Prof Asher Susser discusses the future of the Two-State Solution

This transcript is from a podcast which can be listened to here.


Thank you for hosting me today, with this very prestigious group of people.

I will talk about my idea of the two states solution: where is it going and what should be done.

First of all, a few telegraphic comments on why we have had delayed the “two states solution”.

Officially, both the Israeli and the Palestinian support this two states idea. Yet, we never seem to get there. To understand why, I would like to point out a few things.

Firstly, there are issues between Israel and the Palestinians that do not exist between Israel and the Arab states.  We can say that these are two very different kind of conflict: the inter-states conflict and the Israeli-Palestinians conflict. Similarly, I believe we can distinguish the “1948 file” and the “1967 file”, each file coming with its own “bag” of issues.

What I call the “1948 file.”

With the Arab states we only have “1967 issues”, ruled by the resolution 242 -we occupied Egyptian land. It would suffice to give it back and withdraw from the international boundary to end the conflict.

There is a line in the sand where the conflict between Israel and Egypt will end.  We also know more or less where the line is with Jordan and Syria. Therefore, the inter-states conflict could be ended.

With the Palestine, it is not about the 1967 issues only.  These issues, like Jerusalem partition and its borders settlements, are easy to resolve. But the “1948 file” bring two major questions which are not related to the occupation. One is the refugee question and the other is the status of the Palestinian minority in Israel. Both are crucial for Palestinians and questioning the creation of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

If we look at the Palestinian minority, we will observe a strong decline of their participation at the elections. The main reason for this is probably the lack of influence of the Palestinian members of the Knesset.  But it is also ideological; it is a rejection of the legitimacy of the Knesset and the state of Israel in general. Increasingly, you will hear the argument that Israel should no longer be the state of the Jewish people. The Palestinian minority argues that Israel should redefine itself and be renamed. They believe Israel should be the state of “all the citizens”, which I think is already the case. This brings us to the 1948 issues and the creation of Israel.

Since 2000 and the failure of Camp David, the recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people is made as a condition to end the conflict.

At Camp David, Barack stated that Israel will agree on the creation of the Palestinian states, they will divide Jerusalem into two capitals; they will concede 95 per cent of the West Bank. They will compromise on every issue brought by the “1967 file” in exchange of the closure of the “1948 file”. These were the terms of the deal proposed by Barack and his team in 2000. Still, the Palestinian rejected it, mainly because it would mean dropping the refugee question. Accepting the deal would have put Arafat, or any other leader, in the delicate position of being the one who “ended the conflict and gave up on the 1948 file”.

It leaves us with Israel that refused to consider the refugee question and the Palestinian who refused to drop it. Consequently, since Oslo, the Palestinians have become more critical of the two states idea.

We need to consider that there are three Palestinian constituents: the minority in Israel, the people of the West Bank and Gaza and the Palestinian Diaspora. The two states solution does nothing for the Arabs in Israel or the Diaspora; it leaves them exactly where they are. It does not bring anything to the Diaspora. Therefore, only people from West Bank and Gaza have interest in supporting the two states constitution.

I would argue this is the main reason why we have not been able to end the conflict with the Palestinians, and I don`t think we will. The problem between Israel and Palestine is structural; it is build within nature of the conflict. It is not the case with the Arab states as they have their own structure, independent from Israel. On the contrary, Palestinians cannot define themselves without involving Palestine.

The two sides have visions of a “two states idea”: on the one hand, the Palestinians vision implies a state with the refugees encroaching on Israel. On the other hand, the Israeli focus on security measures (control of the airspace, early warning stations, and military presence) that encroach on Palestine and send the wrong message. In that sense, Palestinians often argue that Israel will never be able to stop thinking like an occupant towards Palestine. In short, both sides agree on a two states solution but they have different perceptions of what it means, which don’t overlap and clash to a certain degree and on the 1948 questions they clash very seriously.

So I am not a great believer in a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. And I think we are going into negotiations with the Palestinians on end of conflict is not going to work. So there are two possible options.

One is to r3sume some kind of incremental approach. Let’s negotiate over what we can now. Let’s leave the 1948 issues for later. This is very logical, except for the fact that the Palestinians have traditionally rejected the idea of incremental interim arrangements. What the Palestinians say is that we don’t trust the Israelis enough. For you guys we fear that interim will be final. You will do some negotiations over territory and we will never get to the 1948 issues and you will term interim into final.

The Israelis, of course, mistrust the Palestinians and if the fear on the Palestinians side is that interim will become final, the fear on the Israeli side is that final will be interim. Therefore, there is this huge gap of perception of what the other is all about. So the chances, unless we move to something like interim, I don’t see how we arrive at anything but failure.

Now, with the Palestinian side, though they have never said so openly and they would probably reject what I am about to say, in the last few years, since Fayyad began his initiative for state building, essentially the Palestinians have accepted an interim idea. The Palestinians, for the last few years, since the Fayyad initiative began, are moving along an interim unilateral path. Building the institutions of the Palestinian state, not in coordination with Israel, we are not opposed to that but it is not being coordinated as part of a negotiation. And then against Israel’s wishes, they went to the UN and had this resolution passed. In actual fact, what is happening with the Palestinian position is that they now have a Palestinian state in the making which has provisional boundaries. It is supposed to be the 67 boundaries which have been recognised in the resolution. But they are not there and we are not going to get there any time soon either.

So what it is now that you have in practice is an interim unilateral approach which is gradually creating an independent state in the making which does not have final boundaries. That’s interim and it doesn’t matter what they call it. And what I am saying is it will be better if we negotiated an interim arrangement with the Palestinians but the same thing keeps on happening time and time again. We narrow down the differences on 1967 and the differences on 1948 get ever wider. Because, as we narrow down differences on 1967, we get ever more entrenched in our refusal to accept refugee return. Because in the Israeli mind, the creation of a Palestinian state means that is where the refugee problem should be resolved. The Israelis just don’t get it. Why you should have a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution and the refugee problem should be resolved in Israeli. There is nobody in Israel who would accept that. Amos Oz will not accept that. Meretz does not accept that.

So if you try to negotiate the old fashioned way, which also had this awful principal that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed – Beseder! So if nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, you can be assured that nothing is agreed. And it will remain nothing.

So we either break out of this mould and go for interim arrangements, or alternatively, plan B for Israel should be a unilateral incremental approach of our own. The Palestinians continue building the institutions of their state, gaining international recognition for their state, and we as supporters of the two-state idea, should not resist that. I think Israel made a big mistake in fighting against the UN resolution. We should have welcomed it. We don’t like the 67 boundaries, so we say ‘ok’ we don’t like the 67 boundaries. But in principal, we agree to the idea of a Palestinian state. Why should we object to it? After all, the creation of two states, one of which is Palestinian, is in Israeli interests. I think Israel and the Zionists have more of an interest in a two-state solution than the Palestinians do. So why should we quibble with them if they are fighting for recognition of a Palestinian state?

We should initiate a unilateral initiative of our own, which is to withdraw from 60-70% of the West Bank. Some ideas that Mofaz associated himself with some years back. There are a lot of people who think along these lines. There is an NGO which is headed by Gilad Sher and Ami Ayalon called ‘Blue and White Future’. They have a website, they are organising this. Also there is the Council for Peace and Security which is the group of all these ex-military people. It is all Generals and a few academics that are in that direction. Yaacov Peri, who is Yair Lapid’s list and also one of the Israeli Initiative people. And maybe now, with as you say ‘the centre strikes back’ and when the renewed peace negotiations fail,   and I guarantee you that they will, will this government have Plan B? Will Lapid and company have the weight and the guts to push Netanyahu in this direction? And I would be pleasantly surprised if the negotiations between Netanyahu and Abu Mazen are more successful than I think they would be. Does Netanyahu have the gall and the leadership capacity to be a new Sharon by going on this unilateral track?

Where I think this unilateral track differs from Gaza where we just walked out and threw the key away, it should be coordinated.  Coordinated unilateral disengagement sounds like an oxymoron but it isn’t. They are going along their independent unilateral track, we go along ours. We withdraw from 60-70% of the West Bank, allow for the creation of a Palestinian contiguous territory with no Israeli settlements, with no Israeli military presence, or hardly any and certainly no check points, between Jenin and Hebron. It wouldn’t deal with Jerusalem. It wouldn’t deal with final boundaries. But it would create, what I call, a ‘two-state dynamic’. Not a two-state solution. The word solution for me is just too fantastic. It is a big word, too big for me. We must create a two-state dynamic. We have to create a reality on the ground where we, the Palestinians and the world will recognise two states is a possible viable solution.

We are not there yet, but we are going there. Because at this stage we are in this one-state dynamic where more and more people are beginning to say that there never will be a two-state solution. The more the Israelis settle, they are closing the options, let’s go for a one state solution.

Now the word solution in that regard is amazingly imaginative. Just look around; places where conflict people ethnic groups has been less extreme than between Israel and the Palestinians, like Czechoslovakia, for example. The Czechs and the Slovaks have gone their separate ways and as Yugoslavia has broken up, and as the Soviet Union has broken up, as Belgium may break up, as the UK talks about devolution, people take their ethnic nationalism much more seriously than the people who established the EU thought.  And a lot more seriously than a lot of theorists about nationalism thought, because also many theorists about nationalism are anti-nationalist Marxists themselves. They put their own visions of what nationalism is or ought to be into their own academic work. Therefore, they create a whole body of knowledge which is not applicable to the real world. Anyone who lives in our part of the world, the Middle East…I mean, Fatah and Hamas don’t get on. So we and the Palestinians are going to live in the same country? Even Fatah and Hamas are finding difficulty in doing that. There are almost no Christians left in the Middle East. A one-state, so called, solution is a place where the Jews gradually become a minority. And to be a Jewish minority in the Middle East in the 21st Century, post-Arab Spring…ask the Copts what it is like. Ask the Christians in Iran who aren’t there anymore.

There are 6 million Jews in Israel. Once the Jewish state is gone, who is going to protect these people?

I gave a talk in Oslo, some years back, and as I am sure you know, the Norwegians and their academia are not the most pro-Israeli people you can ever encounter. And I gave my talk about the necessity of the two-state idea. One lady gets up and asks me the following question. ‘After the two states are established, how long do you think it will take until the state of Palestine and the state of Israel merge into one?’ I said I can give you an answer, a perfectly absolutely precise answer. 24 hours after Norway and Sweden do it, we will too. End of discussion! There was deathly silence in the room.  People will expect us to do things that they, in a thousand years, wouldn’t imagine themselves doing. I can’t tell the difference between Norwegians and Swedes, perhaps they can. They speak more or less the same language; they have more or less the same religion. They haven’t had a serious conflict, as far as I know. And they will not do what they are asking us to do with the Palestinians; with whom we have been at each other’s throats for the last hundred years and more. It’s crazy.

The notion that you can take us and throw us into this melting pot and somehow it will work out, I really do think that the people who preach for a one-state solution are people who are either completely out of touch or far more in touch than we give them credit for. They know exactly what they are doing. A one-state solution is a polite euphemism for the undoing of Israel. That is what it is intended to attain and that is what it is for. They won’t find too many takers in Israel.

Then, of course, there are people on the Israeli Right who are trying to revive the Jordanian option. I will conclude by ruling this out completely. There once was a Jordanian option, after the Six Day War, and for about ten years or so after there really was a Jordanian option. Had Israel been willing then to withdraw to the 67 boundaries and give Arab Jerusalem back to the Jordanians, the Jordanians would have taken it with pleasure. But we didn’t do that and I am very sorry that we didn’t. The Right Wing was always opposed to the Jordanian option and used to ridicule it. For them it was a big joke.  Now that the Jordanian option is completely unrealistic, the Right Wing has suddenly discovered that it is there. They think that the Jordanians are like a book on the shelf…you loan them from the library whenever you like and you throw them into the bin when you have read them.

But the Jordanians have changed in the meantime. They don’t have the slightest interest in taking over the West Bank. There is a Jordanian national movement who are anti-Palestinian, more than most Israelis. In Jordan they are called with a measure of cynicism, of course. In Arabic they are called the Jordanian Likud…Right Wing, anti-Palestinian who, not only, don’t want the West Bank, they want the Palestinians in Jordan to go back to Palestine. Therefore, they are the most emphatic supporters of the two-state solution. Not because they like the Palestinians, but because they dislike the Palestinians! They want it to be absolutely clear that Palestine is in the West Bank and that is where the Palestinians should be. Palestine is not in the East Bank, Jordan is not Palestine and they have no intention of becoming Palestine.

Naftali Bennett has this idea that Jordan is Palestine. There will be this little sliver of Palestine that will remain after he annexes the 60% and they can exercise their political rights in Jordan. The Jordanians are 80% Palestinian anyway. Well this ‘80%’ that the Right like to throw around is an invention. Palestinians are not 80% in Jordan. They are probably over 50%, but even that is something that no one can be absolutely sure about. The Jordanian ‘Muhbaharak’ who probably know the real numbers say that the Palestinians in Jordan are only 42% or 43%. But this number is just as much an invention as the 80% is. The Jordanians do conduct professionally very good census every now and then. But they never publish figures, neither of minorities and they won’t tell you how many Palestinians there are. I would say that if you extrapolate from the Jordanian population as we knew it was in 1947, and birth rates etcetera as we do know them, the Jordanian Jordanian population should be somewhere around three million. And if the population of Jordan is six million, you get to somewhere around 50-50. And it is 50-50 with a slight advantage to the Palestinians. But in the division of power in Jordan, the Jordanian Jordanian’s are the people in control. They are not going to hand the country over to the Palestinians any time soon.

So this whole idea that Jordan is Palestine and that the Jordanians should pull the chestnuts out of the fire for Israel is not very realistic. So what we come back to eventually is, I would argue, is only this two-state idea based on a lot of unilateralism from both sides, coordinated unilateralism. This is the great role for the United States. The role of the United States is not to knock the heads together of these two little midgets in Lilliput, which will not work. You cannot coerce the Israelis to do what they do not want to do and you cannot coerce the Palestinians to do what they really do not want to do. But the Americans can coordinate these parallel unilateral tracks. To go between us. To tell the Palestinians what we are doing. To tell the Palestinians what we intend to do. To tell us what the Palestinians are doing and what they intend to do. No surprises. We don’t try and cheat each other; we don’t try to outmanoeuvre each other. In fact, we are cooperating. And we are cooperating in a way that is historically possible for both of us because this kind of agreement without an official agreement or negotiation absolves both sides of the need to make historical concessions on our narratives, which we are not going to do.

We will not declare that we have no historical rights in Hebron. The Palestinians may say that once we have withdrawn from Hebron, you should declare that you have no intentions of ever coming back and that you have no historical claims or rights to it. The Israelis won’t make such a claim. They won’t do it. Neither will the Palestinians declare that the Right of Return is not a right. And this whole idea of this end of conflict and having the other side declare that the conflict is officially over, I think, was a mistake in the first place. You are asking the Palestinians to declare…and by the way, you never made the Egyptians or the Jordanians from declaring this… we only ask the Palestinians to do it because with them we think the final is interim. And because we have the fear that the final is interim, we want them to declare that when we come to this final arrangement that it isn’t interim. That is finally over.

I can understand why the Israelis want this. And I also understand, and identify, with the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognise that Israel is the state of the Jewish People. But as much as identify and understand with it, I know that the Palestinians are not going to do it. They cannot do it. For the Palestinians to recognise that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People is to ask that the Palestinians recognise that Palestine is Jewish. They are not going to do it. And we cannot expect them to do it. Therefore, what I am saying is let’s realistically walk away from this grand declaration of this end of conflict, it demands from the parties to undress in public from their historical narratives. Don’t discuss narratives, it is a bad idea. Narratives should be discussed in humanities courses in the university. Don’t ask peoples to negotiate their narratives, they never will. And we are trying to get them to don that. We are trying to get them to rid themselves of their 1948 obsession. Well, ‘Palestininianness’ IS 1948. They will not abandon it.

Therefore, we have to settle for less than end of conflict. If you look around, what is the Arab Spring doing to us. The Arab Spring in terms of our relations with our neighbours is returning us to 1949. 1949, when we concluded a series of armistice agreements with the Arab states after the War of Independence. Our peace agreement with Egypt now looks more like an armistice agreement, which the Egyptians will keep. But it looks like an armistice agreement than a peace treaty.

I would argue that to be realistic in the creation of this two-state solution, what we are aiming for with the Palestinians is an armistice of sorts also. Now, if we aim for an armistice of sorts, Hamas can live with that. ‘Hudna’ is armistice. The agreements of 1949 in Arabic are called hudna. We signed a hudna with the Arabs in 1949. Now if Hamas is willing to talk about a hudna, what do we have now with Gaza? And it is working. The three months that we have had since Pillar of Defence, I think is the quietest time that we have had with Gaza for maybe twenty years. This is very much thanks to Morsi and Co. Hamas made two big mistakes with the provocation that led to the Pillar of Defence.

The one was their understanding that Israel would be very reluctant to retaliate because of Egypt’s backing of Hamas. Israel is very careful about Egypt. We don’t want to have a fight with Egypt which is why we don’t retaliate when operations attack us from Egypt, because we don’t know who to retaliate against and we don’t want to retaliate against Egypt proper; which is how any attack on Sinai would be understood.

And the other was that if they ratchet up their attacks on Israel, they thought that essentially Morsi and the Egyptians would back them. Hamas were wrong on both counts. Morsi and company not only didn’t back them, wanted them to stop as soon as possible because they didn’t want to be dragged into a confrontation with Israel. And Israel retaliated with great might, much more than they thought we would.

So the combination of all of these gives us a kind of hudna with Hamas and we have accepted Hamas in power in Gaza. We have abolished the blockade. We don’t make much fanfare about this, but essentially what the government of Israel has done is to say to Hamas…we are not trying to unseat you anymore, we accept you as the government of Gaza. But, that means that we will not try and unseat you, that we will end the blockade, that the fishermen can fish six miles into the seas and not just three miles, most of the restrictions are out, the border with Egypt can be open, we don’t oppose that. But…if you are the government in Gaza, anything that flies out of Gaza is your responsibility. And, therefore, whatever flies out of Gaza, you guys, directly, will pay for it. So we don’t mind if you are the government in Gaza and we won’t do anything to change that, but if you mess with us we will mess with you, big time.

And we can do to Gaza a thousand times more to them than they can do to us.  Of the one thousand five hundred rockets that they launched at us, fifty or so actually hit Israeli towns. That is one ton of TNT. The tonnage of TNT that Israel sent to Gaza was I don’t know how many more times more than that. And bang on target every time. Not just thrown somewhere out there. And I think that Hamas are very well aware of what can happen to them if they choose to continue the struggle. In the meantime it is working. How long it will last we don’t know. It could be over tomorrow. And it may not be that controllable, some Al Qaeda group from Gaza may do something and Israel may retaliate and who knows how this will turn out.

But there have been instances in the last three months where Israeli soldiers have shot at Palestinians approaching the fence. In the old days, this immediately meant five rockets in Sderot. But not now. They are holding. This is a very important issue. H3ezbollah have not fire from Lebanon in six and a half years. These are two examples of what I would like to see come from Israel’s unilateral withdrawal – Deterrence as an alternative to occupation.  That’s the name of the game. Can we develop an effective deterrent as an alternative to occupation? We have done it in Gaza, we have done it in Southern Lebanon, maybe we should look for ways and means for doing it in the West Bank.

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