I am both a longstanding supporter of the Palestinian cause and a friend of Israel. As a British Minister for the Middle East in 1999-2001 I worked closely with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. My background of fighting apartheid, racism and anti-Semitism is recorded.
For decades I have favoured a two-state solution as the best plan for peace and the fairest outcome, one backed by the US, the United Nations, the European Union, all 22 countries of the Arab League, and the Palestinian Authority.
It used to be Israel’s policy too. But Prime Minister Netanyahu has increasingly drifted away the two-state solution over the course of an ongoing programme of occupation and settlement.
Members of his government and its parliamentary grouping have recently spoken out against a two-state solution, while the renewed ‘Greater Israel’ discourse of the growing Israeli right openly opposes a two-state solution, calling for the annexation of Palestinian territories.
Current international polices are simply out of touch with these developments, which are so toxic to a future two-state solution. It is high time to seriously address the failure of the current approach and the dangerous consequences of a disappearing two-state solution.
Negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have so far failed, as has a reliance on the US to deliver Israeli cooperation. To Netanyahu’s delight, Trump has refused to endorse the two state solution, and has unilaterally recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in defiance of the international consensus.
Europeans, meanwhile, have been unable to deliver the settlement freeze they advocate, and are unwilling to impose practical sanctions for continued Israeli illegal settlement activity.
The two-state option was itself originally conceived as a compromise and one likely to be particularly painful for the substantial Palestinian refugee community. But today, the situation of Palestinians living on their own land resembles a civil-rights struggle: Palestinian life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is untenable because they have little to no say over the running of a land that has become an archipelago of isolated Palestinian territorial islands in a sea of Israeli controlled land, checkpoints, bases, and settlements.
If Israel’s relentless expansion into Palestinian territories cannot be stopped then we face one of two possible outcomes. The first is that all Palestinian presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem remains in a permanent and ever-more formalized ‘Bantustan status’ – islands of minimal self-governance with the continued denial of basic rights, facing perpetual insecurity and possible future physical removal. The second is that they are absorbed into a common Israeli-Palestinian state with the opportunity for pluralism and human rights advancement.
Tense and difficult though the current standoff may be for Israel, it is not going to be defeated and therefore holds the stronger hand. But instead of living in constant fear of the enemy within, might it not be more fruitful for Israel to seek to end the conflict by legislating for the rights of Palestinians and Arab-Israelis within a new common state?
The proposition to be assessed is this: absorbed into their traditional homeland – albeit alongside Jewish citizens with a narrow majority over them – Palestinians would drop their historic grievance and quickly adjust to the new reality.
That is optimistic to say the least. No post-conflict situation is ever smooth. Witness sporadic, though isolated and marginalised outbreaks of violence and an ongoing self-government stalemate in Northern Ireland, or the legacy of apartheid which remains a crippling drag on South Africa.
But at least the contemporary version of one state advocated by Palestinian civil rights activists would be a democratic state for all its inhabitants, protecting the rights of all its citizens.
Is that solution now the only one capable of stopping the cycle of violence and preserving Israel’s potential to become a force for unity and peace, instead of a beleaguered source of division and a target for attack?
And if the window for the two-state solution has indeed closed, then should the EU, the US and the UK make it plain to Israel that a one-state alternative may be the only one available to ensure its security?
If so, what guarantees might there be for Jewish citizens both within Israel and worldwide if they agree to the merger? Could the Arab nations join those in the West like the US and the UK to provide the post-WWII guarantee of ‘Never again’?
What sort of common state might be politically feasible and deliverable? Could a federal or confederal state provide a way forward, with common security, a unified economy, common civil rights and guarantees of religious freedom for Jews and Muslims, but considerable political autonomy for the territories within it of ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’? How then might Israeli and Palestinian security forces be integrated?
‘One state’ models based on federalism or confederalism contain many different options. Prominent voices deep within Israel’s leadership support a common state, but in the form of a ‘greater Israel’ with only limited and conditional rights for Palestinians. Significant sections of the Israeli political class are openly embracing discriminatory and quasi-apartheid outcomes.
Democratic visions of one shared space are mostly coming from Palestinians and third-parties. It is therefore unsurprising, but also disappointing, to hear those urging for equal rights for all accused as advocating something anti-Semitic.
Is the blunt truth that the following choice is now unavoidable? Either to undertake a massive social and geographical reverse engineering to re-enable a genuine two-state outcome, with two sovereign independent states based on 1967 lines with equal land swaps – and without all the unreasonable Israeli caveats which drain the Palestinian state of any real meaning; or to recognise a common-state reality and make it truly democratic with enfranchisement and rights for all?
The two-state solution I and many others have long-favoured seems to have disappeared. Could a common state now resolve the deadlock? If not, how else can both the Israelis and the Palestinians secure their legitimate objectives of democratic self-determination and security? Or are both condemned forever to a state of violence and terrorism?
Lord Peter Hain is a former British Middle East and Cabinet Minister and Labour MP for 24 years.
This commentary is based on a speech given by Lord Hain to the University of South Wales on 1 February. It reflects the views of the author and those views should not be attributed to the staff or affiliates of ECFR.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.