Donald Trump’s remarks at his press conference with Binyamin Netanyahu that he could “like” whatever solution Israel and Palestine come up with put the international community in an uncomfortable position. Until then, the world could pretend that a two-state solution was doable, despite Israel’s relentless settlement building, and offer the occasional protest, such as Trump’s own: “Hold off on settlements for a bit.”
All this Israel could, and did, disregard. Indeed, things have gone so far that four key ministers in Netanyahu’s government are able to say they don’t want a Palestinian state at all. Netanyahu himself insists on security control west of the Jordan river. In fact, the late former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, hailed as the great peacemaker, also wanted security control west of the Jordan, which would have placed serious limits to such a state’s sovereignty.
That raises the question: why want a state at all? As a minimum, a sovereign state should be able to guarantee the security of its citizens within its borders.
When Palestinians accepted the two-state solution to the conflict, as advocated by the late chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat, at the Palestinian National Council in 1988, that meant accepting reality. It meant recognising Israel’s existence and accepting a state on just 22% of Mandatory Palestine. It also brought the promise of freedom from occupation, a place in the community of nations, a capital in cherished Jerusalem, and an end to the misery and dispossession of Palestinian refugees and exiles.
Instead, the dispossession continued. When Israel and the PLO signed the first Oslo accord, in 1993, the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied territory was around 260,000. By now it has nearly trebled. Worse, none of the versions of statehood on the table since the Israeli occupation began in 1967 – 50 years ago this June – have reached anything near a truly sovereign Palestinian state.
Whatever Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and David Friedman, the president’s fervently pro-settlement choice for US ambassador to Israel, have planned, it will be much further from a sovereign Palestine than ever – and likely to consist of autonomous enclaves under Israel’s control . The Israeli settler movement is by now too strong and too intent on colonising the whole of Palestine.
After Trump’s comments, there is a groundswell of voices among Palestinians and their supporters calling for a democratic, secular state of Palestine covering the entire territory of what was Mandatory Palestine under British rule, until 1948, and what is now Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.
But if a sovereign Palestinian state in the occupied territory has not been possible, how can a democratic state of Israel/Palestine be achievable, one in which all citizens enjoy all human rights – individual and collective, political, social, and economic?
I believe that either a two-state or one-state solution could work. Whether Palestinians and Israelis live in two separate states or in a single state that includes both peoples, all must be equal under the law. In a Palestinian state, for example, neither women nor religious minorities should be treated as second-class citizens. The same should obviously also apply to Israel, whose Palestinian citizens, now one-fifth of the population, are discriminated against in access to land, state budget allocation, education and other spheres of life.
The question is not “one state or two”, but how to get there. And the irony is that the most effective tools to get from grim today to hopeful tomorrow are those based on the state system.
Any changes Israel has made beyond the “green line” – the 1949 armistice line – that are not strictly needed to manage the occupation until it ends are illegal under international law. The planting of settlers and settlements in Palestinian territory is a crime. And the fact that the UN general assembly recognised Palestine a non-member observer state in 2012 has enabled Palestine to file a case at the international criminal court. This is why I recently called on Palestinians not to let go of the green line.
Although the European Union and the US have not yet used measures such as sanctions – as they did when Russia occupied the Crimea – in order to hold Israel accountable, they have also not been willing to sign off on Israel’s occupation. To legitimise it would be a grievous blow to the international order that brought peace, at least in the west, after the two world wars. That is why the major powers, including the UK, voted for UN security council resolution 2334 in December, reaffirming the illegality of settlements, and why the US abstained, allowing it to pass before Trump took office. Many of those in the global solidarity movement that supports boycotts, divestment and sanction (BDS) against Israel are focused on Israel’s actions beyond the green line.
For Palestinians living with dreams of freedom, justice and equality, this is a terrible time. Holding on to the green line and working for accountability will – and must – eventually bring an end to occupation, dispossession and discrimination, whether it be in two states, or one.
Nadia Hijab is executive director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, a thinktank without borders or walls.