As 2017 dawns, the ghost of Lord Balfour still haunts us. Just as the British foreign secretary’s 1917 declaration considered only how the Zionist movement could serve the interests of the greatest power of its day, so has the recent speech of the US secretary of state, John Kerry, advocating a two-state solution addressed mainly the interests of today’s superpower and its protégé, Israel. There has been some progress since 1917: there is no mention whatsoever of Palestinians or Arabs in the Balfour Declaration, whereas Kerry paid ample lip service to the Palestinians, albeit always in relation to Israel’s concerns and desires.
Lost in the uproar caused in some circles by the condemnation of Israeli settlements embodied in Kerry’s speech and in UN security council resolution 2334 is the fact that, in line with previous US policies on Palestine, both ignore basic rights of the Palestinian people, and the requirements of international law, of justice and of equity.
However, this is not just about Israel’s metastasizing colonial settlement project, important though that is. Much as they may have enraged Israel’s government and its American enablers, the Obama/Kerry parameters and UNSC 2334 are simply inadequate as the basis for a lasting solution. This problem did not start in 1967, and it will not disappear simply by resolving the settlement issue, which in any case neither parameters nor resolution will do.
Although the Obama/Kerry parameters are likely to be consigned to oblivion like those of Bill Clinton 16 years ago, it is worth examining them to see how Israel-centric the entire discourse on Palestine is.
Much like the Balfour declaration, these parameters were in fact tailored point by point to Zionist desires. Thus they cite UN general assembly resolution 181 in support of the recent Israeli demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But instead of that state being confined to the generous frontiers laid down in 1947 in UNGA 181 (which promised more than half of a country with a large Arab majority to its Jewish minority), the Palestinian state is to be restricted to 22% of mandatory Palestine. Moreover, it is to be demilitarized, and will only come into being, if ever, after yet another “transitional period”. Israelis have had independence and sovereignty for 70 years. The Palestinians will have to wait, yet again, for theirs.
The parameters enshrine the “land swaps” beloved of peace processors. This innocuous term is in fact designed to allow Israel to snatch even more than 78% of Palestine, exchanging worthless desert for prime real estate.
The Kerry/Obama parameters refer to a “just, agreed, fair and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue”. How can such a solution be just if descendants of the majority of Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 are explicitly denied return to their homeland? The parameters note that refugees’ “suffering must be acknowledged”. Where is the vital acknowledgment that carving a Jewish state out of a majority Arab country necessarily and inevitably caused that suffering?
These parameters call for “freedom of access to the holy sites consistent with the established status quo”, without recognizing that for 50 years Israeli governments have shredded that status quo, desecrating Muslim cemeteries like Mamilla and Bab al-Rahmeh, demolishing ancient Ummayad buildings discovered south of the Haram, and much else, in the race to dig down to the only strata that matter to nationalist Israeli archaeologists. They add that “Jerusalem should not be divided again like it was in 1967,” without addressing the fact that the “unification of Jerusalem” has been a cover for 50 years of land theft and subjugation of more than 400,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites.
Then the parameters address the holy of holies: Israel’s “legitimate security needs”. These are treated as unconditional and absolute. In practice they are so elastic that they have been used to deny pasta to besieged Gazans. Typically, the focus is on security for the Israeli occupier, not for the occupied Palestinians who are in fact utterly insecure. Security for Israel is paired with the “end of occupation”. The latter is conditional: it comes only “after an agreed transitional process” and with the involvement of Egypt and Jordan, which for decades have closely collaborated with the Israeli security services, often against the interests of the Palestinians.
Finally, the parameters call for an “end [to] the conflict and all outstanding claims” as part of a normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. How is that to take place if basic Palestinian claims are ignored, while all serious (and some outrageous) Israeli claims are addressed?
The Balfour Declaration was issued at the height of the imperial age, when colonization was still in good odor. It laid down a blueprint for the dispossession of the Palestinians, tearing a regional wound that is still unhealed. One hundred years later, the colonial settler project that Lord Balfour blessed still bulldozes its way through Palestine, and the Palestinians remain in limbo. We have yet to see the parameters of a just, equitable and secure solution that gives both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples the equal rights they deserve.
Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University.