Partition and a Two-State Solution 11.04.13
Last evening I went to hear Derek Penslar and Cliff Orwin at Holy Blossom Temple to "debate" the topic, "Is a Two-State Solution Possible? Desirable?" But it was not a debate. It was a discussion. Both speakers agreed that a two-state solution was desirable. Both also agreed that such a solution was not possible in the near future. They differed in the perspective from which they approached the issue and the degree, source and nature of their pessimism.
Derek Penslar spoke first focusing on the concept of partition. Derek is a comparative historian of modern European Jewry, Zionism and Israel. From 2002 until last year, he held the Samuel J. Zacks Chair in Jewish History at the University of Toronto and, from 2002-2008, directed U of T’s Centre for Jewish Studies. He is currently the Stanley Lewis Professor of Israel Studies at Oxford University. Derek’s historical sketch of the concept of partition in the history of Zionist thought and political action allowed him to approach the topic of a Two-State Solution through its central idea – one land divided between two people.
He began with the original vision of Zionism at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. At that time, Zionist thinkers had no clear conception of borders let alone of a Palestinian nation with which to share the land. Only with the removal by the British of Transjordan in 1921 from the definition of Palestine and the fixing of the borders with Syria, Lebanon and Egypt did Palestine finally have distinct boundaries — though revisionist Zionists would erroneously insist for decades that the land east of the Jordan still belonged to Palestine.
The concept of partition was first raised in the Peel Commission appointed in response to the Arab revolt or terrorism at the time. The Commission was charged with investigating the causes of the unrest and grievances of Arabs or Jews without bringing into question the fundamental terms of the Mandate. Sir Reginald Coupland, a member of the commission, who was a professor at Oxford University where Derek now teaches and an expert in both colonial history and nationalistic politics, introduced the possibility of partition. (Except for Sir Harold Morris, Chairman of the Industrial Court in Britain and a member of the House of Commons for the Liberals from 1922-1923, the other three members of the Commission were all very experienced colonialists: Sir Horace Rumbold, an experienced politician and diplomat, Sir Laurie Hammond, a former Indian Civil Servant, and Sir William Morris Carter, an ex-Colonial Chief Justice with in-depth experience in Rhodesia and Kenya.)
Derek did not have time to go into the details of the Peel Commission Report, but it is helpful if a few of its highlights are mentioned. First, the Commission was a unanimous report that did question the fundamental terms of the Mandate and recommended that it be terminated in the interests of a "lasting settlement". Second, the Report insisted that there was no prospect of fusion or assimilation between Jewish and Arab cultures even in a federated state. "The gulf between the races is thus already wide and will continue to widen if the present Mandate is maintained." Third, the plan of partition involved three, not two entities, a Jewish state (the Galilee, the Jezreel Valley, most of Beisan and all of the coastal plain from Rosh Hanikra to Beer-Tuvia), an Arab state in the rest of Palestine west of the Jordan River that would be united with Transjordan, and a British enclave (Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth) and temporarily, until ceded to the Jewish state, Haifa, Acre, Tiberias and Safed.
Population factors were also issues — including exchanges, migration, reproduction rates and characteristics. Thus, the plan recommended a population exchange to deal with the 250,000 Arabs within the proposed Jewish state and 500 Jews within the Arab state consistent with the Nansen conception of "unmixing" ethnic groups and forced exchange of populations, a doctrine of ethnic cleansing that became preeminent between the two world wars and immediately after WWII to deal with what was then called the "minority problem". (See Ch. 2 in Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge, Columbia University Press.) Section 10 of chapter xxii of the Peel Commission Report, “Exchange of Land and Population,” recommended that "there should be a transfer of land, and as far as possible, an exchange of population.”
Fifth, the Jewish nation was depicted as a highly educated, democratic community for which existence as a crown colony was unsuitable while the passion and intensity behind Arab nationalism made colonial government extremely difficult if not impossible. Finally, given the closing down of immigration to the United States, the persecution of Jews in Germany and Poland, pressures for immigration by Jews to Palestine were powerful but understandably resisted by Arabs bent on self-determination and unwilling to be swamped by a Jewish majority while the growth of the Arab population, because of a high birth rate, placed an opposite pressure on Jewish national self-determination.
As Derek said, Coupland reversed his position when it came to India. What he did not add – again probably because of time – is that Professor Coupland changed, not because he later rejected the idea of partition and exchange of populations, but because he thought that it was not practicable for India. Partition there would involve millions of people, exchanged over great distances, with no natural dividing lines in a population so intermixed. There was the impossible problem of dealing with Sikhs.
In Israel, both before independence and after, Herut rejected partition and kept insisting that Jordan east of the river was part of the original Palestine. Two of the three parties that came together to form the Labour Party also opposed partition. Ben Gurion, who came from Mapai, was equivocal. Partition was accepted, not because the Zionists believed it was a good idea, but because of pragmatics. Whatever land they agreed to "surrender" in the whole of Palestine, would go to Jordan.
In 1967, everything changed. Israel had just given up being an occupying power with respect to Israeli Arabs. In 1967, Israel became an occupying power of Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank, not because of any plan to do so, though the desire, hope and aspiration were there, but because of circumstances. With the Palestinians opposed to a two-state solution and many Israeli politicians not disposed to accept a Palestinian and a Jewish state side-by-side in the area west of the Jordan, partition was not possible.
Partition became possible in the late 1980s. Mark Heller and Sari Nusseibeh in No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two-State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in 1991 offered the solution. As Sari once told me, in 1988 the PLO had given him permission to put forth this proposed change in the Palestinian position. Further, in a press conference in Geneva on 14 December 1988, Yasser Arafat, head of the PLO, renounced terrorism and stated that all parties in the Middle East conflict had the right to exist in peace and security, including the states of Palestine and Israel.
On 9 September 1993, this was followed up with the PLO exchange of letters between Arafat and the Prime Minister of Israel in which the PLO recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security, accepted United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, agreed to the resolution of all outstanding issues in the conflict between the two sides through negotiations and exclusively peaceful means, renounced the use of terrorism and all other acts of violence, assumed responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations, and agreed to discipline violators. That exchange of letters formally ended the hostilities of the uprising of the Palestinians against occupation that was known as the first intifada that had started in 1987.
The Palestinian Authority came into existence as a result of that historic agreement with the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements of 1993. These were followed by the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip of 1995, the Palestinian National Council decision in April of 1996 to cancel the articles of its Charter that were contrary to the 1993 exchange of letters, and the Wye River Memorandum of 1998 in which Arafat wrote President Clinton affirming that, "all of the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the P.L.O. commitment to recognize and live in peace side by side with Israel are no longer in effect. As a result, Articles 6-10, 15, 19-23, and 30 have been nullified, and the parts in Articles 1-5, 11-14, 16-18, 25-27 and 29 that are inconsistent with the above mentioned commitments have also been nullified."
Derek then side-tracked to refer to a number of other quasi-states that had been created by de facto partition: Cyprus, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) in Azerbaijan, Abkhaziand. South Ossetia in Georgia, and he could have mentioned Kosovo in Serbia. He then took up the moves on the Israeli side following the breakthroughs on the acceptance of partition on the Palestinian side. With the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, they came much later.
At Annapolis in November 2007, the PLO, Israel and the USA agreed on a two-state solution as the basis for negotiations. On 14 June 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu at Bar Ilan University finally endorsed the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River -- conditional on Palestine not controlling its borders, that it be demilitarized, not control its airspace, or have foreign relations with any state that did not recognize Israel, renounce the right of return and recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Derek then went into the issue of settlements. In 1988 when this dialectical dance of partition and mutual recognition had begun, the West Bank’s settler population was 63,000. Today it is 350,000 with another 200,000 living in the enlarged Jerusalem basin. In Derek’s narrative, up until the 1990s, the Israeli leadership was characterized as ideological zealots but real life pragmatists. Since then, that position had become inverted; they had become ideological moderates but the zealots on the ground had established the new political facts.
The historical sketch did not allow much room for optimism.
Cliff Orwin was introduced as a Straussian political philosopher and former student of Allan Bloom teaching at the University of Toronto with a keen interest in the Middle East. He focused on the prospective future rather than the past and insisted that though partition and the Two-State Solution was desirable, it was not feasible in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, various versions of a one state solution were impossible. The two-state solution was the desirable alternative because national self-determination was now the international norm. Israel was a liberal democracy and that ethos may permit occupation of another people but not on a long term basis. Occupation was a drag on security. Israel accepted its responsibilities to the international community seriously.
However, though desirable, such a solution was not feasible at this time. The two sides had incompatible aims. Further, the most powerful force in political life was inertia; without a powerful incentive for change, drift was the most likely prospect. Further, Israel was faced with far more impending issues including the irreversible Islamicization of the region, the world wide efforts to delegitimize Israel and the Iranian nuclear threat. Of those three, partition would only address the second.
For Cliff, Obama’s speeches and Kerry’s shuttling around were both irrelevant phenomena with respect to having any impact in bringing partition to a conclusion. Further, partition itself was no guarantee of stability and one could envision a much more unstable situation if the risk was taken of establishing a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. Nevertheless, Cliff thought that each side could take steps in the interim to prepare for the day when such a solution could be implemented.
Plans for the long term on the Palestinian side could include a renunciation of the right of return, redrawing its educational maps to show Israel, ceasing to treat terrorists as heroes, ending its invective against Zionism, continuing the building of the institutions of government. Israel could cease the expansion of the settlements and improve the situation of Palestinians both within Israel and in the West Bank and continually signal its readiness for a two state solution. Essentially, as Derek noted, Cliff had painted a picture of congealment. Derek, on the other hand, pointed to the possibility of a third intifada in the air and history’s tale of sudden and unpredictable seismic shifts. Israelis were approaching a half century of occupation. Two generations of Israelis had grown up as occupiers and Derek feared the undemocratic forces threatening Israel as a democratic state.
It was obvious from the audience responses in questions and the discussion that the audience had been left in a despondent move about the prospects of implementing a two-state solution in the foreseeable future. Did a resurrection of the Arab peace initiative offer some hope? What about the prospects of economic investments of Israelis in the West Bank and the increase of civil society involvement? What about the possibility of unilateral withdrawal by Israel and moving back to a self-defined border leaving the final solution to be negotiated separately? The first was treated as an important but largely irrelevant side issue, even with Kerry’s efforts to tweak the Arab proposal to make it more acceptable to Israel. As Derek said in response to the second suggestion, economics influence politics but in the end peace is a political decision about power. As for unilateral moves by Israel, the response was that Israel was unlikely to take any such initiatives; it had been left traumatized by the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
I myself was not left in a pessimistic mood but was interested in the way academic analysis contributed and reinforced inertia. I had not been able to raise my questions which would have focused on Cliff’s false simplistic dichotomy of either a two-state deal or virtually nothing except for the unilateral confidence building and institutional proposals he offered. There was no discussion about the progress underway to ease the checkpoints and interference in Palestinian daily life in Area B and the larger possibility of creating and strengthening a de facto partition of the ground. Nor was there any discussion of the forces working the other way to push towards a solution much more quickly than Cliff suggested or relying on a seismic event to change the situation as Derek suggested. After all, the efforts of Obama and Kerry were not just superficial irrelevencies but a distinct change in approach to tactical moves rather than a head on assault pushing for a two state solution. Europe has signalled Israel that Israel could not develop the Leviathan gas fields and establish the pipelines and infrastructure for exporting gas to Europe unless meaningful progress had been made in moving towards a two-state solution. Further, given the new policies towards the Arab-Israeli sector and the shifts already underway among Palestinian Israelis, one could envision 20% of the Israeli population playing a much more positive and creative role in pushing a two-state solution.
As erudite as Derek always is and as brilliant as Cliff was in bring his pessimistic Straussian perspective on the perpetual condition of humanity to bear on the problem, I found the array of detailed omissions and trends in the current context to be more revealing than what was actually said.