Establishing a Palestinian state has been a sine qua non of Western foreign policy for the last 20 years. For some, the evident demise of the “peace process” has given rise to a sense of bereavement nearly on par with the end of civilization. A Palestinian state, for many, was a banner of conscience, a matter of justice. It was perceived, too, as the essential remedy for the wider maladies of the Middle East. Its final exhaustion would seem to edge the region closer to an abyss.
Paradoxically, this breakdown may well be a good thing. It finally puts to rest the fiction that a Palestinian state will emerge from even the best intentions of the West instead of from the political realities of the Middle East itself.
A Palestinian state has been pursued since the Madrid Conference of 1991 set it as an objective after the first Gulf War. But meanings shift with time. Ideas become hollowed out like shells whose internal living organisms have long since withered.
“Statehood” no longer means what it once meant. It now veils an opposite concept: Statehood no longer signifies autonomy and independence, but an “alleviated occupation” that is really a management strategy of control and containment.
A new concept of statehood?
Perhaps under this concept of statehood a new Palestinian elite could live more comfortably, albeit amid persistent general poverty. Perhaps the visible tools of occupation and control over Palestinian life would be better concealed from the naked eye, even operated remotely through new technology. Such “statehood” would still be an occupation nonetheless, with the Palestinian internal security conduct, borders, airspace, water, economy and even its “electro-magnetic” field under the unchallengeable security control of Israel. Jerusalem, the refugees, and even the status of the Jordan Valley would be left pending for the never-arriving longer term.
In a way, this outcome after two decades is not surprising. It was seeded from the outset by Western acquiescence to Israel’s exclusive notion of self-determination in which its own security imperatives confined the space within which Palestinians would have to find their “solution.”
The fiction unveiled, a moment of clarity
The end of the peace process provides a rare moment of stark clarity as the veil drops, revealing the fiction underlying the two-state narrative. The truth is that a “state” was never on offer. Many in Israel were never comfortable with the concept of a Jewish majority state, since this would confer a parity of rights on the minority. The ideology of Zionism – a system of differential rights for Jews and non-Jews – has always been inherently in conflict with the idea of a Jewish majority. A two-state solution would have formalized a non-Zionist Israel as a “majority Jewish state,” as the counterpart to a Palestinian state.
The recognition that a two-state solution is no longer in the cards opens the way to visualizing other paths that don’t depend on the Western mediation.
Lessons from Africa
In some ways, the situation in the Middle East today reminds me of my experience 30 years ago in Africa. A moment of “clarity” then also brought crisis to another peace process – in South-West Africa/Namibia. It took another decade for Namibia finally to emerge as an independent state. What made the attempt at statehood there initially fail, and then subsequently succeed, holds lessons for the Middle East in the coming years.
Namibian independence efforts failed at first because the South African government, at that juncture, was sailing along, “jolly and light-hearted” in the security of its regional dominance. But then the political context changed radically.
In 1978, South Africa was standing “shoulder-to-shoulder” with America in a polarizing Cold War. It was the “enclave” of market economics in a Marxist region. How differently matters stood 10 years later as the Cold War was coming to an end. South Africa was no longer America’s “necessary” partner. Its legitimacy in the eyes of the world plummeted as the raison d’être for keeping Nelson Mandela in jail disappeared.
A new dynamic in the region – without US
In the Middle East today, another strict polarization which had branded everyone either pro-“peace” or against “peace” is melting fast. Israel’s growing belligerence on settlements and other issues has widened the gulf with the rest of the states in the region. It is matched by the growing power of Iran and the presence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, tilting the balance in the region towards a broad tent of “resistance politics.” Further, Turkey has taken on a new leadership role that stands up to Israel when necessary. And every passing day sees the Arab autocracies allied with the West growing more deeply moribund.
In short, there is a new dynamism and fluidity in the region in which the West is not a participant. America is not wholly “absent,” but neither is it fully “present.”
Is Israel a beacon or liability for US?
The incoming head of Mossad (Israel's Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations), Tamir Pardo, is reported to have said that Israel wants “to play a key role in helping the West win ‘the new Cold War’ with radical Islam in the region.” Israel, of course, has long wanted to be “the West’s enclave,” the “light” of a reborn Western culture which would shine out to Muslim states, as Lord Balfour put it at Israel’s birth as a nation.
But will Mr. Pardo’s “new Cold War” strategy serve the West, or will it only end up further isolating and diminishing Israel and America in the emergent “new” Middle East? Whether hemmed in by Hezbollah and Iran or rebuffed on occasion by Turkey, Israel is also no longer able to act militarily with absolute impunity. Rather than an outpost promoting Western interests, Israel is becoming a source of instability, and thus a liability just as the West must turn its full attention to mending its own economy and face the power shift of a rising China.
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For Namibia, a solution came only when South Africa had exhausted its efforts at engineering a “Vichy” government in Windhoek, lost its military hegemony over the region and faced a paradigm shift in global politics. Only at that juncture was peace and statehood possible.
As it evolved, the Middle East “peace process” only perpetuated the underlying tensions without moving toward resolution. Paradoxically, the end of the peace process may be what finally gives peace a chance. It is impossible to say, however, how long a Namibia-type solution might take, or whether it will only find “resolution” through some form of further conflict.