When did the dream of a two-state solution die? When it became clear that there are already two Palestinian states – the Hamas-run Gaza and the Palestinian Authority-governed West Bank? Or when the extremists of Hamas fired thousands of missiles into Israeli cities? Or last week when the ‘moderates’ of Fatah once again refused Israeli offers to go to the negotiating table and instead moved to circumvent their only negotiating partner via a diplomatic coup at the UN?
No, in the eyes of portions of the UK government as well as the international community, the two-state solution is threatened not by these consistent, physically and diplomatically violent moves; but by everybody’s favourite subject: Israeli settlement building.
In the wake of the PA’s latest attempt to avoid negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would respond in the way it saw fit. This seems to be an order to re-start settlement building in the West Bank.
Fresh from his recent praise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s abilities as peacemakers, Ban Ki Moon has declared such a restart to be, ‘An almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution.’ The British Foreign Office has issued similar warnings and now there is talk of ambassadors being summoned and even of London withdrawing its ambassador from Tel Aviv. Even the international stateswoman who presumes to speak on behalf of all Europeans on such matters – Catherine Ashton – has said she is ‘extremely worried’.
Nobody would guess that among Israel’s neighbours at the moment the Assad regime is still happily murdering tens of thousands of Syrians or that the government of Egypt is successfully pulling off a counter-revolution to ensure that Egyptian voters got one vote once. They would look in vain for strong sentiments from Ban Ki Moon or the British Foreign Office when considering the PA’s recent two-state destroying decision to go to the UN with a statehood bid instead of trying to work out final status border agreements in direct talks with Israel. It takes the re-engagement of a few dozen Jewish builders to bring out this much ire. And there is a reason for that.
Over the years I have visited quite a few Israeli and Palestinian settlements in the West Bank. It remains my view that the borders of a final status agreement are visible on the ground. After some difficult negotiations many of the larger Jewish towns will have to remain, as will many of the larger Palestinian towns. Whatever the final status agreement, it will leave behind the messiest-looking border on any world map. But who is responsible for the blockage in the meantime?
Contrary to the wisdom of the Foreign Office et al, the blockage to peace is not Israeli settlement-building, unhelpful though that undoubtedly is. The bar to peace remains, as it always has been – as it was at Oslo, Camp David and over all the decades before and since – an unwillingness on the part of the Palestinians to accept the existence of the Jewish state and an almost completely ignored Palestinian insistence that the final-status Palestinian state should be completely and wholly free of Jews. Why otherwise could the borders not simply be drawn around the largest Jewish and Palestinian towns and for some Jews to continue to live in the Palestinian state as minorities, as much as Palestinians can, and do, live happily as minorities within the Jewish state?
The international resistance even to acknowledge this issue is the reason why all the onus is still put on Israel. It is so much easier for the international community to pour all of its ire onto details of Israeli policy rather than to focus – and over time change – the totality of the Palestinian policy.
Nevertheless, while restarting settlement building at this time is understandable it is also unwise. Unwise because it is so destructive for Israel’s reputation in the wider international community, but understandable because – just as after the brutal massacring of the Fogel family in Itamar – it is clear why Israel might seek to respond to the latest bout of PA misbehaviour by showing that there is a price to pay for circumventing the only path to peace: direct negotiations. Additionally, since the PA has co-opted the UN in its game of legal subversion, it is understandable if Israel should decide that international opinion at the UN can go to hell. Nevertheless, whilst there are some people who think that settlement building hurts the Palestinians most, for my part I think that it hurts them second most.
However, putting all this aside, the disparity in the international reactions to Israel and the PA’s recent moves tells you everything you need to know about the playing field Israel currently finds itself on. All the current heavy-handed grandstanding aside, countries like this one know that the Israelis are our allies and that we see not only in this Israeli government, but in any government in Israel, one half of a final-status negotiating partner. The same cannot be said of the other party in those talks. Mahmoud Abbas has no control over the Gaza and has not even bothered to return to Palestinians in the West Bank to see if they still want him as their representative. Outsiders like France and Britain should know where pressure, both real and rhetorical, needs to be applied and where it does not.
As I have said here before, the two-state solution is dead. But it was not the Israelis, and not the settlements, that killed it. Rather, it is the fact that after nearly seven decades the Palestinians are no closer to accepting reality and coming to the negotiating table than they were all those years ago.