By Ian Black, The Guardian – 28 April 2010
Meron Benvenisti has been talking, writing and arguing about the Israel-Palestinian conflict for much of the last 40 years. Now aged 76 he is as forceful, articulate and unconventional as ever – and convinced that President Barack Obama is doomed to fail in his attempt to cajole the two sides to hammer out a solution at the negotiating table.
Benvenisti, the Cassandra of the Israeli left, has long held the view that the occupation that began after the 1967 Middle East war is irreversible and that Israelis and Palestinians need to find an alternative to the elusive two-state solution that has dominated thinking about the conflict in recent years. Controversial and iconoclastic when he first advanced it, his thesis is gaining ground.
“The whole notion of a Palestinian state now, in 2010, is a sham,” he told the Guardian at his Jerusalem home as the US intensified efforts to get the long-stalled peace process moving again. “The entire discourse is wrong. By continuing that discourse you perpetuate the status quo. The struggle for the two-state solution is obsolete.”
George Mitchell, the US envoy charged with launching “proximity talks” between Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas – in the absence of direct negotiations – does not agree. Nor do Israelis who believe that without an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state the Jewish majority and democratic character of their own state cannot survive. Abbas and his technocratic prime minister, Salam Fayyad, are working towards independence, though Palestinian opinion seems increasingly sceptical about the prospects.
Benvenisti’s book, Sacred Landscapes, is one of the very best written on the conflict, interweaving the personal and the political. It is also deeply sympathetic to the Palestinians and their attachment to the land. He defines the Zionist enterprise bluntly as a “supplanting settler society” but also warns that using labels is a way of shutting down debate. He is wary of Holocaust-deniers and antisemites who try to recruit his dissident views to serve their anti-Israel goals.
Benvenisti, a political scientist by training, served as deputy mayor of Jerusalem after the 1967 war and was heavily influenced by his academic research on Belfast, another bitterly divided city. In the 1980’s his West Bank Data Project collated and analysed the information that showed how the settlers were becoming fatefully integrated into Israeli society – under both Likud and Labour governments.
Israel’s domination, he says, is now complete, while the Palestinians are fragmented into five enclaves – inside Israel, in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the diaspora.
In this situation, the concept of two states is misleading. “What does it mean, a state? It’s a solution for less than one quarter of the Palestinian people on an area that is less than 10% of historic Palestine.” Palestinian leaders who are ready to accept this “are a bunch of traitors to their own cause”. Ramallah, prosperous headquarters of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and the recipient of millions of dollars in foreign aid, is a “bubble in which those who steal the money can enjoy themselves”.
Benvenisti’s territorial assumptions are not based on the 2000 “Clinton parameters” which Yasser Arafat turned down, nor proposals submitted by Ehud Olmert to Abbas – which talk of Israel withdrawing from some 97% of the West Bank with compensating land swaps – but a far smaller area hemmed in by Jewish settlements, settler-only roads and military zones.
“For the last 20 years I have questioned the feasibility of the partition of Palestine and now I am absolutely sure it is impossible,” he says. “Or, it is possible if it is imposed on the Palestinians but that will mean the legitimisation of the status quo, of Bantustans, of a system of political and economic inequality which is hailed as a solution by the entire world – unlike in South Africa.
“The entire paradigm is wrong. We are doing this because it is self-serving. It is convenient for us to stick to the old slogan of two states as if nothing has happened since we began advocating it in the 1980s.”
Taken the salience of the settlement issue in the peace process – rows over Netanyahu’s temporary freeze in the West Bank and new building in East Jerusalem triggered the recent crisis in US-Israel relations – it is startling to find that Benvenisti is so dismissive of it.
“Israel’s domination of the West Bank does not rely on the numbers of settlers or settlements,” he argues. “The settlements are totally integrated into Israeli society. They’ve taken all the land they could. The rest is controlled by the Israeli army.”
Benvenisti relishes overturning conventional wisdom. “The Israeli left would like to make us believe that the green line (the pre-1967 border) is something solid; that everything that is on this side is good and that everything bad began with the occupation in 1967. It is a false dichotomy. The green line is like a one-way mirror. It’s only for the Palestinians, not for Israelis.”
He avoids speculating about future scenarios and makes do with the concept “bi-nationalism” – “not as a political or ideological programme so much as a de facto reality masquerading as a temporary state of affairs … a description of the current condition, not a prescription.” And he sees signs that the Palestinians are beginning to adjust to the “total victory of the Jews” and use the power of the weak: demanding votes and human rights may prove more effective than violence, he suggests.
“The peace process,” Benvenisti concludes, “is more than a waste of time. It is an illusion and it perpetuates an illusion. You can engage in a peace process and have negotiations and conferences – which have no connection whatsoever to reality on the ground.”