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Seven Theses on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

A speech by Alan Johnson to a Greenwich University Debate on ‘Is Peace Attainable’

7 October 2014

Other panellists: Norman Finkelstein (via Skype), Sunny Hundal (Resident Journalist at Greenwich University), Doris Carrion (Research Assistant, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House)

Thank You.

Thanks to My Life My Say and to Cllr Mete Coban for inviting me.

I have been involved in this issue for over 30 years now. I’ve been pretty consistent all the way through – a left-wing, non-Jewish, non-Israeli, two-states-for-two-peoples Zionist: pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace.

I’ve worked full time for BICOM – an organisation that supports the two state solution – as founder and editor of this journal, Fathom, for the last three years.

So I thought that tonight I would try to sum up what lessons I have drawn over the years about the Israel-Palestine conflict and the road to peace. I’ve organised my thoughts, tongue slightly in cheek, in the form of ‘7 theses’.

I’m speaking tonight for myself, of course, not for BICOM.

Thesis 1: if the right to national self-determination of both peoples is not met, there will be no peace in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but only more, and probably worsening conflict.

As the Israeli novelist Amos Oz puts it:

The Palestinians are in Palestine because Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinians. The Israelis are in Israel for the same reasons because Israel is the homeland of the Israelis. No one is moving out, no one has anywhere to go, the Palestinians have no other place and the Israelis have no other place.

Thesis 2: Only the ‘two states for two peoples’ solution can fulfil the right to national self-determination of both peoples.

It is the only solution because what we are looking at is not ‘Apartheid’ but an unresolved national question, unresolved because two peoples – both Europe’s victims by the way – are trapped in a tragic history which you can’t undo but you can only work through.

As Oz puts it, this is a conflict not of right against wrong, but of right against right.

Two legitimate claims to the same land must be reconciled through mutual recognition, compromise and the division of the land. The two state solution is the only solution because it is the only way to reconcile these claims and to fulfil the desire of both peoples to statehood.

Thesis 3: The so-called “one-state solution” is not a solution because it denies the right to national self-determination of both peoples (which is why both peoples oppose it).

The one state ‘solution’ gets wrong what the conflict is actually about. Two highly developed and distinct societies, Israeli and Palestinian, each based on a powerful sense of national identity, must divide the land. When there are such strong desires for national self-determination the one-state idea collapses. That’s true the world over.

Look, if there is one state ‘from the river to the sea’ then no one will be ‘free’. (That does not work as well as a chant, does it, but it’s true.)

If the ‘one state solution’ isn’t really a solution, what is it? It’s a coded way for both sides to talk of victory in an acceptable way.

There are 4 versions of the one state nightmare.

Nightmare 1: Continuation of the Status Quo

  • The Palestinian right to national self-determination is denied.
  • The occupation continues with all its attendant miseries and poisons for Israelis and Palestinians.
  • There is rising global hostility to Israel and a drift towards a climate supportive of sanctions.
  • And there is the danger of a third Intifada – in a region of chaos, collapsing states and jihadi armies.

Nightmare 2: The New Annexationists of the Israeli Right

Many students think ‘one state’ is an exclusively left-wing idea. It isn’t.

The right wing pro-settler Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett proposes to annex 60 per cent of the West Bank and give the remainder some kind of ‘automomous area’ status.

The Jerusalem Post writer Caroline Glick proposes ‘the Israeli solution’: Israel will apply Israeli law to what she would call Judea and Samaria, grant permanent residency status to the Palestinians, and offer a ‘route to citizenship’. Former Likud Defence Minister Moshe Arens proposes something similar.

You might ask why that is a nightmare. Caroline Glick would say ‘Look, Israel is the one success story of the region. Extending that success to the Palestinians of the West Bank is a good thing, surely?’

Well, not really.

First, her ‘Israeli solution’ excludes Gaza and 1.5 million Palestinians.

Second, it embraces the West Bank Palestinians as individuals with civil but not national rights.

Third, it would be imposed, not agreed.

Fourth, it would not end the conflict, only displace it. With national self-determination denied them, the Palestinians would fight on, and the Arab states and international community would support them in doing so, to varying degrees.

Nightmare 3: The vindictive one statism of the anti-Israel Left

In this left-wing version of ‘one state’, the Palestinian refugees return – and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, ‘refugeeness’ being for Palestinians, and only Palestinians, an hereditable trait. Other Arabs immigrate. In time, Israel is no longer a Jewish homeland but another Arab majority state. The Jews are then told they will have to, ahem, take their chances once again as a minority living by the grace of a non-Jewish majority. In the Middle East. In the early 21st century. (That’s why I call it vindictive one statism).

You can call that proposal ‘democratic’ and ‘secular’ all you want, but it would not be either, in practice.

First, it would be a conquest or it would not happen. The Israeli Jews will never, ever, give up their state; the state that history made them pursue as a life-raft, for which they have fought wars of survival and which they continue to view – all of them, with only a slither of opinion that dissents from this – as an existential need.

It’s not a serious proposal. Either you are saying the IDF and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade will unite into one army of one state under one command or, returning from fantasyland, you are really talking about civil war and repartition.

It’s not even in the grain of history. Whatever the late Tony Judt said about the nation-state being an anachronism, we have just lived through a purple patch when it comes to creating nation-states. They proliferated as the Soviet Union splintered, as Yugoslavia broke up and, for goodness sake, even the Velvet Underground-loving hipsters of Czechoslovakia went for the two- state solution – the Czech Republic and Slovakia. (And if you don’t know who the Velvet Underground were, you have a treat in store for you on Spotify.)

Nightmare 4: Finally, ‘one state’ could mean ‘what is left with after some kind of “transfer” of populations.’

‘We are the lords of the land for 3,000 years, Netanyahu can return to his Brooklyn roots,’ said Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian UN ambassador,

Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister has raised the possibility of towns in the ‘triangle’ region southeast of Haifa, including heavily populated Arab cities, becoming part of a Palestinian state in any peace agreement in exchange for the Jewish settlement blocs of the West Bank. But Israel’s Arab citizens do not want that to happen. A huge majority say that of all the countries in the world, where they want to live is Israel. (I should stress, Lieberman’s plan is voluntary. He is not talking about forcible transfer.)

Thesis 4: The two states for two peoples’ solution is not dead. It remains viable.

There are reasons for a serious person to maintain a (very cautious) optimism about the prospects for the two state solution and to work for it. If I did not believe that I would give up my job. There are reasons to adopt an optimism of the will, as Antonio Gramsci put it. To fight for it, at any rate. (Even if, over 20 years since the Oslo Peace Accords, we can’t quite escape a pessimism of the intellect.)

One, the two peoples still support the two state solution, despite all.

Two, the international community – with its diplomatic weight, capacity to legitimise and its material resources – supports the two state solution.

Three, the US tried recently, and will try again, to lead a major push for peace. Secretary of State John Kerry made more progress than people think.

Four, the EU remains absolutely committed to the two state solution and is a major financial backer of the Palestinian nation-building project.

Five, the Arab League supports the two-state solution.

Six, the 2002 Arab peace initiative – which offers recognition to Israel in return for a two state deal along the 1967 lines – was renewed this year with an amendment; the principle of land swaps was accepted. This matters hugely for two reasons: the Palestinians need the regional diplomatic cover to make the two-state deal; the Israelis need the regional buy-in to take the tremendous security risks involved in making the two-state deal.

Seven, the two leaders, Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, have not abandoned the two-state solution.

Abbas gave an interview in 2012 to Channel 2 in Israel, He said ‘look, I want to visit the village I was born in, Safed, but I know I can’t go back to live there’. He has declared that for him Palestine is the West Bank and Gaza ‘now and forever’.

There is scepticism about Benjamin Netanyahu commitment to the two state solution. I get that. I’d just say this.

  • He took a huge leap for a Likud party leader – the leading right wing party in Israel – and declared his personal support for the two state solution in his Bar Illan university speech in 2009.
  • He reaffirmed that commitment during his recent White House visit. He has said he is ready to make a ‘historic compromise’ to ‘end the conflict.’
  • He has said he has no intention of allowing Israel to drift into bi-nationalism. When he spoke in 2013 to the Directors at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he spoke openly about the need for Israel to reach a ‘two states for two peoples’ agreement because of the unacceptability of a binational state.
  • He put Tzipi Livni, the loudest and most determined advocate of reaching a two state deal and effective leader of the Israeli peace camp in charge of leading the negotiation with the Palestinians.
  • During those negotiations, the US negotiator Martyn Indyk said that Netanyahu himself ‘sweated bullets’ and before the end ‘he was in the zone of agreement.’

Eight, – and this might surprise you – is how far we’ve come and how much the gaps have narrowed.

We have gone from it being a criminal offense to speak to the PLO to handshakes on the White House Lawn between an Israeli Prime Minister and the PLO Chairman.

We have gone from the Palestinians refusing to recognise Israel to the Palestinians recognising Israel.

We have gone from the two state solution being a fringe idea to it being the only real policy framework accepted as the way forward across the spectrum – across enough of the spectrum for it to happen – in Israel, Palestine, the Arab world, the US, and Europe.

And it simply isn’t true to say 20 years have produced nothing. Differences have been clarified, gaps have been narrowed. Two major sets of negotiations got us close to a deal. Another will happen.

But after 20 years of trying, and failing, clearly something is missing.

Can we move towards a ‘Peace Process 2.0’, a Peace Process Plus? I think we have to try. I have two thoughts on that.

Thesis 5: The peace process has been a behind-closed-doors affair, seeking a short-term final status agreement between leaders, and, to some degree, behind the backs of the two peoples. It must become a long-term popular process built on the consent and enthusiasm of the two peoples, two societies, two economies, two cultures.

That means:

  • Campaigning for a shared society
  • Campaigning for a culture of peace
  • Campaigning for deep mutual recognition, not just bare acknowledgement of the Other but engagement and ‘rehumanisation’, as Muhammed Darwshe puts it. What do I mean by rehumanization? Well, Amos Oz says that Jew and Arab too often look at each other and see their historic oppressors in new garb. They look and say ‘you are the image of the oppressing parent.’

We Israelis look at the Arabs not as fellow victims but as an incarnation of our past oppressors; Cossacks, Pilgrim makers, Nazis, who changed their outfit but who are in the same old game … The Arabs are looking at us not seeing us as what we really are, a bunch of refugees and survivors, no, they see us as extension of the white, oppressing, colonizing Europe.

  • And in this Peace Process 2.0 leaderships would no longer use moves in the peace process – an announcement of this, a speech about that, gestures designed to wound the Other and shore up constituencies at home – for domestic political positioning, undermining the process and doing nothing to educate the peoples for peace.

Thesis 6: The peace process has been an all-or-nothing affair seeking a Hollywood moment at which a final status agreement is signed on the White House Lawn and we all head off into the sunset and the Nobel Prizes. That has not worked. It must become a long term multi-stage political process, supported by regional actors and the international community, involving a series of confidence building measures that take us closer to a two state reality, not further away.

These measures would not be an alternative to negotiations for a two-state solution but a way to keep the two-state door open; indeed, to improve the prospects for those negotiations to succeed at a later date.

  • Freezing settlement construction beyond the blocs, the IDF continuing to operate to preserve security until there is an agreement;
  • Developing debate, and in time legislation, to encourage the voluntary relocation (and compensation) of settlers;
  • Extending more freedom to the PA to plan, zone and construct in the Area C of the West Bank.
  • ‘Reconstruction for demilitarisation’ in Gaza – a long term, large scale economic development package, a mini-Marshall Plan, overseen by a concert of nations including regional Arab states and the US and EU, developed alongside a demilitarisation of the Strip, or, more realistically, the prevention of a remilitarisation after the last conflict.
  • Continued Palestinian security co-operation – there is no solution that does not acknowledge the reality of Israel’s security fears or Israel’s need for ‘rock-solid’ security guarantees – and by a decision to pause moves to internationalise the conflict through further UN applications.

Are Israeli political parties interested in this approach? Some, yes, but as yet none is committed. Are the Palestinians interested? Less so. They are deeply suspicious that ‘interim’ will turn out to mean final. That scepticism will have to be addressed.

Thesis 7: The best contribution that global civil society can make to the ‘two states for two peoples’ solution is to ‘encourage and assist’ those forces on both sides who are for two states for two peoples. Encourage and assist the development, at the grass roots of Israeli and Palestinian society, of engagement, a culture of peace, trust, and deep mutual recognition.

If my other theses are correct, or even just mostly correct, then there is way to make a useful contribution from here in London. And there is a way to make a less than useless contribution. It’s vital to understand the difference between the two.

It is useful to encourage and assist all efforts towards dialogue, engagement, deep mutual recognition and a culture of peace. Many organisations in Israel and Palestine do just that:

  • One Voice
  • Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF)
  • Centre for a Shared Society
  • New Israel Fund
  • Trade Union solidarity: get behind the PGFTU-Histadrut agreement of 2008 – supported by the UC, ITUC and every Global Union Federation – and build on it
  • The Peres Centre for Peace

Get involved with these, and other, constructive ‘pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-Peace’ organisations: support them, forge institution-to-institution relationships, invite them to campus, and work with them.

Should all this engagement involve challenge as well as encouragement and assistance? Of course! But challenge should be balanced. Challenge Israel, for sure, but do not infantalise or romanticise the Palestinians. Be willing to challenge those parts of the Palestinian national movement when they are guilty of rejectionism, terrorism, authoritarianism, corruption, and the promotion of a culture of incitement, demonization and antisemitism.

For those things are also obstacles to the two states for two peoples.

What is worse than useless, however, is for global civil society to be ‘more Palestinian than the Palestinians’ as many are in the West, absurdly trying to police the Palestinian National Movement from the left, from London or Brooklyn; denouncing Mahmoud Abbas as a ‘sell out’ as the London Review of Books do regularly, hailing Hamas as ‘part of the global Left’ as the US academic Judith Butler does, and so on.

By romanticising the Palestinians as wholly innocent victims, children really, beneath the age of responsibility;

By demonising the Israelis as cruel and motiveless oppressors, Afrikaners, Nazis and so on;

By proposing to exclude Israeli Jews, and only Israeli Jews from the economic, cultural, sporting and artistic, life of humanity;

All this does not bring us closer to the two states for two peoples solution. The reverse. And it consumes energies that could and should be invested in a very different kind of effort: pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli: pro-peace.


I have taken the words ‘encourage and assist’ as my watchwords. I took them from Nelson Mandela. He set out, I think, the stance that democrats and internationalists should adopt towards the conflict between Israel and Palestine when he said this:

As a movement we recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognise the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders, but with equal vigour support the Palestinian right to national self-determination. We are gratified to see that new possibilities of resolving the issue through negotiation have arisen since the election of a new government in Israel. We would wish to encourage that process, and if we have the opportunity, to assist.

We should wish that too.

Thanks for listening.