What Comes Next: Strategy before solutions

on October 28, 2013 

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This post is part of “What Comes Next?: A forum on the end of the two-state paradigm.” This series was initiated by Jewish Voice for Peace as an investigation into the current state of thinking about one state and two state solutions, and the collection has been further expanded by Mondoweiss to mark 20 years since the Oslo process. The entire series can be found here.

It has in recent years become increasingly fashionable to compare Israel with South Africa during the apartheid era. Extending beyond an analysis of similarities in the origins and development of these settler-colonial states, and their policies towards their respective indigenous populations and regional environments, such comparisons have extended to the prescriptive realm. Since Israel is an apartheid state – so the argument goes – the solution must and indeed can only be a unitary democratic entity throughout historic Palestine in which Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are equal before the law in rights and responsibilities.

To make the case that Israel practices apartheid as defined by the United Nations General Assembly in 1973 or the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is one thing. To conclude that Israel is South Africa, with all the attendant political consequences, quite another.

Let us start with some basic political and demographic realities. In apartheid South Africa, at most 10 per cent of the population consisted of descendants of European settlers, and the latter were also significantly outnumbered if we subtract the bantustans from the equation and focus on the main urban areas. In Palestine, Israeli Jews constitute some 50 per cent of the population of the entire territory and at least 80 per cent of residents of Israel within its internationally-recognised boundaries. The proportion of Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied territories residing within Israel, as well as their proportion of the total Israeli population, is furthermore – and in sharp contrast to the bantustans – today negligible.  In an even sharper contrast, more than half of all Palestinians are exiled beyond the borders of both Israel and the occupied territories.

Politically, therefore, the liberation of South Africa did not require a military option – although it is likely that Umkhonto we Sizwe, SWAPO and the Cuban armed forces hastened the white minority regime’s demise. The realities of South Africa were such that sustained mass popular action was sufficient to bring the country to its knees. Crucially, these realities included the delegitimization of apartheid and indeed the South African state by the international community – several decades before the struggle was crowned with success, one might add.

Palestine is a different kettle of fish. Civil rights marches, a mass uprising, even a sustained guerilla campaign is not going to bring about the end of Zionism. And in a situation where the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews are committed to living in an entity with a Jewish demographic majority, nothing less than the unconditional surrender of the Israeli state will suffice to bring about a unitary democratic state throughout historic Palestine in which Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are equal before the law in rights and responsibilities. (For good reason, this has been the traditional position of Palestinian advocates of a unitary state since 1948). It should in this respect also be noted that while Israel’s occupation of Arab territory in 1967 has never been legitimised, Israel today is no longer an international pariah, and is in fact recognized (as a state) by considerably more states than it was in 1990. Similarly, the United Nations General Assembly has long since renounced its condemnation of Zionism.

The latter, moreover, is a not insignificant difference; whereas the ANC could essentially bully the white minority into accepting democracy for reasons of self-preservation, in the case of Israel international isolation will have to play a much larger role to bring about its demise. Furthermore, whereas disgorging Namibia earned South Africa negligible credit precisely because the occupying state itself was deemed illegitimate, in Israel’s case it is the occupation that forms the main challenge to continued international legitimacy. Withdrawing from the territories it occupied in 1967 in response to unbearable pressure, in other words, would largely reverse efforts to once again make it an international pariah.

Put differently, it is insufficient for advocates of a one state solution to argue that it is right and just and better than the alternatives. Rather, they need to present a credible strategy for achieving the unconditional surrender of the Israeli state, or at the very least circumstances conducive to a negotiated surrender. And in view of prevailing realities, this means a credible military strategy rather than BDS. They must furthermore do so in a context where most Arab states – and the Palestinian Authority in particular – are committed to disarming rather than enabling Palestinian armed activity, while Iran – at loggerheads with both Hamas and the PLO, and seeking a nuclear deal with Washington with potential regional implications – may unlike the Cubans in southern Africa no longer be an option. Circumstances of course change, but that statement of fact falls somewhat short of a strategy. One might as well resort to Bashar al-Asad’s proclamations that Syria will respond to Israeli aggression at the time and in the manner of its choosing.

Indeed, if one insists on treating the territory of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as indistinguishable for purposes of conflict resolution, comparisons with Algeria appear more apt than South Africa. Algeria and Palestine are also more similar in another crucial respect; unlike the ANC with its Freedom Charter, the PLO has historically identified national self-determination within an Arab state as its strategic objective. Given the choice between living in a country of their own (however defined) or sharing it on an equal basis with the descendants of those who dispossessed them, most Palestinians, including exiled refugees, would most likely choose the former. While the Palestinian national movement does not call for the expulsion of Israel’s Jews, the latter can be expected to resist the prospect of a unitary democracy that transforms them into a minority more viciously than the pieds-noirs did Algerian independence.

The question in 2013 is therefore not whether a one or two state outcome is more just or right or fair. Rather it is what strategy Palestinians should pursue to achieve their inalienable rights, first and foremost the right to national self-determination. Seen in this perspective, it seems beyond argument that Palestinians must focus their efforts on two essential objectives: to disengage from the Oslo process and consign it to history, and on this basis launch a dynamic and effective campaign to terminate the occupation. When all is said and done, the occupation remains Israel’s Achilles Heel in its relationship with the Palestinians, the Arabs and indeed the world, and terminating it therefore the essential precondition for any outcome.

In practice, this means pursuing a two-state settlement on the basis of mass action led by a vibrant national movement that mobilises the full spectrum of available resources to enforce the prevailing international consensus upon Israel. While Palestinians should under no circumstances (again) renounce the right to armed force in accordance with international standards, the struggle against occupation is in contrast to that against Zionism not dependent upon military victory and – as a comparison between the 1987-1993 and 2000-2005 uprisings suggests – may well be weakened by a resort to warfare.

Should such a strategy achieve success, it is likely to hasten rather than foreclose upon the day when a unitary democratic entity throughout historic Palestine is established in which Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are equal before the law in rights and responsibilities. Those claiming this represents defeatism have a responsibility to respond with more than a utopian vision of justice. Indeed, they must present a concrete plan of action and demonstrate that it is more effective than that being denounced. Homilies to democracy, equality and international solidarity are in this respect simply insufficient.

Until the building blocks for such a strategy are put in place by the Palestinians themselves, and is implemented on the basis of mass mobilization (and in which external support can be critical rather than decisive) the debate about one or two states is as meaningful as a condemned man spending the night before his execution deciding whether to spend his next summer in the French or Italian Riviera.

With the recent twentieth anniversary of the Oslo Agreement, many observers have pointed to its purported failure as the ultimate indictment of a two-state settlement. If these weren’t in so many cases the same people who euphorically celebrated the White House handshake rather than experiencing near-fatal arrhythmia, one might take them more seriously. For Oslo, working precisely as planned and arguably one of the most successful diplomatic agreements of the twentieth century, was never intended to remove Israel from the occupied Palestinian territories. Using Oslo as a pretext to renounce the struggle against occupation in order to embark upon an even greater challenge – and one ultimately dependent on successfully confronting the occupation – is therefore the height of political irresponsibility, on a par with ever having supported the agreement. Under current circumstances, it is also more likely to legitimize the occupation than delegitimize the occupying power.