Dead-end solution in Palestine

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As the US makes plans for new talks between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas's administration, Palestinian author and activist Ghada Karmi, just back from the Occupied Territories, challenges the claim that Palestinians have no alternative but to agree a two-state deal with Israel.

The Fatah conference, which took place in Bethlehem last month, has aroused renewed interest in the Palestinian cause. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lasted so long and proved so resistant to resolution that hardly anything is "news" any more. Even the Gaza tragedy, so well covered by the media during late December and January, has long slipped off the front pages and scarcely features at all. I pick up a palpable weariness in people's feelings about the issue, both among Palestinians and many commentators outside.

The optimism that a solution had been found in the 1993 Oslo Agreement has long since dissipated. The Palestinian fragmentation that started in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel has continued apace and, unless it is halted, will threaten to destroy the Palestinian national cause for good. This is a depressing view, but surveying the current Palestinian situation leaves no room for any other conclusion, and the Fatah conference is unlikely to change it.

Throughout most of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's (PLO's) history Fatah had been dominant, headed since its inception by Yasser Arafat, and the major Palestinian faction to be reckoned with militarily and diplomatically. With the death of Arafat and the ascendancy of his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah's role as a resistance movement, already denuded by its transformation into a political party, declined further. In 2006 it found itself ousted from power by a new Hamas government, and the resulting state of disarray was further damaged by the internecine fighting with Hamas that has worsened ever since.

Many had hoped the conference would help restore Fatah's fortunes. It was no secret that, much as there might have been a conflict with Hamas, there was another and equally serious one within Fatah itself. Since the days of the old leadership, of which Abbas, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) and Nabil Shaath, for example, are members, a younger generation of Fatah activists have grown up in the occupied territories and outside. The best known of these is Marwan Barghouti, incarcerated in an Israeli jail to serve several life sentences for alleged crimes against Israelis. There were hopes that the conference would shake up the old leadership, entrenched for decades, and pave the way for younger elements to come to the fore.

Lack of credibility

Despite the international interest accorded to it, the conference lacked credibility for the bulk of Palestinians. At Abbas's insistence, it was held inside the occupied territories - unprecedented for a liberation movement. He was accused of ensuring that most of his party dissenters were excluded, and the Gaza representatives, an important constituency, were missing due to Hamas's insistence that they would not be allowed to travel while 900 Hamas prisoners languished in West Bank jails. The conference docilely accepted Abbas's chairmanship by "affirmation". In an important move, the conference reiterated the Palestinian right to armed struggle, although Abbas prefers peaceful methods and non-violent resistance.

The Palestinian president was judged to have greatly strengthened his position and reversed his previous image of weakness. The conference gave him increased authority, and the two leadership councils were elected with a majority of his supporters. The central committee threw up a surprise in the shape of 14 new faces, most of them from the younger Fatah cadres. This, with the addition of four old hands, should have pleased Abbas, since most of them support his peaceable line with Israel. Overall the conference was a resounding success for Abbas's diplomacy and organisation.

But where does this leave the "peace process" and the chances for a solution? Undeterred by the excitement in Bethlehem, several Palestinian analysts believe that the Fatah conference had one overriding purpose - irrespective of what the members gathered in Bethlehem might have thought - to confer legitimacy on Abbas's leadership and strengthen his position for the forthcoming negotiations with Israel. By affirming him as the head of Fatah, he would become the leader of the Palestinian people and empowered to make decisions on their behalf. Had normal elections taken place for the president and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), as should have happened since both Abbas and the PLC are legally defunct, the danger would have been a possible Hamas victory. Even though Hamas has lost popularity in the West Bank, it still remains a substantial rival to Fatah and its leadership.

Given that Abbas and the current leadership are favoured by Israel, the US and Europe, this outcome had to be avoided at all costs, hence the siting of the Fatah conference under Israel's surveillance and its unaccustomed generosity in permitting the entry of so many Fatah activists. As the Israeli daily Maariv lamented on 9 August, the Israeli government had shamefully allowed the "largest terrorist conference in the world" to take place in Israeli-ruled territory.

On this interpretation, Abbas will be expected to play his part in the coming peace negotiations as orchestrated by the Obama administration. Over the past six months it has become clear that the US has a plan for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, soon to be announced. Though the administration has kept its cards close to its chest, we may discern the outlines of what the deal is likely to be, and a pliant Palestinian leadership is crucial to the plan's success. The context of the proposed settlement is a two-state arrangement, whereby Israel would coexist with a Palestinian state.

The fervour with which this idea has taken hold is truly remarkable, since it dates from only after 1993 and has never been fully endorsed by Israel. The current Israeli prime minister, under heavy US pressure, finally came up with a formula supporting the idea of a Palestinian state, but has done everything in his power to subvert the possibility of this happening.

Obama's plan envisages a Palestinian state on currently Palestinian-populated West Bank territory with more land to be ceded by Israel. Gaza would be connected to the West Bank by bridge or tunnel, and there might be other tunnel connections between disparate Palestinian territories where they are separated by Israeli-occupied areas. A special arrangement would operate for Jerusalem, to ensure a formal Palestinian presence in the city. The details of where exactly the lines would be drawn and how much land would go to the Palestinians are unknown. Rumours are that, for this arrangement to be viable, the West Bank would need to be federated in some way to Jordan, while Gaza, which might become autonomous, would be linked to Egypt. The refugee right of return in this scheme would be largely sacrificed.

The basis of the projected deal would be a quid pro quo for Israel and the Palestinians: the Palestinians would attain their state, even if not in the whole of the 1967 territories as they had hoped, and Israel would be offered complete normalisation of relations with the Arab world. There are clear indications of this in the US proposal that some Arab states could agree to "confidence-building measures", such as allowing Israeli planes to overfly their air space, or normalisation of cultural relations, even ahead of a peace deal. The US calculation is that Israel would accept nothing less as a reward for its compliance. In other words, for the Palestinians, the prize is a state, however small, and for Israel it is the Arab world. It is for this plan that, as some believe, Abbas and his colleagues have been carefully groomed.

Fundamental flaw

One does not have to be a genius to see that such a plan, or some version of it, will not bring peace. Indeed, no plan which proposes to divide the tiny country of Mandate Palestine could succeed. Neither land nor resources are divisible, if sharing them is to be equitable, and anything that excludes the right of the refugees to return to their homeland is likewise unjust and ultimately unacceptable to the Palestinians. Moreover, the acquiescence of Jordan and Egypt cannot be guaranteed.

But even if this conjecture about what Obama has in mind is incorrect, if the offer to the Palestinians is more generous, or another configuration entirely is envisaged, the fundamental flaw remains the two-state idea. So long as politicians see this as the only solution for the conflict, the conflict will continue. The reality on the ground is that a two-state solution has long been superseded, even if it had ever been desirable. The extent of Israel's colonisation of the West Bank and of Jerusalem is simply too great to permit of a return to the 1967 border. The Israeli settlements of the West Bank are really large towns. It is inconceivable that such places could be demolished or uprooted, not to speak of the opposition and determination of their Jewish inhabitants against any evacuation.

If the settlements were to remain, their total area, with their bypass roads and Israeli "security areas" added on, would leave the Palestinians with only islands in the West Bank. These could not be viable without a connection to Jordan and this ignores the resistance on their part to such a project. The political division from Gaza forms another obstacle. The issue of the refugees would remain unresolved, and the various Western proposals for disposing of this issue through patriation, compensation or emigration have not been accepted by the refugees or their host countries.

The only way to deal with these problems is through a united country, where land and resources are shared and where there are no issues of physical separation. This unitary state will be able to absorb the Palestinian returnees and resolve its political divisions through the operation of a unitary, democratic government that represents its citizens equally, without regard to race, ethnicity or national origin.

But how many people agree with this? On a visit to the occupied territories at the end of June I talked to a number of Palestinians, some of them in prominent public positions, about the one-state solution. This was not a survey in the formal sense, just an overall impression. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prevailing view was one of apathy and cynicism. Few believed that Abbas would deliver anything to their advantage and fewer still saw that a one-state solution, given Israel's enormous power, was anything but a pipe dream.

I saw a people exhausted by decades of occupation and oppression. It is not them, but those of us outside who watch in comfort and have the luxury of contemplation, who should take up the fight now for the liberation of the whole of Palestine.

Ghada Karmi is the author of In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story (Verso).