Picture: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom at the opening of the first Palestinian Embassy in Western Europe in Stockholm on February 10, 2015, courtesy RT.
How can the Palestine solidarity movement win? What demands should it make in order to achieve the maximum amount of justice within the constraints of what is politically feasible? And how should it frame those demands in order to reach a broad public?
These are questions of political judgment rather than science. But sound political judgment will be rooted, so far as possible, in a clear-eyed assessment of current (or incipient) public opinion. A movement that wants to persuade a mainstream audience will position itself within or just beyond the spectrum of mainstream public opinion, taking care not to isolate itself by adopting language and demands that lack political resonance.
What in the end matters, moreover, is not merely public opinion but public opinion mobilized and expressed in the realm of formal politics.
The Swedish government’s decision in October 2014 to unilaterally recognize
the state of Palestine triggered a succession of European parliamentary motions urging governments to follow suit. Lawmakers in the United Kingdom
, France and Ireland
called for immediate recognition while members of Portugal’s Parliament urged recognition “in coordination with the European Union.”
Weaker motions were passed in Italy
while, in Denmark
, a resolution
calling for immediate recognition was rejected.
This wave of European support for Palestinian statehood, which came after the collapse
of the U.S.-sponsored diplomatic process last April and in the wake of Israel’s bloody summer offensive in Gaza, demonstrated the degree to which anger at Israel’s behavior had filtered through to Europe’s political classes. As Sir Edward Leigh
, a member of Parliament, or MP, for the Conservatives observed during the U.K. House of Commons debate in October:
Virtually everyone who has spoken—not just lefties waving placards in Trafalgar Square, but virtually every Conservative MP—has said that now is the time to recognize the justice of the Palestinians’ cause.
Israel is “losing the argument and public opinion not only in Britain but also in Europe and … the United States,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond
warned in December.
The principal task now for activists in Palestine and abroad is to ensure that this growing frustration with Israel redounds to the Palestinians’ benefit. The resolutions listed above and, still more so, the parliamentary debates they generated offer valuable strategic insights on this score.
One-State vs. Two-State Solution
One prominent strategic debate within the Palestine solidarity movement concerns whether to call for a two-state or a one-state solution.
But to judge by the mainstream resolutions for recognizing Palestine tabled in parliaments across Europe, legislators do not share this preoccupation. A one-state solution does not feature in the mainstream debate.
This will not surprise most proponents of a one-state strategy. Much of the appeal of that approach lies precisely in its opposition to what is perceived to be a hopeless and cynical establishment consensus.
Indeed, advocacy for a two-state settlement is increasingly viewed within the Palestine solidarity movement as being somehow unambitious, conservative or even—ugh!
But is this true?
A one-state solution does not feature even at the most “radical,” most “pro-Palestinian” end of the mainstream political spectrum.
A number of European legislative bodies considered, in addition to the most popular resolution for recognition of Palestine, alternative motions that took a more “radical” (i.e., more strongly “pro-Palestinian”) line.
But even here, at the most “pro-Palestinian” end of the parliamentary spectrum, there was no controversy over the desired political framework.
An examination of the debate transcripts confirms this picture.
In France, those most in favor of recognition, most critical of Israel and most emphatically supportive of Palestinian rights—these groups being one and the same—backed a two-state settlement and presented recognition as promotive of it. Thus, François Asensi of the Democratic and Republican Left, or the GDR, a grouping of primarily French Communist Party members and other left-wing lawmakers, proclaimed his “profound and unshakable conviction” that “a lasting peace” requires “the immediate recognition of Palestine as a sovereign and independent state within the 1967 borders, and with East Jerusalem as its capital,” while the chair of the grouping that introduced the motion (the center-left Socialist, Republican and Citizen group) insisted that “peace is inconceivable without mutual recognition”—this means “recognition of the state of Palestine” and “full recognition of the state of Israel by all parties.” A vote to recognize Palestine, Asensi stressed, is “a vote for the security of the state of Israel.”
In Denmark, the socialist Red-Green Alliance emphasized that recognition is directed against “the occupation, not against Israel,” and indeed represents “an acceptance of Israel.” The Socialist People’s Party likewise framed recognition as “an instrument to revive … negotiations” for “a two-state solution.” Calls for a two-state settlement were also pervasive in the Belgian Federal Parliament. Wouter De Vriendt of Ecolo, a green party, one of the most “pro-Palestinian” of the members who participated, insisted that recognition “is no more than the confirmation of the internationally recognized borders of 1967.”
In the House of Commons, Grahame M. Morris, the chairman of Labour Friends of Palestine chairman, who tabled the recognition motion, described a “two-state solution” as “the only viable solution.”
Most participants explicitly endorsed a two-state settlement:
“Every speaker has spoken in favor of a two-state solution,” Jonathan Ashworth of the Labour Party observed. “All sides want a two-state solution,” Julie Elliott, also of Labour, agreed. “I think that all of us in this House, to a man and a woman, recognize the state of Israel and its right to exist,” Alan Duncan of the Conservative Party said.
None of the participants rejected the two-state position.
Where a one-state solution was mentioned, it was strictly as a nightmare scenario that might materialize should a two-state solution fail. A one-state outcome was described variously as: “disastrous”; “morally repugnant and politically untenable”; “a continuation … of war and violence” that would entail “genocide and ethnic cleansing”; and “in no one’s interests.”
These statements were made by supporters of Palestinian recognition; the “one-state solution” to which they mostly referred was the Israeli right’s vision of a Greater Israel—evidently, the only version deemed politically relevant enough to warrant discussion. Notably, in a later debate on Palestine, George Galloway of the Respect Party—perhaps the Commons’ most severe critic of Israel—did not call for a one-state solution, confining his remarks strictly to the occupation and associated violations of international law.
The debate in Ireland’s Dáil Éireann is particularly instructive. Of all the parliamentary discussions, it was by some distance the most harshly critical of Israel. “Apartheid” accusations abounded, several members demanded “economic sanctions” against what one termed the “racist Zionist state,” and more than one accused Israel of “genocide.” Yet even here, at the most “pro-Palestinian” end of the most stridently “pro-Palestinian” assembly, most members backed two states. Sinn Féin’s motion itself framed recognition as a “contribution to securing” a two-state solution, and during the debate, Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin declared:
As the Irish people suffered centuries of colonization and occupation, we … identify with the circumstances confronting the Palestinian people, but that does not mean that we are anti-Israel. On the contrary, our desire is to see two sovereign states established.
In fact, just four members across all seven legislative sessions —all of them from Ireland—referred to a one-state solution in a positive or neutral light. Of these, two called for a two-state settlement. Thus, only two lawmakers—in Ireland, and across Europe—called for an alternative to the two-state settlement.
In short, the one-state solution embraced by elements of the Palestine solidarity movement does not feature in the mainstream debate.
Greece & Spain
The new heroes of the European Left—Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain—are, incidentally, no exception. Syriza calls for a Palestinian state “on the 1967 borders.” Podemos has yet to endorse a framework for settling the conflict, but its general secretary calls for peace “based on international law” and Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-June 1967 borders.
Israel's Achilles heel
If European legislators overwhelmingly endorse a two-state settlement, their grievances against Israel likewise focus overwhelmingly on Israel’s behavior outside its legal borders. Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories is its Achilles’ heel.
Across the seven parliaments examined, members’ frustration with Israel was fueled above all by the settlements and by its violence in Gaza.
By contrast, the Palestinian refugees and discrimination within Israel had relatively little resonance.
This suggests a further drawback to one-state advocacy: It encourages activists to direct their fire toward grievances that have little mainstream resonance, rather than concentrating it where Israel is most vulnerable.
While Europe’s legislative bodies broadly concurred on their objections to Israel’s conduct and their proposed solution to the conflict, this is not to say that lawmakers agreed on everything. Indeed, disputes were frequent and often heated. But it is important to understand the axes along which they ran.
The Two-State Debate
The mainstream debate is not between two-states and one-state, but between advocates of a two-state settlement based on international law and advocates of a counterfeit two-state settlement on terms that deny Palestinian rights.
Few legislators declared as explicitly as the U.K.‘s Hugh Robertson of the Conservatives their preference for “the Kerry peace plan” as a “basis for restarting negotiations” and their concomitant view that “[we] will have to form a new border, probably based on the wall.” But the contributions of many lawmakers were ambiguous and hence potentially compatible with both positions.
More “radical,” “pro-Palestinian” representatives were more likely to insist on the importance of international law as the basis for negotiations. Thus, Asensi of the GDR criticized the Oslo process of bilateral negotiations between fundamentally unequal parties—“Can the prisoner negotiate his freedom?”—and urged “a new approach based on international law”:
Today, we have no other choice but to return to the path of law. The creation of a Palestinian state is provided for in resolutions 242 and 1860 of the U.N. Security Council, which define this occupied state along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital … Its legality was confirmed by the opinion of the International Court of Justice in 2004.
Richard Burden of Labour (and Labour Friends of Palestine) similarly argued that, while “a negotiated settlement is so important,” “principles are important, too”: “First, we should act according to international law and insist that the parties involved do so as well.”
The other significant division splitting supporters of a two-state settlement pits those who demand effective and immediate measures to realize it against those who determinedly block all attempts to buttress rhetoric with action. In Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain, leftist parliamentary formations drafted resolutions that differed from the majority text by calling for more immediate and more effectual governmental action to have the two-state solution implemented. In Denmark, Christian Juhl of the Red-Green Alliance exclaimed:
[Soon I will] have heard from all parties: We agree on a two-state solution, and we will work towards a two-state solution, but it should not be right now, and it should not be this initiative.
Morris of Labour Friends of Palestine was equally frustrated: “We hear a great deal of talk about the two-state solution,” he observed, pointedly, but “in politics, talk often comes cheap.”
Consistently, then, those elements of the mainstream debate that are most critical of Israel are to be found arguing for material pressure on Israel in the service of a two-state settlement based on international law, against those who favor either no material pressure on Israel (and thus de facto endorse the status quo) or who endorse a settlement on terms that violate Palestinian rights.
Those are the politically relevant arguments, and this is where the solidarity movement must intervene.
Far from being conservative or defeatist, advocacy for a two-state settlement based on international law and the international consensus is at the most “radical,” most critical endof the mainstream political spectrum. It represents not the minimum but the maximum we can aim for while remaining within the parameters of mainstream debate.
Of course, public opinion might change, but, as of now, there is no evidence that it’s changing toward a one-state solution, and it is highly improbable that a consensus that has crystallized over a 40-year period and is stronger now than ever before, will change any time soon. Nor is it clear that Palestinians now living under the boot of Israel’s military can afford to wait as the decades-long struggle for world opinion is first undone and then waged anew—from scratch.