Separation and a Two-State Solution Aren’t the Same

Netanyahu is not the only one who opposes basic Palestinian rights. Almost all Israeli leaders reject the fundamental tenets of sovereignty that would make a Palestinian state genuine and viable.

Cars drive on a new Israeli road divided by a wall to separate it for Palestinians (L) and the side to be used exclusively by Israelis and settlers (R) in East Jerusalem, on January 10, 2019. Route 4370 connects the settlement of Geva Binyamin to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. The road, which has been called the Apartheid Road, is divided in the middle by a 25-foot wall.
Cars drive on a new Israeli road divided by a wall to separate it for Palestinians (L) and the side to be used exclusively by Israelis and settlers (R) in East Jerusalem, on January 10, 2019. Route 4370 connects the settlement of Geva Binyamin to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. The road, which has been called the Apartheid Road, is divided in the middle by a 25-foot wall. (THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

After a divisive election campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to overcome the challenge posed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Blue and White list. In an election that was dominated by the question of whether Netanyahu would be toppled, the Palestinians barely figured.

One voice that had particularly prioritized the Palestinian issue was not even on the ballot. Hatnuah party head Tzipi Livni—following Avi Gabbay’s public dismantling of her Zionist Camp alliance with the Labor Party—opted to withdraw from the election, in light of her dismal polling figures.

Livni’s departure was widely described as a blow to the two-state solution. A typical report in the Economist described Livni as a one-time Netanyahu protégé who “came to support the establishment of a Palestinian state.” In fact, Livni is a passionate advocate of separation from the Palestinians—and separation is not the same as support for a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state.

With Livni gone, the most explicit proponent of separation in the election was Labor’s Gabbay, who picked up a meager six seats. The party’s platform frontloaded economic and social concerns but also addressed the need for a political initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Like Livni, Labor’s priority in pushing separation from the Palestinians is the preservation of Israel’s Jewish majority, or the state’s “national character.” The Blue and White list also advocated a policy of separation, albeit in much vaguer and less detailed terms.

To understand the importance of distinguishing between calls for separation and support for a sovereign Palestinian state in what is currently Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, one only needs to look at the content of what is being proposed.

While Labor’s election platform paid lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, the devil is in the details. The parameters of this state—to be realized, Labor argued, at an undefined point in the future, based on unclear changes in circumstances—are demilitarization and Israel’s permanent annexation of so-called settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank.

The number and size of these blocs were not specified, but a separate commitment by Labor to complete the route of the separation wall along the West Bank provided a clue. Jerusalem, meanwhile, would be the capital of Israel, with Labor pledging a referendum on the removal of Palestinian neighborhoods, including Issawiya and the Shuafat refugee camp, from the municipality. Such a step serves a dual purpose: removing Palestinians—who currently make up about 40 percent of Jerusalem’s population—from the city’s figures and offering a low-cost practical gesture toward separation.

The Blue and White list spelled out fewer details, but the broad brushstrokes were similar, with “Israel retaining control of the Jordan Valley and blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.” Lapid told an audience that his idea of separation from the Palestinians included freedom of action for the Israeli army in Palestinian territory and the Jordan Valley remaining “in Israeli hands.” Former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief Moshe Yaalon, a member of Blue and White, explicitly rejected Palestinian statehood, backing political separation and economic initiatives instead.

Distinguishing between advocates of separation as opposed to statehood is vital, since for many Israelis separation is not about Palestinian sovereignty or self-determination. Rather, the goal is to reduce Israeli responsibility for governing Palestinians and manage the so-called demographic threat they pose within Israel, as well as maintain control of all the territory of pre-1948 Palestine while also ensuring a Jewish majority of citizens. The 2015 platform of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which was folded into the Blue and White list, for example, argued that “the dilemma between keeping sections of the land of Israel and maintaining a Jewish majority requires us to give up Israeli territory.”

This motivation shapes the details of what Israel is putting on the table—and the likelihood of Palestinians accepting it. Contrast the separation model with what real Palestinian statehood would look like: an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital that enjoys the full elements of sovereignty, including control of borders, airspace, and territorial integrity.

During secret discussions with Prime Minister Menachem Begin in August 1978, ahead of the Camp David talks, then-opposition leader Shimon Peres suggested that there would be “no choice but a functional compromise” in the West Bank “because we won’t know what to do with the Arabs.” Peres continued: “We’ll reach 1.8 million Arabs, and I see our situation as getting very difficult. … I see them eating the Galilee, and my heart bleeds.”

Unsurprisingly, such a motivation for separation did not produce the parameters of a Palestinian state. Peres told Begin: “We don’t agree to return to the 1967 borders, Jerusalem must remain unified, and the defense of Israel must begin from the Jordan River with an IDF presence in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].”

Compare this recipe with what Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin advocated in 1995, shortly before his assassination—namely “a Palestinian entity … which is less than a state,” with Israel retaining major settlements, a “united Jerusalem,” and the Jordan River a “security” border in the “broadest meaning.”

As Dan Perry of The Associated Press perceptively put it in a February 2017 report, when analyzing the cross-party commitment to maintaining Israel’s Jewish majority, “the more sophisticated nationalists profess to support a partition—albeit on terms the Palestinians aren’t likely to accept.” Such insights are unfortunately rare in Western media coverage, which tends to fall back on a simplistic “dove versus hawk” binary.

There is another aspect of the case for separation that tends to slip under the radar: the consequences for Israel’s Palestinian citizens of ethnonationalist politics and demographic scaremongering. Netanyahu makes the headlines for his warnings about Arab voters threatening Israel or his declaration that Israel is not a state of all its citizens, but supposedly moderate voices engage in the same sort of rhetoric.

Take the so-called nonpartisan group of senior retired army and intelligence officers known as Commanders for Israel’s Security. The group warns against annexation in terms almost indistinguishable from far-right parties in Europe’s anti-immigration rhetoric, claiming that Palestinians will overburden a stretched health care system, “compete” with Israeli workers, and be able to “return and live” in towns from which they had been expelled.

There is no reason why this kind of demographic battle discourse will exempt those Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Racialized rhetoric may be primarily focused on Palestinians in the West Bank, but it is almost indistinguishable from—and can likely aggravate—the demographics-based incitement experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel. Indeed, it was Livni who, in 2008, told high school students in Tel Aviv that “once a Palestinian state is established,” Palestinian citizens can be told that “the national solution for you is elsewhere.”

Finally, there will likely be a further need to distinguish between separation and a two-state solution in the context of the next Israeli Knesset. With Netanyahu set to advance some form of partial annexation of settlements and even more West Bank territory, the separation model is likely to be seen as a credible alternative to this more aggressively annexationist path.

Yet the proposals advanced by the likes of Livni, Lapid, and Labor are neither the parameters of a genuine Palestinian state nor all that different from what Netanyahu has in mind. The commonalities are significant: a belief in Israel’s right to all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, a rejection of Palestinian sovereignty, and a desire to see some form of autonomous entity managing the day-to-day lives of the major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank. Given such shared fundamentals, it is not surprising that the material specifics are so similar.

Without huge differences in practical terms among the various camps’ proposals, what explains the disagreements between these political forces? In essence, the dispute lies in assessments and calculations of Israel’s strategic interests, as well as differing voter bases.

Those in favor of the status quo, or formal annexation of Area C (an area amounting to roughly two-thirds of the West Bank designated as under full—though supposedly temporary—Israeli control in the Oslo Accords), are confident of Israel’s ability to pursue such a path while maintaining, or even improving, its regional and international relations—including with partners as diverse as Eastern European leaders, African governments, and Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia.

Those pushing separation, meanwhile, believe Israel’s interests—domestic and foreign—are best served by a unilaterally defined separation from Palestinian population centers and, under admittedly and intentionally tricky-to-realize conditions, the establishment of a so-called Palestinian state.

In a recent piece for +972 Magazine, the analyst and pollster Dahlia Scheindlin wrote: “For a long time, Israel told itself that it supported a two-state solution, and its leaders perpetuated the idea that Israel itself seeks peace through this path—even while taking contradictory steps on the ground.” She continued: “In this election cycle, based on the platforms of the major parties, the dissonance between self-image and reality seems to be dwindling.”

The conflation of separation with genuine Palestinian statehood—by Western policymakers, journalists, and analysts—has been going on for some time. Distinguishing between the two is key to understanding the grim reality that the overwhelming majority of the Knesset, government and opposition alike, is occupied by parties that oppose basic Palestinian rights. If the international community wants to stop the next Netanyahu government’s consolidation of a de facto one-state solution, it must look at the Israeli political establishment, including the supposedly progressive opposition, for what it is, not what it hoped it would be or how it presents itself.

Ben White is a journalist and the author, most recently, of Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel. Twitter: @benabyad