Interview | Jeff Halper: “A two-state solution is no longer viable, we must stop talking about it”
Interviews, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 15:50 - 2 Comments
Jeff Halper, a Jewish Israeli, is an anthropologist, former university lecturer, political activist and author. He has published numerous articles and books including his autobiographical work entitled “An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel”, and is currently working on a book entitled “Global Palestine”.
However, Halper is best known as the co-founder and Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), an NGO that actively resists the Israeli government policy of demolishing Palestinian homes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). ICAHD has recorded that about 25,000 homes have been demolished in the OPT since 1967. For the past 15 years, ICAHD has run a summer rebuilding camp which brings international peace activists together to rebuild a demolished Palestinian home, an activity Jeff Halper maintains is purely political in scope. 185 houses have so far been rebuilt. The purpose is to non-violently challenge the occupation and refuse to remain passive in the face of injustice.
Jeff Halper was recently in London for the ICAHD UK yearly conference. Ceasefire’s Livia Bergmeijer sat down with him to discuss his views on the recent developments in Israel/Palestine and on possible prospects for the future.
Livia Bergmeijer: You’ve written extensively recently about your support for the one-state solution, arguing that the possibility of a two-state solution has long been dead. Why do you believe that a one-state solution is the only possibility to create a just peace in Palestine?
Jeff Helper: First of all the facts on the ground – the settlements, the wall, the highways and the fragmentation of the territory – are all just so massive and so permanent and are constantly being expanded that there’s no more place for a coherent, functional, viable, sovereign Palestinian state. And second of all, there’s no political will in the international community to force Israel out of the Occupied Territories. Israel’s certainly not going to leave voluntarily, so there have to be massive international pressures on Israel to get out and that’s completely missing. So, if you take those things into account there’s no way in which a two-state solution is viable, and we simply need to stop talking about it.
Now, we’re in a situation where a two-state solution is gone but there isn’t a ready alternative. The one-state solution is a possibility but it isn’t necessarily the default. There are two possible one-state solutions: one is a democratic state with one person, one vote. The problem with that is it ignores the national component. We’re talking about two national groups: Palestinians and Israelis. It’s a bi-national reality. So the other alternative is a bi-national one-state. The problem with that is that bi-national states don’t work very well because the whole point of being a nation is to have self-determination and national identity. And in Israel/Palestine it’s hard to see how that would happen especially because there’s no geographical distinction between the two peoples. They’re completely mixed up.
I’m actually considering an alternative solution that people haven’t talked about very much because everybody’s kind of stuck on the one-state/two-state binary, and I’m not sure if either one of them will work. What I’m talking about is more of a regional approach. I say that the problems facing Israelis and Palestinians and everybody else in the region are really regional in scope, they’re not localised. Israel/Palestine is too small a unit to cram everything into. If you take security, for instance, that’s a regional issue. Economic development, water, the refugees, these are all crucial regional issues. Even if there’s a beautiful Israeli-Palestinian peace and the country is prospering, if it’s in a region that’s poor and autocratic and unequal it’s not good for anybody.
You need what’s called “even regional development.” I’m playing with the idea of a Middle Eastern Economic Confederation that looks something like the European Common Market of 30 years ago. Not the European Union, that’s too much, but more of a looser confederation of countries whose economies become integrated because Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon all make up the historical, natural, cultural and economic unit of that part of the world. What we see with the Arab spring is the desire for greater participation of people and communities in the political process and I think Europe could have a role in harnessing that. The United States is so pro-Israel that it has taken itself out of the political game. But Europe has a model, which is certainly not perfect, but which works better than most other models, and could therefore help promote something similar in the Middle East.
The vision is a model that allows people to participate in the region as a whole, move around freely, and yet have their citizenship rights protected to preserve their national identities, whatever they may be (this could include national identities but also religious, ethnic, and other identities). In other words, if Palestinian refugees want to come back and live in the Galilee, they can come home, and they come home as Palestinian citizens.
Israelis that really want to live in Hebron can live in Hebron as Israeli citizens living in Palestine. In this sense it’s similar to Europe whereby you keep your citizenship but nevertheless you’re free to live and work throughout the region. I think that’s a better model than even the one-state solution, because of all the structural problems inherent in the one-state model.
LB: You’ve argued in favour of the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority. Do you see this happening any time soon and what would the Israeli government’s reaction be?
JH: I have called for the dissolution of the PA. I wrote an article saying that the Palestinian Authority has got to get out of the way. Maybe I shouldn’t have, because I’m not Palestinian and I’m here to support their struggle and not tell them what to do. But nevertheless I do live here, and I can see that the Palestinian Authority is what is keeping the lid on everything. The presence of the PA has allowed Europe and the United States to keep the pretence going that negotiations are the only way out, and so playing the game as if there’s a sovereign Palestinian government and therefore two equal negotiating sides. And of course the Palestinian Authority is very oppressive to its own people. They’re arresting journalists and activists, they’re certainly arresting members of Hamas, and so it’s not a friendly liberation government for its own people, and Israel uses that to its advantage.
The PA is trying to develop a Palestinian entity within the framework of a Bantustan, and is feeding into this Apartheid idea. The real problem here is the occupation, and the occupation has “disappeared” under the Palestinian Authority because of the idea that there’s a government and negotiations. If the PA would leave the scene, occupation would come back to the forefront and in that situation Israel would have to reoccupy the Palestinian cities, hopefully with a minimum of violence, but in a way that would be a good thing because it throws the whole occupation back into the lap of Israel and it becomes completely unsustainable.
Israel couldn’t support 4.5 million impoverished people. It relies on the world to do that. It would highlight again the fact that this is an occupation, and would inflame public opinion especially in the Muslim world. If Israel was to re-occupy, it would just create such an intolerable political situation that something would break. Israel would simply not be able to sustain it. The ending of the Palestinian Authority should be a precondition to any move forward.
LB: Resistance is now coming from all angles and using all different kinds of strategies: from weekly protests against the Separation Wall in Palestine, to the international BDS campaign, to putting pressure on politicians around the world. In your opinion, which strategies should international solidarity activists focus on and why?
JH: Well we, at ICAHD, have been doing a lot of international advocacy, with a lot of other organisations as well. The problem is that we’re in a bad marriage with governments. Governments have the mandate and the power, they’re the ones that negotiate, they’re in the backrooms getting the deals, the ones that sign the treaties, and so we need them. But they’re not going to do the right thing on their own; governments are not the friends of the people. So we have to keep pushing them, which is often frustrating because we don’t have any real status with them, we’re just a bunch of people, some of us are pretty marginal for them, so it really is a prolonged struggle. The problem is that this issue is urgent – people are suffering, houses are being demolished, the land is being lost – so it’s got to end tomorrow. But at the same time, it’s a process by which you have to educate the public and begin to build pressures from below that trickle up. Governments don’t lead, they follow public opinion. So only if there’s a shift in public opinion will we get a shift in government policies. So that’s part of it.
The other part is to work with Palestinian civil society, and to strategise. We all do good work, but we’re not very strategic. And there’s a lack of Palestinian leadership. It’s hard for them to organise because they’ve been completely fragmentised and their leadership has been eliminated by Israel, either killed or imprisoned. But at the same time we have to have a Palestinian agency because they have to lead the struggle, we cannot do that. So its like a two-pronged thing: we have to be strategic and we have to try to work with Palestinian civil society to try to develop a Palestinian leadership that we can follow, and at the same time we have to continue working to change public opinion abroad.
Activism is important and it keeps the struggle alive, but its not going to liberate Palestine on its own. There has to be a connection between the activism and saying, “What are the issues? What should we be tackling? How can we recruit more people into this struggle? Where are we going?” And those are things only Palestinians can tell us. So to some degree we’re a little bit dependent on a Palestinian leadership that still has to develop, against all odds, because Israel will do everything it can to prevent that from happening, and so will the PA.
LB: People often compare the struggle in Palestine to the one in South Africa several decades ago. Do you think this is a useful comparison to make and can one learn from the successes in South Africa and use those same strategies in Palestine?
JH: We use the South African analogy a lot because we argue that Israel has developed a system of Apartheid. And you can define Apartheid by two elements: one is the separation, which is what Apartheid means, when one population separates itself from the other. Second is when that population then creates a regime of permanent institutionalised domination over the other, strategically, institutionally, structurally, and that’s certainly what you have in Israel.
So from that point of view it is an Apartheid system. The difference is that South Africa had a very strong leadership, under Mandela and Oliver Tambo, amongst others. Another advantage of South Africa was that from the very beginning, the ANC was building the state simultaneous with the struggle for liberation. They had a constitution for the country before Apartheid ended which was inclusive and everybody knew that when it ended, the vision was for everybody to remain, including the Afrikaners. That hasn’t happened with the Palestinians. Arafat decided to build the state after liberation, and liberation got stuck because there wasn’t a clear-cut vision.
So I think there are lessons the Palestinians could draw from South Africa as well as international activists. But certainly in South Africa the ability to gain international support was really crucial and it was done in a very strategic way. Oliver Tambo in particular was responsible for working with churches, governments and trade unions around the world. An equivalent leader does not exist in Palestine largely because Israel was very successful in eliminating all Palestinian leadership over the last 70 years. Ilan Pappe writes in his book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” that the Israelis had, in 1948, detailed lists, village-by-village, of who the activists, the educated people and the leaders were, and they systematically eliminated them one by one.
Then came the campaign of elimination of the PLO leadership following the war of 1967 through assassinations and imprisonments. The Israeli regime has been much more systematic and brutal than the South African regime was. Even Desmond Tutu has said that the situation the Palestinians find themselves in is much more brutal and violent than it was in South Africa. The big difference is that the Apartheid regime couldn’t garner the international support it needed to survive. The black African struggle had all the justice on its side, and nobody could at all justify supporting the Apartheid regime. Israel, on the other hand, has succeeded in convincing everybody that this is part of Jewish history, that the Jews are the victims, that the Jews are Europeans, so it has become an “us versus them” situation with all the negative stereotyping that entails.
And as a result, the Palestinians have a much greater a task in explaining their struggle, in a way that the ANC never had to do. So there is a whole PR campaign that the Palestinians have to mount because Israel has been much more successful than the South African Apartheid government ever was in terms of garnering international support. For instance, 80% of British MPs belong to their respective party’s Friends of Israel group; there never was any such thing as a ‘Friends of Apartheid South Africa’ group.
LB: Many argue that change will only come about in Israel/Palestine if the international community puts enough pressure on their policy makers to take action. Do you not think there is any chance of change coming about from within Israeli civil society itself?
JH: No, I don’t think so. Israelis have really insulated themselves from the Palestinians who are kept away in the West Bank and Gaza – areas completely off the cognitive maps of Israelis. The Israeli economy is doing very well, people are living the good life, there haven’t been any attacks for years so people are feeling personal security, and Israel’s international status is very good with the support of the EU and the USA. At the same time, I think Israel has convinced its own population that peace is impossible. Israelis have grown up for generations with the idea that the ‘Arabs’- for we don’t use the word ‘Palestinians’ in Israel because it gives too much distinctiveness and legitimacy to a collective that we don’t want to recognise – are our permanent enemies.
So in a sense, Israelis will say, “Look, we’d like to have peace, but we can’t because they won’t allow it.” And what this has done is it has immunised Israeli Jews from even dealing with ‘Arabs’ because there’s no point even trying to make peace. For Israelis, the only job of the government is to bring them their personal security and keep the ‘Arabs’ under control and far away. I think the Israeli government has succeeded in doing so, and now that everything is quiet and normalised, there’s no motivation to make peace. In other words, I think most Israeli Jews would say today that they have the best of all worlds: prosperity, normalisation, life is good, and their permanent enemies are at bay and have been pacified.
At the same time, I don’t think Israelis would be opposed to peace in principle, it would depend on what the solution is. The silent majority of Israelis is not right-wing and has never bought into the Begin-Sharon-Netanyahu idea of a greater Israel – they are not the settlers. That’s why we need some international force that comes to the Israeli public and says, “It’s over, you’ve got to get out of the occupation, or you’ve got to have a one-state emerging.” That’s one reason we put our efforts on the international community, because we have got to create those pressures on Israel. Once those pressures are there again, if Israelis are assured that their safety can be guaranteed, I don’t think they will be an obstacle to moving towards a just peace. But it has to come from the outside, they’re not going to rise up on their own and end the occupation.
LB: The Israeli government has been revving up its war rhetoric against Iran, to what extent do you think this is just a ploy to distract the media and international governments from talking about Palestine?
JH: It is a ploy, a successful one. A month ago, Netanyahu met again with Obama in Washington and Obama went again to the AIPAC conference. When he came back, Netanyahu’s spokesperson was interviewed on TV and was asked what was the big deal about this meeting, what happened that justified this trip? The spokesperson answered that it was the first time in memory that an Israeli prime minister had met with an American president and the Palestinian issue wasn’t even mentioned, it never came up.
So that’s where Israel feels that it’s winning because it has been able to normalise a situation to such an extent that there exists a real danger that this whole thing could just go by the boards and people will start focussing on hotter issues. So that’s one responsibility we have in civil societies to keep this thing alive, during this kind of period of limbo that we’re in. So yes, it’s been a successful ploy on the part of Israel to deflect attention from the Palestinian issue to other issues, and it can continue to do so as long as the Palestinians remain pacified, and this makes the struggle all the more difficult.
LB: Considering the recent past and current situation, is there any reason to be optimistic about the prospects of peace and justice?
JH: There is; simply because the present situation is completely unsustainable. It is no longer a localised issue. It impacts the global system and is so disruptive that we know it isn’t going to last forever. “Collapse with agency” (the PA) is something we should put into the equation, and that will happen sometime in the near future. We must organise and create stronger relationships with the young Palestinian leadership. Our role is to hasten the end of occupation, but the problem is not ‘67, it’s ‘48.
So we mustn’t just talk about occupation, we must end the oppression, the Apartheid system. We need to hasten its end, truly make it unsustainable through our organising with churches, trade unions, the UN. The BDS campaign is very good because it keeps people involved at a local level. We have to continue to keep the issue alive and eventually Israel will lose the moral war.
LB: Thank you for talking to Ceasefire.