What are your thoughts on the so-called one-state solution? Do you believe this can actually be described as a solution or is it perhaps something of an utopian idea reflecting pessimism and frustration with over twenty years of failed peace negotiations for two-states?
I think it’s an idea about having an idea. It’s not actually a fully-fledged idea as such, because nobody can describe to you exactly what a one-state solution would look like and they don’t try. They can’t explain how to get there and they don’t try. They can’t answer basic questions, two of those practical ones, like who would get the stuff and by that I mean land and property. In a single state arrangement what would happen to all this enormous amount of property that originally belonged to Palestinians and that has now been expropriated by the Israeli state. And similarly there are all kinds of issues about transitions and arrangements that are never addressed, there is never an effort to address these questions because there aren’t any good answers for them and when you address those questions it bursts the bubble and it demonstrates how implausible the idea truly is.
If you leave it extremely vague and extremely aspirational and let people fill in the gaps or just assume that there is some easy answer to those things, then you can at least sustain the illusion, it’s a bit like a magic trick. The second thing that is never addressed at all, and that is central, is why would the Jewish Israelis ever even consider agreeing to something like that, what would their incentive structure be? And nobody ever talks about that because there isn’t a rhetoric or discourse that explains it, because there isn’t any way I think to make it in their interest. Whenever I raise the issue of why would the Jewish Israelis want this, people get mad at me and ask why do you care what the Israelis would want? Well, obviously because if they cannot be convinced or compelled to agree to this then it’s not going to happen. That’s the fundamental problem, there is no road map to convincing them or compelling them to agree to this and therefore it is not going to happen.
Now, we already have a fundamental one-state reality on the ground, we have had one for decades ever since the occupation began, but that single state is separate, unequal, untenable and unjust. You might end up with some kind of a formulization or version of that and that can be some kind of a one-state outcome, but there is a problem with that like all the other alternatives to two-states, and that is that it doesn’t end the conflict, it just continues the conflict and eventually you will have more fighting and more conflict. So for me I don’t even see the one-state idea as really an idea, it’s a slogan and it’s an idea about having an idea. But I haven’t seen any content about how a one-state would work. Since this idea tends to be communicated in one or two sentences and then there is nothing more to be added after that, it doesn’t really qualify as an idea, and beyond that as I said for obvious reasons it’s completely implausible. So I see it as a kind of retreat from reality, and I understand that because from a Palestinian and pro-Palestinian point of view the reality is very ugly and very painful, but it is still a retreat from reality and as such it’s not really political thinking at all. Political outcomes are determined by forces that produce outcomes, those are social, military, political and economic forces, they don’t arise in a vacuum, you can invent an alternative reality, and I do think that most of the one-state rhetoric that I’ve ever encountered definitely participates in an alternative reality it doesn’t take into consideration what outcomes the forces that produce outcomes can actually shape under the foreseeable circumstances and that therefore is not political thinking, that is something that looks like political thinking but it isn’t. I’ve made the analogy in the past between science and science fiction, and for me this is the science fiction version, it doesn’t correspond to the ways things actually function, it is a very compelling narrative and story but the machines described there are not going to work.
So who do you feel are the actual proponents of this one-state idea? There doesn’t appear to be much support for the idea on the grassroots level in Palestinian society.
Yes, absolutely right, the support on the ground is very limited indeed, but this idea has had a lot of resonance on college campuses in the West, and especially in England and the U.S., and that’s where the main support comes from. So if we look at the people who promote this idea, well there are two categories, one is academics whether students or professors in Western campuses, and the others are Palestinian citizens of Israel who tend to be supportive of this idea for a whole series of complex reasons. Primarily because they don’t think that two-states would address their situation and they feel that one state would be the best way to make their situation better. But there is also an irony here, because there is another category which is slowly moving towards a one-state idea, and it is members of the Israeli settler right who live mostly in the West Bank and are pushing for a formalization of the apartheid single-state reality that exists now. So there is an irony here, because the idea of a one-state that is being promoted by Anglo-Saxon academia is now being picked up by the settler right in Israel. The two are naturally pushing for very different versions of a one-state, this fact is still significant and you can see the irony here.
For the Israeli settler right, Gaza tends to be excluded from this equation. Is Gaza excluded solely for demographic reasons?
It’s not only demographics, there is more, there has also never been a consensus in Israel that Gaza is or is not part of the Biblical Eretz Israel. So you don’t have a consensus among either the religious irredentist or the historical irredentists. There isn’t a consensus that says that Gaza is in somehow holy or historically vital or anything like that. There are some who think that, but they are not a majority of Jewish Israelis, or right-wing Jewish Israelis or religious right-wing Israelis, so they are a minority of all of those groups. So giving up Gaza is not really dreadfully painful from an Israeli point of view and then there is the demographic issue, and then there is the fact that Gaza is an expensive place, it’s not very viable economically because of its impoverished population, that is largely composed of refugees from southern Israel from 1948, that’s most of the population of Gaza, and so whoever is responsible for Gaza is going to be incurring a sizable financial cost. So that’s another thing, the reasons are many, the demographic reason, the economic one and also the fact that Israel doesn’t really want it. So the costs outweigh the benefits. I mean even from an Israeli maximalist point of view, you could be content without Gaza, but you couldn’t be content from an Israeli maximalist point of view without the West Bank, certainly for example, without Hebron.
You briefly described the current status quo as a one-state reality, so do you believe that if this status quo continues will it inevitably lead to a formalization of this reality and perhaps eventually a change in Palestinian strategy?
I think probably a bit of both. But it’s hard to see what the strategy will be, I mean then there is also the kind of Hamas vision of resistance until victory and right now they have benefited a great deal from the Arab Spring. But the future is hard to predict. But what I can say is this, the current status quo is not sustainable, it can’t work. And one thing I’m sure of is that sooner rather than later there will be another uprising, now I don’t think it will succeed by any means in securing freedom for the Palestinians, it might actually be counterproductive, that’s very possible. But I don’t think that people can continue to exist in these conditions and will sooner or later rebel against it. I’m skeptical that that rebellion will be a non-violent one and anyway Israel’s response, even to a non-violent one, would be violent and I think the temptation on both sides to get sucked into a vortex of violence will be great. So I think the Israelis are playing with fire here, they have created a completely unsustainable and unjust and unworkable reality which is probably going to explode in a violent way. I don’t know what the Israelis are thinking, they are extending the status quo indefinitely and I think it will eventually explode, but they lack any other strategy to deal with it.
Given the current realities on the ground, with over 500,000 settlers in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, what do you think would be the minimum in order for a Palestinian state to be sustainable, both economically, geographically and in terms of natural resources?
The main natural resource of Palestine is going to be its people, it’s not going to be a rich country, and it is going to be dependent for the first decade or so on donors for quite a bit of money, it’s not going to be cheap. In fact many newly developing states are initially fairly dependent on foreign aid, I think the Palestinians have shown through their state building program that they can seriously reduce the amount of aid they require while extending their budget, now that was over the past couple of years before the UN bid and the collapse in their donor pledges which is still an issue that is going on, but under Prime Minister Fayyad, in 2009-2011 they both decreased the amount of spending and reduced the percentage and raw number of the international aid they depended on, so they can bring this thing down under the right circumstances. As I said I think their people will be their biggest asset and then there is Gaza which has a potential to become a major port, there is a lot of tourism, the high-tech sector and agriculture of course, I mean they will not be a rich oil state, they will be a developing third world country like most of the rest of the Arab States. But I think in order to provide viability it depends on what they spend their money on, and the Palestinian leadership has shown time and again, and voluntarily not because of Israeli pressure, that they don’t want to have a large standing army and waist money on that, they want to invest in their people, and I think there is no reason to think that it couldn’t really work.
In terms of making a two-state solution work vis-à-vis the settlers, there has been a lot of recent work done on looking again at the maps and it is still the case that you can incorporate between 75 to 80 percent of the settlers into Israel if you did an approximate 4 percent land swap, and this is without doubt what the parties have been negotiating on. So I don’t think that the border in the West Bank is the biggest conundrum, I think that the biggest conundrum is Jerusalem, and the Palestinians know that they will have to reach a solution on the refugees, and that is going to be politically painful but they know that Israel will not allow the refugees back into Israel. And what I think the problem is on Jerusalem is that a lot of Israelis who want to make a deal on other things are not ready to make a deal on Jerusalem, and it’s really not possible for the Palestinians to accept an agreement that leaves Israel as the sole exclusive sovereign in Jerusalem while giving the Palestinians no role there and moving their capital somewhere else, I just don’t think they can sell that to their people. The problem of course is that the Israelis have the power to say no, and it’s going to be very difficult for an Israeli government to convince its public, after all the propaganda, which PM Netanyahu repeated in a tweet yesterday, a holiday tweet, saying that Jerusalem will remain the “eternal undivided capital” of Israel. So I think the power asymmetry is going to make it difficult for an Israeli government to make that deal. But there are creative solutions and a city can serve as a capital of two-states simultaneously and you can have some kind of an agreement on the Holy Sites. The question is not if it is still doable, it’s definitely doable, I mean we know that settlements can be evacuated, we have seen them evacuated in Gaza and some in the northern West Bank, so the question isn’t can it happen, but under what circumstances and how many settlers can be evacuated. I think it is still entirely doable if there is political will. The metric that is often used by one-state advocates to declare that a two-state solution is dead is to point to the number of settlers or the infrastructure or demographic or administrative changes that have been enforced by the occupation in the West Bank, and that is not the proper metric because these are all man made realities, they were political decisions motivated by political will and national will and they can all be reversed, and we have seen that happen in Gaza and the northern West Bank in the past.
So the question is what kind of political will would be required, how can it be marshaled and is it there? And the first thing to say is that the will is still there, and this is why nobody can say that the two-state solution is dead, because the majority of both people say they want it, so that means that a government who really wants it can conceivably do it, there is a base of support for it in both consistencies, now it’s not easy of course, but it is definitely possible. I mean walls go up and walls come down, settlements are built-up and settlements are evacuated, and borders are described as sacrosanct and then that is no longer the case. I do think the Palestinians understand the need to compromise, but I think the biggest problem for an agreement to work is the power asymmetry between the two constituencies which makes it very difficult for an Israeli government to explain to its people why they should do something when they could always just say no. It requires vision, it requires bravery, and seeing into the future and saying look if we don’t make this compromise we will be in trouble. It actually asks people to get out of their bubble and think in a very difficult way about the future, and that is not something that publics do very easily, but the leadership should take the lead.
So we are back at square one in a sense, change and pressure will need to come from outside? From the international community, is the United States still the best possible broker between the sides?
I think so yes, you can’t really imagine a deal without a broker or a referee and the United States is the only party. Not the only party that can do it, that’s true but that’s not the most important aspect, it’s the only party that wants to do it. I mean I can’t think of another party internationally that even wishes to play this role, maybe France has some aspirations, but the EU as a whole has no interest, the Russian and the Chinese have no interest, and that’s what the [Middle East] Quartet [composed by the EU, Russia, the UN and the United States] is for giving an international imprimatur to what the United States is doing. So really the only power that has shown any interest in playing this mediating role is the U.S. and it’s not just a matter of facilitating negotiations, it’s also a question of setting up an accountability mechanism, because the parties are going to agree to things and it’s not just a question of getting them to agree to the minimum necessary, it is more about holding them to what they have agreed. Because I think that is the biggest danger, that an Israeli government agrees to X,Y and Z, or even the Palestinians too under different circumstances, but I think it is a bigger danger with the Israelis because the pressure from the Palestinians is limited. So they agree to X, Y and Z and then they come to implement them a couple of years later and they face a fire storm of criticism from Israelis who are not looking at the bigger picture but are saying, we don’t want this and what will happen if we don’t do it? That is where a third party should step in and remind them that they had agreed to it and will insist on its implementation. So it’s not like we are trying to force something on you that you don’t want, but that once you agree to something you have to stick to it and that is what the U.S. and the UN can do. That was what was missing during the whole Oslo process, badly missing.
I also think there is something else the international community can do, and that is not to present a detailed outline of the final status but to be clear on the rough outlines of what this outcome should look like. In a sense I think that Israelis and Palestinians could benefit from a framework that looks more like the Dayton Accords and the end of the post-Yugoslavia wars, than the Oslo Accords that were predicated on the wrong headed idea of building confidence and slowly implementing things in phases. That was important yes, but it totally left open and undefined what the final status should look like, and I think at this point, given that failure, that Palestinians and Israelis need to know specifically what they are negotiating for, what the end game should look like?
Hussein Ibish was interviewed by Andrea Dessì