A growing number of voices are questioning the applicability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict given the current realities on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). What is your view on this issue? Has the two-state formula failed or is there perhaps one last chance for it to work?
I have been a supporter of the two-state solution for a long time, but I always maintained that the condition must be a return to the 1967 borders, nothing less than this. This is the minimum politically, morally and geographically. It should be the minimum. And the meaning of this was obviously that all the settlements, all of them, would need to be evacuated. In recent years this is becoming more and more of an impossible mission. Not only this. Now even those who support two-states begin to speak about evacuating most of the settlements, leaving the so-called ‘settlement blocks’, leaving the Palestinians with this tiny state covered in settlements which really cannot become a viable state. There might be an agreement and maybe even the PA will one day agree to a partial state, but the question is will it be viable? Will it be just? Because any solution that is not a just one will not last. And then we will be back in the same place with bitterness, anger, hatred and violence. We have to remember that now we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of settlers, over 500,000 including East Jerusalem. On a practical basis it is almost impossible to evacuate all these hundreds of thousands of settlers. So the two-state solution is stepping down now, I say stepping down because you know many unexpected things do happen in politics and history and maybe there can be some kind of event that I cannot foresee now that will bring Israel to evacuate all of the occupied territories, but if this doesn’t happen the two-state solution is dead. And if this solution is dead there is only the one-state framework, there is no other option. And now Israelis, Palestinians and the rest of the world must be asking themselves what kind of one-state do we want? It can either be an apartheid state or democratic state but there is no third option. And between those options I obviously prefer the democratic one. Now, I can’t tell you this is possible, that it is around the corner, but I can say there is no other alternative left. The struggle from now on should be for human rights and civil rights for the Palestinians within this single state. But again, I don’t see that working, I don’t want to make any illusions here; it will be very hard to achieve, maybe even impossible. It is hard to imagine that there will be real equality between the two communities. There are so many fears, so much hatred, between them, such a big gap, and then there is all this nationalism and racism, I don’t see how it will work but that’s the only option that is left. I don’t believe it is the most just solution but it’s the only option. If the two-state solution is dead, and it is almost dead, then that is the only option.
Then, before I answer any other of your questions, I need to specify that we are already living in a one-state reality. We have been living in it for 45 years. There are two regimes, two peoples, two sets of values and laws, but it is one state. So we are there already, we have been there for many years. It is obviously far from being a just state, but it is a one state, I mean nobody can claim anymore that the occupation is temporary, it’s been over 45 years now, this is not temporary! So first of all we are already in a one-state reality. The problem is the nature of this state today. And the nature of this state is a military, brutal, occupation in the West Bank and in other ways also in Gaza, and liberal democracy in 1967 Israel, but at the end of the day it is one state.
What are the major obstacles confronting this idea of a one-state? What would be necessary in order to advance the prospects of a just bi-national state in Israel-Palestine?
In order to create a just one-state, you need to kill so many holy cows in Israeli society, that is seems right now a really utopian idea. First of all the dream of a Jewish state, it means there will not be a Jewish state with a Jewish majority, it will be a bi-national state. Secondly, and maybe not less important, is to make Israelis change their basic beliefs and really accept the Palestinians as equal human beings, this is far from being the case today, far from being the case. As long as this does not happen there will be no just one state. Most if not all Israelis don’t really see the Palestinians as equal human beings with equal rights in this land, and if this does not change very deeply and very basically this one-state will be a place with more violence and more lack of justice. I don’t know if it is possible to really change the beliefs and values and perceptions in a society, to change the raison d’etre of Israel, but this is what would be necessary.
So how could such a process begin within Israeli society, do you believe it is the responsibility of the political class, of the leadership in Israel to try to begin changing these perceptions? For example, do you believe that going back to 1948, to the creation of Israel, instead of focusing primarily on 1967, and in some way acknowledge the reality of what happened to the Palestinians could be a first step?
Yes, it should be the first step but I don’t see anyone who takes on this mission. And here I come to another subject; I don’t see the possibility of change coming from within Israeli society. Life in Israel is too good. Most people don’t care about the occupation, don’t know about the occupation, and don’t care about the Palestinian problem. I don’t expect any change coming from within Israeli society as long as life is so good here. The change will have to come from outside, from international pressure, there is no other way. I don’t see the change coming voluntarily from Israeli society and I also don’t see a leadership that is fit, interested, or in fact capable of doing this, far from it.
Indeed, if we look at the past 2009 elections in Israel, we see an Israeli society that is increasingly moving to the right. Also, we now know that in January 2013 there will be new elections in Israel, do you expect anything new from these elections?
Yes absolutely, Israeli society has been shifting towards the right. And with regards to the upcoming elections, by all means no, for sure not a meaningful change. I am confident that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will remain in charge, but the real question here is a much deeper one; is there any real alternative to this government? A real opposition? The answer is no, there is no real alternative. Even if the next coalition government will seem to be more central what meaning will it have? We had a centrist party, Kadima, in power and we didn’t do much progress except for two wars, both of them unnecessary. So even if the next government will seem to be a little bit more moderate I don’t think this will be enough for any kind of real change.
How do you believe that Israeli society would react to a Palestinian change in strategy aiming for equal rights in a one-state? Do you fear the prospect of renewed violence? Or could this help change the perceptions within Israel?
No, I don’t see much that the Palestinians can do; they are far too weak now. They almost totally stopped using terror and this didn’t bring them anywhere; they made the second intifada which was very violent and cruel and it didn’t bring them anywhere, and I don’t think that there is anything more they can do to try to move towards ending the occupation. I mean they made some mistakes obviously, but basically they tried every possible way and none of the ways led them anywhere. Within Israeli society I don’t see the change coming voluntarily, so I think we will face some more years of the same pattern; a few peaceful years like now and then another uprising that will obviously be more violent than the previous one, until something will happen in the world or in the region that will change this pattern, and now, right now, I don’t see that happening. Change will ultimately have to come from the outside.
Traditionally there is a kind of consensus on the fact that the United States holds the keys to solving the conflict. When you say that change must come from the outside, do you mean from the United States? So you believe there is still a potential for the United States to pressure the two sides into reaching a compromise?
I suppose that the potential exists. Israel has never been dependent on the United States as it is now, in all respects, politically, economically and militarily. If there was a devoted American President, he could do huge things, because Israel is almost in no position to say no vis-à-vis a really devoted United States which is not the case today. Then if the US will push for two-states or one-state, that’s another question, but today I don’t see the United States pushing for anything, really pushing. If even a President like Obama, whom I’m sure understands the problem, I’m sure his heart is in the right place, if he didn’t even try in these four years, because he didn’t even try seriously, what can I expect from American? Now, is it because of the Jewish lobby, the Christian lobby, is it both of them or something else, this I really can’t tell, but the outcome is very clear; Israel is doing whatever it wants with the backing of the United States coming in an almost automatic and blind way, on everything.
And what about Europe, do you see any hope there? Because when we talk about the international community, everyone is still pressing for a two-state solution and negotiations as the only way to achieve that. Also, Europe is the primary financer of the Palestinian Authority (PA), how do you view European aid to the Palestinians? Because there are some who maintain that this aid is freezing the situation and not allowing Palestinians to progress and develop alternative strategies.
No, I think that by financing the PA Europe is preventing a catastrophe, and I don’t think that the alternatives to an interruption of European aid would be any better, because the alternative would be a catastrophe. But the question about Europe’s role is much broader, because I truly believe that Europe could have done much more, and then there is something that you know much better than I, and it is the growing divide between the attitudes of governments in Europe and public opinion in Europe. While public opinion is becoming more and more critical and hostile towards Israel, the governments’ maintain the same position, which is basically supporting the occupation and supporting Israel. So the question is why doesn’t Europe do more? This is an open question to the Europeans. I don’t have much trust, the fact is that Europe doesn’t take any role in pushing Israel to put an end to the occupation, and I don’t see any reason for this, Europe could and should do much more.
Moving back to Israel/Palestine, what are your thoughts on how much support there is for a one-state solution among both Israelis and Palestinians?
There is a very basic difference in the nature of the sentiments between Israelis and Palestinians. I think the majority of Israelis want separation, a big big majority. I believe that a certain majority of the Palestinians are dreaming and talking about living together. There is a very deep gap between the two communities, societies and people, and I think that the one-state solution has many more supporters among the Palestinians than among the Israelis. And I believe that more and more Palestinians are thinking about this solution, but as I said, they are too weak to do anything about it.
And what about Gaza and Hamas? How do they fit into this equation?
First of all there are very few Israelis who are actually talking about the one-state solution, among these few some talk of a one-state from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea, not including Gaza, because when you include Gaza, then the Jewish majority is gone. But I think this is a very limited solution because you can’t divide the Palestinians in small pieces in the West Bank and Gaza. As a matter of fact Israel has succeeded to create this division, but the more time passes this separation and division has its consequences. I mean what will happen to Gaza? Will it become an Egyptian colony? An independent state? You can’t forget about Gaza, it must be included in some way.
So, more generally, how do you view this talk about a one-state solution? Is it all much ado about nothing? A dream that is unlikely to be achieved?
Right now, I don’t see much possibility of this ever coming into being. But the fact that this is on the agenda now might, or should, serve as a wakeup call for the Israelis to support a two-state solution, to do something about it honestly. This this isn’t happening, but if there was a rational government here, a rational society, this should be a wakeup call to decide, two-states or one-state, there is no third solution. But this doesn’t happen in Israel, so talk about a one-state solution is growing. One must remember that five or ten years ago it was totally illegitimate to even talk about a one-state. Now it is becoming more and more legitimate, but it is still out of total despair and lack of control that people talk about this now. That said, to tell you that a one-state is behind the corner today would be totally out of context.
So we are still talking about the two-state solution then?
What I can say is that I don’t see anyone or anything pushing for either one-state or two-states. And the more we wait, the more we don’t do anything, the more we live in this illusion that problems will be solved by themselves, the more we live in this vary dangerous bubble, the more painful it will be when this bubble explodes in our faces.
And what about the so-called Arab Spring, do you think this could lead to renewed pressures in the region on Israel?
Well, first of all the Arab uprisings are not over yet, and it is very hard to tell how they will end. Also it is different from one state to the other. On the whole the Arab Uprisings send a double message to the Palestinians, on one hand it sends the message that people can take their destiny into their own hands and make a change. It worked against those regimes, so why shouldn’t it work against this tyranny that is the Israeli occupation. On the other hand, however, it means that the goal of the Palestinians is much harder to achieve, because the Israeli regime is much stronger than the Arab ones. Also, it means that in the coming future the Arab people will be more preoccupied with their domestic struggles, and the Palestinians will lose some support. But one should remember that the Palestinian issue is stronger in the popular sentiments of the Arab world than in the minds of its leaders or politicians, so maybe if the voices of the Arab people will now be heard more, also the leaders will have to do more. Like in Europe, ordinary people see the Palestinian problem as much more urgent than their leaders, at least their traditional leaders. So maybe it will bring some change, but as I say, now it’s still too early to make predictions about the future.
Gideon Levy was interviewed by Andrea Dessì