An optimism too far for Palestine-Israel?

By Timothy Seidel
12 Apr 2007

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently travelled through the Middle East, making visits with Israelis and Palestinians, bringing with her, many have speculated, little more than another round of optimism.

This familiar aura of hard-to-pin-down optimism was also found following the statements Secretary Rice delivered in her keynote address at the American Task Force on Palestine Inaugural Gala in Washington DC in October 2006.

In these statements, Dr Rice gave a strong endorsement of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reiterated phrases from President Bush’s United Nations General Assembly speech in September regarding ending the “daily humiliation of occupation” and establishing a Palestinian state with “territorial integrity.” But what garnered the most praise was the statement of her “personal commitment” to the goal of a “Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel.”

Whatever sense of anticipation one might draw from such statements, it is predictably shattered when confronted with the worsening situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In a recent report, for example, UN human rights expert John Dugard observed that the human rights situation here continues to deteriorate and called the conditions “intolerable, appalling, and tragic for ordinary Palestinians.”

And in an article titled 'Israelis adopt what South Africa dropped,' Dugard made striking parallels between the situation in the Occupied Territories and his home country of South Africa under apartheid, going so far as to say: “Many aspects of Israel’s occupation surpass those of the apartheid regime. Israel's large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes, leveling of agricultural lands, military incursions and targeted assassinations of Palestinians far exceed any similar practices in apartheid South Africa” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 29 Nov 2006).

The situation in Gaza, with a poverty level approaching 80 per cent and Israel’s ongoing siege that has, since late June of last year, claimed the lives of over 400 Palestinians there, leaving over 5,000 injured and Gaza’s children severely traumatized, is just one example of how bleak the situation is. Palestinian dispossession due to Israeli colonization and the construction of the separation barrier or Wall that continues unabated is another sad indicator, one that Dugard, again speaking of South Africa during apartheid, points out “No wall was ever built to separate blacks and whites.”

Unfortunately, the construction of this 430-mile or 700-kilometer Wall is just one more chapter in a long history of Palestinian dispossession. Whether it is more land being expropriated for the construction of this separation barrier, the dramatic growth of illegal settlements, including in and around Jerusalem, the proliferation of a closure system of checkpoints and roadblocks that obstruct mobility, the demolition of homes and other forms of collective punishment, the one-big-prison-status of Gaza, or the continuing state of dispossession of seven million Palestinians refugees worldwide, Palestinian livelihoods are devastated by military occupation and their experience of dispossession continues unabated. Not a very optimistic scenario.

Yet optimism persists. It is in the context of such experiences of dispossession and occupation that Secretary Rice’s comments over her “personal commitment” to the goal of a “Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel” need to be examined.

To the extent to which these words echo past commitments, especially from US officials, one cannot help but feel disappointed. The first question that comes to mind is similar to the one Palestinians, upon whom demands are placed to recognize the state of Israel, voice — namely: “Which Israel are we to recognize? Israel within the borders of the Green Line or Israel with a colonizing presence in and absolute control over Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem?”

In that same vein one might ask Secretary of State Rice, or any representative of the 'quartet' for that matter: “Which Palestinian state are you committed to? Is it a state secure on all territory occupied by Israel since 1967, including East Jerusalem, or a cantonized joke of a state with Palestinians isolated in large open-air prisons?”

Regardless of where one stands in the “one-state solution” versus “two-state solution” debate, what is important to see is what the language of “two-states” has come actually to mean on the ground, and what its consequences will be for Palestinians.

Due to what many identify as the dynamics of power, what matters at this point in the conversation is the meaning that the state of Israel gives to the language of “two states.” This has been articulated by Prime Minister Olmert in his goal to unilaterally set the borders of Israel by 2010 — which will also, to speak to another language problem, essentially “end the occupation” in a manner not unlike that one used to describe the situation in Gaza post-“disengagement,” described by many as the largest open-air prison in the world.

In this version of the language of “two states,” “the state of Israel” essentially equals formally annexing all major colonies in the West Bank, including “greater Jerusalem” and the Jordan Valley, with control over all of historical Palestine (fulfilling the vision of Ariel Sharon, et al, of “maximum territory, minimum Arabs”). Subsequently, “the state of Palestine” essentially equals several isolated islands of land on roughly 40 to 50 per cent of the occupied West Bank with Palestinians confined to these “reservations,” or, evoking South Africa under apartheid, “Bantustans,” which will be rendered “contiguous” by a network of tunnels controlled by the Israeli military—completely unrealistic, completely unviable, and completely lacking any sense of human security for the people here.

A recent report from the Foundation for Middle East Peace, (http://www.fmep.org/), paints an even more depressing picture in which as little as 30 per cent of the West Bank will remain for Palestinian autonomous regions.

The fact that it is Israel’s understanding of what “two states” means that truly matters was emphasized by comments emerging from the US State Department following Olmert’s declarations last year, affirming his vision of Israeli unilateralism. Though still trying to keep the 'Road Map' and its understanding of negotiations afloat, Secretary Rice then voiced acquiescence.

Dr Rice was reported to have said: “I wouldn’t on the face of it just say absolutely we don’t think there's any value in what the Israelis are talking about.” The BBC pointed out that this was “the first time the US appears to have dropped its insistence that the conflict must be solved bilaterally.”

In this context, it is difficult to find anything terribly comforting about Secretary’s Rice’s comments on a Palestinian state until they are backed up by tangible actions on the part of Israel and the United States. But looking back on how the US has postured itself in the past regarding moves Israel has made, there is little that indicates any movement away from a trajectory that will lead to the concretizing of apartheid in this land.

Dr Rice’s visit to Palestine/Israel leaves many wondering what exactly she is doing here. She herself has recognized that she has nothing new to offer except another round of cheap optimism. Some have speculated that she intended to discuss the idea of a “Palestinian state” with provisional borders, defined by the path of the Wall, with Palestinian Authority President Abbas, who has rejected this outright. Indeed, recent reports that the US State Department may go ahead and recognize such a state with provisional borders by the end of 2007.

It is this lack of a realistic perspective of events that clouds the language of “two states,” and which only makes the hope for a legitimate “two-state solution” to this terrible conflict seem all but lost.

And it is about the persistence of such dangerously misplaced optimism — the “too many mendacious statements of optimism from George W Bush or Tony Blair or Condoleezza Rice” — that veteran British journalist Robert Fisk continuously warns his readers. It is what he calls the “reluctance to confront unpleasant truths” that must concern us when we reflect on our efforts at advocacy.

How do we speak a word of hope that is not a “cheap hope” veiled in dangerously misplaced optimism? How should advocates for justice, peace and real security for Palestinians and Israelis respond to this current reality?

One point for us to consider might be to move beyond the conceptual bind of “statehood” — whether Palestinian or Israeli. Our concern and advocacy for a just and lasting peace should not ultimately be concerned with whether or not a Palestinian state comes into being because statehood, from a Christian perspective, is not an end in itself.

Rather, what is a good in and of itself is the well-being of all who inhabit “Mandate Palestine” — that is, present-day Israel, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. If current realities have indeed rendered a two-state solution unfeasible, then those who care about the well-being and security of Palestinians and Israelis must imagine new ways for Palestinians and Israelis to live side by side in justice, freedom, and equality.

A much-discussed and controversial alternative to consider might be that of one bi-national state. The struggle in this scenario would become one against an apartheid reality in the Occupied Territories and for equal citizenship in a binational state, in which Palestinians and Israelis are equal citizens before the law, in all of Mandate Palestine.

This vision of one bi-national state poses several challenges to those who would advocate a just peace in this land, both in terms of discerning the on-the-ground meanings behind the language of “two states” as well as moving beyond that language to which we have become so wedded.

But what is more challenging is the necessary theological reckoning with Zionism that this vision would require of Christians, a reckoning that would lead to a confrontation with the question of whether the creation of a state which denies Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and insists on maintaining a “Jewish demographic majority” is a theological, let alone moral or legal, good.

However one chooses to confront these unpleasant truths and challenging questions, recognizing that statehood is not an end in itself, begins with the confession that from a Christian perspective, we are called first and foremost to practice and witness for a politics of jubilee, one which brings liberty to the oppressed and a secure existence in the land (Luke 4; Leviticus 25) and to work for the day when each will sit under vine and fig tree without fear (Micah 4.4) — a vision that cannot be confined to our notions of “one state” or “two states.”

Despite the declarations of personal commitments, the “facts on the ground” largely remain the same. Palestinians and Israelis know more than anyone else that “peace” talk is cheap, and that rhetoric meant to foster such an optimism is dangerous, serving as a distraction and hindrance to genuine and sincere efforts to struggle for a just peace in this broken land.

Timothy Seidel is a peace development worker with Mennonite Central Committee in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where he has lived for the past two and a half years.

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