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Q&A: Israeli historian Ilan Pappe

Renowned academic discusses the one-state solution, Palestinian unity, and the stalled 'peace process'.

Last Modified: 05 Jul 2013 19:54
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Ilan Pappe (left) says the US has 'no strategy for Israel/Palestine' [Johannes Hautaviita/Al Jazeera]

The work of Professor Ilan Pappe - an advocate for an international boycott against Israel and the establishment of a single state for Israelis and Palestinians - has drawn praise as well as harsh criticism in academic and political circles.

The criticism is not surprising, given that Pappe's work has sought to challenge the accepted truths of a divided land, and led to him being forced to resign from the University of Haifa in 2007.

The noted Israeli academic, who now teaches at Exeter University in the UK, presents the history of the state of Israel in a way that encompasses the narrative of the Palestinian people - a bold ambition in a society in which militarism, nationalism and religion are potent unifying forces.

The past few months have seen a flurry of US-led diplomatic activity between Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah, as President Obama seeks to restart direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. Yet the prospects for peace offer as little encouragement as they have since the outbreak of the Second Intifada more than a decade ago.

Al Jazeera and Professor Pappe discussed the stalled "peace process", along with Palestinian unity and the successes of the push for a one-state solution.

Al Jazeera: How do you assess the recent efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry to restart negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians?

Ilan Pappe: There is very little reason to assume that this opens a new chapter in the history of the peace process in Palestine. The basic reasons for the lack of any progress since 1993 have not changed. Israel, under any Zionist government, means by "peace" a partition of the West Bank into a Jewish and a Palestinian area space, and even the most cooperative, or submissive, Palestinian leadership could not agree to this. And on top of it, the Israeli demands would be to give up, more or less, the right of return. All American administrations looked for ways of persuading the Palestinians to accept this diktat; Kerry is no different.

AJ: Do you judge the US as truly believing in the likelihood of a two-state solution?

IP: No, I think the US has no strategy for Israel/Palestine - only tactics. The strategy, if that is what it were, was formulated around 1968 with the Johnson administration, and that was a policy of an intentional ignorance about the Israeli unilateral actions - in particular in the West Bank. Since successive Israeli governments were willing to call the part of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip they did not wish to rule directly an autonomy or a state, the American and Israeli discourse on two states became one: allowing the Palestinians, pending their "good behaviour", self-rule in the densely populated Palestinian areas. Behaving well meant giving up any future demands.

AJ: How do you see the Palestinians achieving their national ambitions, and what are the options available to them?

IP: Given the present local, regional and global balance of powers, there is very little hope for the Palestinians realising their national hopes in the near future. However, the dramatic changes occurring in the region, the drastic shift in world public opinion in their support, the global economic crises and possible changes in the international balance of power - all open options for a different global approach towards Israel, maybe... in a similar way to apartheid South Africa. In order to take advantage of such possibilities, the questions of Palestinian representations and unity should be resolved quickly - otherwise these future opportunities would be lost. Needless to say, for the time being it is the Palestinian steadfastness, sometimes on a very individual level, [which] prevent[s] a total catastrophe from unfolding.

The art of Palestinian resistance

AJ: How do you assess the possibility of another Palestinian intifada occurring, given the current political and military situation in the occupied territories?

IP: As quite high. Desperation can lead, of course, to some sort of paralysis or lack of an impulse to rebel. But now that a third generation is born into the mega-prison Israel built in the territories - and the Israeli settlement policy and settlers are more extreme, brutal and inhuman than they were before, there is always the scenario of an explosion against all odds.

AJ: How do you characterise the nature of the Palestinian Authority and its role in the conflict?

IP: There are two sides to the PA. On the one hand, it is the regulator of life in the West Bank (like Hamas in Gaza), and as such, takes care of some sort of normality within the mega-prison Israel built in the West Bank. On the other, it is a tool in the hands of Israel for ensuring quiet and complacency in that very mega-prison. It is portrayed, and self-portrayed as the only partner for negotiations, but I think that role had already been eroded. History will judge how such an authority can navigate between the two functions it is expected to fulfil by Israel and the international community.

AJ: What do you see as the future of the Palestinian Authority? Can it continue to exist if it were to break with the US and Israel, and is this possible given its funding arrangements?

IP: It cannot exist outside the framework of the Pax Israelia and Pax Americana. Of course, both have nothing to do with peace, but rather with relative acquiescence of the local population to their incarceration in the West Bank. If it is dismantled unilaterally, then two things happen: a period of chaotic vacuum and a pressure on all concerned to find a different framework for a solution.

AJ: Are the divisions between Palestine's major political factions such that they will be unable to present a coherent front - to the further detriment of their national cause?

IP: Of course the factionalism helps the Israelis to implement their policies unabated. The issue of representation of the Palestinians is something the Palestinian people would have to resolve sooner rather than later. This is their main agency in the overall struggle for peace and justice in Palestine.

AJ: Do you consider yourself a supporter of the one-state solution?

IP: Yes I do. I believe in the one-state solution as the only just and functional settlement for the conflict. I think anyone who is more than five minutes on the ground in the West Bank realises there is no space there for an independent Palestinian state. And moreover, anyone who ponders a bit deeper about the reasons for the conflict understands that only such a political outfit could respond to all aspects of the conflict: the dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948, the discrimination against the Palestinians in Israel and the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

AJ: How do you assess the success of the campaign for a one-state solution?

IP: The main success of the campaign was to offer a new conversation about an alternative. Its strong aspects are that it relates much better to the reality that unfolded in Palestine since the late 19th century, where we have now a third generation of settlers who did not succeed in emptying the country they invaded, and both sides have to reframe their relationship on this mutual basis: you cannot get rid of the settlers or the native population.

Its second advantage is the total failure, after more than 65 years, of attempting to partition Palestine in various forms and junctures as the best solution. We now know it is not going to work, and an alternative would have to be found.

Its disadvantage is that it is not yet a popular movement, and has no inroads and power bases in the political structures on both sides. Also, the international community and the Arab world do not support this idea - although I think public opinion in the world and in the region supports it full-heartedly.

AJ: How can such an objective be realised if it is largely confined to intellectual circles, while seeming to hold little support among ordinary Palestinians or Israelis?

IP: The power of these ideas lies in two blueprints: one of an intensive work that has begun to disseminate the idea among those who are already part of representative bodies, especially among the Palestinians and external bodies. The second: there is a need to show, even theoretically at this point, how life would look like in all its aspects within one political outfit.

AJ: How do you characterise the Israeli political establishment's approach to achieving its objectives in the Palestinian territories, and what do you see these as constituting?

IP: The objectives today are not different from those set by the Zionist movement very early on, when it had appeared in Palestine: to have as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as possible. The tactics keep changing. In 1948 it was achieved through ethnic cleansing; up to 1967 by imposing military rule on the Palestinian minority in Israel; after 1967 by incarcerating the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in a huge mega-prison, while annexing half of the West Bank to Israel and de-Arabising it, and by Judaising the Galilee and the Negev.

These goals have not been completed because of Palestinian steadfastness and struggle, and hence they will continue to be the tactics in the 21st century.

AJ: Have you seen the nature of Israeli society change during your lifetime and, if so, would you say these changes are presenting an obstacle to achieving a just outcome to the conflict or acting as an enabler?

IP: There are two aspects that always interested me about Israeli society: one is its relationship with the Palestinians - and in extension with the Arab world, and the other the internal dynamics within the Jewish society.

On the first account I have seen very little change in the basic attitude. The Palestinians were and are seen as alien usurpers of an ancient homeland and an obstacle for a thriving and peaceful life. The wish was not to be part of the Arab world, and this included unfortunately the Arab Jews, and this produced a mentality of a besieged Western fortress in the midst of a "hostile" region. The outcome of this mentality was an intolerant, high-strung and paranoid society that believes it can only rely on military power to survive.

As for the other aspect, I grew into a relatively modest society that cared at least about the other within the Jewish society, more egalitarian and secular. It has become more polarised between Americanised and hedonistic enclaves such as Tel-Aviv, and zealous theocratic spaces such as Jerusalem and the settlements.

AJ: Are you able to give an outline of how you see any political solution arising between the leadership of the Israelis and the Palestinians? Do you see the Arab Spring as altering the situation in the Israel-Palestine conflict?

IP: If there will be no change in the local, regional or international balance of powers, the relationship is not going to change in the future. Namely, the Israelis will assassinate those leaders that will resist its dictate and expect the others at least to remain quiet about it, even if they do not express support for it in public. Thus you can condemn the Israeli settlements in E-1 in greater Jerusalem, but you cannot support a Palestinian attempt to defend it.

If, however, public opinion in the world will continue to regard Israel as the new apartheid South Africa, as it does, this can lead, in the long run, to a change in the attitude of political elites, as the Arab Spring can one day solidify a number of new governments far more committed to the Palestine issue than they are today. Then the relationship could be between the Israeli leaders representing a settler community society seeking reconciliation with the leadership of the native population. This could be a new paradigm and a far more hopeful one.

Follow Nigel O'Connor on Twitter: @nigel_oconnor

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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