Why The World Is Stuck On The Two-State-Solution
Asher Susser is a very impressive man. Now professor emeritus of Middle East history at Tel Aviv University, I took an online course from him called The Emergence of the Modern Middle East. I like his measured and calm way of talking. If you want to see the man for yourselves, here he is interviewed by Lucy Aharish (begins at 4:17 minutes):
I find it unfortunate that he seems to still believe in the Two-State-Solution for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict by offering sovereignty to Arabs who now call themselves Palestinians. At the same time, there is value in his recent paper, in which he explains why the world is stuck on that option. It does not explain why he, personally, is, but that is another matter. The more we understand of the background and context to international opinion, the more we can devise ways to improve our standing (mainly by finally deciding who and what we are and not being afraid to assert ourselves).
I thought you might be interested in Susser’s analysis of the background to world opinion. For this purpose, I will list the points he makes in his paper, emphasizing those that seem to be part of the theme he picks out of history. The paper is called, “The Historical Linkage: Israel’s Legitimacy and the Idea of Partition” and was published in a 2018 issue of Israel Studies. (If you do not have patience for the details, you might want to skip to the sections on the essence of Susser’s argument and my conclusions at the end of this article.)
- The 1917 Balfour Declaration was sympathetic to the needs of a homeland for the Jews that would not prejudice the civil rights of the non-Jews residing in The Palestinian Mandate. This was not necessarily intended to mean that the Jews (then only 10% of the population) would have a sovereign state.
- The 1922 White Paper reaffirmed the Balfour Declaration but made it clear that the land in consideration did not include that on the eastern side of the Jordan River. This meant that the British intended that the land west of the Jordan River was to be shared by both the Jews (who would have national rights of some kind) and the Arabs (who would have individual civil rights).
- In the 1930s, Jewish immigration was still very low but the Arabs started to get worried when Hitler rose to power and Jewish population doubled between 1931 and 1936. The Arabs violently rebelled to the idea of Jewish domination of the land. The 1937 Peel Report of the causes of the violence pointed out that there were two national groups that had nothing in common and needed to be separated (like the Moslems and Hindus of India?). They proposed that the Jews get 20% of the land — the Galilee and along the coastal plain. The rest would go to the Arabs and be joined up with Trans-Jordan. The Jews, in a weak position at that time, accepted partition but the Arabs (except Abdallah of Trans-Jordan) rejected it. The Peel recommendations for partition were withdrawn because of the Arab response to it.
- After WW II, Britain handed the problem of Palestine to the UN; the latter established the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Except for the Arab states, there was widespread international support for settlement in Palestine of the Jewish refugees from Europe and given the numbers of displaced persons, partition was now slated to give to the Jews 55% of the already partitioned mandatory territories of Palestine (Trans-Jordan was already partitioned off, remember). There were to be two sovereign states in the land west of the Jordan River. Sympathy for the Jews coming out of the Holocaust did not change anyone’s minds about the idea that the land was to be split between Jews and Arabs.
- Golda Meir met secretly with Abdallah, explaining that the Jews would have no problem with Trans-Jordan taking over the Arab section as long as they did not interfere with the set up of Jewish sovereignty in the remaining part of the land. On page 221, Susser wrote: “Meir was especially cautious not to undermine partition, obviously not for the sake of the Arabs of Palestine, but in full realization that it was this resolution that would be the international underpinning of the Jewish state.” Susser claims that the Declaration of Independence, “guaranteed Israel’s loyalty to the principles of the UN Charter. It was on this basis that it appealed to the UN to accept Israel into the family of nations. Thus, as enshrined in its own Declaration of Independence, Israel’s international legitimacy rested on its acceptance of partition and its human rights record.”
- The Arabs, as we all know, rejected partition once more and instead opened the war that became the Israeli War of Independence. Ben-Gurion suggested increasing military efforts against Jordan and taking control over Jerusalem and large parts of Judea & Samaria. The cabinet did not approve this move; according to Susser, had Ben-Gurion wanted to, he could have overridden the cabinet, but he may not have really wanted to have to deal with the demographic issues involved in adding so many Arabs to the new Jewish state. Furthermore, Ben-Gurion may have preferred Jordan to control Jerusalem rather than have it come under international auspices. And there was the apparent international legitimacy proffered to the partitioned land as opposed to if it all fell under Jewish sovereignty.
- The 1967 war was viewed internationally as a just war on Israel’s part. UN resolution 242 called for returning land for peace but not all the land captured. Susser claims that the 1967 war cemented Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of the world — within the 1967 lines, that is; attention was focused on the fate of the so-called West Bank (as well as Gaza and the Golan). Egypt and Jordan accepted UN Resolution 242 and eventually made peace with Israel. The other Arab states and the PLO did not.
- At the same time, it awakened a debate within Israel between those who saw Israel as a secular state allowing Jewish self-determination and protection in an antisemitic world versus those who saw it as a “messianic religious redemption of the Jewish people in the land of their biblical forefathers, in the name of God[.]” Susser (page 224) argues that the latter have exerted “disproportionate political influence ever since the early 1970s. Ideologically driven and distrustful of Arab ultimate intentions, they did not believe in partition, but in Jewish settlement in all of Eretz Yisrael.”
- UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of 2016 specifically referred to the Jewish settlements in Judea & Samaria as obstacles to peace, not a new idea at all. Susser claims that the resolution’s distinction between pre-1967 Israel and post-1967 territories once more signifies international legitimacy offered Israel within the former. Those fighting for the settlements (in the government and outside it) are fighting against the globally commonly accepted principles of partition and two states for two peoples. Susser fears that if Israel does not give up the settlements in the disputed territories, does not promote the Two State Solution with greater energies, she may lose legitimacy for the state in toto.
The Essence of Asher Susser’s Article
If I understand Susser correctly, he is saying that, from the beginning, the modern State of Israel had legitimacy in the eyes of the world because she accepted partition as a basic criterion for her establishment. Well, perhaps not because of having accepted partition, but because Israel accepted partition, this idea became etched in universal consciousness.
Without carrying out that partition now or in the future, in other words, without the establishment of a sovereign Arab Palestinian state, Susser suggests that Israel will lose favour and will lose the right to exist at all.
Arab rejection of partition from the beginning, on the other hand, has not affected the apparent legitimacy of Arab claims to yet another Arab Palestinian state, Jordan having been the first. Why rejection of partition was not etched into universal consciousness in the formative years of 1930-1948 is a topic I would like to see examined in the academic literature.
What is absolutely curious to me is Susser’s neglect to mention the Oslo Accords in any way. In a private email, Prof Susser explained to me why he left it out, but I do believe that that explanation belongs in the paper so that the reader has access to this aspect of his thinking as well. It is not a small matter. I wonder about what the reviewers had to say about the omission, if anything.
Because he omitted reference to Oslo, I did not include in the list above his brief comment about the 1988 Palestine National Council endorsement of Resolution 242 — in other words, its acceptance of partition and two states. Susser acknowledged:
However, the endorsement was half-hearted and convoluted, in a text that was open to a wide range of conflicting interpretations.
In other words, one could say that they did not endorse it at all. Given the Palestinian claim shouted out at every opportunity in demonstrations around the world, that “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free”, this is surely obvious for everyone to see. No?
What do I get from Susser’s article?
One major takeaway for me is this: Even though it meant leaving Israel with a very small part of the original land falling within the British Mandate of Palestine, I get that Israel agreed to the second partition for very practical reasons: better to have a little bit of what was ours than to have nothing. The Jewish population was so small then that the thought of being able to control the land with such a large Arab population must have been daunting to say the least.
However, world psychology does not take such considerations into account — since Israel had agreed to partition, Israel herself gave legitimacy to the idea that we did not have the right to claim all the land. Right from the very start. And then we reinforced that idea by bringing Arafat in from the cold and setting up the Palestinian Authority by means of the Oslo Accords.
Backtracking and saying that we actually do have the right to all the land means trying to achieve a paradigm shift. People just do not like to make such a leap. At this point, to accomplish that switch in mentality, would require campaigns of such magnitude and power that I wonder how realistic it is.
I do not like to cry over spilt milk, but just like our annexation of the Golan seems like a fait accompli today, had we annexed Gaza and Judea and Samaria way back then, the world would probably still be screaming about it today but the screams would be hollow. On the other hand, because we did not annex those territories, instead saying to ourselves that we would use the land as a bargaining chip in exchange for peace (and because we were willing to accept partition in the first place), it is as if we acknowledged that we have no legitimate historical claim to them.
And then historians like Susser can come along and say that the problem is because of those “messianic religious Jews” who are causing all the headaches. And these messianic religious Jews are going to be blamed, I guess, if all of Israel loses legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Oh well. (This ignores the fact that there are many secular people, like me for example, who support annexing Area C of Judea & Samaria.)
My second takeaway from Susser’s article is this: Seeing how a respected historian can leave out of an article a pivotal historical event (the Oslo Accords) makes me wonder how much I can trust academic articles about which I know a lot less than I do about the chronology of developments in the modern State of Israel. It is one thing not to be able to trust journalists, but not to be able to trust academics is truly disorienting.