Saturday, January 5, 2013

Death of the Two-State Paradigm?

By Lihi Ben Shitrit , Mahmoud Jaraba

Even though the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has experienced long periods of stalemate over the past 20 years, a majority of Palestinians and Israelis never ceased to support its final goals. They disagreed about the contours of negotiations, preconditions, and timing, but they consistently agreed about the most important things: the viability of a two-state solution and the acceptance of mutual recognition of each other's right to self-determination. Israeli and Palestinian opinion polls since the signing of the Oslo Agreement have shown this again and again. However, recent polls indicate that 2013 could be the year when this all changes.

The latest joint Israeli-Palestinian poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) from December 2012 shows that a majority among Israelis (65 percent) and Palestinians (62 percent) now believe the chances for a final agreement are low to non-existent. In Israel, unlike the 2009 election in which the center-left and the right blocs were approximately tied, the election planned for January 2013 is likely to generate an easy victory for the hawkish Netanyahu and Lieberman coalition. The two main players in this coalition -- the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu parties (which have merged into one list) -- are dominated by politicians who adamantly reject the two-state paradigm, some of whom even advocate for an Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

The same is happening among Palestinians. In 2006, 66 percent of Palestinians said they would support recognizing Israel as the national home of the Jewish people in the context of a peace agreement. However, the latest polls by the PCPSR show that support for mutual recognition has dropped to an unprecedented low of 40 percent. A majority of Palestinians (57 percent) now believe that a two-state solution is no longer viable. Moreover, if elections were held any time soon Hamas is expected to win and this time not because of its credentials as a democratic, non-corrupt social services provider. After winning in the 2006 Palestinian national election, Hamas had to undertake rhetorical and ideological summersaults in order to indicate some openness to a potential two-state accommodation. Hamas did not win because of its peace rejectionist stance, with polls showing that about 75 percent of Palestinians wanted Hamas to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. While this was the case in 2006, the years of Hamas rule in Gaza have changed its image. Over 60 percent of Palestinians perceive Hamas controlled institutions in Gaza as corrupt and 61 percent believe they cannot criticize Hamas without fear. This time a Hamas victory will not be for its ability to govern, but for its peace-rejectionist stance. After the Gaza war of November 2012, the majority of Palestinians prefer Hamas's political strategy (60 percent) over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's and Fatah's (28 percent) to end the Israeli occupation, despite Abbas's success in upgrading the status of Palestine to a non-member state in the United Nations.

What does this mean for 2013? In Israel, Netanyahu's coalition will be stronger and more hawkish after the January election. It is unlikely that Netanyahu would want to or would be able to accept Abbas's condition for a return to negotiation -- the freezing of construction in the settlements. On the Palestinian side there is currently strong support for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. If that happens, presidential and legislative elections will follow and Hamas is expected to win. In this case, the new governments in Israel and Palestine would have been elected with a mandate to continue to reject advancement toward a two-state resolution.

In the absence of Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, Palestinians will have two options. The first is mobilization for large peaceful demonstrations inspired by the Arab uprisings. Recent findings show a dramatic increase in support for participation in peaceful protests as compared to attitudes before the Arab spring. When Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were asked in September 2012 if they would participate in non-violent demonstrations blocking army and settler roads and protesting at checkpoints, 59 percent said they would. However, and here we come to the second option, after the recent war in Gaza (which 80 percent of Palestinians believe Hamas won) increasing numbers say that armed resistance is the most effective method to deal with Israel. The last poll from December shows that 41 percent of Palestinians think that a return to armed attacks against the Israeli Defense Forces and settlers in the West Bank is the best strategy for advancing Palestinian objectives (only 30 percent think negotiations is the way to go). The new official Facebook page for the third Palestinian intifada, launched on September 28, 2012, already has over half a million "likes." The language on the page advocates both non-violent and violent action and reflects popular attitudes among Palestinians.

It appears that the last long period of suspension in the peace process has managed to finally convince Israelis and Palestinians that the two-state solution is no longer viable. Eighty-one percent of Palestinians now believe that Israel's goal is to annex the Palestinian territories and 60 percent of Israelis believe that the Palestinian objective is to conquer the whole of Israel. In 2013, Hamas and the Israeli government will likely continue to work on further entrenching these perceptions. Perhaps the only hope that the old two-state vision has is that as much as they do not think a two-state solution is viable, most Israelis and Palestinians are deeply averse to the alternative one-state option.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 03/01/2013
-Lihi Ben Shitrit is an Assistant Professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, University of Georgia, Athens. Mahmoud Jaraba is the author of "Hamas: Tentative March toward Peace" (Ramallah: Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 2010). He is a PhD candidate at the Departments of Political Science and the Middle Eastern Studies, the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany.