By Jonathan Power*
Russia announced on September 8 that it has decided to go where angels fear to tread – into the whirlpool of negotiations between Palestine and Israel. Long a preserve of the Americans and the French, the attempt to bring peace between the two and to make a final settlement on boundaries has frustrated them for decades. Can Russia do better?
Russia comes on the scene at a time when the script is perhaps about to be re-written in a radical way. After decades of negotiating around the premise that the only solution was a two-state arrangement with an independent Jewish state and an independent Palestinian state existing cheek by jowl, opinion in Palestine is shifting.
The talk now, especially among younger people like the businessman Tareq Abbas, the son of the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, is quite different than their parents. They are saying Palestinians should give up pursuing what the Israelis will never concede and should stop the endless, unproductive effort, to negotiate a two-state solution.
Instead, they should accept that Israel has the whip hand over both Israel and Palestine, in both the parts it occupies and the parts it allows the Palestinians themselves to govern, the rest of the West Bank and Gaza.
So the focus of the negotiations should be changed to concentrate on demanding civil rights within Israel – a Greater Israel containing Jews, Muslims and Christians. What the Palestinians need are full citizenship and civil rights, not least the vote, in one unified state.
Three years ago a poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that 65% of Palestinians over the age of 50 still preferred the two-state solution, compared with 48% of those between the age of 18 and 28. The mood is changing.
The process of a change of focus is well underway but is rarely commented on by outsiders. I would doubt that more than a thousand Russians are aware of it. Since 1966, when martial law was lifted in Israel, the situation of the Arab citizens within Israel has improved greatly.
In 1960 only 70 Arab students were studying at Israeli universities. Today there are more than 20,000, of whom two thirds are female. Around 10,000 Arab Israelis are studying abroad. There is now a growing Arab middle class and at the last election the Arab parties, standing as a unified, group, became the third placed winner of seats in the Knesset (parliament). So why not build on that?
According to Professor As’ad Ghanem of the University of Haifa, 66 of the 112 towns in Israel with more than 5,000 residents have virtually all-Arab populations. Thanks to high birth rates and a young population half of Israel’s Arab citizens are under 20, whereas only 30% of Jewish Israelis are. Some observers, including the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, predict that before that long Israel will become an apartheid state, with a minority population of Jews ruling over a majority Arab population.
The Israeli premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, has managed to dominate Israel’s internal debate among Jewish voters in a way that hasn’t been done by a leader since David Ben-Gurion. For public consumption he talks of his willingness to negotiate the two-state solution. In practice he cleverly steers all negotiations away from such a deal.
A one-state push by a new Palestinian leadership could cause him grave difficulties, not easy even for him to surmount. No longer could he play the security card that gives political and military spine to his conviction. In a unitary state there would be no military threat to counter, either from West Bank Palestinians or the inhabitants of Gaza or from the armies of Arab neighbours.
Netanyahu would find himself being outmanoeuvred in a unitary state. The Arab parties’ voting strength inside Israel would shoot up. If they could stay more unified than the disparate Jewish parties they would emerge as one of the two strongest parties. They would be strong enough to broker more liberal coalitions.
Ironically, if the Palestinians do decide to make a unitary state their objective they might well end up with a two-state solution as Netanyahu and the Jewish voters run to back such a deal for fear of this alternative.
Thus for Palestinians to focus on a one-state solution is a win-win tactic. There is only a slim chance that a campaign for a unitary state would succeed (although in South Africa it did succeed). If it did all well and good. If the campaign were bought off by a two-state offer from Israel, even better.
It is into this fast moving whirlpool of new ideas that the Russians step. Unlike the Americans and French they have no baggage. It’s a good time for a new interlocutor to arrive on the scene. We should all wish them luck.
* Jonathan Power syndicates his opinion articles. He forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS. Copyright: Jonathan Power