Intimate Enemies



In your book you say the two-state solution for Israel/Palestine is dead and you talk instead about a "non-state solution". You are not really saying there should be no state at all but that discussion about states and boundaries has led nowhere, so a more productive route would be to focus on Israelis and Palestinians as people, and on ways of bridging the human, social and cultural divide. Can you elaborate on this?

DIAB: We have reached an impasse. The race against space for a viable two-state solution has been lost. Israel’s housing minister, Uri Ariel, estimated earlier this year that, in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, there were up to three-quarters of a million settlers, and he forecasted that this number would spiral just shy of a million by 2019. And settlements take up large swathes of the West Bank, making the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state with territorial integrity near-impossible. Add to that the Israeli government’s intransigence and Palestinian disillusionment, with perhaps only the PA holding on to the slim hope of a negotiated resolution, and the two-state solution looks more like an illusion.

The one-state solution is also currently not viable. Though support is growing among a minority in Israel, Israelis generally reject and fear this option, which they feel would mark the death of their dream of a Jewish state and would make of them dhimmis rather than equal citizens. Although support for a single, binational state is considerably stronger amongst Palestinians, they too are afraid of this option if the disparity in power between the two peoples remains, which could, they fear, make them perpetual second-class citizens.

But the fact widely ignored is that, with Israel exercising decades-long control over the territories it captured in 1967, the single state is already a reality – albeit not one built on equality and justice, especially in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite the fact that a single political entity already effectively exists, it is a divided and dysfunctional one which is well on its way to joining the ranks of the failed Middle Eastern states as the post-Ottoman regional order crumbles.

My “non-state solution” takes account of this de facto reality that a single state exists, that it is unfair, with half the population living in insecurity and the other half living defenceless and in indignity and inequality, and that the status quo inertia does not allow for a grand, all-encompassing comprehensive solution to end all conflict. In fact, the idea that this conflict can be resolved in one go is a naïve pipedream. 

I call my solution “non-state” because it does not pre-suppose a final outcome but strives to enhance and improve the current reality. Instead of fixating on questions of nationhood and statehood, what we urgently need to focus on right now is the question of humanity. That is why I propose, in the interim, to transform the conflict into a civil rights struggle for full equality, emancipation and enfranchisement. 

Once this has been achieved, a dialogue of equals between Jews and Arabs – a full-fledged people’s peace process – can commence in which Palestinians and Israelis can decide whether they wish to stay together in a single binational state, and the form it should take, or whether they want to file for a velvet divorce, and how to divide up the territory between them. 

You devote a lot of the book to giving a nuanced picture of Israelis and Palestinians and highlighting the common ground between them. But during the recent Gaza conflict positions seemed more polarised than ever. Israeli peace activists had a difficult time and there were some very extreme opinions expressed in Israeli media. Meanwhile, Palestinians with no particular sympathy for Hamas felt obliged to support them in the face of an attack. What makes you continue to be hopeful?

DIAB: One unseen or unrecognised tragedy of the situation is how much greater the similarities between both sides are than the differences. Living here, I am constantly struck by the commonalities and parallels between Israeli and Palestinian societies, such as the Mediterranean outlook, the central importance of family, and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving, as if they are recommendations and not actual legislation. More tellingly, the differences within the two societies are, in many ways, greater than the differences between them. This is reflected, like in much of the Middle East, in the sharp and polarised secular-religious divide in both Israel and Palestine. 

Then, in two very unequal societies, there’s the class divide in which, say, a poor Jewish worker in a so-called “development town” has more in common with a poor worker in the West Bank than either of them have in common with their bosses, even if they belong to the same nation. There is also culture and the once-blurred ethnic lines. Mizrahi Jews who are originally from the Middle East are the closest in terms of culture to Palestinians yet, in many cases, the furthest away from them politically.

But relatively few pay heed to these nuances and some, in fact, exploit the perceived differences with the other to shore up the differences within their own camp, not to mention to boost the popularity of political actors whose appeal was on the wane, whether it be the Likud-led Israeli government or Hamas in its eternal battle with Fatah. 

We just went through the summer of rage, hate and despair. The unsurprising breakdown of peace talks in the spring was rapidly followed by a shaky national unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, strident Israeli opposition to it, the abduction and murder of three Israeli youth, hate crimes and murder against Palestinians… And this was all just the warm-up act for probably the deadliest and most destructive war between Israel and Gaza yet. Though the situation has quietened down relatively, the same underlying factors and dynamics remain in place and can flare up at any moment. In fact, tensions remain high, with, for instance, Palestinians mounting almost daily protests somewhere or other in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

In such a situation, it is easy to lose hope, and I feel as despondent as anyone who genuinely wishes for an era of peace to dawn upon this troubled land. While pessimistic about prospects for the foreseeable future, I have not lost hope – we mustn’t abandon hope. We also mustn’t forget that, as conflicts go, this is a relatively young one. Take South Africa, it took over 300 years after it was first colonised for whites and blacks to learn to live together in (at least notional) equality, and it remains a highly troubled country. 

In the near term, I fear far greater darkness will fall before we see the first rays of a new dawn rising above the horizon. And this new dawn will come in gradual glimmers and not in a blaze of blinding sunshine, as many hope or dream. 

Given the mediocrity and factionalism of leaders on both sides of the divide, the possibility that a visionary leadership will emerge to wage all-out peace seems improbable. What is more likely is that the current unsustainable status quo will become untenable. As is slowly occurring but in small numbers, eventually, a critical mass of Palestinians seeking their freedom from oppression will join forces with Israelis wishing to free themselves from their jailers’ chains – and together they can liberate each other.

Viewed from outside, it's obvious that Israel's current policies are counter-productive and need to be changed but they still seem to have a lot of support inside Israel. As far as the lack of trust is concerned, you point out that even after Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem a large majority of Israelis – 62% – still believed "the true intention of Arabs was to destroy Israel". What prospects do you see for a shift in opinion?

DIAB: Opinions currently seem to be hardening. But it is not inevitable that they will continue to do so indefinitely. A major hurdle is that Israelis and Palestinians rarely come into contact with each other anymore which makes the jobs of those out to demonise and prey on public fear for political gain all the easier. 

In my view, it is urgent that greater contact between the two sides occurs to build the necessary groundswell of trust. The most effective way to do so is to abolish the permit system and restore the mobility Palestinians started losing following the first intifada. Israelis are bound to see this as “suicidal” but, on the contrary, I believe it would enhance their security no end, by releasing some of the steam from the pressure cooker, through the greater prospects and satisfaction brought about by free movement, in what have effectively become the Palestinian ghettoes. 

As for potential attacks, Israel has one of the world’s best security and intelligence apparatuses that can deal with potential threats without resorting to collective punishment, if it wanted to.

On the Palestinian side we see leaders who are stuck in their ways, muddling along, with no real vision. You say in Intimate Enemies that "peace begins and ends with the people, not the politicians," but Arab politicians usually resent popular intiatives that are outside their control. How much space is there for ordinary people to make a difference?

DIAB: Whether or not the politicians want it, it is imperative. Both Fatah and Hamas have proven themselves to be petty, factional, ineffective and unrepresentative of their people’s needs and aspirations. In such a situation, in which neither party enjoys a mandate, the people need to seize back control of their cause. But achieving this will be no mean feat, since Palestinians not only have to contend with the authoritarianism of their own leadership, but also Israeli repression, not to mention the geographical, physical and social fragmentation caused by the occupation.

The international community remains committed to a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, even though this seems less and less likely to be achieved. Do you see this as a barrier to a people-based solution and if so, what should be done about it?

DIAB: Yes, it is definitely an obstacle, because this outside-in, top-down approach continues to sideline and infantilise the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Palestinians have no say or voice in the process, which makes it difficult to gauge what is acceptable to them and what is not, and makes the situation easier to manipulate by rejectionists. Although Israelis by electing democratic representatives have theoretically more say, the reality is that the fractured nature of the political establishment and the apathy of the former peace camp empowers the ideologically radical while depriving ordinary Israelis of real input. In addition, disempowering the public breeds a sense of helplessness and powerlessness.

Above all, the conflict and the quest for peace concerns everyone and so everyone must have a say. A people’s peace process may or may not reveal peaceful intent. But if it does, it will deprive the hawks of the smokescreens and fog of conflict they currently hide behind, while providing doves with the visibility to take wing.

I think the international community – and especially the United States – needs to abandon the Oslo paradigm and re-divert their energies to facilitating such an inclusive dialogue. This fluid process would empower anyone to propose solutions, and any solution that is agreed by the majority on both sides must be implemented immediately in order to build up momentum.

Posted by on Wednesday, 22 October 2014