What does it mean when the United States, Britain, France and Spain upgrade the diplomatic status of the Palestinian delegations in their capitals, as they all did in the past year? When the number of countries recognizing Palestinian statehood now exceeds one hundred?
Binyamin Ben Eliezer, former deputy prime minister of Israel and minister of industry, trade, and labour in the current government, thinks he knows. “I wouldn’t be surprised if within one year the whole world supports a Palestinian state, including the United States,” he warned his cabinet colleagues recently.
Ben Eliezer doesn’t mean a hypothetical Palestinian state at some point in the distant future, after Israelis and Palestinians have miraculously agreed on borders, refugees, et cetera. He means a real Palestinian state, declared this year and promptly recognized by practically everybody.
It would have a seat at the United Nations and the right in principle to control its own borders, though in practice it would still be under Israeli military occupation. Exactly where its borders are, like a host of other issues, would have to be settled afterward, by direct negotiation between Israel and Palestine.
At first glance, the immediate creation of an independent Palestinian state sounds like an idea whose time has come. The “peace process", now 17 years old, has clearly run out of road, goes the argument, so we might as well try something different. As a rationale for creating a fully-fledged Palestinian state now, that’s not very convincing—but it’s not really why people are talking about this.
Many Arabs and Americans support the idea because they hope that the creation of a legitimate and theoretically independent Palestinian state would give Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, enough credibility to keep the West Bank out of the hands of Hamas a while longer. (Hamas, which rejects any permanent peace with Israel, already controls the Gaza Strip, the other part of occupied Palestine.)
Some Israelis back the idea too, but not many, and none in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Netanyahu does everything he can to avoid direct peace talks, because any Israeli concessions would break the ruling coalition apart. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman says that even an “intermediate” peace deal could take decades.
So despairing advocates of a peace settlement are now lining up behind the idea of declaring Palestinian statehood even in the United States, where former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk recently endorsed the idea. But it is, alas, an idea whose time has not only come but gone.
It has suddenly become popular because a lot of people are finally realizing that the “two-state solution", seen for the past quarter-century as the only possible foundation of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, is dying if not already dead. The proposal to create a real Palestinian state, even without agreed borders, is meant as a last-minute rescue mission, but it probably comes too late.
Popular support in Israel for a land-for-peace deal collapsed years ago, but now the Palestinians are also losing faith in a two-state future. They are concluding that the peace talks have been a charade from the very start, because Israeli politicians, even the best-intentioned ones, will never find the political courage to stop the process of spreading Jewish settlements across the West Bank.
What is the point, Palestinian critics ask, of a truncated Palestinian state that is riddled with Jewish settlements and utterly dominated by Israel? What do Palestinians have to lose if they forget about a state for now and just wait until a higher Palestinian birth rate makes them a majority across all of former colonial Palestine (i.e. Israel and the occupied territories)?
They would have to live through another 10 or 15 years of military occupation and occasional Israeli punishment campaigns like the 2008 operation in Gaza. They would have to accept that there will never be an exclusively Palestinian state. But once they became the majority, they would launch a nonviolent civil rights movement demanding one person, one vote in all the lands between the Jordan and the sea.
That demand—One Big State with equal rights for all—is what wise Israelis fear most, because it would put Israel in the same position as apartheid South Africa. All these people, both Arabs and Jews, live on lands that are under your permanent control, the rest of the world would say. Why won’t you let the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank vote? Israel would survive, but it would become a pariah.
That is why Netanyahu has suddenly demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a specifically Jewish state: if they agreed to that, they could never credibly demand One Big State. It is also why various non-Israelis have begun to advocate the early creation of a Palestinian state: they are hoping to keep the two-state solution alive. But it is already on life support, and the oxygen is running out.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book, Crawling from the Wreckage, was published recently in Canada by Random House.