A State of Collapse

Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to strengthen “co-operation between peoples”, but his attempts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together have failed

Since 2003, we have been told repeatedly that the principles of the
"two-state solution" envisaged in the so-called road map will lead to a
peaceful settlement in the Middle East; and since Barack Obama was
inaugurated as US president ten months ago, we have been told that he
is preparing to put them into practice. Yet far from leading to the
fulfilment of the "two-state solution", Obama's presidency seems more
likely to lead to its demise. The committee that awarded Obama the
Nobel Peace Prize cited his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen
international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples", but his
attempts to force the Israelis and Palestinians into meaningful
negotiations have only revealed the differences between them, and how
empty the concept of the two-state solution has become.

On 4
November, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said what is
supposedly the unsayable - that unless settlement expansion stops,
Palestinians may have to abandon the goal of an independent state. Even
the compliant Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority,
was forced to acknowledge that the Israelis had put him in an
impossible position: already gravely weakened by his hastily retracted
decision to help defer a vote at the UN on the Goldstone report on
human rights abuses during Israel's offensive in Gaza last December and
January, he admitted that he can no longer justify his conciliatory
stance as a means of winning concessions. He has since announced he
will not stand for office in elections to be held in the Palestinian
territories in January.

Yet the deadlock had been apparent for
some time. The speech made by Israel's prime minister, Binyamin
Netanyahu, on 14 June, in which he endorsed for the first time the
notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was reported as a
"historic" breakthrough, but it fell far short of acknowledging
Israel's internationally recognised obligations. The demilitarised
entity that he envisaged in the West Bank barely merited being called a
"state". Meanwhile, Hamas has attached similarly sweeping provisos to
the idea of establishing a state within pre-1967 borders. "Hamas
struggles for an end to occupation and for the restoration of our
people's rights, including their right to return home," Khaled Meshal,
the Hamas leader, said in an interview in the New Statesman two months ago.

are now more than four million descendants of the Palestinians made
homeless refugees by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. Some would say
their right to return is symbolic, others that it is a matter of
personal conscience which no politician can barter away. Yet, given
that its implementation in even a partial way would mean the end of
Israel in its current form, insisting on such a condition is nothing
more than a restatement of the cause of the original conflict. As
Hussein Agha and Robert Malley put it in the New York Times
earlier this year, "Acceptance of the two-state solution signals
continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle by other means".

determination to resist meaningful compromises is apparent in the way
it confronted the Obama administration over the "natural growth" of
settlements. Israel maintains that people who are born in a settlement
in the occupied territories should be allowed to live there when they
grow up, and that the settlements should be allowed to expand
"naturally" to accommodate them. It is an absurd argument: research
suggests that "natural growth" includes significant numbers of incomers
with no previous connections to the settlements. And besides, it does
not address the existence of the settlements themselves. Yet it has
served Israel's purpose: "It has provided a smokescreen behind which
Israel can pursue more significant and urgent construction that, when
completed, will truly render the occupation irreversible," says Jeff
Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

Jerusalem Light Rail, or JLR, is a case in point. The construction of
Line 1, which is intended to run from the settlement-suburb of Pisgat
Ze'ev in the north-east of the city to Mount Herzl in the west, is
three years behind schedule, but in the past month or so the tracks
have begun to climb the hill past the medieval walls of the Old City of
Jerusalem. What used to be a four-lane road has been reduced to two,
with inevitable effects.

One Sunday evening last month, I took a
taxi back to my hotel in east Jerusalem. When we reached the north-west
corner of the Old City, my driver gestured at the cars queuing down the
hill towards Damascus Gate, just beyond the commonly accepted divide
with the Palestinian quarters. He believed the JLR would not persuade
drivers to leave their cars at home - in the long run, he said, it
would generate more congestion and pollution. Others believe it will
have even more profound implications for Jerusalem's future: the
scheme's planners say it is intended to fulfil the vision of the father
of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, of a city with "modern
neighbourhoods with electric lines" and "tree-lined boulevards", but
critics say it will fulfil another element of Herzl's Eurocentric
vision. "The true objective," says Omar Barghouti, a founding member of
the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, "is
to entrench irreversibly the 'Judaisation' of Jerusalem, and perpetuate
its current reality as a unified city with a predominantly Jewish
population under Israeli control." The international community does not
recognise Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem after the Six Day War
of 1967, which means that settlements such as Pisgat Ze'ev are built on
illegally occupied land, yet the JLR will bind them closer to the
Jewish districts in the western half of Jerusalem, and make the task of
partitioning the city even harder.

Other events in the summer,
such as the eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah
neighbourhood, and a series of announcements about planned building
projects, provide further evidence of Israel's intention to preclude
meaningful negotiations about the city's future. In September, it said
it was beginning work on 500 new apartments in Pisgat Ze'ev, and in
August it vowed to build on the important "E-1" site, which lies
between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, and drives a
wedge through the heart of the West Bank.

Elsewhere, Israel has
been building bypasses in an attempt to redraw the map of the West
Bank, continuing the construction of the hated "separation fence" and
forcing thousands of people off their land by appropriating water
required for irrigation. As Halper sees it, these actions were Israel's
way of telling Obama to "go to hell" while he was preparing a peace
plan to present at a UN summit in September.

Two states or one?

the event, Obama failed to produce a plan of any kind. It was all that
he could do to force Netanyahu and Abbas to shake hands in public.
Abbas had always insisted that the resumption of negotiations would be
dependent on a complete freeze in settlement building, and his position
was officially endorsed by the US - in May, Hillary Clinton, the
Secretary of State, said that the US "wants to see a stop to
settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth'
exceptions". And yet, at the end of last month, she made the
extraordinary statement that Netanyahu had made "unprecedented"
concessions on "the specifics of a restraint on the policy of

It isn't clear whether this pronouncement was a
consequence of the undiminished influence of the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee, a reflection of Obama's wavering will in the face of
Israeli intransigence, or evidence of hidden tensions within the US
administration, yet Clinton's distorted language suggests that even she
was embarrassed to be mouthing such nonsense: the only "restraint" that
Netanyahu has offered is to restrict settlement construction in the
West Bank to 3,000 homes that have been approved already by the Israeli
authorities, and he has not considered any halt to construction in east

It was Clinton's announcement that prompted Erekat to
break diplomatic cover. He said that Netanyahu had issued the
Palestinians with an absurd list of preconditions to restarting talks,
insisting, among other things, that Jerusalem would remain the "eternal
and united capital of Israel", that the issue of refugees would not be
discussed, and that Israel would not withdraw to the pre-1967 borders.
"This is dictation, and not negotiations," Erekat said.

tactics serve only to entrench the paradox at the heart of Israeli
policy: by humiliating its so-called "partners for peace" in the
Palestinian Authority, and hastening the demise of the two-state
solution, it seems determined to bring about what the majority of its
citizens fear most - the prospect of Jewish Israelis becoming a
minority in a single, bi-national state. Barghouti opposes the
colonisation of Palestinian land represented by projects such as the
JLR, yet he is glad that it is rendering the two-state solution
practically impossible. "For over 25 years, I've supported the unitary,
secular, democratic state solution for historic Palestine, because I
regard it as the most ethical solution to all involved. It reconciles
the inalienable rights of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs with the
acquired rights of Jewish Israelis," he says.

It may not be as
simple as that. Israel's ultra-nationalists are preparing for the day
when the Jews find themselves in a minority in historic Palestine by
proposing legislation designed to shore up the Zionist vision of a
Jewish state. The Netanyahu government has adopted a bill brought
forward by the radical ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party of the
foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, which sanctions three years'
imprisonment for anyone who mourns the nakba - the Palestinian name for
the events of 1947-48, when hundreds of thousands of Arabs were driven
from their homes, and the state of Israel was created. And earlier this
year, the Israeli Knesset passed the preliminary reading of another
bill proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu: an amendment to the citizenship law
that includes an oath of allegiance and stipulates a year's
imprisonment for anyone who publishes a "call that negates the
existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state".

Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens nor the even greater number of
Palestinians in the West Bank who would become part of a putative
"Greater Israel" could be expected to recognise the contradictory
notion of a "Jewish and democratic" state. If the day came when a
Jewish minority found itself presiding over an Arab majority, then the
focus of both the domestic struggle and the diplomatic and
international effort would have to change: instead of attempting to
create two separate states, the emphasis would be on securing equal
rights for all the new country's citizens. It is a situation with an
obvious precedent: Israel is already accused of running an apartheid
regime in the West Bank, and the BDS movement targeting Israel for
boycott, divestment and sanctions is beginning to assume the dimensions
of the one directed against South Africa in the 1980s.

The sanction solution

maintain that targeting Israel for sanctions has grave consequences for
the fragile Palestinian economy, though its proponents say it is the
only effective way to force Israel to comply with international law.
Either way, the movement is gathering pace. In the past few months, it
has scored some notable successes, including one in the fight against
the JLR. The French company Veolia, which owns 5 per cent of the City
Pass consortium contracted to operate the line after completion, has
come under concerted pressure to withdraw from the project. In 2006,
the Dutch ASN bank broke off financial relations with it because of its
involvement in JLR, and earlier this year a French court heard a
lawsuit by a pro-Palestinian group demanding the project be halted on
the grounds that it violates international law. Barghouti claims Veolia
has lost billion-dollar contracts around the world as a result, and in
September the company said it intends to sell its stake in City Pass to
the Israeli Dan Bus Company.

If, or when, it does so, the focus
of the campaign will switch to another part of the consortium - the
French power generation and urban transport group Alstom. "In the
coming weeks, Alstom will feel the heat, particularly in Arab states
where it has won lucrative contracts," says Barghouti. The BDS campaign
also claims credit for precipitating the financial collapse of one of
Israel's most high-profile businessmen, Lev Leviev, whose company,
Africa-Israel, built settlements in the West Bank.

Yet it was the
British TUC's decision in September to mount a partial boycott of
Israeli goods that convinced Barghouti the Palestinians' "South African
movement" had arrived: he believes the endorsement of BDS "will
reverberate across the world". It may even prove more significant than
the best efforts of the Nobel peace laureate and his team of

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