international analysis and commentary

Israel and Palestine: mental borders, states and peoples


“People adapt their memories to suit their sufferings”, wrote Athenian historian Thucydides over two millennia ago. Since then the world has witnessed enormous changes. Yet, his words remain as powerful as ever. People continue to focus on some specific aspects of their past and present, while neglecting others, to address challenges and scars.

This particularly applies to issues related to nations, states, “natural borders” and historical narratives in conflict areas such as the Israeli-Palestinian context, where the “one-state solution” is today being increasingly perceived as the only alternative to decades of impasse and sufferance – and to the “two-state solution” that is still widely endorsed by the international community.

The principle of “erasing borders” in the Eastern Mediterranean is rooted in a much needed reasoning: the necessity to shed light on the hybrid identities and experiences that once flourished in the Mediterranean frontiers, and, in Dimitar Bechev’s words, “to listen to their echoes in the realities of strife but also coexistence in the Mediterranean today”.

Yet and despite the merits of the debate on “de-bordering” (i.e. policies and practices aiming at undermining the relevance of state borders as lines markedly circumscribing political systems), in the Israeli-Palestinian context the endless debate over “the only real alternative” – a single, binational state and the related reshaping of the local borders or lines – is largely a misleading, empty and counterproductive exercise.

It is misleading because supporting the principle of self-determination for both peoples does not mean rejecting other alternatives. The two-state solution, in Uri Avnery’s words, “is the first floor, and federation is the second, one may imagine that the third floor will be a regional union, on the lines of the present European Union… Federation presumes partners of equal status, if not of equal strength”.

The debate is also empty because it is based on the inaccurate assumption that, paraphrasing an op-ed published on the NYT by Thomas Friedman last February 10, “the next U.S. president will have to deal with an Israel determined to permanently occupy all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea”.

By annexing East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but not the whole West Bank, the Israeli authorities fulfilled several policy goals as well as ideological purposes. The chances that the they might express an interest, albeit weak, in the creation of a single state, or just in the annexation of all the “Palestinian territories” (the ICJ, the UN, the EU, the US State Department, and virtually all international organizations consider the West Bank as part of the “occupied Palestinian territories”, or “occupied territories”), are near to null.

The ongoing status quo, underpinned by a tendency to manage (rather than to solve) the conflict, ensures the exploitation of the Palestinian territories – as well as control of an area considered of strategic importance for defense purposes – without requiring additional “inconvenient responsibilities.” In this sense, most of the Palestinian territories, where settlers are governed by Israeli civil law and Palestinians are subject to military courts, represent in many respects a unique case. In other somewhat similar contexts, such as Tibet, Abkhazia, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Western Sahara and East Turkestan, the “occupying powers” of these areas have incorporated the local inhabitants as their citizens – with all the guarantees, rights and problems that this entails.

On top of what has been argued so far, the debate on the politics of “de-bordering” and the related one- or two-state solution is also counterproductive and defocused in as much as the most likely alternative to the two states would not be a binational entity. In a reality in which one of the two contending parties is exponentially more powerful than the other – from a political, economic and military standpoint – a single state would, in fact, soon turn into a legalized tool for “choking” the weaker party.

In books such as Ali Abunimah’s One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse the one-state scenario appears as a sort of Lebanon-style confessional government divided along religious/ethnic lines (Abunimah 2006), while in volumes such as Caroline Glick’s The Israeli Solution (Glick 2014), it looks more like an ideological plan that deliberately leaves out the Gaza Strip.

Even assuming that these and other highly heterogeneous one-state visions would have some chance of being implemented, it should be stressed that the idea of creating a binational state already failed at the time of Brit Shalom (in the late 1920s), when the attitude of most of the local inhabitants, free from the scars of this last century, would have been in theory far more malleable. Today even more than at that time, any serious plan for implementing a one-state scenario would require first and foremost the absence of a marked imbalance between the two parties.

Notwithstanding this, a new attitude is today gaining ground. Israel, as pointed out by Khalil Shikaki (among others), Director of Ramallah’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, will be soon forced to choose between two options, both falling into a one-state framework: “The consolidation of a one-state reality, which would then force it to become an apartheid state; or granting Palestinians full citizenship.”

This dichotomy, echoed in the United States by several analysts and policy advisors, ignores or downplays a third scenario that, in the absence of a more credible and practical outside multilateral intervention, appears far more realistic: Israel will annex only Area C of the West Bank (that is, about 60% of the West Bank) and will offer to the Palestinians what Israel’s Minister of Education Naftali Bennett defined as “autonomy on steroids.”

This plan does not require any war of annexation, military operation or the fast removal of most of the population residing in the area: to the relatively few Palestinians who will still reside in Area C in the coming decade, the State of Israel will grant full citizenship.

Some authors claim that continuing to support the two-state solution is, from the perspective of the Israeli government, a way to buy time. Others believe that it is necessary to put a price on the ongoing status quo. To a certain extent, one can agree with both points of view. However, to put aside the wide consensus on the principle of self-determination of both peoples (one of the few important results achieved by the Palestinians in recent decades), without first obtaining a practical and realistic alternative, would be a political suicide, which would further affect the lives of millions of human beings.

The claim that a “fight for human rights” within the frame of a binational state is currently the only, or even the main, alternative to the two-state solution is a dangerous illusion that is already taking away energies from the real priority: finding (or strengthening) practical forms of pressure in support of the wide international consensus on the principle of self-determination of both peoples.

Why is the reference to international consensus relevant? One among the many possible good reasons relates to the fact that both Israel and the “non-member State of Palestine”, recognized as such by 138 members of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on November 29, 2012, have never agreed to define their territories and borders. This means that, beside the fact that both Israel and Palestine would not fully qualify as states under the criteria of the 1933’s Montevideo Convention, both Israelis and Palestinians could theoretically start building settlements on the internationally recognized soil of the counterpart.

The dynamics currently at work in the region will probably have a very limited impact on what some observers imagine as the imminent “reshaping” of the Israeli-Palestinian context and its borders/lines. Due to their unique past and peculiar present, Israel and the Palestinian territories will likely experience concrete changes only in the context of an agreement between two partners of equal status and, most of all, in the frame of a full internationalization and “multilateralization” of the conflict in support of international consensus: that is, a return to its original dimension.