Developments in 2017 have once again brought into focus the one-state reality taking hold on the ground in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). The Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) has remained dormant since the collapse of the last round of US-backed talks under President Obama in Spring 2014. In the meantime, Israel (with US acquiescence) has moved further away from Palestinian negotiating positions and the internationally endorsed final status parameters meant to frame a final agreement. So long as this remains the case, and so long as Israeli cost benefit calculations tilt towards continued occupation, future negotiations cannot achieve a meaningful and last resolution to the conflict (even if they do one day succeed in getting the parties around the table).
The disappearance of a viable diplomatic path for resolving the conflict has been compounded by US policy backsliding under President Trump, in particular, his reneging on the US’s long-standing commitment to a two-state solution as the exclusive goal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Meanwhile, Israeli politics and society continue to veer right-ward, in favour of policies and actions that cement its occupation, pushing Palestinian statehood beyond reach. Just as critically, perhaps, the Palestinian liberation movement is experiencing a moment of unique political, regional, and strategic weakness.
The state of affairs on the Palestinian side is first and foremost a consequence of Israeli policies to fragment Palestinian representation. But President Abbas’s monopolisation of power and his hollowing out of Palestinian decision-making processes has forestalled the emergence of a new Palestinian liberation strategy that can more effectively address these domestic and external challenges.
From State Building to Sovereignty Building
For over 25 years the MEPP has revolved around the Oslo Accords – the series of agreements concluded by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) between 1993 and 1999. In several respects, the Oslo Accords have created successes for Palestinians. They nudged Israel towards acceptance of Palestinian statehood, allowed the PLO and its political leadership (which was previously based in exile) to return to Palestinian territory, and created the institutional basis for a Palestinian state.
Oslo also set the stage for large sums of international aid to flow towards Palestinian state-building and institutional reform projects. These reached their apogee under the technocratic Prime Minister Salem Fayyad between 2007 and 2013. During this time, both the IMF and World Bank declared Palestine to be “statehood ready”. Fayyad’s successor, Rami Hamdallah has built on these gains by advancing new national sovereignty building strategies to consolidate Palestinian control over their natural resources and make state institutions more responsive to the needs of citizens. In parallel, President Abbas has led a drive to “internationalise” the conflict by seeking Palestinian membership in international fora such as the UN and International Criminal Court (ICC), and joining some 30 international treaties, including the Fourth Geneva Convention.
A process that has run out
But so long, as the Palestinian leadership remains committed to the Oslo-configured MEPP, none of these Palestinian successes on the ground and in the international arena will significantly challenge Israel’s occupation and inflict any real international cost over its actions in the OPT – many of which are considered illegal under international law. As I wrote with Omar Dajani in July 2017, the Oslo Accords not only failed to deliver Palestinian self-determination through statehood, but also put in place a conflict management framework that has helped Israel entrench its occupation, expand its settlement project, and kept Palestinian sovereignty out of reach.
The reality that this is creating in the OPT has been variously described as Apartheid (including by senior Israeli officials such as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Mossad director Danny Yatom), a one-state minus by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and as one-state reality of unequal rights by the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini.
Two-states or one?
For now, a Palestinian pivot towards a one-state solution, or alternatively strategy, is still not on the cards. As evidenced in the recent meeting of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the PLO remains committed to achieving a two-state solution through diplomatic engagement, multilateralism, and international law, even as its criticism of Israel and the US increases. Even Hamas, once an ardent support of a state in all of “historic Palestine”, has indicated its potential willingness to accept the pre-June 1967 borders. In the West Bank, the PA has even constrained Palestinian civil society and prevented large-scale mobilisations that seek to challenge Israel’s occupation, and the Oslo Accords that it rests upon.
However, without tangible progress towards de-occupation, and without any horizon for meaningful independence, it would be wrong to assume that the Palestinian liberation strategy will remain forever unchanging in the face of current realities. As the PLO’s Ambassador to the US, Husam Zomlot, put it: a two-state solution was “never a Palestinian demand, but a Palestinian concession”.
And indeed, the seeds for a future strategic shift are becoming apparent. Polling suggests that growing scepticism over the prospects of a diplomatic breakthrough has translated into growing Palestinian support for a one-state solution through which “Palestinians and Jews will be citizens of the same state and enjoy equal rights”. A post-Abbas leadership transition, and the empowerment of a generation of Palestinians less wedded to the Oslo process or the concept of a two-state solution, may also create openings for to re-assess Palestinian strategy and goals.
Future Palestinian strategies
The continued absence of any real prospects for ending the occupation will inevitably impact on Palestinian strategic calculations over the longer term. And indeed, the belief that sovereignty through diplomacy is untenable is already translating into growing popular support for alternative strategies for ending the occupation. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is a prominent example of this trend. The direct, and relatively non-violent, “March of Return” protests supported by Hamas in Gaza is another.
While these remain limited, relatively agnostic towards a one or two state outcome (in favour of ending the occupation au sens large), future initiatives may place greater emphasis on equals for equal rights for all in a binational state. Alternatively, what emerges in the future could be greater public support for a return to armed resistance, or the ascendancy of the nihilistic violence perpetrated by some Palestinians in Israel and the OPT. Or it could be a mixture of all these things. For now, the only certainty is that future Palestinian tactics and strategies will be shaped by the anticipated popular escalation coinciding with the US’s inauguration of its new embassy in Jerusalem in mid-May, potential cuts to UNRWA activities in Gaza this summer, and by the nature of the post-Abbas leadership transition.