Israel-Palestine’s Toughest Questions Have Simple Answers
We speak to Jamie Stern-Weiner, editor of Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine’s Toughest Questions, which brings together dozens of prominent experts to discuss how peace can be achieved
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
When it comes to Israel-Palestine, there is a broad international consensus about the minimum condition for peace: an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, which it conquered in 1967, as well as a just resolution to the refugee problem Israel created in 1948 when it expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. But within that consensus there is a lot of difference of opinion on how all that can be achieved.
Well, a new book seeks to bridge the divide by bringing together dozens of prominent voices; Palestinians, Israelis, and others; activists, politicians, and professors. It is organized according to 15 big questions about the future of Israel-Palestine. The book is called The Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine’s Toughest Questions. Jamie Stern-Weiner is the book’s editor, and a graduate student at the University of Oxford. Welcome, Jamie. First, explain to us just what you set out to achieve with this book, and how you came to organize it and bring together this diverse range of voices.
JAMIE STERN-WEINER: Well, the book’s title, Moment of Truth, was reflected in part to, intended in part to reflect a growing sense among Palestinians, among their supporters, and among observers of the conflict more generally that more than a century into the conflict, more than a half-century into Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories and more than 10 years into Israel’s brutal, illegal, and immoral siege of Gaza, there’s this growing sense that the Palestinians’ long quest, long struggle for self-determination has reached an impasse, if not a dead end.
This sense refers both to the means by which the Palestinian leadership has tended to prosecute their struggle; so you might say at one pole armed struggle, and at the other pole international diplomacy. These means are now widely viewed to have been exhausted. More fundamentally still, the very objective or political vision to which the Palestinian struggle has been oriented since at least the late 1980s- namely, an independent Palestinian state in the context of a two-state solution- that very framework is now increasingly viewed to have passed its sell-by date. The book is intended to use the series of rather grim milestones that we recently passed; notably, the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation in June 2017- to use those occasions to take stock, to soberly assess and reassess the situation on the ground, to learn from decades of what has mostly been failures and false starts. To consider in a non-sloganeering, factually informed way just what is and what is not possible in Palestine going forward.
AARON MATE: Okay, so let’s talk about that. Because one of the key questions for people who are thinking about what the solution could be is whether or not- putting aside whether or not a two-state solution is legitimate, because there are many on the Palestinian side who at this point say that they, that they just demand simple equality. That similar to apartheid South Africa, they want equality and democracy in all of Israel-Palestine, with no privileging of Jewish rights in the Jewish state.
So putting that one aside, though, one argument against a two-state solution, aside from its, aside from just wanting basic democracy and equality, is that the settlements in the occupied West Bank have made a two-state solution impossible. In Chapter 3 of your book you have a pretty lively debate about that. Can you summarize the main arguments on either side, and your takeaway from it?
JAMIE STERN-WEINER: Right. So as you say, the settlements are commonly cited as an obstacle, perhaps the paramount obstacle, to a two-state solution, and even as proof positive that two-state is now dead. It’s commonly thought that Israel’s illegal settlements now take up or consume so much of the West Bank that there’s no space physically left on which to establish a viable Palestinian state. It’s also, and relatedly, commonly thought that a viable two-state solution would require that Israel evacuate every last one of its approximately 600,000 illegal settlers.
Chapter 3 of the book, which is in my opinion its most important, features an exchange between Shaul Arieli and Jan de Jong, expert advisers on the settlements issue to successive Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, respectively. And in my view, that exchange refutes both these premises. So as a preliminary point, the vast majority of Israel’s settlers are, in fact, concentrated in a handful of large settlements which are located close to the pre-June 1967 border, also known as the Green Line. These settlement blocks, as they are sometimes called, take up just 4 to 5 percent of the occupied Palestinian territory.
Now, in the book, Arieli argues that a reciprocal exchange of territory between Israel and Palestine, the future state of Palestine, amounting to about 3 to 4 percent of the occupied Palestinian territory, would permit the establishment of a Palestinian state on territory equivalent in size to 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, while enabling Israel to annex fully four fifths, 80 percent, of its settlers; thereby, of course, radically reducing the political cost of a two-state solution. Now, Jan de Jong writes in opposition to Arieli’s proposal. He makes the point, and I think this is a very important point-.
AARON MATE: And Jan de Jong, just to explain, is a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team.
JAMIE STERN-WEINER: Absolutely. He’s a Dutch cartographer. He’s a recognized expert on these issues. And he advised Palestinian negotiating teams on them. He makes an important point which is too often forgotten in discussions about land swaps and potential territorial exchanges; namely that what matters isn’t just the percentage. What matters is the implications, the consequences, of particular territorial exchanges for Palestinian self-determination.
So to take an obvious example, East Jerusalem comprises less than 1 percent of occupied Palestinian territory, and yet a Palestinian state would be inconceivable without it. So when assessing potential proposals for a land swap, one has to examine not just the quantity of territory, but the quality. Its location, its fertility in terms of its resources, and other, other factors. Now, in the book de Jong mounts a critique of Arieli’s proposal. He believes that any land swap of above 2 percent of the occupied Palestinian territory, which is a figure that the Palestinian negotiating team offered to Israel in the course of the 2008 Annapolis talks, he argues that any land swap above that figure would severely and perhaps fatally undermine Palestinian contiguity and socioeconomic viability.
So taking that exchange as a whole, we can say that establishing a viable and contiguous Palestinian state would require the evacuation of Israeli settlers from all but 2 to 4 percent of the West Bank. In such a scenario, between 125,000 if we take Arieli’s proposal, and about 250,000 if we take de Jong’s proposal, illegal Israeli settlers would have to be uprooted. Now, that’s still a formidable obstacle, no mistake about it. But if few Israelis would now support such a move, that might simply reflect the fact that currently there is no Palestinian movement capable of imposing significant costs on Israel for continuing the occupation.
AARON MATE: Right. And you know, my issue with the land swaps has always been, is that it’s not the only option. I mean, as you say, those settlers could be uprooted if not- but the reason that they’re not right now is there’s no sufficient political pressure on them to do that. But of course if U.S. opinion, especially, was mobilized and changed, it would be more difficult to keep the settlers there. Because without Israeli, without U.S. support it’s difficult for Israel to do what it does. And I think it’s Noam Chomsky who has said that, well, if the world community could force the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, the settlers would have no one there to protect them. And so whoever doesn’t want to live in a Palestinian state could simply leave. And there’s no reason to grant, I guess, people who don’t have a legal right to be somewhere any legitimacy, any credence in evaluating whether or not it’s feasible to keep them there or not.
JAMIE STERN-WEINER: I agree. The law is clear. The Israeli settlers are all illegal, they’re there illegally. The settlements were established in contravention of international law, of the Fourth Geneva Convention. And under international law it’s very clear they have to be withdrawn. The question which remains is political; namely, is there a scenario in which sufficient political pressure might be brought to bear on Israel to induce it to undertake such a withdrawal? Now, the more, the greater the number of settlers Israel has to evacuate, then the higher, the greater the amount of political pressure required on it to persuade it to, to evacuate them. I think what-
AARON MATE: Right. Go ahead, sorry.
JAMIE STERN-WEINER: So just to finish that thought, I think what the book makes clear, what that chapter makes clear, is two things. Number one, the common view of the settlements as posing a physical or decisive physical obstacle to the realization of a two-state solution, it’s false. The obstacle is political. It’s a question of political will. That’s the first point.
The second point is it’s not the case that in order for there to be a viable Palestinian state established, every last one of Israel’s illegal settlements will have to be removed. If Israel were to be induced to make Palestinians an offer along the lines they have, that the Palestinian negotiating team has offered in the past, it could still allow for a contiguous and socioeconomic viable Palestinian state.
AARON MATE: All right. So, one obstacle that is commonly cited as impeding the chances of peace in a two-state solution is Hamas. We’re often told that Hamas cannot be a partner for peace because of its charter. You tackle this in the book with a chapter on whether Hamas can be a part of the solution. Can you talk about the debate there, and again, your takeaway from it.
JAMIE STERN-WEINER: So that chapter opens with a back-and-forth debate between Nathan Thrall, who is an expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict with the International Crisis Group, and Ghaith [al-Omari], who is a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority. Ghaith makes the case that Hamas cannot be part of the solution because of, firstly, its commitment to violence, or at any rate its refusal to renounce violence as a means of continuing the struggle.
AARON MATE: As opposed to, as opposed to Israel or the U.S., who certainly will not refuse to renounce violence?
JAMIE STERN-WEINER: Well, that’s a, that’s certainly a good counterargument. And I would argue it’s one that and it’s one that is made in the chapter. Ghaith also argues that Hamas’ refusal to completely endorse Israel’s right to exist- a two-state solution, in other words- renders it for now, at least until it reverses that position, an obstacle rather than a partner, or even a potential partner, to efforts to resolve the conflict on that basis.
Now, against him, Nathan Thrall firstly points to the double standards which you’ve just alluded to; namely that if Hamas is allegedly has allegedly failed to sufficiently recognize Israel, it’s also the case that not a single Israeli government since 1967, in fact not a single mainstream Israeli political party, has recognized the right of a Palestinian state to exist on the territory allocated to it under international law. And in fact, of course, its repudiation of the law on this point is not merely rhetorical. It guides Israeli policy on the ground. Thrall also points out that recognition comes in different forms. It’s one thing to demand a state, that a state of Palestine recognize a state of Israel, just as other states recognize each other all the time. It’s another to demand that Hamas as an organization, as a party, recognize Israel. Israeli political parties such as the Likud Party, their positions as parties are certainly in contravention of treaties. I mean, the Likud manifesto, I believe, is still committed to establishing greater Israel over the whole territory.
AARON MATE: That’s right. It says- it says no additional Palestinian state west of Jordan, basically implying that Jordan already has a Palestinian state, which basically means no Palestinian state.
JAMIE STERN-WEINER: Absolutely. But there’s a distinction between the position of a political party and the position of a government. So for example, if a state of Palestine were to agree on the two-state framework with Israel and enter into a treaty on that basis, that should be sufficient. What Hamas personally views, its personal opinion as expressed in its own charter and so forth, shouldn’t necessarily be the decisive issue.
Ghaith al-Omari, in his contribution, cites the precedent of the PLO. He said, and he intends this as a positive precedent to be followed in the case of Hamas, he recalls that the international community refused to engage diplomatically with the PLO and to include it in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict until it accepted international conditions, namely renunciation of violence or terrorism, and recognition of Israel. However, respondents to the debate-. So I should clarify, the chapter opens with this back-and-forth debate. But then this- that exchange is followed by three further commentaries on that, on that debate. Khaled Hroub, who is an academic authority on Hamas, he points out that to cite the precedent of the PLO is hardly, would hardly persuade Hamas to follow suit.
I mean, what happened to the PLO is that it bent to international pressure. It did all that was required of it in terms of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and so forth. And what did it get? Six hundred thousand Israeli settlers on the West Bank. A near doubling of the settler population in the decade following the signing of the first Oslo Accord in 1993. So that’s hardly an encouraging precedent for Hamas to follow.
AARON MATE: The book is called Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine’s Toughest Questions. Jamie Stern-Weiner, thank you.
JAMIE STERN-WEINER: Many thanks.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.