Breaking the Middle East impasse

Pretoria, South Africa - A new conventional wisdom is rapidly taking shape
that the United States can resolve the 130-year-old conflict in Palestine
by advancing its own peace plan. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Stephen Solarz
outlined such a plan, and argued that President Obama could boost its
prospects with a "bold gesture" -- a trip, to Jerusalem and Ramallah in the
company of Arab and other leaders to unveil it.
Strong supporters of Israel have pushed back that "imposing peace" would
not work, but few Palestinian voices have been heard. Indeed, from a
Palestinian perspective, this idea is dangerously simplistic, and more
likely to deepen festering injustices and fuel, rather than resolve
The "comprehensive solution" Brzezinski and Solarz propose is nothing of
the kind because the conflict cannot be reduced to a mere border dispute
between Israel and a putative Palestinian state. They propose for example
"a territorial settlement based on the 1967 borders, with mutual and equal
adjustments to allow the incorporation of the largest West Bank settlements
into Israel."
This is deceptive; the West Bank and Gaza Strip constitute just 22 percent
of historic Palestine between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, in
which Palestinians formed the overwhelming majority prior to their
expulsion and flight as Israel was created in 1948. Official Palestinian
acceptance of the two-state solution was a concession unprecedented in the
history of any nation because it involved surrendering the 78 percent of
the country on which Israel was established. To demand that Palestinians
further divide the remainder represents no compromise by Israel. It merely
ratifies Israel's systematic colonization of West Bank land since 1967 in
flagrant defiance of international law.
The proposed "land swap" to compensate Palestinians for annexed Israeli
settlements is illusory. The majority of the half million Israeli settlers
are concentrated in and around Jerusalem -- the heart of the would-be
Palestinian state. Yet the lands that Israel might consider handing over in
compensation are small barren tracts far away from population centers. If
there are such lands that could compensate the French for Paris, the
British for London or Americans for New York City, then there might be
lands that Palestinians could accept instead of Jerusalem.
Even more devastating to Palestinian rights, Brzezinski and Solarz float "a
solution to the refugee problem involving compensation and resettlement in
the Palestinian state but not in Israel." This they call "a bitter pill"
but argue that "Israel cannot be expected to commit political suicide for
the sake of peace."
Palestinian refugees have an internationally recognized legal right to
return to their homes and lands, but Israel has always denied this on the
sole grounds that Palestinians are not Jews. Thus Gaza, where 80 percent of
the population are refugees, is essentially a holding pen for humans of the
"wrong" ethno-religious group. Would Brzezinski and Solarz be so sanguine
about accommodating Israel's discriminatory character if its grounds for
refusing the return of refugees was that they had the "wrong" skin color?
I write from downtown Pretoria, once the all-white capital of the South
African apartheid state, which also argued that ending white rule would be
"political suicide." The notion that people of different groups cannot or
should not mix is belied by the vibrant multiracial reality in the streets
of Pretoria outside my window today.
And precedents for the actual return of refugees abound. Under the
US-brokered 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnia war, almost half a
million refugees and internally displaced persons returned home with
international assistance, to areas that had become dominated
demographically and politically by members of another ethno-national
community -- an enormous achievement in a country with a total population
of 3.5 million and deep traumas as a result of recent war.
Other than Israel's discriminatory aversion to non-Jews it is difficult to
see why Palestinian refugees could not also return to their lands inside
Israel, the vast majority of which remain uninhabited.
By endorsing Israel's self-definition as a "Jewish state," Brzezinski and
Solarz not only ratify the violation of the fundamental rights of refugees,
but consign another 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of Israel to permanent
second-class status within an increasingly intolerant and ultranationalist
Israel. A more likely outcome than 'two states living side by side in
peace' is that Palestinian citizens of Israel will come under increasing
threat of expulsion to the Palestinian state -- in other words, a new round
of ethnic cleansing.
The vision of a truncated, demilitarized mini-state in no way fulfills
basic Palestinian aspirations and rights and would bring no more peace or
dignity than the bantustans which apartheid South Africa tried to establish
for its black citizens to forestall and delay demands for equality and
democracy. Nor would a trip by Obama do anything to revive shop-worn ideas
that have gained little real support either among Palestinians or Israelis
since they were first proposed at the failed Camp David summit in 2000.
Margaret Thatcher once said that partitioning South Africa to create
separate black and white states would be like "trying to unscramble an
egg," and could lead to tremendous bloodshed. It is time to recognize that
this truth also applies to Palestine/Israel and to seek political solutions
similar to the one here, or the settlement in Northern Ireland, that
embrace rather than attempt to deny diversity, equality and justice for all
who live in that land.
Ali Abunimah is author of 'One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the
Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.'