Debate: Refugees, A Two-State Solution, and an End to Conflict?

The Palestinian Refugees, Between the Impossible and the Possible 


The divide between the Palestinian refugees’ return and an independent Palestinian state is as wide as that between the impossible and the possible. A political solution based on the balance of power between the disputing parties may lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on all territories occupied by Israel in 1967, but it will certainly not lead to the return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes from which they were displaced. Away from slogans devised for political consumption, any Palestinian negotiator understands this fact, although he or she does not dare declare it openly.

Since many years now, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state has become an Israeli interest. Indeed, an independent Palestinian state which rids Israel of about 3.5 million Palestinians is necessarily in Israel’s interest, because Israel is the only country where religion and ethnicity have become nationality, and Israel, as conceived by Theodor Herzl’s Zionist credo of a home for the Jewish people cannot exist with a situation where half of its population is not of the Jewish nationality. Understanding that the philosophy that has compelled the Israeli elite to accept the need to establish a Palestinian state is borne solely out of this elite’s need to preserve the purity of the Hebrew state, it should then be a clear enough indication that the return of the Palestinian refugees has become impossible. If ever there was a Jewish consensus in Israel, it is indeed on the need to deny the refugees their right of return.

A legitimate question here is the following: if such is the case, how can we then believe that the right of return, as guaranteed in Resolution 194, is one of the conditions put forth by any Palestinian negotiator? There are several reasons why the Palestinian negotiator insists on this principle. First, the negotiator, any negotiator, even if he or she is inexperienced in the art of the deal, cannot for anything give away this important negotiation card, since he or she can use it to garner gains on other issues in return for fundamental concessions on the right of return, especially realizing how thorny an issue this is for the Israeli political elite. Second, no negotiator, no matter how prominent he or she may be, dares to openly and directly cede the right of return, because it is part of the Palestinian political conscience, and because the majority of Palestinians consider it a fundamental right. Concessions therefore on this right will involve some creativity on the part of the decision makers, perhaps through redefining the right of return as a return to the future Palestinian state, or in explaining the concession as part of a comprehensive solution…a sacrifice made for the greater good that is the establishment of the Palestinian state. In so doing, the objectors to any concession on the right of return will be seen as opponents of the great achievement that is the end of the occupation and the establishment of the Palestinian state.

What will get us out of this crisis in analysis is a formula that does not distribute gains, but rather maintains partnership. The distribution of gains will necessarily make both sides losers, as each will feel as though it lost something it either once had or should now have. […] This solution includes the establishment of one state in all of historic Palestine, or Eretz Israel – the name is not important – equally guaranteeing the right of return for both sides, taking property ownership out of the national context and making it an individual capitalist right, and establishing a pluralistic democratic system of governance. Such a solution, although seemingly unattainable, is the only solution that can put an end to this conflict, can free us from the rein of history, and can put an end to fantastic demands related to nationalism.
And suspicion will be cast upon those who reject such a comprehensive solution, to the point even of being labeled as traitors. It is no secret that there are great financial rewards awaiting any party that cedes the right of return, and which will be in the form of compensation for countries and individuals. This compensation will be used to silence opponents on the one hand, and to encourage countries to cooperate to, once and for all, close this chapter in Palestinian history.

This analysis does not necessarily lead to suspicion of the Palestinian negotiating elite, but it is in fact a logical framework for those who demand the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, because the balance of power can give us one state, and not a state and a half (one in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and half a state within Israel’s borders). Any observer of Israeli politics understands that Israel will fight the war of its very existence before accepting this solution (the return of the refugees). This does not mean at all that ceding the right of return is negligence in the negotiations. Rather it is the cost of negotiating the establishment of the independent Palestinian state, with full awareness of the defined balance of power. Those who want someone to accuse of negligence and treason should not accuse the negotiators, no matter who they may be. What is to be blamed is the slogan that calls for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and which has become part of the Palestinian national consensus as a red line in the peace negotiations.

Does this analysis lead us to an impasse? Maybe, but it could also lead us out of the impasse! Those whom this analysis leads to an impasse are the victims of the mechanical logic of analysis who cannot find a formula that links the basic national principles, the balance of power and the interests of the various parties together. It is those who believe that the ideal way of getting out of the impasse is through raising the ceiling on our national program to a level where our national rights can only be achieved through our total liberation and through Israel’s total destruction. These people forget or choose not to remember that Israel, when it realized that exterminating millions of Palestinians is impossible in today’s world, despite its military superiority that would have made this possible, found no other solution compatible with its interests than the acceptance of the principle of establishing an independent Palestinian state. This means that exterminating five million Jews living on this land is also impossible, even if the balance of power were to shift, because today’s world forbids the annihilation of an entire people, even if they numbered in the few millions only, to say nothing of our historically oppressed people’s moral aversion to committing such acts against others.

In other words, we are at a point where each side recognizes the other’s right to exist, despite the differences in the legitimacy of this existence (it should be noted, by the way, that the differences in the legitimacy of existence relates to both sides). Away from absolute truths, in reality, imagined facts are the strongest, most powerful and most influential. What is the point of proving, through history and archeology, that we are the oldest inhabitants of this land, when there are just as many millions of others who believe the opposite? And even if Israeli archeologists find remains of their so-called Temple beneath Jerusalem’s walls, this will not change the reality that more than one billion Muslims regard this land as a holy Muslim region.

While mutual recognition of each other’s right to exist does not solve the problem, it can serve as a starting point on the way towards the solution. The real creative solution lies in finding a formula that can, using this starting point, lead to the safeguarding of each party’s interests and to reifying their aspirations. For away from relative justice, the most important condition of the sought peace is that it be a viable peace. And a peace that ignores the interests of more than 70% of the Palestinian refugees cannot be a viable one. Even the millions of dollars in compensation cannot erase the reality of Palestinian displacement, which is no longer a mere objective fact, but has rather come to shape and has taken over the Palestinian conscience, much like what the crematories and the concentration camps have done to the Jews. Have German reparations, in spite of their exorbitant amounts, drawn attention away from the crematory?

The analysis faces a crisis: (1) a peace that establishes a Palestinian state without guaranteeing the refugees’ right of return – this will be nothing more than a cease-fire in between two wars, that may be a little long, but will certainly not last; (2) a peace that establishes a Palestinian state and guarantees the refugees’ right of return – this will effectively terminate the state for the Jewish people, according to the Zionist concept; and (3) the continuation of the conflict until one of the two sides is exterminated – this is no longer an option. Is there a way out?

Searching for a way out is like being suspended in mid-air: in view of the growing enmities and the escalating carnage, one can see no ray of hope. But remarkable creativity always shines when solutions seem impossible. No doubt both sides are suffering from the same crisis. The intifada, even if it appears to be a conflict with no political horizon, is in the final analysis a political action that is considered by both parties. The bitter fact however, at this point, is that neither side is interested in stopping the daily bloodshed, so long as the other has not backed down, politically, from its position that has led to this whirlpool. To stop this whirlpool of violence, without making strategic concessions related to core issues of the conflict – which go beyond the arrest of this person or the assassination of that person, or the withdrawal from this city or the easing of the siege over that city – will only serve to continue this cycle of violence, and this is what both sides would like to avoid. What has been happening for over two years now is a different style of negotiations. Brutally and cruelly putting President Yasser Arafat under siege, and confining him to one limited geographic area, and raining down on his compound all sorts of grenades and projectiles, all within ear-shot, is aimed not to kill or humiliate him, but rather to force him to make concessions. Yasser Arafat understands this. He understands also that the other side wants to take him as close to the edge of the abyss as possible, without causing his fall. This mutual understanding makes him all the more strongly hold on to the strategic principles, while confidently crying out his mantra: We will emerge from under this siege, and march on to Jerusalem, the capital of our independent state of Palestine.

What will get us out of this crisis in analysis is a formula that does not distribute gains, but rather maintains partnership. The distribution of gains will necessarily make both sides losers, as each will feel as though it lost something it either once had or should now have. Even if the illegitimacy of the settlements were recognized, their evacuation would still be seen as a loss, from the Israeli perspective, or at least from the perspective of the majority of Israelis. The same applies to the Palestinians. For even with the Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel, Yaffa, Haifa and the Carmel, for instance, would still be, and will forever remain an indelible part of the Palestinian dream. And even if the Palestinians were made to choose either having all of historic Palestine without a state of their own, or having a Palestinian state on less that 22% of historic Palestine, the majority would indeed choose to have all of historic Palestine without a state.

The solution is based on maintaining a partnership between both sides, making each feel as though it has achieved what it hoped for. This solution includes the establishment of one state in all of historic Palestine, or Eretz Israel – the name is not important – equally guaranteeing the right of return for both sides, taking property ownership out of the national context and making it an individual capitalist right, and establishing a pluralistic democratic system of governance. Such a solution, although seemingly unattainable, is the only solution that can put an end to this conflict, can free us from the rein of history, and can put an end to fantastic demands related to nationalism.

More importantly, this one-state solution makes both sides feel that they have made additional gains. The Palestinians will not be forced to cede any more land in return for a state, and the Israelis will not have to leave the land of Israel. There is enough land to accommodate not just both sides, but their dreams also. No matter how just partition may be, it will, when finally carried out, shatter the dream. Maybe the blood that has been already shed on this land, throughout this conflict, will serve to make both sides recognize the need to develop this corner of the world. Even though the political history between the two sides does not really suggest that such a solution is possible, those who rationally study the situation and recognize that economic relations have indeed developed, through various stages, between the two sides, will be able to confirm that the potential of living in one state is much stronger than that of separation into two states. Partition is in the interest of each side’s ruling political elite who wants to satisfy its personal political aspirations, while partnership is the desire of those concerned with development and stability.

In the initial stages, a battle for the name of this one united country may be important for both sides, but further along into the process, it will not matter what the name is or what the design of its flag is, because attention will then be focused on this country’s level of welfare achieved for its citizens. Even if both side’s returnees indulge in a demographic competition, economic interests will make expatriates indifferent to election results in a country, which they no longer regard as suitable for their investments. The economy will most likely define the political map, more so than any ethnic or national population. Getting both sides out of the madness of history and of the unremitting fear complex requires that the doors of coexistence be opened wide, with no restriction or hesitation. Coexistence however should be evenly balanced, with no one side slave to, or master over the other.

This solution will face great resistance. It will be resisted by those who cling to the illusion of history, and by both sides’ political elite, but the exhaustion from this continuing cycle of violence will ultimately lead us to it. It is only a matter of time. Do we need to go through the two-state solution first? Does each side have to first feel the loss resulting from the policy of total separation? Maybe we first have to satisfy the illusion of history and nationality etched in the mind of both sides, but the price for all this will be more victims and more generations of enmity. And even if the political course should follow such a path, hitting the separation’s dead end will not be long in coming. Undoubtedly there will remain more than one bridge linking both states, including joint interests in water and religious sites, and intermingled populations, and all these bridges will keep the doors open to new developments between both states. Maybe there will be tension stemming from each state’s desire to make gains at the expense of the other, and maybe the two states will cooperate with each other. But whatever the situation, the two states will inevitably reach that stage when they realize that their interests lie indeed in the establishment of one state for both peoples. However varied the means are for achieving this – including war – one state will satisfy illusions and will protect the interests, and it will be a logical end to this conflict.

The issue of the refugees’ return, which was the reason why a political solution has failed (in light of each side’s adamant attachment to its position on this subject), with all its difficulties and complications, is the stimulus behind the drive for this creative and realistic one-state solution, which can guarantee the aspirations and interests of both sides.

Awni al-Mashni is a member of Fateh Higher Committee
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Translation by Khalil Toma.