The Socialist Unity Network

Disengagement and the death of the two state solution

Hani Issawi and Yacov Ben Efrat


Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is planning a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and from four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank. This "disengagement" or "disconnection" (hinatkut in Hebrew) is to be completed by the end of 2005. Israel's army will then surround the Strip. Israel will continue to control its borders and air space. The plan does not address the question of who will take responsibility for the abandoned areas – or indeed, for the Gaza Strip as a whole.

US President George W. Bush has welcomed this disengagement plan. In an attempt to help Sharon garner support from the Right, he has stated that a final agreement must take account of changed realities in the West Bank (a clear reference to the settlement blocs that Israel wishes to annex). Bush has also disavowed the Palestinian right of return.  

On June 10, 2004, marking 37 years of Israeli Occupation, Bamat Etgar invited Hani Issawi and Yacov Ben Efrat, two former political prisoners, to a panel discussion on the plan.

Hani Issawi has appeared in Challenge several times. A resident of the Occupied Territories, he is among the leaders of the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine). Hani is known for his opposition to the Oslo process and to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Yacov Ben Efrat is the General Secretary of the Organization for Democratic Action (ODA-Da'am). His analyses frequently appear in Challenge.

Opening statements

Hani Issawi: 

We Palestinians view every withdrawal from our land as a step toward liberation. With Sharon's plan to get out of Gaza, though, the situation is more complex. In putting it forward, Sharon got the world's only superpower to approve illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Even the Palestinian Authority [PA] seems willing to accept the existence of certain settlement blocs as an immutable reality.

This is by no means the first such plan. In my view, the so-called Oslo Agreement was a unilateral Israeli program for disengagement. It's wrong to call it an agreement. Oslo was an Israeli plan, in which the Palestinian leadership cooperated. In 1995, [then Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin called for separation between the two peoples. He established a committee under Moshe Shahal, Minister of Police, which issued recommendations that were very close to what's happening now. The committee proposed a separation fence like the one being built today. It would follow a line that would keep the major settlements on the "Israeli" side, separating them from the rest of the West Bank. This plan was proposed at a time when the PA was acting in full cooperation with Israel.

When the new Intifada broke out in September 2000, Israelis discovered that the Palestinian side had demands they could not accept. That's when they started saying, "There is no partner for negotiations." Ehud Barak started saying it when he was Prime Minister, and now we have Ariel Sharon with his unilateral plan.

Sharon's Broader Concept

At first glance, it would seem that no Palestinian can object to this plan. After all, it would remove all the Israeli settlements from Gaza as well as four from the northern West Bank. But we must regard the Sharon plan as part of a larger whole, and we need to view it in the light of American domination, especially after what's happened in Iraq. A month ago Giora Eiland, head of Israel's National Security Council, presented the broader plan to [US National Security Advisor] Condoleezza Rice and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. This broader plan calls on Egypt to give the Palestinians 600 square kilometers of the Sinai Peninsula next to Gaza, tripling the size of the Strip. In exchange, Israel will give Egypt 200 sq. km. of land in the southern Negev. Here a tunnel will be built linking Egypt with Jordan. Through this tunnel Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq will get direct access to the Mediterranean. The Palestinians will also get 89% of the West Bank. They will not get any part of Jerusalem, which is not on the agenda as far as Israel is concerned.

This broader plan does not provide for a Palestinian state. Instead, it anticipates American, Egyptian and Jordanian cooperation in controlling the West Bank and Gaza. But every proposal that is unilateral, without letting the Palestinian people have the same right of self-determination as other peoples, can lead at most to a temporary respite. This is the case even if there are people on the Palestinian side who are willing to take part.

There are such people today. There are contacts between Israeli and Palestinian officials, despite all the talk of no partner. In Jordan and Egypt there are Palestinian??? trainees who have just completed a course in putting down terrorism. They are preparing the apparatus that will crush the Palestinian people when it resists such a program.

Less Palestinians, more land

A major part of the Sharon concept is to withdraw from areas with large Palestinian populations. Israel wants to take as much land as it can while excluding as many Palestinians as possible. Reality is forcing the hand of Sharon himself, father of the settlements. Reality here takes the form of the demographic threat: Israel cannot continue as a Jewish state ruling over millions of Palestinians and still maintain its democratic image in the world.

We feel this demographic factor in Jerusalem. Israel has put its fence right down the middle of the Jerusalem-Ramallah road. The large Palestinian population east of this fence is pushed out of the city. There are 250,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem. Of these, the fence is pushing out 65,000 who have Israeli identity cards, plus many more who do not. Here is the basic principle of the existing program: fewer Palestinians and more land.  


Yacov Ben Efrat: 

The Palestinian situation is complicated not just by the Occupation, but also by the internal situation of the PA. There is a vacuum in the Territories. Israel isn't willing to take responsibility for them, but it undermines any other authority that attempts to do so. On top of that, there is now the fence, separating people from their sources of livelihood and their metropolitan centres. We're in a situation of anarchy and chaos.  

The PA as a cover for evasion of responsibility

It is not clear that today's Palestinians want the PA, because the existence of any such authority gives Israel a pretext to shirk responsibility. If Israel was an official occupying power, it couldn't do what it is doing in these Territories. Because the PA exists in name at least, Israel can slough off responsibility for health, education, jobs, and infrastructure. In a word, it can do what it wants. Instead of relating to this area as one that is under its governance in accordance with the Geneva conventions, Israel treats it as enemy territory. The existence of a Palestinian Authority gives Israel enormous room for manoeuvre, without its having to take account of humanitarian needs. 

"The biggest Palestinian catastrophe since 1948" – Sharon

When we look at Sharon's so-called disengagement plan in this context, it is clear that we must oppose it. The plan does not entail true disengagement. What would true disengagement mean? It would mean that Palestinians would have the right to come from and go to Gaza as they wish, just as the French can cross the borders of France and Israelis the borders of Israel. It would mean that Gaza would have a port, an airfield and an open border to Egypt – all without Israeli control. In this sense, Sharon will never leave Gaza. On the contrary, Gaza is about to become a prison.

Not only that, but what will be the sources of livelihood? How will 1.3 million people make a living? What will they eat? Who will provide work? This question is central.

From Israel's point of view, the withdrawal from Gaza is a historical compromise with messianic religious Zionism: in exchange for the pullback, Israel will annex settlement blocs in the West Bank. This is not a historical retreat as people say, and such a program cannot have a negotiating partner, Palestinian or other. No partner in the world would agree to such a thing. Sharon sees his plan – and he's said this – as the biggest catastrophe to befall the Palestinian people since 1948. He made the point back in April, while trying to persuade the Likud membership that the program is good for the Jews and bad for the Palestinians. The Likudniks didn't buy it, but he's managed to drag the Labor Party with him, along with most of the Israeli Left. 

Irrelevance or death

Sharon is leading the people of Israel into an even deeper entanglement than their present one. He says, in effect, there will be no partner; that from now on we'll have to live with fences and walls, behind which the Palestinians will be mewed up in Bantustans or Gaza. That will be the situation for the next 20, 30, 40 years, until they're ready to accept their lot, as determined by Israel.

They will never accept it. History teaches something quite different: repeated oppression does not persuade the Palestinians. Instead, they become more radical. Now things have reached a point where all clear-sighted people have become irrelevant, while the fanatics have become targets of Israeli assassination.

The two-state solution is no longer viable

By now the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the idea of two states for two peoples is no longer viable. The attempt to partition the land cannot succeed because 1) Palestinians don't believe they can reach an agreement with Israelis, and 2) Israel lacks a political force that can bring about a true disengagement from the Palestinians.

On the first point, when Arafat went to Camp David in July 2000, the Palestinians had lost all faith in Israeli intentions. Oslo had done nothing for them. On the contrary, they were poorer, Israel was hemming them in with closure, and the settlements had doubled in size. There was an enormous crisis of credibility. Arafat went to Camp David against his will – Clinton and Barak had to twist his arm – because he knew that the street no longer believed in agreements with Israel.

On the second reason why partition won't work today: Sharon's 'disengagement plan,' as I've said, is a sham. We recall how Barak went to Camp David without a Knesset majority. Right now Sharon is in same situation. He has no Knesset majority. He has 59 MK's out of 120. Oslo led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and every program since then has led to the fall of an Israeli government. Wye did Bibi in. Camp David did Barak in. Now we have the disengagement plan, which threatens to do Sharon in. There is no solid majority in Israel to back any plan that could conceivably lead to a solution. Israel goes to the polls almost every two years because the leadership has not found an answer to this basic question of existence.

We are very far today from any form of consensus with sufficient political power to confront the settlers. What Israeli government will get them out of Kiryat Arba or Hebron? Who can even get close to it?

Within the current political framework in the Middle East, where the Americans rule and Israel is their chief ally, there is no chance of reaching an arrangement that will satisfy the Palestinian and Arab sides. Israel will always try to keep its superiority, and the Americans will try to impose their conditions on the Arabs.

Today's Ha'aretz has a photo of Bush with the new Middle East. To his left stands the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, whom the Americans put into office after conquering his country. On his left stands the current Iraqi president, also imposed by American force. The president of Algeria is there, and King Abdullah of Jordan, and beside him a new star, the President of Yemen, the symbol of Arab tribalism. His tribe (like Qadhafi's in Libya) has decided that it's better today to go with Bush. Only a Palestinian representative is missing for this puzzle to be complete, and then there's a new Middle East. In it, as long as America rules, we have no hope. We can erect fences and walls, we can agree on the Mitchell Plan and the Tenet Plan and the Road Map and the disengagement plan and another Road Map, no matter what you call it. In the present American framework, there is no chance for an arrangement that would give justice and equal status to the Palestinian side while reducing Israel to its normal dimensions.

Meanwhile, the conflict will continue to boil. Israel will not be rescued from its responsibility to the Palestinian people. Because Israel was not ready to go to a true historical compromise, it will live from now on under an ever-growing demographic threat.  

Israel has lost its claim to a Jewish state

We don't favour imposing a one-state solution. We claim only that the historical process leads to it. Eleven years ago we favoured partition. That's why we opposed the Oslo agreement: because we saw it wouldn't lead to an independent Palestinian state. When the Palestinian leaders signed it in 1993, they forfeited their state. The agreement included no deal on the settlements, Jerusalem, and the refugees. They didn't control their gateways to the world. There were restrictions on imports and exports. All those hard issues were pushed off to the future. But the Palestinians had already recognized Israel. They had nothing else to offer in future negotiations. They'd put themselves at Israel's mercy, which was not forthcoming.

If Arafat had still been interested in an independent Palestinian state, there wouldn't have been an Oslo agreement.

That's why Netanyahu, when he was Prime Minister, didn't cancel Oslo. It's why Sharon hasn't cancelled it now. Oslo gives Israel legitimacy to do what it wants, and the Palestinian state is gone.

But here's the catch. By blocking the rise of a Palestinian state, the Jewish people lost the right to a state of its own. What do I mean by this? The establishment of a Palestinian state was the guarantee for the existence of a Jewish state. The moment Israel prevented the Palestinians from having a state, it lost the Jewish state. And no matter what the Israelis do now, no matter how many fences they erect, the historical process is going the opposite way. It won't happen today or tomorrow, but the Jews will lose their majority, their state, their economy, their conscience, all. In blocking the Palestinian state, they committed suicide. That's the historical process. 

The solution

There is one territory here and two peoples will have to live in it. They will never live together as long as America rules, insisting on Israeli supremacy. When we see the protest movements against globalization and the war in Iraq, when we see all those who cannot bear the American yoke, cannot bear to live in this reality, then we understand that we are not alone. If we were alone, we'd never achieve anything. It doesn't matter how many Jews and Arabs sit together and sign Geneva Accords. If the wider world remains under American dominance, this conflict will not be resolved.

The solution, if it comes, will occur within a new global framework. There are conflicts elsewhere too: in Iraq, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Haiti, Armenia… the world is full of conflicts. This world lives in poverty, and as long as America is the superpower, poverty is unsolvable. This world lives in AIDS, and AIDS is unsolvable. This world lives in violence, and the violence is unsolvable. No one is an island. We won't reach a solution outside the general problem. Until the global balance of forces changes, no problem in the world will be solved. As long as the Americans impose their will everywhere by force, the world will remain in its current situation, and we will continue to bleed as part of its bleeding. Yet we have a task here: to fight this Occupation and to build an alternative.

On the Palestinian side, unfortunately, no political opposition has arisen as an alternative to the PA. There is Hamas, an extreme religious alternative, but there is no serious, secular, leftist one.

The people of Israel and the Palestinian people can no longer be separated. They have become Siamese twins. The Oslo agreement ended the possibility of separation. Israel dictated the terms to the Palestinian side. After it established these terms, the Palestinians learned that they cannot reach a true peace agreement with the strong, as long as the strong remains strong.  

I say that the moment the weak become strong, as strong as the strong, there won't be any need to partition the land. There is no reason to partition it. If we insist on the principle of equality for all, if we decide that there should be a common society here, I don't see why the Jews have to live in their ghetto and in their apartheid. The essence of this separation concept, the notion that we must establish our own state with walls and ghettoes, leads in the long run only to deeper conflict. We must rid ourselves of Zionism and make a switch, change the diskette. We must understand that the world proceeds otherwise. If we want a society of equals, all must have their share. If we don't do this, then the conflict will keep drawing blood.


Extracts from the discussion 

Question: The Palestinians want the settlements removed, and the disengagement plan will remove some of them, so the Palestinians have difficulty opposing it. How does a Palestinian define his opposition to the plan?

Hani: It's even harder to explain why the Israeli left accepts the plan. Look at the opinion polls, where it gets so much support. Look at the big demonstration in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago, where the left supported Sharon.

The Palestinians observe what takes place on the ground. If the Palestinians were free to demonstrate, we might see a big demonstration against this plan, because they know where it's leading. The plan, as Yacov said, turns Gaza into a prison surrounded by an army. 

Question: On the Palestinian street there is talk that the PA should resign and Arafat should hand the keys back to Israel. Hani, what is your view on this? 

Hani: Ever since the re-entry of Israeli forces into Area A, Arafat should have left the country. There was nothing more for him to do here. By staying in the region, he has given Israel the excuse to commit all the crimes it does.

The Palestinians are fed up with the PA and want to deal with the Israeli army in the way we know how – not in such a way that every stone gets answered by a rocket from a tank. 

Yacov: There is no argument with Hani here. The struggle must go on. The trouble is, the Palestinian left is frozen in nationalist concepts. I don't call for a bi-national state. That's nonsense. Little by little these national units will disappear – not just Jews and Arabs. Our position is that there are no longer any national solutions. In the past, national liberation movements arose and survived because they had the backing of a socialist regime, the Soviet Union. Alone, they were weak. Today none of them, including the Palestinian movement, has the slightest connection to any wider struggle, social or political.

The national Palestinian movement did not arise in the air, but in connection with the socialist camp. Today there is no ideology. No more socialism. Only the Palestinian idea remains. This idea can take two forms. In a capitalistic context, as reflected in the Oslo agreements, it takes the form of globalization, developing the "private sector". Or the Palestinian idea can take a socialist form. There is no other way. But if the Palestinian regime follows a capitalist line, as it has since Oslo, then it faces a much stronger capitalist country, Israel the high-tech titan, which can dictate terms to it. As long as the context is capitalist, the proposed solution will be determined by America's interests in oil and other resources, including cheap labour.

Our claim is that we must connect the struggle for liberation – everywhere, not just here – to socialism. We must present an alternative to the capitalist system. There is today a movement against globalization and the war in Iraq. We have seen regimes fall in India, where people voted against globalization, and Spain, where the capitalist government had supported the war in Iraq. These movements have begun to arise in response to the fascistic leanings of the capitalist regime. Israel is part of that regime.

I don't see national solutions – Jews here, Arabs there. We [in ODA] have to be part of a global movement. Clearly, national struggles will remain, but they won't be central. There are people who try to banish the socialist aspect, the class character of the conflict, turning it into a national matter. Fatah does this when it says, "The bourgeoisie, the workers, the students, the shopkeepers, we're all Palestinians, there are no classes." Oslo was a bourgeois solution, intended to serve the Palestinian bourgeoisie at the expense of Palestinian workers. It had a class character. The real solution will also have a class character. The ideology will be socialism, a different society living according to different standards.

I don't speak of today or tomorrow, but quite possibly this whole topic of bi-nationalism will disappear. Israeli society, if it keeps going as it is, will become history. If it continues to insist on its nationality – Jewish, always Jewish – there will be no need to fight it. It will disappear, because it goes against the tide of history.

A "solution for now" we don't have. We have a way of struggle, but no quick fix. There aren't the preconditions for a solution now. We have a way, a strategy, a goal. If you detach the national question from the broader ideological aspect – from socialism – you lose the way, you fall into despair, you disappear. You become the prey of the forces around you. 

Hani: Concerning Oslo, there are people even in the PA who realize it has brought us to the present situation, but they don't want to go back to what there was before. All the leadership that came from outside, even those who campaigned against Oslo, live under what Oslo has dictated to them, and they cannot depart from this umbrella. They can't demand that the PA withdraw from Oslo. If they were to demand such a thing, they would lose their right to be here.  

Yacov: Suppose Sharon leaps all the hurdles and goes through with the disengagement. As soon as he says, "I disengage, but I keep the Oslo agreement," he falls into contradiction. One of Oslo's goals was to create a channel of communication. As soon as Israel disengages on the basis of the notion that there's no one to talk to, automatically Oslo becomes a dead letter. That is the paradox facing Sharon. Therefore he tries to bring the Palestinian side into the plan somehow and make it mutual.

After all, what is the function of the PA? It can't have an army, it can't have an economy, it can't supply the needs of its people. The PA has only one function: to make agreements. As soon as you stop talking and do something unilateral, you've cancelled the PA. And since it doesn't have a state, an economy, or an army, with this cancellation you've killed it.

In order to keep Oslo, the Israelis want to bring the Palestinian side into this story. That's what the Egyptians are trying to do. The Arab world and the Palestinians curse Egypt for this attempt.

Let's go another step. Suppose the Egyptians succeed and the Palestinians take responsibility, with someone like Muhammad Dahlan in charge of Gaza. The end of this process will be so bitter, for the reasons I've stated, that the agreement will collapse. There is no need for a great deal of opposition. Either Arafat will die a natural death or this process will bring about his political disappearance. Already, he has almost vanished politically. A light touch and the king will fall. Israel will then be in a situation beyond its worst nightmares. The Egyptians won't come to take over, nor the Jordanians, Arafat won't exist, so who will be there? Who will be the authority to take responsibility for these Territories? OK, the Israelis will have their big wall, but what will happen on its other side? It's a big question. If the Israelis want an authority that will take responsibility, they will have to accept a strong one. If not, they'll be forced to enter with their army every day. All these questions remain unanswered. "We're pulling out!" says Sharon. Excellent! But what happens on the other side? Who takes over? 

Question: The disengagement plan is meant to punish the Palestinian people for saying No to Oslo at Camp David. It's absurd that the Palestinians should have to fit themselves into their punishment. There is no need for them to do this. Why can't they say "No!" 

Hani: The Palestinians don't need to accept a unilateral program. We won't tell Israel not to leave Gaza. If they decide to, we can't tell them not to. Here we have the problem of the vacuum: the Palestinians don't have a program for responding to this situation. They aren't organized to receive this area. They are in disorder. The lack of organization gives Israel the possibility of continuing to rule over them, even after withdrawal, through the appointment of people to supervise the Territories. 

Yacov: On April 14, Bush backed Sharon's disengagement plan, and immediately the Palestinians refused it. The Americans and Israelis understand that without Palestinian cooperation, it can't be implemented. Israel had to start talking with the Palestinian side – Abu Ala, Jibril Rajoub, Muhammad Dahlan.

The Palestinian side could say, "These terms are not acceptable to us, because they don't give us freedom of movement or make it possible for people to earn a living. We're not willing to take responsibility. We are willing only if conditions are created that enable us to rule in Gaza: a port, an airfield, an open border, freedom of movement, freedom of commerce. Under such terms, I can be an authority, but who will be crazy enough to accept the authority to guard a prison – what's more, a prison without minimal conditions of existence?" They have the right to say, "I won't take this responsibility. You want to leave? Do as you please. Let the UN come or whatever – it's your problem." They could say this. But they won't, because they're always looking for ways to go back into the game, they are looking for a way to get Arafat out of the Muqata'a, or a way to get Bush to invite Abu Ala to the White House. They play along, not because they have to. It's not a problem to say, "On these terms, no." But they prefer the old game for the little that they gain from it personally.  

I want to thank Hani for his courage in stating his views. I learned from him and I hope you did. 

Hani: Thank you all.


August 2004

from the Israeli magazine Challenge

For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism