Palestinians Ask: The Two-State Solution Or The Two-State Illusion?

Mar 14, 2015
Originally published on March 14, 2015 5:20 pm

Palestinians in the West Bank don't get to vote in Israel's election on Tuesday, but they do have opinions.

And at a time when talks toward creating a Palestinian state have stalled, there are Palestinians like Ahmad Aweidah who are seeking alternatives to the traditional call for a two-state solution.

Aweidah is among those busy building the outward signs of a Palestinian state. Such efforts were visible when we went to visit him in the city of Nablus. His office is upstairs from the National Bank of Palestine, so named even though there is no country by that name.

Aweidah is CEO of the Palestine Exchange, a stock market. He's a burly man with a friendly face. He has a modest office, with the windows open to catch the breeze. In this electronic age, the exchange doesn't bother with an opening or closing bell.

And the big board is smaller than many people's living room TV. This exchange trades in companies valued at a total of $3 billion or so. That's tiny, as stock markets go. But Aweidah says the exchange represents a big idea.

"The exchange, while it is a private company, still remains part of the national economic infrastructure," said Aweidah, who has run the market for seven years.

He says the trading activity is a kind of barometer for Palestinian prospects.

"If you look at the market for the last couple of weeks you do get the impression that people's expectations are that things are not going to be that great," he said.

Israel is withholding tax payments it owes the Palestinians, part of a wider dispute with the Palestinian Authority. All this is taking place during Israel's election campaign.

Aweidah has his own hopes for Tuesday's election: he wants victory for Prime Minister Netanyahu, and others he considers hostile to Palestinians.

"The Palestinian dream team for the Israeli leadership would be [Netanyahu] as prime minister and [Naftali] Bennett as defense minister. That would be the best thing to happen to the Palestinians," he said, naming the two conservative politicians whose parties are expected to perform best in Tuesday's vote.

"It would be very good for the Palestinians to have them in power," he added. "Because Israel [would be] isolated, because of such a government, because of their actions and their craziness."

Aweidah is a businessman who generally tries to steer clear of politics. But in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, everything is political.

"The more isolated Israel is, the better it is for us," he said.

In some sense, Aweidah has at least one thing in common with the Israeli right, which often says the peace process is pointless and should be abandoned.

"There is no point in the peace process. There is no point in the two-state illusion," he said. "The two-state solution is no longer possible. We have 600,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem," land the Palestinians want for a future state.

"Who is going to take them out? I don't see any Israeli government in the foreseeable future who will be able to make that kind of decision," he added.

Israelis who support a two-state solution say it's still possible, and the most likely scenario would involve a land swap. Israel would keep some of the West Bank settlements, and in exchange, the Palestinians would get the same amount of land in what is now Israel.

But Aweidah is still skeptical.

"That wouldn't resolve the issue. It's not workable. It's just not workable. It won't be a sustainable solution," he said.

So what is the way forward?

"One-state solution. A rainbow state. A state for all of its citizens. A new South Africa. It's the only solution that would actually work," he said.

This is a position you hear more frequently these days from Palestinians. In Aweidah's view, a single state would be a binational, democractic state. Critics see this notion as provocative, theoretic and unrealistic.

It raises all sorts of questions. What would it be called — Israel, Palestine, or something else altogether? Who would have ultimate power?

Aweidah would like to think it would be dominated by Palestinians.

Jews have outnumbered the combined total of Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but the Arabs are catching up fast and are expected to soon surpass the Jews, according to most demographers.

"People have given up on the two-state solution on the Palestinian side. Twenty years of pointless negotiations and accelerating colonization, I think, have pretty much put any kind of belief or optimism about a two-state solution to bed a long time ago."

But not all Palestinians have given up.

"I personally believe that a solution is still possible on the basis of a two-state solution concept," said Salam Fayyad, the former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

He's been thinking about what it would take to restore momentum toward creating two states. First, Palestinians must prove they are ready to govern themselves.

"Is the world ready for another weak, failed state? Anybody excited about the prospects of something like this?" he asked rhetorically.

Obviously not. Which is why Fayyad says that as prime minister, he sought international approval of his state's struggling institutions. His goal now is a state so obviously viable that Israel has no choice but to recognize it.

"It has to be democratic. It has to be open. It has to be progressive. It has to be a state where citizens' rights are respected," he said.

And, he added, the Palestinians will have to unite after years of one faction, Fatah, running the West Bank, and another, Hamas, in charge of Gaza. All factions, including Hamas, will have to renounce violence, he added.

Fayyad admits it is all far from where Palestinians stand now.

The Palestinian Legislature Council, for example, has not convened for seven years, since the worst of the fighting between Hamas and Fatah. The stone legislative building in Ramallah has been closed up for years and it is guarded by a man at the front gate with an automatic rifle.

It may well be that a strong and functioning government would bring Palestinians a long way toward a genuine state. But they are still a long way from that right now.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Israel holds an election Tuesday. Prime Minister Netanyahu hopes for another term. Opposition parties hope to form a new government. Palestinians who live under Israeli authority on the West Bank of the Jordan do not have a vote, but they do have opinions about their own drive for a Palestinian state. Our colleague Steve Inskeep is reporting on the struggle for land in the Middle East.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Palestinians do not possess a state, but are building the outward signs of one. We saw that when we climbed out of the car in the Palestinian city of Nablus on a busy street in the shadow of a rocky mountain slope. We had an appointment in an office building.

It's in the same building as a branch of the National Bank.

The National Bank of Palestine, named for a country that does not really exist. Beside the bank, a doorway led to an elevator.

Palestine Exchange - fourth floor.

We had an appointment with the CEO of the Palestinian stock exchange. It's a modest office with the windows open to catch the breeze. In this electronic age, they do not bother with an opening or closing bell, and the big board is smaller than many people's living room TVs. This exchange trades in companies valued at a total of $3 billion or so, which is tiny as stock markets go. Although the man in the CEO's chair says the exchange represents a big idea.

Should we see this as an expression of creating a national identity for Palestine?

AHMED AWEIDAH: Of course, it's, you know, the exchange. While it is a private company, still remains part of the national economic infrastructure.

INSKEEP: Ahmed Aweidah is a burly man with a friendly face. We sat on couches in the light from a window, and we talked of the market he has run for seven years. He says the trading activity is a kind of barometer for Palestinian prospects.

AWEIDAH: If you look at the market for the last couple of weeks, you do get the impression that, you know, people's expectations are that things are not going to be that great.

INSKEEP: Israel is withholding Palestinian tax payments - part of a wider dispute with the Palestinian Authority. It's all happening amid Israel's election campaign. Ahmed Aweidah has his own hopes for that election. He wants victory for Prime Minister Netanyahu and others he considers hostile to Palestinians.

AWEIDAH: The Palestinian dream team for the Israeli leadership would be Bibi as prime minister and Bennett as defense minister. That would be the best thing to happen to the Palestinians.

INSKEEP: Wait, you just said that the two more conservative leading politicians in Israel...

AWEIDAH: Extreme right, yes.

INSKEEP: That it would be good for the Palestinians to have them in power.

AWEIDAH: Of course, it would be very good for the Palestinians to have them in power.

INSKEEP: Why?

AWEIDAH: Because Israel is isolated because of such government because of their actions and their craziness.

INSKEEP: Somehow I'd expected a different conversation. I knew Aweidah was a businessman who tries to steer clear of politics, but in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, everything is political.

AWEIDAH: The more isolated Israel is, you know, the better it is for us.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you have one thing in common with the Israeli right. People on the far-right in Israel have said the peace process is pointless, that it's a joke, that there shouldn't be even an effort to do that sort of thing, that there are other ways to deal with the problem.

AWEIDAH: They declare publicly the agenda.

INSKEEP: But you're saying the same thing.

AWEIDAH: Yes, that's because that's the agenda.

INSKEEP: But you're also saying what's the point of the peace process? We'll find some...

AWEIDAH: There is no point in the peace process. There is no point in the two-state illusion. You know, there isn't.

INSKEEP: You don't say two-state solution, you say two-state...

AWEIDAH: Two-state is no longer possible. We have 600,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Who's going to take them out? I don't see any Israeli government in the foreseeable future who will be able to make that kind of decision.

INSKEEP: Israelis who talk about a two-state solution say that they would trade some land. The settlers' land would stay in Israel. The Palestinians would get some land.

AWEIDAH: That wouldn't resolve the issue. It's not workable. It's just not workable. It won't be a sustainable solution.

INSKEEP: So what's a way forward?

AWEIDAH: One-state solution. A rainbow state; a state for all its citizens, you know? A new South Africa; it's the only solution that would actually work.

INSKEEP: You would want the Palestinian territories to become part of Israel proper.

AWEIDAH: No, not part of Israel, part of a new unitary binational democratic state.

INSKEEP: That was the view of Ahmed Aweidah, the head of the Palestine Exchange. The picture he painted is many an Israeli's nightmare - Jews as a minority in what was founded as a Jewish homeland. Israelis know that many Arabs have never accepted the idea of Israel at all. But it would be wrong to think that all Palestinians have given up on the other option - a separate Palestinian state.

SALEM FAYYAD: I personally believe that a solution is still possible on the basis of the two-state solution concept.

INSKEEP: It's still possible.

FAYYAD: I believe it is still possible.

INSKEEP: That's Salam Fayyad. He's a former Palestinian Authority prime minister. We found him in the city of Ramallah. He's been thinking about what it would take to restore momentum toward creating two states. First, Palestinians must prove they are ready to govern themselves.

FAYYAD: Is the world ready for yet another weak, failed state; anybody excited about the prospects of something like this?

INSKEEP: Obviously not, which is why Fayyad says that as prime minister he sought international approval of his state's evolving institutions. His goal now is a state so obviously viable that Israel has no choice but to recognize it.

FAYYAD: It has to be democratic. It has to be open. It has to be progressive.

INSKEEP: And when you talk about a strong democratic state, how do you answer Israelis or really any outsider who would observe that President Abbas hasn't stood for reelection for a decade, that he lost control of Gaza to Hamas, that other problems have taken place?

FAYYAD: Look, we have been going without elections for a long period of time. There is no question about that.

INSKEEP: He says Palestinians must unite and all factions, including Hamas, will have to renounce violence. Fayyad admits it is all very far from where Palestinians stand now, as we could hear as we moved around Ramallah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We stopped in a restaurant called Azure. It has red-checked tablecloths and soccer on giant screen TVs. It's a hangout for Palestinian political figures like Bassam Zakarny. He's a public employees' union leader, and he drew smoke from a hookah as we spoke through an interpreter.

Do you think there is a strong and effective government now?

BASSAM ZAKARNY: (Through interpreter) This is a failed government. Like, this is an excellently failed government.

INSKEEP: Zakarny has motivation to complain. His union is battling the government of President Abbas, but he could also point to evidence. As we talked, we were joined by a man who said he was general secretary of the Palestinian Legislative Council. That is supposed to be the Palestinian Parliament. The man reminded us those lawmakers have not met in seven years.

Having heard that at the bar, we've now come here in Ramallah to the offices of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and this stone building is in fact closed up as it has been for years. And it is guarded by a man at the front gate with an automatic rifle. It may well be that a strong and functioning government would bring Palestinians a long way toward a genuine state, but they are still a long way from that strong and functioning government.

SIMON: NPR's Steve Inskeep on the struggle for land in the Middle East on Monday's Morning Edition. He'll ride a train that's become a target of violence. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.