How will the recent US election transform efforts to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and how should those committed to seeing peace realized respond to coming changes in US policy?
First, after more than 20 years of failed negotiations, it is time that those committed to peace recognize that negotiations based first and foremost on the idea of partition and the exclusion of the Palestinian refugees will not resolve the conflict, but will instead entrench the injustices done to all Palestinians.
Second, for more than a decade, pundits, scholars, diplomats and politicians have been saying that the window of time during which a two-state solution remains viable is closing. While it is difficult to definitively say that the two-state window has closed, the election of Donald Trump and other recent changes in the US and Israel — including the Republican Party’s denial of Israel’s occupation, the Likud Party platform’s open rejection of two states, unchecked settlement growth and Palestinian political fragmentation — make it necessary to consider alternatives to two-state orthodoxy and the current peace process.
These changes are particularly important at a time when neither the coming Trump administration nor the current Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition are likely to put forward offers that will allow for the formation of an independent Palestinian state. Those concerned with peace should not move forward under the illusion that standard two-state advocacy will bring change.
Perhaps the most significant failing of the two-state focused Oslo process has been the fact that the end goal sought by the US and Israel has not been the achievement of a just peace. Rather, the US and Israel have set to preserve Israel’s Jewish identity and Jewish demographic majority, and have thus emphasized partition and ethnic separation over rights and justice.
This emphasis has meant that Israel and the US have not placed Palestinian rights high on their list of priorities. There has been no serious attempt to address injustices done to Palestinians through the peace process. Instead, Israel and the US have focused their efforts on achieving peace in a way that maintains current systems of power, oppression and ethnically defined privilege. This has produced further oppression and dispossession for Palestinians.
It is time that we start considering how restorative justice principles might be used to preserve the rights of Jewish Israelis, while also realizing the rights of refugees to return.
What now needs to be made clear is that a push for partition — as opposed to justice — will not result in peace. Making ethnic separation the goal of negotiations inevitably creates a zero-sum bargaining process focused on the redistribution of land, resources and control. This creates incentives for those with power — in this instance, the Israeli government — to take steps to maximize their control and bargaining position at the expense of the weaker party. This context helps explain why illegal Israeli settlement building, confiscation of Palestinian land, forced displacement, restrictions on Palestinian movement and other violations of Palestinians’ rights proliferated during the Oslo process of the 1990s and continue until today.
Setting partition as the end goal of negotiations also makes it impossible to address the historic roots of the conflict. The original UN Partition Plan led to injustices, most notably the displacement and dispossession of Palestinian refugees in 1948. If the goal of negotiations is the preservation of the current demographic balance and power structures which were created as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, a critical reassessment of what occurred during that war is impossible. This in turn explains why the current push for partition has been carefully framed within a post-1967 context, ignoring and minimizing the way in which the peace process is a direct continuation of the ideas outlined in the failed Partition Plan.
What is needed now is a paradigm shift that moves from seeing negotiations as a process focused on the preservation and/or creation of nation-state structures and the maintenance of ethnic privilege to seeing negotiations as a process focused on guaranteeing the rights of all people, regardless of their religious and ethnic background. This means remaining open to options other than the two-state solution.
Instead of demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state before negotiations can begin, we must demand respect for peoples’ rights, regardless of their ethnic and/or religious identities, and we must critically evaluate what formally defining Israel as a Jewish state would mean for Israel’s non-Jewish population.
Instead of seeing the potential return of Palestinian refugees as a demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority and therefore denying refugees’ rights, we must understand that Palestinians were denied their right of return in 1949 because they were the demographic majority prior to their displacement and their return was seen as a demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority. Maintaining a Jewish demographic majority in Israel has been the reason given for denying Palestinian refugees their right to return to their homes ever since 1948. Continuing to deny their rights based on demographics is to accept as just their original dispossession.
Rather than starting from a position that sees refugees’ rights as a threat that must be denied, it is time that we start considering how restorative justice principles might be used to preserve the rights of Jewish Israelis, while also realizing the rights of refugees to return to the locations from which they were displaced and the property from which they were disposed. The return of Palestinian refugees is part of the solution and should not be seen as an obstacle to peace.
Instead of seeing security as only being achievable through the continued militarization of Palestinian and Israeli societies and through their separation from each other, we must understand that Israelis’ security is directly linked to Palestinians’ security. We must understand that realizing social, economic and political equality, and addressing past and present injustices — not separation and isolation — will bring security. This means that conversations should not be about finding a way to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side (but separately) in security, but rather should be about finding a way to guarantee the full protection and respect for the human rights of all peoples in the land.
Instead of insisting that only two states will bring peace, we need to consider other possibilities, including one democratic state with equality for all its citizens.
Calling for an end to specific actions like settlement construction, home demolitions and acts of violence which are obstacles to peace is important, but this is not enough. What is needed is a transformation of the whole negotiating process. Continuing to move down the same paths that have resulted in failure for more than 20 years will not bring peace. What is needed now is a radically changed process; a process focused on accountability, equality and justice, as opposed to ethnic separation and exclusion.
If equality and justice can be realized, then peace will follow.
An earlier version of this article appears here.