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March 2011, Pages 24-25

Special Report

It's a Myth That Israelis Support a Two-State Solution

By Jan Elshout

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announces Jan. 17 in Jerusalem that he is leaving the Labor party, distancing himself from its more moderate members, and starting a new “Independence” party. (AFP photo Lior Mizrahi)

For decades, the two-state solution has been considered the best way to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. On the other hand, there are those who argue that, due to Israel's ongoing colonization of the West Bank, this no longer is possible. One question that often is neglected, however, is whether there is any popular support for the two-state solution—especially on the Israeli side. While this is irrelevant in terms of international law, the answer is essential in determining whether the internationally preferred solution can be achieved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

In fact, the platforms of Israel's non-Arab political parties raise great doubt about the possibility of a two-state solution. According to the platform of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party (which holds 27 of the Knesset's 120 seats), "Israel will not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River." Palestinians may enjoy "self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state." With regard to Israel's illegal colonies on the Golan Heights and West Bank, Likud vows to "continue to strengthen and develop these communities and prevent their uprooting." Another plank states that "Jerusalem is the eternal, united capital of Israel and only Israel. The government will flatly reject Palestinian proposals to divide Jerusalem." A possible unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence would be a "fundamental and substantive violation" of current agreements, to be met with "immediate stringent measures."

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party (with 15 Knesset seats) advocates "Zionism's three basic principles: immigration to Israel, defending the land and settlement activity." Full Israeli citizenship rights only apply to those who swear loyalty to these principles. The party platform describes the "land for peace approach" as "fundamentally flawed."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Labor party (13 seats) does favor a two-state solution. Isolated settlements will be abandoned and investments in new settlements will cease—but Jerusalem itself (including large surrounding areas), "holy Jewish sites," and the large settlements will remain Israeli forever.

The governing coalition's two other parties, Shas (11 seats) and Habayit Hayehudu (1 seat), promise to enforce the Jewish character of the state and strongly condemn "moves that would see a country of all its citizens." Shas' fundamental premise is explicit: "every diplomatic question has its answer in Jewish law."

None of the governing parties' platforms refer to Israel's 1967 borders, which in international diplomacy are widely accepted as the basis for negotiations. Only the Labor party platform does not cite the goal of Greater Israel.

Other Israeli Parties

Nor do the platforms of other Israeli parties inspire hope for achieving a two-state solution through negotiations. United Torah Judaism (5 seats) and the National Union (4 seats), two parties which support the government but have no ministers in it, consider Palestinian territories to be part of Greater Israel. The former's platform states: "Israel is the Jewish people's state by divine right." National Union calls for the further Judaization of East Jerusalem, and—because of the "right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel"—considers "all past agreements with the Palestinian Authority null and void."

Kadima, the largest opposition party with 28 Knesset seats, was established in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and counts among its members former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. According to its platform, "The Israeli nation has a national and historic right to the whole of Israel. However, in order to maintain a Jewish majority, part of the Land of Israel [which in its view includes Palestinian territory] must be given up to maintain a Jewish and democratic state." This is not seen as a concession to its basic ideology, however, and has no relation to Palestinian rights. Rather, it is simply a pragmatic solution in order to maintain a Jewish majority.

None of the above parties, then, recognize Palestinian rights—a principle which can be found only in the platforms of three small parties: Meretz (Israel's "peace party," with three seats), Balad (an Arab party, also with three seats), and Hadash (the communist alliance which describes itself as a "Jewish-Arab party," with four seats). These parties favor a Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal from (nearly) all occupied territory.

Thus it is evident that there is virtually no support in the Israeli Knesset for a two-state solution—and certainly not one in accordance with Western thinking and international law, including U.N. resolutions. Instead Israeli political thinking is fully in line with original Zionist principles (i.e., exclusive use of the whole of Palestine) formulated even before the State of Israel was established.

Israeli Public Opinion

One might hope that Israeli public opinion is more liberal and sensitive to Palestinian rights than are its political parties. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In a May 20, 2010 Haaretz column discussing a recent poll, Akiva Eldar summarized the results as follows: "Baseless beliefs and deeply rooted misconceptions are the main obstacles that prevent Israelis from supporting negotiations as a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians." He cited research conducted by Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Eran Halperin with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzlya which found that, although a narrow majority of Israelis declared themselves in favor of a two-state solution, they objected against such concrete steps toward that end as withdrawing from occupied territory, leaving many settlements, partitioning Jerusalem, etc. The survey also made it clear that there was very little knowledge of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Bar-Tal and Halperin consider the general Israeli opinion that the West Bank is not occupied territory (55 percent see it as "liberated" and only 32 percent as "occupied") a "central obstacle to the conflict's resolution," and view this as the result of decades of brainwashing. "When people are exposed systematically and holistically from an early age to approaches that suit national goals and ignore the needs of the other side," they note, "it is very difficult to induce a conceptual change."

As an Israeli professor commented to this writer when asked if a new Israeli government would bring change, "The problem is not with the government, but with the society as a whole."

Netanyahu's Attitude

Prime Minister Netanyahu often is said to favor a two-state solution, as evidenced in his June 14, 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University. While the speech contained numerous references to (in his eyes 3,500-year-old) Jewish rights to the Land of Israel, there were hardly any references to Palestinian rights. Netanyahu acknowledged "a large population of Palestinians" present in Israel, but not "the Palestinian people." He made only one reference—at the end of his speech and, according to sources, under heavy U.S. pressure—to "a Palestinian state": "I told President Obama in Washington, if we get a guarantee of demilitarization, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, we are ready to reach a real peace agreement, a demilitarized state side by side with the Jewish state." Nowhere did Netanyahu refer to the frontiers of such a state, Palestinian territorial rights, the significance of Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians, refugee rights (only that they are not allowed to return), the rights of Arab inhabitants of Israel, etc. In this writer's opinion, concluding from these remarks that Netanyahu favors a two-state solution is a case of hope overriding reality.

As far as is known, during his current or previous terms as prime minister Netanyahu has made no other reference to a Palestinian state. Surely that is more than merely an oversight.

What is referred to as "the Israeli consensus," then, clearly deviates not only from Palestinian and Western expectations, but also from the rules of international law. There is no real support in Israel (either by its political parties, public opinion, or by Netanyahu personally) for a two-state solution as viewed internationally. Thus the premise that such a state can be achieved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is invalid. Not only is it unrealistic to assign Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas the task of realizing this, it also contradicts the experiences of the past 20 years.

The West therefore is confronted with a choice between accepting continued Israeli expansion (the de facto policy of the past 20 years) or trying to achieve a Palestinian state (the stated goal) by other means.

So far the West has tried to avoid pressuring Israel at all costs, but it is a normal, justified and necessary type of action to act against states that grossly violate international regulations.

A May 2010 fact-finding mission of former leading Dutch politicians (led by former Prime Minister Dries van Agt) came to the conclusion that among Jewish Israelis there is "no willingness to voluntarily end the occupation." The Dutch leaders recommend strong international pressure on Israel as the only way to achieve a viable Palestinian state. Europe should urgently take the lead in this, as has also recently been proposed by 26 former top European officials.

Palestinian rights have been neglected for far too long. The West should stop promoting negotiations that, as evidenced by the experience of the last 20 years, cannot achieve results. Europe especially should assume its responsibility and act to realize Palestinian rights in more direct and effective ways, with international law the guiding principle. Only when "the power of dominance" is replaced by "the power of justice" will a just and therefore durable peace be achieved. 

Jan Elshout, based in The Netherlands, worked as a business development consultant in several countries, including in the Middle East. He regularly writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.