrate the unlikelihood of the 2ss applies tenfold to the 1ss!* It’s true it will be hard to persuade Israel to dismantle a load of settlements, for instance – but if that’s the case, how can it possibly make sense to demand, instead, that Israel demolish itself?! Ah, but the 1ss crowd say: a mass Palestinian civil rights style movement will make what is currently impossible possible. But if that’s so, then why can’t we say the same of the 2ss? Indeed, any huge Palestinian rising that backed Israel into a political corner would have the effect of Israel ending the occupation and allowing the creation of a Palestinian state before Israel simply allowed a binational democracy.

    The second argument: that the 1ss is more just than the 2ss, is facile. This isn’t a debate to see who can come up with the *nicest* possible idea. Much rhetoric from one-staters basically amounts to saying: well, our idea is so much more attractive than yours – therefore you support all the unappealing things about the two state solution. This is madness. I support the 2ss not because I think it’s a nicer idea than one state, but because I recognise it’s the most just – albeit imperfect – realistic ouctome. The problem with the 1ss is that it simply *solves nothing*. The question is, how do we end the nationalist war for power and resources between the Jews and the Palestinians? “Creating a binational democratic state” isn’t an answer – it presupposes the end of that struggle. After all, all the main questions that bedevil the conflict – the fate of the refugees, land ownership, compensation, security for both peoples – would continue under the one state arrangement, even if anyone had an idea how to get there. In fact, even the question of the settlements – the single overwhelming issue that the 1ss is supposed to circumvent – would remain, because the question of whose land they were built on, and therefore what their fate should be, would remain open. Anyone who thinks that creating a one-person-one-vote system for making these questions go away is insane. Let’s imagine that the first move of the new Israeli-Palestinian parliament would be to allow the return of the 1948 refugees. Would that end the issue? Of course not! The Jews would reject it. So you still have the problem of negotiating a settlement to these issues. And in the end, I think it would be decided that it’s either separation or civil war. Binational – Belgium, Czechoslovakia – don’t tend to work at the best of times. Putting the two most hateful nations in one state and telling them to sort out their problems by voting is a recipe for civil war. And once a few more tens of thousands had been killed, I think it would be seen that the only feasible resolution to these problems is the separation of the two peoples into their own territories. In other words, the two state solution.

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  2. Thanks Matt.

    You might be right that this post will not persuade one-staters. I am not sure anything will, prior to the emergence of a mass Palestinian movement. But I think the argument is correct, even so.

    I disagree that the argument implies or rests upon the ‘hidden premise’ that a two-state solution is the best available even setting aside the limitations posed by state and public opinion. One can certainly make that claim, but it is a separate one. The case that two-States is the best available because all the supposedly preferable scenarios are not in fact ‘available’, given current and incipient international opinion, stands on its own.

    I pointed out in the final paragraph that one can of course choose to repudiate the bulk of public opinion and campaign to win it over to one’s own preferred framework and set of beliefs. But in this case, this would entail first undoing and then rebuilding from scratch an international consensus that has taken decades to form. It would likely (a) take generations and (b) inadvertently enable Israel to take advantage of a weakened consensus to further entrench its position.

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  3. Hello James,

    Great article, but there was something in Matt’s analysis in the comment section that I found interesting. He made a comparison with Global warming and the 1 staters.

    He says that just because public opinion isn’t ready to do what needs to be done for Global warming (GW) right now, one should continually try to change their minds regarding it and not just limit themselves to public opinion as it stands today on GW.

    Wouldn’t that same argument be applied to the 1 state solution?

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  4. Thanks Neil.

    What this post shows is the magnitude of the challenge involved in trying to now bring about a one-state solution: that is, the very large amount of time such a project would likely take to succeed, and the great uncertainty of success even given a lot of time.

    There is currently zero support for one-state even at the most extreme pro-Palestine fringes of the mainstream debate. Outside the solidarity movement, one-state is simply nowhere. Instead, even on the pro-Palestine fringes of the mainstream, one finds universal support for a settlement on terms which fundamentally contradict those underpinning a single state solution.

    One-state advocacy must first undo this overwhelming support for the principles underpinning two-states, and then construct a similarly overwhelming consensus in favour of forcibly dissolving Israel as a state (in fact a significantly stronger consensus, since the pressure required to force Israel to accede to its dissolution as a state will surely be much greater than that required to force Israel to withdraw to its legal borders).

    As I said in the final paragraph of the article, one can choose to accept this challenge regardless of the obstacles. But the costs of this choice, for Palestinians above all, may be great.

    First, undoing an international consensus that has endured for decades and then constructing a new one for the forcible dismantling of a UN member state, if it is to happen at all, must be the project of a generation at least, and more likely several. In the meantime, the occupation and all its horrors will persist.

    Second, as noted, one-state advocacy must undermine the consensus for two-states. This has been precisely Israel’s goal for decades, and Israel will be sure to exploit any such weakening of the consensus for its own ends. It is a sign of how detached from reality elements of the solidarity movement have become that they imagine that one-state, rather than the occupation, will be the main beneficiary of a weakened two-state consensus.

    Third, one-state advocacy means abstention — by us, but not by the other side — from the political battles that really matter: most notably, that between a two-state settlement based on international law and one based on US-Israeli power.

    As I wrote at Mondoweiss a while back,

    Palestine faces a future of permanent occupation or partition. Partition can take one of two forms: the Kerry proposal, with Israel annexing the major settlement blocs at the expense of Palestinian viability, or the international consensus two-state settlement endorsed by the International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly, which designates the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza as the territory for the exercise of Palestinian self-determination.

    These alternatives exhaust the realms of political possibility, and a defeat for one is a gain for the others. Except among certain academics and BDS activists, the demand for dismantling Israel has no international resonance… By holding fast to a demand that has no prospect of winning a broad constituency, one state advocates not only consign the solidarity movement to irrelevance. By frustrating the two-state solution, they increase the likelihood of palpably worse alternatives. With their gazes riveted on a one-state utopia, they help create a bantustan.

    Final point for now. Some supporters of one-state contrast the grubby compromises entailed by a two-state solution with the moral purity of advocating one-state. But if moral purity is the game, why limit oneself to calling for ‘one democratic state’? Are the world’s existing one-states so perfect? Why not call for ‘a single democratic state in which the workers own the means of production’? Or ‘a single democratic state in which there is no economic inequality’? In fact, why not just call for a borderless Middle Eastern democratic socialist federation? And why stop at the Middle East? Why does this earth need states at all?

    We all have to make judgement calls about how to make the world more like the one we wish to see, based on our principles on one hand and our assessment of what’s currently or latently possible on the other. The burden of judgement is perhaps less satisfying then simply vocalising one’s personal beliefs, but it is inescapable if one hopes to be a political actor, i.e. to change this world for the better.

    So, you have to ask yourself: is the prospect of the world forcing the dismantling of Israel as a state — notwithstanding the complete lack of support and indeed comprehensive and overwhelming opposition to such a prospect throughout the mainstream political spectrum — sufficiently likely to make orientating our advocacy towards this goal worth the costs described above? To me the answer is obvious, but every one must judge for themselves.

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  5. […] a recent article for Truthdig, I examined the transcripts of several European parliamentary resolutions and debates about […]

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  6. This is more of a request. You might have have mentioned it elsewhere, but do you have any information about research into public opinion in the US, Europe, elsewhere as regards the Two State/One State debate or any other kind of resolution? The Non-state level as regards international opinion etc.

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