By Alistair Lyon
The dream of a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel died long ago.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation has clung to it anyway as has the world, for lack of a better idea.
The PLO, which originally advocated a single, democratic state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians, accepted a two-state formula in 1988.
This envisaged a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, territories that Israel captured along with Syria’s Golan Heights in the 1967 war. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 in a move rejected internationally.
The Palestinians would be signing away nearly four-fifths of historic Palestine, but recognition of Israel would at last enable them to achieve independent statehood on the remaining territory. In return, Israel would get peace with its neighbors and acceptance in the broader Middle East.
The two-state solution did not work out, despite decades of negotiations led by the United States, Israel’s greatest ally, and supported by Russia, the United Nations, the Arab League and the European Union.
Israel’s relentless colonization of the West Bank had already demolished any prospect of a viable Palestinian state before Donald Trump casually kicked away U.S. commitment to that elusive goal.
Welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in February, the American president declared he had no preference. One state or two, whatever makes the two sides happy.
Alas, the unhappy Israelis and Palestinians cannot agree terms for either option, or any other.
What went wrong?
Past peace talks foundered on issues such as borders, security, refugees and the status of Jerusalem, holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims, and claimed by both sides as their capital.
Palestinians have upheld a right of return or compensation for refugees driven from what became the state of Israel in 1948 and whose descendants now number several million. For Israelis, any mass influx is anathema as it would wreck the Zionist concept of a Jewish national state.
At times, compromise on even such thorny disputes seemed possible, particularly after the 1993 Oslo Accords granted the Palestinians limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
But as the “peace process” collapsed into mere process, it served mostly as a fig-leaf for Israel to create ever more facts on the ground, in defiance of international law, until it was clear to everyone that there was nothing left to negotiate. Yet almost everyone chose to turn a blind eye.
The two-state formula, even gutted of all meaning, has remained the holy grail of Middle East diplomacy. At least until Trump rolled up with his wrecking ball.
Even he, in a feeble pastiche of U.S. pretensions to act as an honest broker, asked Netanyahu to “hold off on settlements for a little bit.” Perhaps to give Bibi time to figure out how many states he wants.
West Bank patchwork
Around 350,000 Jewish settlers now live in the West Bank and 250,000 in East Jerusalem.
The West Bank is a crazy quilt of Jewish townships, “illegal” settler outposts, army bases, military zones, settler-only roads and checkpoints, with about 2.7 million Palestinians living in three zones under varying levels of Israeli and Palestinian Authority control.
Citing the need to stop Palestinian suicide bombers, Israel has spent more than 15 years building a formidable barrier of walls and fences that in places cuts deep into the West Bank, enclosing some colonies but leaving about 90,000 settlers beyond it.
For Palestinians, this creeping territorial acquisition has thwarted any hope of the occupation ending and giving way to a state worthy of the name.
Netanyahu advocates a “state-minus” plan under which Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, accept Israeli security control over all the West Bank, where most Israeli settlements will remain, drop any claim to East Jerusalem and forget about any “right of return.”
The PLO has recognized the state of Israel but sees no reason to endorse an ethno-religious label that would deepen the alienation of the fifth of Israel’s citizens who are of Palestinian descent.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has a very weak hand, and he knows an overall settlement would require more compromises. But he can hardly sign off on a formula for continued occupation and oppression in an ever shrinking non-state.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip are more divided than ever. Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005. The Islamist Hamas movement seized the area from its more moderate Palestinian rivals two years later. It has kept up hostilities with the Israelis from the tiny, densely populated enclave, blockaded by Israel and Egypt.
In its early years, the PLO advocated a single state with equal rights for all citizens, and some despairing Palestinians have returned to the idea. For most Israelis, it is unthinkable because it would spell the end of their Zionist ideals.
While many Palestinians might favor a unitary, democratic state, this is not on offer. Israel has no intention of granting full rights to West Bankers, let alone Gazans, since citizens of Palestinian origin would thereby comprise nearly half the population and might one day outnumber Jews.
That’s why Israelis who want their country to be considered a democracy have shied away from annexing the West Bank along with its unwanted Palestinians.
Palestinians say they are already living under a de facto apartheid system. Formal annexation without full citizenship rights would clinch their case.
Unilateral Israeli separation/annexation
Yet as hardliners have come to dominate Israel’s political landscape, powerful religious-nationalist voices now argue for at least partial annexation of land they see as a Jewish birthright.
A pro-settler party propping up Netanyahu’s coalition favors incorporating 61 percent of the West Bank into Israel, leaving the bulk of the Palestinian population in limbo.
A decade ago Israel contemplated a unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank, following its pullout from Gaza. But the Hamas takeover and subsequent rocket attacks on Israeli cities fostered an Israeli consensus for keeping a full military grip on the more strategically located West Bank.
Israel, with its military, technological and economic superiority, and generous support from the United States, holds almost all the cards when it comes to any kind of deal.
U.S. leaders habitually ignore the vast disparity of power between Israel and the Palestinians, but Trump took this to a new level when he said it was up to the parties to choose one state or two.
Abbas, the 82-year-old Palestinian president, has said he was still committed to the quest for statehood. But he lacks electoral legitimacy, his administration depends economically on Israel and on foreign aid, mostly from the EU, and he can do little except appeal for international support.
Unstable status quo
In this messy context, Israel may avoid any bold initiative, while expanding colonies in the West Bank and subjecting Palestinians to its decisions without giving them any say.
West Bankers might be tempted to ditch the impotent Palestinian Authority to demand incorporation and full rights in a shared state, but they know this gamble looks better on paper than in practice.
Palestinian frustration has often spilled into bloodshed in the past and is likely to do so again.
Israel, with its fortifications, intelligence-gathering and security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, may feel it can contain such outbursts, even though defending all the settler outposts dotting the West Bank is a military headache.
Whether Israel is able or willing to contain the wilder ambitions of its own religious-nationalists bent on bringing all of what they call Judea and Samaria under the Israeli flag is a different matter.
There perhaps lies the darkest scenario. Friction with settlers, say, provokes a big surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence in the West Bank. In a furious attempt to blast away the obstacles to Jewish dominion over all the Promised Land, Israel expels Palestinians en masse over the Jordan river.
Far-fetched? It would only echo what some Israeli historians have described as a calculated campaign of ethnic cleansing before and after Israel’s birth in 1948.
Alistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.