Beyond the Occupation: Palestine and the Two-State Solution

Arab-American activist Hussein Ibish recognizes the injustice Palestinians experience daily—and Israel’s right to exist.

Ralph Seliger

Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. Political commentator Tucker Carlson once said: "[I want to] crush Ibish like an insect." (Photo courtesy Hussein Ibish)

In the wake of the Israel Defense Force’s violent interdiction of the Free Gaza movement’s peace flotilla” on May 30, and Israel’s decision to ease the blockade of Gaza as a result, we present a pro-Palestinian viewpoint that favors peaceful co-existence with the Jewish State. 

Hussein Ibish has long been an activist in, and a spokesperson for, the Arab-American community, including a six-year stint as communications director for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. Currently a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, he blogs independently at www​.Ibish​blog​.com. Although he sees no alternative to a negotiated agreement with Israel to end the occupation of Palestinian territories and thereby end the conflict, he has been writing recently of three additional tactics: State and institution building by the Palestinian Authority (as being pursued by PA Prime Minister Fayyad), nonviolent popular protests against the occupation, and economic measures aimed at the settlements. 

The following is part of a larger conversation with Ibish, who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and is the author of numerous studies, including, most recently, What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda?: Why Ending the Occupation and Peace with Israel is Still the Palestinian National Goal.

Seliger: How would you prevent Palestinians from doing construction work in settlements? Would you endorse strong-armed tactics, legislation or something else?

Ibish: It’s a tragic and unacceptable irony to have Palestinians actually physically building the very structures that negate their own necessary independence. I certainly wouldn’t endorse anything that constitutes strong-arm tactics,” but if you really want to enforce the ban, at the end of the day there has to be some kind of preventative measure. Perhaps fines might be necessary. Obviously the less of that kind of thing, the better. 

I think the most important order of business is to create new jobs to replace settlement construction work. The Palestinian laborers, after all, are working in the settlements in order to feed their families, not out of any sympathy for the projects themselves. I’m sure that if given plausible alternatives, these laborers, estimated to be approximately 30,000 Palestinians, can be induced to seek other employment. It’s part of an overall strategy by the PA to reduce economic engagement with the settlements altogether. The idea is that if the Palestinians can replace much or most of the settlement element of the Palestinian economy with a domestic Palestinian economy, for instance replacing settlement goods with Palestinian goods, this will create jobs that can replace the settlement jobs, and new opportunities across the board.

These tactics, specifically the boycott of settlement goods and trying to prevent Palestinian laborers from building settlements, are being denounced by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and others as incitement,” which I think strips language of all meaning. The Palestinian argument is a sound one, which is that settlements are illegal and illegitimate, and therefore settlement goods are also illegal and illegitimate, and that the Palestinians at the very least should not be subsidizing these settlements that threaten peace and their own much-needed independence by working on them and buying their products. 

From the Palestinian point of view all of this is predicated on a distinction between the occupation and the settlements on the one hand and Israel itself on the other hand, and these Palestinian efforts are both practical and also designed to call attention to that distinction and pry apart the interests of the majority of Israelis and the extremist settlers. The problem is that the present Israeli government and many other people in Israel refuse to accept any such distinction, and so if they are treating this as if it were an economic boycott targeted at Israeli products and population centers, making no distinction between the settlements and any part of Israel. 

On this basis the Israeli Foreign Ministry is claiming settlement boycotts violate various treaty obligations and Palestinian agreements, whereas from the Palestinian point of view such measures are not aimed at Israel or anything that can legitimately be described as Israeli.” Moreover, they are threatening to close ports to Palestinian exports and other retaliatory measures that could prove very damaging to the fragile Palestinian economy.

Obviously this gets to the heart of the contesting worldviews between the two sides. Israel simply doesn’t accept the Palestinian, and indeed unanimous international, understanding, and legal and political fact, that the settlements are illegal and illegitimate. The Palestinians, of course, don’t accept Israel’s point of view that the settlements and settlement products are simply Israeli” in the same way that Tel Aviv and its environs are, and certainly not the implicit rejection of the legal status of the occupied territories as territories under a foreign military occupation. 

It’s a very instructive window into the depths of the disagreements between the two parties and the fundamental incompatibility of their worldviews. To Palestinians, this indicates a determination to extend the occupation permanently, and a completely unrealistic and unfair expectation that Palestinians should not challenge the occupation even by peaceful means. I think the Palestinians need to make the point that there is no way they’re going to cease some form of confronting the occupation and that these measures are a legitimate, peaceful alternative to suicide bombs and rockets.

Seliger: Hasn’t there been some progress for Palestinian interests from the era of negotiations which began in Madrid in 1991 and the backchannel Oslo process that began about a year later? This is the creation of the Palestinian Authority and that it has a legitimate legal function within part of the territories. 

Ibish: Yes, there have been some very palpable gains for the Palestinian national interest: the creation of the PA which has become increasingly a vehicle of potential national liberation especially through the state and institution building program, other forms of increased Palestinian national presence in the occupied territories, such as the sixth Fatah general party congress in Bethlehem last year, enhanced Palestinian political standing with Washington and other parts of the international community that are essential to eventually realizing Palestinian national goals, among other clear benefits. 

However, at the same time there have been very significant setbacks: more than doubling of the settler population, the failure of talks leading to the disastrous second intifada which in turn produced the West Bank separation barrier and the deep retrenchment of the occupation, all of this also providing the context for the rise of Hamas and the split between the West Bank and Gaza, the subsequent war in Gaza, and deepening cynicism among the Palestinian population about the possibility of a two-state negotiated peace agreement. 

I can’t emphasize enough the damage that 17 years of frustration and disappointment has had on Palestinian belief in not only agreement but the very concept of negotiations themselves. Nobody has any real viable alternative, of course, but every development is inevitably greeted with a wave of cynicism that drowns out not only optimism, which would be unwarranted, but even a realistic assessment of what Palestinians can achieve in any given situation and how best to manage that.

I think it’s very hard to know whether or not the long-term consequences of the Oslo process will have proven beneficial to the Palestinians, harmful, neutral or, worst of all, irrelevant. It depends entirely on whether or not over the next decade or so we see the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. If we do, it will be hard not to trace the origins of independence, peace and an end to the occupation to the Oslo process in spite of all the false starts and errors. 

If we do not, it’s likely that, at least from a Palestinian point of view, the Oslo process and everything that resulted from it, both good and bad, will be seen as largely irrelevant, a minor footnote in a process that was really characterized by ever deepening occupation and colonization leading to permanent Israeli control over the whole territory, no agreement and a deepening, increasingly religious conflict that proves more intractable than ever.

Seliger: The failure of Oslo had everything to do with errors and malicious deeds by both sides and the United States: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the wave of terror attacks in Feb-March 96 that led to the first election of Netanyahu, blunders (perhaps by all sides) in the negotiations at Camp David in 2000, Arafat’s mistaken belief that the violence of the second intifada could be controlled and used in such a way as to bolster his negotiating hand. Do you agree?

Ibish: I think there’s a lot of truth in this proposition, and certainly there is plenty of blame to go around for the present situation. Anyone who sees one party and only one party as the principal author of the present situation is missing a great deal of the fundamental realities behind the conflict. It’s particularly easy to do this from a Palestinian point of view, given the extreme asymmetries of power between the two parties and the reality of the occupation. But as a matter of fact, Palestinians have responsibilities as well as rights and have obviously contributed to the predicament they find themselves in now.

I’d say, though, you’re missing the single biggest elements in the failure of Oslo, though, which are structural and built-in to the various agreements and which I think at least crippled its effectiveness from the start if not doomed it to failure. The first and most important of these is that Oslo did nothing to curtail or curb Israeli settlement activities, and the number of settlers actually doubled during the 1990s, so that while the parties were moving away from occupation on paper, Israel was in some crucial ways entrenching it frantically on the ground. Rabin himself oversaw a good deal of that. 

The second major flaw in Oslo is in Letters of Mutual Recognition themselves, which included an asymmetry that haunts us to this day. The PLO recognized Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist, as well as renouncing terrorism for the umpteenth time. Israel recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. This established the basis for all further negotiations, which is a good thing. 

But what was missing, obviously, was a reciprocal recognition by Israel of the right of a Palestinian state to exist. I think this is obviously an asymmetry that continues to bedevil us, since there is no doubt about the mainstream Palestinian national movement’s recognition of Israel but there remains a grave doubt about Israel’s willingness to accept the establishment of a viable, fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state.

The rest of what you mention I largely agree with. I probably would’ve chosen different language to describe Arafat’s relationship with the second intifada, which he obviously didn’t plan as the Mitchell commission report made very clear, but which he certainly tried to manage and control with very little success. At the outset of the conflict, in last three months of 2000, the deadly violence was largely a one-way street, mostly claiming Palestinian lives at the hands of the Israeli military. 

However, at the beginning of 2001, Hamas and other groups began their campaign of suicide bombings and by that point the intifada really became uncontainable because the secular nationalists felt they had to be sure not to be outbid at any level by the Islamists and as a consequence religious extremists began to dictate the course of the uprising by continuously redefining its outer limits. Indeed, when the uprising began, the effort to brand it as the al-Aqsa intifada” largely came from Arafat himself in an early effort not to be outbid by Islamists on religious legitimacy. 

I’m not trying to downplay his role or mitigate his mistakes, but I’m trying to put them in their proper political context. I’m not sure he ever thought the violence was manageable, although that’s possible I suppose, but it’s more likely that he thought he had no choice but to try to marshal and manage the violence once it broke out in an uncontrollable way. Obviously wasn’t able to do that with any success at all. I’m not sure anybody could have.

It was precisely these fears that led him to try to persuade the United States not to hold the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000, because it seems he was sure it would fail and was extremely worried about the consequences at every level. He only attended after being assured by President Clinton that no party would be blamed if the talks did not succeed. When they failed, Clinton promptly blamed Arafat. If he were still alive and had it to do all over again, I very much doubt that anything could have induced Arafat to show up at Camp David in the summer of 2000. The price of refusing an American invitation at that time would’ve been a great deal lower than the price everybody ended up paying when he actually did show up.

Seliger: Is there something you’d like to say or ask about the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state or what such a Jewish state should be?

Ibish: Yes. Our position, and I think the only reasonable one, is that Israel is a sovereign, independent member state of the United Nations, and as such is free to define its character without outside interference. So will the future state of Palestine. 

Other states in the Middle East define themselves in both ethnic and religious terms – the Syrian Arab Republic, for example, or the Islamic Republic of Iran – and so Israel’s claim to be and self-definition as Jewish state isn’t particularly extraordinary. This doesn’t mean a license to rampantly discriminate or engage in ethnic cleansing or anything like that. But it does mean that Israel’s self-definition is an internal matter to be decided by all the citizens of Israel, including the Palestinian citizens of Israel, through political and legal processes that are in place in Israel.

Israel’s status as a Jewish state” is clearly established by the fact that it has a majority population that defines itself and is defined formally as Jewish by the Israeli state. We feel strongly that just as Palestinians demand recognition of their human and national rights in historical Palestine and assert their own deep history and attachment to the land, they need to acknowledge the deep Jewish history and attachment to the same land. The traditional attitude on both sides that only one narrative is valid, only one history respectable, only one national project legitimate is the crux of the conflict and it cannot be continued in the interests of peace. It’s not necessary to reconcile the two narratives or even embrace both of them, but simply to acknowledge that each is legitimate and valid.

The big problem with Israel’s status as a Jewish state is, of course, the occupation, which makes a mockery of Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish and democratic state.” Obviously, Israel de facto, which includes millions of disenfranchised Palestinian non-citizens [in the occupied territories] and does not involve a Jewish majority, cannot be considered either Jewish or democratic in any meaningful sense. However, Israel de jure as a Jewish and democratic state is readily salvageable only by ending the occupation. In other words, the long-term survival of Israel as such is absolutely dependent on an end to the occupation.

Ralph Seliger specializes in writing about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He was the final editor of Israel Horizons, the recently expired quarterly publication of Meretz USA, now known as Partners for Progressive Israel, for which he is blog co-administrator, and also blogs for Tikkun Daily.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.