Hussein Ibish
July 19, 2010 - 12:00am

It is frequently asked, although rarely directly to my face, “why does Ibish always talk/only seem to care (some version of that) about what Jewish Israelis will accept rather than what Palestinians want?” This question was recently repeated in a tweet, although not, as usual, directly addressed to me. Nonetheless, I do want to answer it because this confusion lies at the heart of a gulf of misunderstanding between the analyses I have been developing in recent years and much conventional wisdom among Arab-Americans and other pro-Palestinian groups. I think it defines a sustained surprise, and even bewilderment, that someone with such a strong, unequivocal and extremely public record of pro-Palestinian advocacy would raise the questions and points that I have been making in recent years. I think it also is a question that gets to the heart of the growing distance between idealistic activists who think largely in abstract, and often even theoretical, terms and those of us who are trying to find a solution to the occupation as a practical and more importantly political problem in the real world based on the actual array of forces that can produce outcomes. It is the gap between the politics, or perhaps I should say faux-politics, of emotion and longing versus the real politics of, to employ a shopworn but nonetheless indispensable cliché, the art of the possible.

First of all, the whole accusation is a misrepresentation of the thrust of my work over the past few years. I mainly, in fact, talk about what the Palestinians want and need, and especially about their national and diplomatic strategies, when I write about the conflict. My whole book about the one-state agenda was mainly about what Palestinians minimally need to accomplish for their national goals to be realized, and why. Just like the rest of the overwhelming majority of my work, it was not primarily about what the Israelis want or need, although it did frequently touch upon the subject, and with good reason. Because it seems to confuse so many people, I want to try to explain why I do this.

Let's begin with some very simple axioms: 1) there is no military victory available to either Israel or the Palestinians to resolve this conflict; 2) if the conflict is to be resolved, it must therefore be resolved by an agreement; 3) this is therefore the only way to end the occupation and achieve Palestinian national independence; 4) the only alternative to an agreement that ends the occupation and the conflict is continued occupation and conflict. A fifth probability, that does not rise to the level of an axiom but that comes extremely, disturbingly, close, is that this continued conflict will almost certainly become increasingly religious, bitter, violent and intractable, and is likely to morph from an ethnic struggle over land and power to a religious holy war over God's will and sacred spaces. I take these four points as axiomatic and virtually self-evident as I see no arguments capable of contradicting any of them. If anybody has any such ideas that are not fanciful and actually take into consideration the array of forces (social, economic, political and military) that produce real political outcomes in the real world, please forward them to the Ibishblog immediately as they will be an original contribution and possibly a breakthrough in thinking on the conflict. I'm not holding my breath.

One usually gets, in response to some version of these four axioms, fanciful alternative scenarios that I have often described as “science fiction” because they do not take into consideration the forces that produce outcomes I keep referring to. The consolidation of a greater Israel, the victory of an Islamic state from the river to the sea, the democratic, South Africa style one-state solution, the so-called Jordanian option, various notions of Israeli-Palestinian Confederation and regional EU-like “unions of the children of Abraham” or some such folderol, are all examples of fanciful scenarios that fail at the most fundamental level because in each and every case at least one of the parties that would have to accept such an outcome cannot plausibly be imagined as accepting it. As long as one party central to an outcome will neither accept such an outcome nor can be plausibly militarily forced to accept it, we can say with a great deal of confidence that such an outcome is extremely unlikely to the point not being worth serious consideration.

The latest example of this is the right wing and settler version of the “one-state solution” being proposed by some extremist Israelis in which Israel would annex all of the West Bank, including Jerusalem, but not Gaza, adding about 1.5 million new Palestinian citizens to Israel, but keeping their political rights in various forms of check to ensure the state remains “Jewish” and Israel rather than anything else. This is the subject of a feature article in this weekend's version of Ha'aretz. The idea that this would end the Palestinian national struggle and the conflict because West Bank Palestinians would be delighted for the occupation to become permanent and to receive third or fourth class Israeli “citizenship” over time, of course while being colonized and repressed more ardently than ever, and that the rest of the Palestinians don't count and the national movement would simply collapse is a wonderful example of political “science fiction.” From a serious point of view, we needn't bother with it, but one is unfortunately obliged to take the time to debunk the idea lest sensible people be seduced by it any way.

In considering the range of possible outcomes and strategies for ending the occupation and the conflict, as I'm trying to explain, one must take the minimal interests and bottom line perspectives of all the central parties, especially Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, into profound consideration. It is a ubiquitous and uniting feature of all fanciful outcomes that they strikingly, blindingly, fail to do so, instead privileging one set of national imperatives over all the others, at the expense of remaining within the realm of the possible. Serious observers, and especially those who seriously want to contribute real ideas that can really make things better and, hopefully, lead ultimately to real solutions, have no practical or rational alternative but to take the perspectives of all the parties involved very seriously on their own terms and not imagine that they can be wished away or magically overcome by some secret formula for sudden success.

This means that the central failure and the central delusion of the right wing Israelis promoting the preposterous version of the "one-state solution" I outlined above is that their so-called "plan" is highly sensitive to Israeli concerns and interests about control of historically and religiously emotive land in the West Bank but fails utterly to take into consideration the minimal requirements of the Palestinian national movement. It somehow assumes that West Bank Palestinians will be mollified enough by some limited and highly attenuated Israeli “citizenship” that they will therefore become Israeli in much the same way that the Palestinian citizens of Israel have become since 1948. One can only nurse such an assumption if it remains implicit and unstated since to ask the question of whether that would happen or not is to answer it, quite firmly, in the negative. I think there's almost no doubt whatsoever that under such circumstances many, if not most, Palestinians in the West Bank would refuse Israeli citizenship in the way that most Jerusalem residents have, and refuse to accept the permanent consolidation of the occupation and canceling of their entire national project. It would be seen as, and in practice probably look a lot like, the “East Jerusalem-ization" of the entire West Bank - hardly an acceptable prospect from a Palestinian point of view. This is not to mention the reaction of the Palestinians in Gaza, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the refugees, the Arab world, particularly states – Egypt and Jordan – with diplomatic relations and peace treaties with Israel (which such a move would violate), or the international community which has a strong consensus in favor of ending the occupation and a large body of international law holding that Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for peace, not unilaterally annex territory seized during warfare.

I think this most recent example illustrates pretty well what happens when one party proceeds based entirely on its own needs and assumptions, disregarding everybody else including the other main protagonist, regional actors and the international community, all of which will play a major factor in determining the plausibility of any outcome. Even when that party believes itself to be making every effort to be fair and reasonable and just, based on the principle of extending democratic enfranchisement within a given territory to “the enemy population” or at least "the other side," such failures produce proposals that look eminently reasonable from one blinkered, tunnel-vision and purely theoretical outlook but which seem absurd, not only to the other side, but to all informed observers who take the needs of all parties seriously in the consideration of the plausibility of outcomes. This, in fine, is why when various scenarios for ending the conflict are brought forward, especially the increasingly popular one-state agenda, one of the factors I look at carefully every time is the likely response of the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis. We've just seen a good example of what happens when Jewish Israelis try to think outside the box without considering the response of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. I think it's extremely important, if one is going to think seriously about the problem, rather than use politics as psychotherapy, to avoid such an obvious and dangerous pitfall.

I think about what Jewish Israelis will accept or not accept because if I don't then I'm not thinking politically at all. I'm indulging in the “science fiction” version of politics that is deliberately pleasing and fanciful but disconnected from fundamental realities that must always be taken into consideration. Jewish Israelis, and indeed the State of Israel, exist. They have power, considerable military means, economic success of a kind, technological expertise, and most importantly international support at a very significant level. I think most pro-Palestinian advocates don't understand how much more influence Israel and the pro-Israeli groups have developed in Washington even over the past five years and how profoundly deeper the military and intelligence links have become. In fact, it's clear they both don't know about this or understand its significance. On its own, Israel is a formidable force. When placed in the context of the international forces committed to its continuation, but not its occupation, it is even more formidable. It is not going anywhere. It is not a house of cards on the verge of collapse. It is unlikely to prove a crusader state in waiting, to be driven away sometime in the next 200 years (although honestly, who cares what happens in 200 years?). It is not going to be brought to its knees by a boycott. It is a reality, a national reality, that has to be taken into consideration as seriously as possible by anyone genuinely trying to think through the Palestinian national strategy and the goal of ending the occupation (or any other goal for that matter). Some people don't think about this because it is too painful. Some, because it disrupts their science fiction stories. Some, because they just don't understand the basic facts. These are all unacceptable excuses for such a fundamental error.

The same precisely applies to the Israelis and pro-Israel types who do not think clearly and seriously about the Palestinians as a people and a national movement, indeed a nation, that cannot be defeated or dismissed but must be dealt with either through agreement or through ongoing, irresolvable conflict. The Palestinians exist. They have their own forms of power, sometimes the power of the weak perhaps, but their power cannot be ignored. Some of these forms of Palestinian power are their demographic reality, their undeniable history, the will of their national movement, strong and growing international support for their independence (it is, in fact, really US policy for there to be a state of Palestine), increasing global disgust with the nature and the reality of the occupation and impatience with Israel's refusal to accept that the occupation must end. Then there is the simple fact that if the Israelis do not agree with the secular nationalists of the PLO who wish to live side-by-side in peace and security in two separate, independent states, they will almost certainly end up dealing with bearded Islamist fanatics, and will probably by that stage be themselves led by their own bearded Jewish fundamentalist fanatics as well. The Israelis must know, as must the Americans and others, that they will play a significant role in deciding which Palestinians they will have to deal with over the long run. But the bottom line is the Palestinians are not going anywhere, they are not going to be defeated, they are not going to give up and abandon their national movement, and, in the end, they are going to continue to fight, in one way or another, for their dignity and bottom-line national rights.

So, when we talk about any of the fanciful, “science fiction,” alternative outcomes other than a negotiated end of the occupation and the conflict, it is incumbent upon those of us who understand this simple and all important principle to remind others on our side about the fundamental reality and the basic, bottom line national interests of the other party that are almost certainly being ignored in these scenarios. I'm sure that there are plenty of people in Israel who have or will point out to the right-wingers pushing their new, preposterous, version of a “one-state solution” for the West Bank only, and with highly attenuated fourth class citizenship for Palestinians there, that they are talking nonsense because the other side will not accept any such arrangement and the conflict will therefore continue in one way or another and probably intensify and deteriorate (as it continuously has since the 1930s). Obviously it's up to all of us to keep each other honest and to raise the most obvious and fundamental questions about what we are all proposing.

For those of us who advocate a two state solution and an end to the occupation, there are very serious challenges such as the existing settlements, ongoing settlement construction, settler and pro-settler ideology, Palestinian divisions and many other major problems and concerns that would have to be overcome in order to achieve this outcome. Neither I nor any serious advocate of ending the occupation downplays these serious challenges. But what we do say is that such an outcome is still possible because it, alone, meets the minimum national requirements of both parties and is urgently required by the international community and most regional actors. There is no doubt there are huge forces pushing against it, including on the ground, although Palestinian state building efforts (however nascent and fledgling they clearly are) are an interesting new push-back on the same ground, but there are also huge forces pushing and militating for it. I've never maintained it was the likely outcome, only a genuinely plausible and really imaginable one, one that does in fact correspond to the array of forces that can produce outcomes. But what I've also maintained is that without it, as is becoming increasingly clear, the only real alternative is increased occupation, dressed up in whatever new costumes Israel decides to force on it, and therefore, over the long run, increased conflict which will almost certainly become increasingly religious, violent and intractable. As far as I can tell, in all seriousness, those are the only two outcomes the array of existing forces can really produce. The fact that a two state agreement is the less likely of the two is no excuse for not preferring it to the gruesome, unspeakable alternative, and working, with all determination and seriousness of purpose, to make sure that it happens in spite of the obstacles.


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