Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University.
At his meeting with the US President Donald Trump at the White House on February 15, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scored what in his eyes must be a spectacular diplomatic success: he got the new president to reverse the US’ long-standing support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to give him a free hand to do more or less whatever he likes with the West Bank.
The major stumbling block to a two-state solution is the illegal Zionist colonial project on the West Bank. The Obama administration repeatedly tried and failed to secure an Israeli settlement freeze.
By abstaining in the United Nations Security Council vote on December 23 last year, it made possible the passage of a landmark resolution. UNSC Resolution 2334 condemned the settlements as a flagrant violation of international law and a major impediment to the achievement of a two-state solution. For the first time since 1967, Israel came under concerted international pressure, which included the US, to curb settlement expansion.
US no longer as part of the solution
The election of Donald Trump let Israel off the hook. He was pro-Israel and pro-settlements and he campaigned on a promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
President-elect Trump tweeted his opposition to the Security Council resolution and promised that things will change after January 20. Netanyahu conveyed to the president-elect and his team his opposition to a Palestinian state well in advance of inauguration.
He also assured his hawkish ministers at home that he would make it clear to Trump that all he is willing to concede to the Palestinians is a “state minus”, suggesting a level of autonomy well short of statehood.
At the press conference with Netanyahu, Trump denounced what he regarded as unfair and one-sided action against Israel at the UN and indicated that he would not hesitate to use the veto to protect the US’ junior ally.
His other comments were practically identical to the Israeli government’s talking points: Trump criticised the Palestinians for their alleged incitement of their children to hate Israelis, he urged the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and he stressed that it is the parties themselves who must work out the peace deal.
This ignored the staggering asymmetry of power between the parties which precludes a voluntary agreement: Israel is too strong and the Palestinians are too weak. Hence the need for a third party to redress the balance.
|The question today is no longer one state or two states but the protection of basic Palestinian rights, both individual human rights and the collective right to national self-determination.|
When pressed by a journalist on the subject of the two-state solution, Trump said: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like”.
Referring to the Israeli prime minister by his nickname, he added: “I can live with either one. I thought for a while it looked like the two-state, looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly if Bibi and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best”.
Trump might as well have said to the man standing alongside him: “Yes Sir, no Sir, three bags full Sir”. His body language reinforced the impression of not just deference but subservience and obsequiousness towards his guest.
Nonetheless, the president’s poor English and his confused and contradictory message must not conceal the bombshell he dropped: the US would no longer insist on a Palestinian state as part of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The same question about the two-state solution was addressed to the prime minister. Netanyahu has a long history of duplicity on the subject: when it suits him he pays lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state while working assiduously to make it impossible.
Just before the 2015 elections he finally removed all ambiguity by stating that there will be no Palestinian state on his watch. His answer to the question at the press conference was vintage Netanyahu: “Rather than deal with labels, I want to deal with substance”, he said evasively.
He then went on to stipulate his two “prerequisites” for a peace settlement: the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and “Israel must retain overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River”.
Presumably, this is what Netanyahu meant by a “state minus”. What this amounts to is a collection of enclaves with no territorial contiguity, no sovereignty, no capital city in Jerusalem, and no armed forces, in short, Bantustans.
Not even the most moderate of Palestinian politicians would accept a peace deal on such humiliating terms and Netanyahu knows it. Trump who accused the UN of one-sidedness could not have been more one-sided himself.
In this respect the strange double act of the prime minister and his poodle may be said to have marked the official burial of the two-state solution.
In truth, the demise of the two-state has been evident for some time. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition government is packed with expansionists and outright annexationists who recognise only Jewish rights in what they call Judea and Samaria or the Land of Israel.
American presidents in the past three decades have talked a great deal about the two-state solution but have done virtually nothing to implement it. As the American expression goes, they have talked the talk but not walked the walk.
The question today is no longer one state or two states but the protection of basic Palestinian rights, both individual human rights and the collective right to national self-determination.
Sadly, the Palestinians are handicapped by weak leadership and by the internal rivalry between Fatah and Hamas. Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian lands is now its 50th year and the pressure on Netanyahu from his right-wing coalition partners to annex the main settlement blocs is growing all the time.
American leverage to halt this creeping annexation of the West Bank has virtually vanished under the new administration. The Security Council made a valiant effort to curb Israel’s settler-colonialism but this effort is now imperilled by the American veto on the Security Council.
Western governments as a whole have been either unable or unwilling to hold Israel to account for its persistent violations of international law or for its systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights.
The abuse takes countless forms: a discriminatory legal system, settlers-only roads, home demolitions, arbitrary arrests, torture, the mistreatment of children for stone-throwing, the blockade over the Gaza Strip and daily humiliation of the non-Jewish inhabitants of the West Bank at over 500 checkpoints.
Justice for the Palestinians can therefore only come from the efforts of civil society. Here the signs for a change are quite encouraging. Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), the global grassroots movement in support of Palestinian rights is steadily growing in both size and impact. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.
In a world that is moving away from nation-states and national borders to universal rights, the message of BDS is ever more relevant. Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, it is fighting to end Israeli apartheid. And it represents the best hope the Palestinians have for a better future.
Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.