Five Questions - Five Answers: "Two States for Two Peoples" - Still a valid concept!

Interview with Dr. Ron Pundak, former member of the official Israeli negotiation team in the Oslo Process

Also available in Deutsch

The impasse in the peace process and unilateral acts by both Israelis and Palestinians have furthermore increased the already existing mutual distrust. Although latest surveys show that the majority of both populations still favor a two-states solution, more and more voices are heard who are searching for alternatives. In this political climate, we have asked Dr. Ron Pundak, chair of the Israeli Peace NGOs Forum, co-chair of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum and former member of the official Israeli negotiation team in the Oslo Process, five questions:

Dr. Pundak, you have been working for the advancement of a solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for about 20 years now. During a recent seminar, you mentioned that for the first time since you have been engaged in the peace process you were pessimistic about a possible solution of the conflict. Why is that so?

The Oslo agreement was built on two historic pillars: The first is the mutual recognition between two national movements, the Zionist/Jewish national movement, and the Palestinian National movement, which until that moment were fostering a Zero Sum Game approach of "us" against "them". The second is the fact that the objective of negotiations became the implementation of UNSCR 242, i.e. the principle of territories for peace. This should have led, and hopefully will still lead, to a final status agreement based on the two states for two peoples solution. Such a solution will, on the one hand, answer the Palestinian aspiration for self determination and end of the occupation, and on the other, will allow Israel to continue developing itself as a democratic state with a clear Jewish majority, living in peace and security with its neighbours, thus allowing normal life with less threats and better ability to prosper and invest in its internal social-economic challenges.

However, the current Israeli government does not want to reach a comprehensive final status agreement with the Palestinian. Furthermore, this government is increasing Israel's grip in the West Bank, with an emphasis on territories east of the fence/wall, through intensive settlement building policy, and other infrastructural activities. All this is getting us closer to a point of no return when the future delineation of a border between two states will become impossible.
At the same time, Israel is alienating itself from its immediate and distanced neighbours thus increasing the animosity and tension, and decreasing the chances to reach a regional settlement based on the Arab Peace Initiative. On top of everything, the discourse and the vocabulary used by the current government are intensifying the existing Israeli paranoia and portraying the Arabs at large and the Palestinian specifically, as non-partners. These attitudes are penetrating the fabric of Israeli society, with a special focus on the youth, creating anti-agreement and anti-peace sentiments.

All these brings me, for the first time ever, to ask myself whether we missed the option of a clear-cut two states solution. My current answer is that we still have a chance to achieve it, hence we must do everything in our abilities to foster it, because if and when we come to that conclusion, it will practically be – at least for a long period – the end for the Palestinian aspirations and the beginning of the end of Israel as a democratic society.

On the Israeli as well as on the Palestinian side, an increasing number of people who used to advocate the two-state solution are now calling for one state, granting equal rights to Israelis and Palestinians / Jews and Arabs. Do they have a point? Put differently, considering the facts on the ground, wouldn’t it be easier to implement this kind of solution?

The whole idea of One State Solution is irrelevant, or, to use a less politically correct word, nonsense. The raison d'être of establishing Israel has always been to create a state with an unequivocal Jewish majority, which will always be a safe haven for any Jew. The whole idea of creating Israel was to rebuild the Israeli-Jewish identity. A one state solution totally contradicts these two national paradigms. Moreover, the gaps and differences between the Israeli and Palestinian societies are too big to be bridged within one state. Moreover, there is the religious issue - Jews versus Muslims - which is another very high hurdle. To be frank, it seems that there are three main groups which promote this detached idea: the romantics; the Israelis who would like to see an Israeli-Jewish state in which the Palestinians are second rate citizens; and the Palestinians who believe that this is a step to get rid of the Zionist success.

Having said this, I believe and hope that once the two sides sign a peace agreement, they will immediately start working on a future model, consisting of confederal relations between Israel and Palestine, with the intention to enlarge and include Jordan in such a confederation. It can start with joint policies on common issues such as water, energy, environment, trade, fiscality, and other issues, and continue with free movement and place of residence, reaching eventually a kind of a Benelux model.

Some are arguing that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which would bring along a Palestinian state would threaten Israel’s security. They reason that an Israeli presence in the West Bank is necessary to avoid scenarios like in Gaza or Southern Lebanon, where an Israeli withdrawal resulted in a security vacuum and brought along a highly hostile regime. You believe, however, that Iran for example, would no longer have a pretext for hostilities if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were solved through a mutual agreement concerning all major questions. What makes you believe that?

It is true that in any peace agreement, Israel will take a security risk. Consequently any agreement must stipulate a non-militarized Palestine and an efficient mechanism for control and verification. This was also the case when Israel withdrew from the Sinai Desert as a result of the Peace Agreement with Egypt. But this calculated risk is not only worthwhile but a must. One can compare it to the risk which is being taken when a government decides to launch a war. The only relevant question is what serves the real national interest of Israel, and in the case of Israeli-Arab relations, peace is part of our security strategy. Within a period of 25 years between 1948 and 1973 we had five wars with Egypt, since the start of the peace process with Egypt in 1977, and during a period of 35 years, we have had no wars on this front. Furthermore, a peace agreement with Palestine will probably bring to an end the conflict over Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif, hence the pretext for countries like Iran to fight Israel in order "to free Jerusalem" will practically disappear. This may bring a change to the current anti-Israeli militant attitude of the Iranians, who will probably find a new enemy to quarrel with.

How do you think the recent developments in the region (the so-called Arab Spring) can influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s standing towards its Arab neighbours?

One fact is remarkable in this context: millions took to the streets across the Arab world, with almost no mention of Israel or the fact that Israel was still occupying a significant part of the Palestinian territories. The message was clear this time: the issue is not “them” but “us” – we no longer seek respect on the battlefield, but rather personal dignity and social justice. The public outrage was directed at the system itself: the lack of transparency; the arbitrariness; the lack of social justice; the exaggerated power of the police, security, and intelligence establishments; the huge gap between rich and poor; the lack of democratic institutions; the increasing unemployment; and the overall feeling that the middle class has no future.
The critical question is: What are the chances of the Arab Spring achieving a positive change? The way to liberation, democracy, and change of priorities remains a long way off. Toppling an incumbent president and bringing him to court, or even executing one, is easy in comparison to the real task of bringing about fundamental structural change in government procedures.

The realization of change will occur – if at all – very slowly. Moreover, instant and short sighted reforms will bring with them serious economic implications for the countries which already face very real and fundamental problems, such as being unable to maintain a reasonable and balanced budget. Nothing can move swiftly in the existing systems, which are weighed down by red tape, bureaucracy, nepotism, and management problems. These challenges are extremely hard to face, and even an ideal government could not deal with them with the speed demanded by the public. Another question is whether it will be possible - in countries like Egypt - to harmonize between state and religion, between Shari’a and democracy. Can the Arab world produce a model that holds together these two ostensibly contradictory concepts at the same time, and how will this influence its relations with Israel? Egypt is facing extremely deep problems, and the current security problems in Sinai are adding oil to the fire. Therefore, even the most enlightened, transparent, and incorruptible alternative government that will get in the shoes of the outgoing regime will find it difficult to provide quick solutions.
In order to survive, the economic and social problems must be the primary issues to preoccupy the next generation of leadership in the Arab world, and not their struggle with Israel. The best way forward is to establish maximum stability in order to allow for the necessary social and economic reforms. Here enters the interaction between the Arab Spring and the Arab Peace Initiative which should start with an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Thus, keeping the initiative alive is in the interest of all parties involved.

However, we must not ignore the fact that resentment against Israel in the Arab street is increasing. Yet, despite vociferous calls in Egypt to cancel the agreements with Israel, or even to deny the legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist, the majority in the Arab World appear to accept Israel as a fait accompli, and would like to see peace and an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but on one condition: end of occupation, and the immediate creation of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel. The Arab public is thus suspicious of Israel and has become skeptical of Israel’s calls for peace, but ready to cement and foster the Peace Process.
The Israel of today, however, seems unconcerned with the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This claim is particularly accurate in the context of the Netanyahu government, though much less so with regards to the public’s wishes. Despite the fact that the Center-Right public has no desire to deal with the issue, the reality is that all opinion polls have shown repeatedly that the average Israeli has had enough with the occupation, opposes settlement activities, approves the right to self determination of the Palestinians as part of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and will vote for a peace settlement based on the parameters known to all.

In this context it is worth mentioning the sense of threat that struck the Israeli public and political leadership as a result of the changes in the Arab world. Syria is a good example. Almost all are eager to see the downfall of Assad, but are expecting a more radical regime to take over, thus the messages from Jerusalem usually focused on describing the worst case scenario. Israel should perceive the new Arab environment not as a threat but as a fact. Therefore, Israel should adopt a positive and open approach, which would in fact preempt the extremists who would expect, and count on, her to adopt an uncompromising stance. Adopting this approach will also help to keep the Arab Peace Initiative alive, even in the case of the rise of regimes which are neither supporters of Israel or of peace.
Regional peace would increase investment, encourage cross-border cooperation, reinvigorate regional economic processes that broke down, allow Europeans to renew the Barcelona Process, and offer a true opportunity to realize the Union for the Mediterranean – and all of the associated financial benefits for Middle Eastern states and their societies. Progress in the form of a comprehensive peace agreement between the Arab world and Israel would transmit hope and inject new energy to an area that badly needs a boost to promote these complex, existential processes.

What needs to be done on both sides / in both societies to advance a peaceful solution?

Simply put: On the Israeli side, either a dramatic change of policy by the current Israeli government, something which seems unrealistic, or a change of government through democratic election and the creation of a new coalition and a government which will pursue peace following the footsteps of previous prime ministers Rabin and Olmert, i.e. negotiations towards a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, with mutual agreed territorial swaps.

On the Palestinian side, a clear and unequivocal policy and public campaign for two states for two peoples which will bring a historic reconciliation between the two nations, is needed. At the same time they should foster and intensify the process of state building and work much harder to convince the Israeli public regarding their real long term intentions, based on peace, stability, and development.

Thank you very much, Dr. Ron Pundak!

The questions were asked by Evelyn Gaiser and Annika Khano


Annika Khano, Evelyn Gaiser


Israel, August 14, 2012

Joint Israeli Palestinian Poll June 2011