Statehood Declaration or Anti-apartheid Struggle?

By Issa Khalaf

The business of seeking UN membership is once again heating up—with a fury.  While the PA threatens this diplomatic move, the Obama administration, in desperation, announces a new initiative to end what it portrays as a merely diplomatic stalemate.  (Obama’s speech, it is rumored, may be a vision that includes Palestine-Israel peace in the context of events overtaking the Middle East.)  Netanyahu, too is implying an Israeli plan. As if Palestinian-Israeli peace requires yet more plans for Israel to delay and the US to maintain suppression on its behalf. 

Similar conditions prevailed in the spring of 1999, with Arafat threatening UN statehood, putting Palestinian opposition, the US, and Israel on the defensive.  Arafat of course wasn’t serious, using statehood to divide and weaken Palestinians critical of years of fruitless negotiations under the Oslo rubric, pressure the US to become a neutral arbiter, and warn the Israelis that, if it all breaks down, there might be serious consequences.  (Then, too, the US House passed a resolution expressing opposition to unilateral declaration.)  What he was concerned with is what the PA fears today: without netting a breakthrough, showing some momentum or progress to extricate the Palestinians from occupation, the leadership will lose all legitimacy. 

After all, did not Arafat and the PLO set up shop in the occupied territories, recognize Israel, and enter into negotiations in the early 1990s to achieve Palestinian statehood? And was not the PA mandated, by Oslo, as an interim governing body in preparation for statehood and that would be dissolved after achieving it? Abbas himself these days is reminding the Europeans that the PA wasn’t created as a municipal council and that it could be dissolved if it doesn’t achieve a political breakthrough. Like Arafat, Abbas’s message is that it must deliver on statehood or its survival is in jeopardy, its dissolution imminent. Like Arafat, he’s essentially pleading with the West “to do something” about Israel’s relentless colonization. 

Abbas and the PA may be using this, diplomatic offensive which would call for a nonbinding supermajority vote on statehood in the General Assembly rather than through the Security Council, as a last ditch effort to regain support for their rule. Amazingly, he also seems ready to resume negotiations, his only “condition” to Israelis is that they suspend settlement building, never mind that the real issue is rolling back the Israeli colonists to the pre-1967 lines. Engaging in negotiations for an ostensibly independent Palestinian state is the PA’s ultimate raison d’etre.
The situation of a rudderless PA looking for something to grasp after what amounts to two decades of Palestinian negotiations to end the occupation is once again reaching a culminating moment. Following Camp David’s failure in 2000, came the second Intifada. In case of statehood failure, it’s possible that peaceful mass protests will erupt and lead to the PA’s dissolution before year’s end.

The PA, under Fatah’s auspices, is desperately struggling to make itself relevant, so determined has it been to maintain a monopoly on power rather than do what it should have done years ago: move aside for the clarity and hard work required to achieve unity, new vision, new leaders, and strategic plan required to extricate the Palestinian people from their hellish quandary.

But even if the PA is replaced by democratic institutions representing all Palestinian political tendencies and civil society groups and the Diaspora reasserts its voice through PNC elections, the dogged question remains of which strategy do the Palestinians follow. One vision, the two state solution, is an end to occupation and creation of a Palestinian state; the other is that of a single state whose prelude is an anti-apartheid struggle. The PA is clearly following the 2ss path, for to follow any other strategy would require its end—or radical transformation. 

Each option, however, is deader than the other one. There seems to be no chance in hell either will transpire. Also, national self-determination, if that is what the Palestinians want, is realizable in a separate Palestinian state, not in a one state solution whose foundation is self-determination based on civic democracy. 

One would think that the vast majority of Israelis would welcome Palestinian statehood. However, Zionism wants it all—that, and eradicating the Palestinian national, and preferably physical, presence from historic Palestine. What has Zionism, in its drive for the land free of non-Jews done except to offer no solution to the Palestinian reality on the land and none to the self-imposed dilemma of Jewish exclusivity? You can’t very well expand into Palestine and also demand separation, but the Zionists are pushing the matter with a viciousness second to none. It would seem, then, that Israel has pretty much decided the matter for the Palestinians: they will most probably struggle for their freedom, citizenship, and equal civil rights in one state.

This is why liberal Jews, Israeli and otherwise, anxiously support the Palestinian plan for state declaration/UN recognition.  Their agenda’s logic is that support of Palestinian political-legal claims and statehood in the 1967 lines saves Israel from itself, maintains it as a “Jewish state,” pushes back the time when Israeli  Jews and Palestinians will have to integrate and intermix, salves their consciences, and leads to end of conflict including dropping the demand of refugee return. 

For their part, the highly sophisticated, civilly active, and politically engaged Palestinian public in the occupied territories have not to date expressed a decision rejecting the PA’s drive for statehood.  Instead, the public is relatively quiet, almost lethargic (much as it was in the late 1990s), allowing the PA to continue on its way. They may be watching to see how matters unfold, for there seems to actually be an expectation, a desire, of achieving de jure statehood and on whose success the PA’s public support hangs. If my reading is correct, then it seems the Palestinians of the OPT by implication accept a 2ss—under condition of complete Israeli withdrawal of course. In any case, there is no coherent domestic front in the OPT that speaks in one voice.

The PA, itself, is, according to reports, thinking of several options in case of de jure statehood/UN membership failure: mobilization for freedom and citizenship in one state, dissolving itself and throwing the responsibility for the OPT on the occupier, asking the UNGA to assume the mandate for Palestine (the OPT). Under intense public pressure, Hamas and Fatah just agreed to reconcile and form an interim government—which reportedly will include “nationalist figures”—until elections. I suppose the PA is hoping to resuscitate itself and obtain a mandate of sorts for its UN membership plan. The point of elections after statehood declaration (and of course under conditions of siege) makes little sense especially if the deal merely perpetuates a revised (Fatah/Hamas) PA without agreeing on strategic goals aligned with the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

Palestinians and other supporters of Palestine who advocate a single democratic or bi-national state and the Palestinian refugees’ right of return argue that seeking, much less declaring, statehood is a mirage and farce. Declaring a state in 1967 borders, they fear, will have the effect of legally reconfirming that the Palestinians have no claims on their historic rights including return of refugees. A declaration of statehood will not result in Israeli withdrawal from the OPT and Palestinian self-determination whose core is refugee return. 

In specific terms, with or without de jure independence, the Israeli apartheid state—the wall, the permanent barriers, the checkpoints, the colonies, the annexations, the separate roads—will remain intact. The Palestinian refugees will not return. The Israelis will not withdraw from the OPT, perhaps only redeploy. They will not return the annexed lands comprising some 50 percent of the West Bank. International law may do little to nothing in support of the Palestinian’s political and national rights. There will be neither a viable nor a contiguous state. There will not really be a state except in name only. Palestine will not enjoy the essential components of sovereignty. The UN will most likely not protect the Palestinians against indiscriminate Israeli violence, and a declared state may give Israel even freer rein to attack an “independent” Palestinian state as opposed to an occupied people, its destructiveness similar to that dispensed in Gaza. The West Bank and Gaza will remain separated and treated by the Israelis as two entities. Palestinians will remain where they are, concentrated in atomized population centers on ever shrinking land. “Independence” may be a paper matter.

Declaring a Bantustan state may well be the final blueprint for achieving Israeli goals. Declaring statehood/UN recognition would seem to preclude the struggle for rights in an apartheid state and throw off the global anti-apartheid movement. It may also institutionalize the Palestinian people’s separation between those in the OPT and the rest and weaken the Palestino-Israelis’ fight for equality. 

As Virginia Tilley reminded us in late 2009, “getting the Palestinians to declare statehood themselves allows Israel precisely the outcome that eluded the apartheid South African regime: voluntary native acceptance of “independence” in a non-sovereign territory with no political capacity to alter its territorial boundaries or other essential terms of existence—the political death capsule that apartheid South Africa could not get the ANC to swallow.” 

(One more thing: the US and Israel, by loudly declaring their rejection of statehood, could be playing a game of deception to actually get the Palestinians to do what they say they don’t want them to do.  After all, Ehud Olmert once said that, to preempt an anti-apartheid struggle, a Palestinian state is a vital Israeli interest.  Still, I don’t see trickery in the current situation, but heightened awareness is called for.)

This, one state, anti-apartheid struggle argument, is apparently convincing. However, the soundness or potential for success of such a strategy can’t be taken for granted. Consider Palestinian history: The lack of a state contributed to Palestinian legal/sovereign vulnerability, for a powerful argument in support of de jure UN membership is its legal insulation against others’ claims, disputations, and aggressions. The ineluctable Palestinian historical trajectory, beginning with the British Mandate, is ever more territorial shrinkage, loss of Palestinian freedom, and remoteness of Palestinian national self-determination. 

My underlying moral concern, however, is to put an end to Palestinian suffering in the OPT and elsewhere in the region.  How long must the Palestinian refugees languish in camps in Arab countries—unwanted, discriminated against, violently attacked, despised, feared—on the cruel promise that at some perpetually distant future date they’ll return to their homes in Palestine? 
Regardless, declaring a state will allow the Palestinians to postpone, not forfeit, the right of return and Jerusalem, including if they subsequently (or ever) achieve a negotiated settlement for two states. Refugee return to their homes is not just a collective but especially an individual legal right, not contingent on or canceled by Palestinian statehood or any political settlement—despite the interpretative and legal tension between UNSC 242/338 and UN 194. 

Can the Palestinians have it both ways, struggle for freedom and equality and UN statehood? As I wrote elsewhere, on surface, a multifaceted, synergistic strategy that includes three elements—seeking de jure UN membership, accepting in principle two states based on international law and UNSC resolutions, and struggling for freedom, human rights, equality in a non-violent campaign of resistance to end the occupation—seems workable. Each strategy will have its own constituent tactical elements: one diplomatic push at UN, the other UN sponsored/negotiated settlement, the third mass organizing/mobilizing of Palestinian and international civil society. 

Notice I say, “to end the occupation.” This could mean either an anti-apartheid struggle for freedom and liberation leading to Israeli withdrawal followed by a peace treaty, or two, an anti-apartheid struggle for equality and citizenship whose goal is achieving freedom and citizenship.  The first implies two states, the second a unified state. Which path depends on how matters unfold. 

Israel, in response to de jure statehood, will do one of several things that come immediately to mind.  One, it will offer nothing new and take no action, continue expansion/colonization, and let the Palestinians call their state whatever they like.  Two, it will accept Palestinian statehood, implement its own plan of accommodating such a state by perhaps arbitrarily transferring a bit more territory to “Palestine” and redeploying to those new lines and calling it a day.  Or three, it may just redeploy around/behind current annexation lines and declare its borders there.  Whichever direction, the annexations/colonies will largely remain in place.  Short of swallowing up all of Palestine, the goal would be to consolidate the gains, separate Jews from Palestinians, turn Palestine into a dependent, subordinate, controlled state, and maintain the system of apartheid domination.

The point here is that, even with a state declaration/UN membership, two essential realities will remain unchanged: Israel will stay in illegal occupation and the Palestinians will continue to resist it and demand freedom one way or another. A two state solution based on pre-1967 lines—even one based on the recently expressed British essentials of 1967 borders but with equal land swaps, Jerusalem as a “shared” capital, and a “fair and realistic” solution of the refugee issue—will not happen. The Zionist right in particular simply will not abandon its ideological vision of overtaking all of historic Palestine, even if, for tactical reasons, they seem to do so.

Perhaps it’s sensible, then, that the powerless Palestinians at this historical juncture legally protect the last remaining part of Palestine (the OPT) from Israeli claims and depredations.  UN membership will reaffirm all the OPT as Palestine’s regardless of what Israel does to obviate the Palestinian move.  It comprises a guarantee of Palestinian claim and right.

I realize that a fateful move toward statehood that excludes the Diaspora means the Palestinians of the OPT—assuming they, not the illegitimate PA, democratically so decide—are making awesome decisions for the rest of the Palestinian people.  It may be, however, that securing that fraction of historic Palestine is the last best hope for eventually realizing true Palestinian self-determination and achieving refugee return.  Even if, and this is a huge if, Palestinian fortunes lead to a state in pre-1967 lines and there is an end of conflict, history may unfold favorably.  The Palestino-Israelis— expected to become the majority within 15-20 years barring mass Jewish immigration to Israel—will most probably achieve equality.  Palestinian refugees, including those integrated in Arab societies, can still choose to immigrate to a Palestinian state.  And as the Palestinian and Jewish populations continue to rise in the coming years, there would most likely be an evolution toward increasing bi-national integration and a regional federal structure that includes Jordan and hence the eventual return and integration of the refugees in historic Palestine. 

In any case, the Palestinians of the OPT, if not also those of an empowered Diaspora, must debate these complexities and potential catastrophes and decide whether they want the PA to continue with its UN membership plan or put a stop to it immediately, at the very least delay it until the Palestinian people as a whole have spoken.

– Issa Khalaf has a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East Studies from Oxford University. He contributed this article to

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