On January 8, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) voiced his "private opinion" to the effect that Israel’s fence and settlement policies constitute "an apartheid solution to put the Palestinians in cantons. . . . We will go for a one state solution in which the Palestinians have the same rights as Israelis." Three days later, following a reminder by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership that the movement’s objective remained a Palestinian (and not a binational) state, Abu Ala effectively retracted his remark by stating: "The Palestinian Authority adheres to the idea of a viable two state solution."
It is tempting for Israelis to dismiss the Palestinian prime minister’s first remark as a mindless slip of the tongue. Certainly it is instructive to note the knee jerk reaction of the PLO leadership, hastily reaffirming the two state solution. The fact is that Abu Ala’s remark did not precipitate a landslide Palestinian movement toward abandoning that strategy.
But it was significant. It constituted the first time since 1988, when the PLO officially adopted the two state solution, that a mainstream Palestinian leader involved in negotiations with Israel–indeed, the man who personally negotiated the Oslo accords–cast doubt on that position. Nor was Abu Ala whistling in the dark: more and more Palestinian intellectuals have, in recent months, echoed the same sentiment, some of them in these virtual pages of bitterlemons.org.
Abu Ala is right: the fence (as hijacked by Sharon for political purposes) and the settlements are indeed liable to create an apartheid-like situation. He also knows, as do we all, that the Palestinians will soon constitute a majority of the population under direct and indirect Israeli rule between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, thereby fulfilling an additional condition for comparisons to pre-1994 South Africa. His remark could indeed possibly be a harbinger of an eventual PLO decision to reject the two state solution as no longer viable, and to adopt an updated version of its pre-1988 position advocating a single state solution.
Why, then, did Abu Ala’s fellow PLO leaders hasten to reject his remark and force a retraction? The answer appears to lie in the revolutionary nature of the consequences of abandoning the two state solution. Even assuming that PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s real objective is to "Palestinize" and delegitimize Israel from within in the course of a process that does not truly reflect Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish state, that strategy is nevertheless based on a two state solution. In contrast, the logical corollary of the prime minister’s "private" position is the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and the return of full Israeli rule, military or civilian, under which the Palestinians would commence a campaign for "one man, one vote."
This means that, from Yasser Arafat on down, more than 100,000 ministers, clerks, officials, and security personnel would be out of a job. In the eyes of the international community that has recognized the Oslo process and the roadmap, it would be the PLO that officially backed out of these two-state arrangements. All eyes would now focus on the capacity of the Palestinian national movement to galvanize the Palestinian people, the international community, the surrounding Arab states, and a majority of Israeli voters behind the new cause. Would they succeed? How long would the struggle take? Meanwhile the conflict would get worse, not better.
Adopting a one-state strategy, then, is an immense undertaking; a huge gamble. It risks sizeable Palestinian and Arab vested interests. It could prolong and escalate the conflict considerably, necessarily involving the Arab citizens of Israel (since under this strategy the green line loses its significance) and the surrounding Arab countries as well. It is not a decision to be made lightly by the Palestinians.
Some on the Israeli left and in Palestine believe that it is still possible to negotiate our way out of this mess with the Palestinians. But they appear to have little political clout on either side. Perhaps more significantly, a few actors on the ruling Israeli political right have begun to understand the dilemma and now advocate unilateral withdrawal precisely in order to avoid a demographic-political disaster. But three key conditions for their success are still missing.
First, this pragmatic new right does not yet acknowledge the need to leave open the door for future political negotiations with the Palestinians over areas not abandoned by Israel, such as the Jordan Valley and greater Jerusalem, and to restore the fence to its original, green line security location–in other words, to depoliticize any Israeli unilateral moves. Secondly, there appear to be no leader and no political coalition on the Israeli political horizon that could confront the settlers and physically remove them. And third, Washington has not yet become convinced of the necessity and utility of such a move.
Abu Ala pointed to the inevitable and tragic outcome of the current geographic, demographic and political direction that both sides are moving in. His remark may have crossed not only the green line, but an important red line as well.