Peter Hain: one-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be considered

The Labour MP and former cabinet minister says a one-state solution could "more easily resolve the deadlock than the two-state solution I and many others have long favoured".

For decades there has been a bipartisan consensus that a two-state solution is the best means of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in a lecture tonight at the University of Swansea, published exclusively by The Staggers, Peter Hain will become the first British figure with direct ministerial experience to argue that after decades of failure, a one-state solution - the establishment of binational state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians - must now be seriously considered. 

Hain, who served as minister for the Middle East from 1999-2001, will say: 

For two decades I have favoured a two-state solution as the best plan for peace and the fairest outcome, one backed by the US, the United Nations, the European Union and all 22 countries of the Arab League. Officially, it’s the stated policy of the current Israeli government and of the Palestinian Authority.

But I am increasingly unsure about whether it’s still achievable – mainly because, as time has marched on, and successive negotiating initiatives have come and gone, the land earmarked for a viable Palestinian state has been remorselessly occupied by Israeli settlers.

And I’m not alone. John Kerry and William Hague have both talked of "the window for a two-state solution" closing. In April 2013, prior to launching yet another peace initiative, the US Secretary of State warned: "I think we have some period of time – a year to a year-and-a-half to two years or it’s over." On 18 June 2013, the British Foreign Secretary echoed those words in the House of Commons: "time is running out for a two-state solution".

There is also a marked dissonance between popular support for a two-state solution on the one hand, and popular scepticism that it is achievable on the other. A 2012 poll by the Konrad Adenauer and Ford Foundations showed that 70 per cent of both Israelis, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, thought the chances of establishing an independent Palestinian state by 2017 were "low" or "non-existent".   

The fundamental problem is this: sooner rather than later the land available to constitute a future Palestinian state will have all but disappeared.

Indeed, in defiance of the UN, the US and the EU, the Likud-led government has continued to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the point where there are now more than 550,000 settlers there, controlling 42 per cent of the land and representing nearly 10 per cent of the Israeli Jewish population. With every new settlement that is constructed, the possibility of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state recedes further.

At least rhetorically, Binyamin Netanyahu has committed to a two-state solution. In 2009, he declared that he was willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state, albeit one barred from having an army and controlling its airspace. But through his actions he has repeatedly undermined this pledge. 

As Hain will go on to say:

[I]f Israel’s relentless expansion into Palestinian territories cannot be stopped then we must face one of two possible outcomes. The first is that all Palestinian presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem remains in a permanent and ever-more formalized "Bantustan status", islands of minimal self-governance with the continued denial of basic rights, facing on-going pressure, perpetual insecurity and possible future physical removal. The second is that they are absorbed into a common Israeli-Palestinian state with the opportunity for pluralism and human rights advancement.

Is that solution now the only one capable of stopping the cycle of violence and preserving Israel’s potential to become a force for unity and peace, instead of a beleaguered source of division and a target for attack? And if the window for the two-state solution is indeed closing, then should the EU, the US and the UK make it plain to Israel that a one-state alternative may be the only one available to ensure its security?

A one-state solution has long been the favoured option of many secular Israelis and Palestinians for reasons of principle. What has changed is the number who now support it for reasons of pragmatism. Hain will conclude: 

[W]hat guarantees might there be for Jewish citizens both within Israel and worldwide if they agree the merger of their creation – a Jewish state which they fervently (and understandably) believe answers their post-Holocaust question: "Never Again"?  Could the Arab nations join those in the West like the US and the UK to provide such guarantees? 

What sort of common state might then be politically feasible and deliverable? Could a federal or confederal state provide a way forward, with common security, a unified economy, common civil rights and guarantees of religious freedom for Jews and Muslims, but considerable political autonomy for the territories within it of "Israel" and "Palestine"? How then might Israeli and Palestinian security forces be integrated?

These are fundamental, difficult and complex questions – but, if successfully answered, could a common state solution more easily resolve the deadlock than the two-state solution I and many others have long-favoured?

I remain uncertain. But I ask because I do not see how either the Israelis or the Palestinians can secure their legitimate objectives by perpetuating for still more decades their unsustainable and unstable predicament, with a two-state solution slipping away while violence and terrorism lurks constantly.

His questions are ones that no responsible leader can now afford to ignore. 

Update: Labour has been swift to slap down Hain. A spokeperson told me this afternoon: 

Peter Hain does not speak for Labour on foreign affairs and his views on the Middle East Peace Process do not represent Labour Party policy. Labour is fully committed to a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel, and we support the ongoing work of US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to help re-start negotiations towards achieving this goal.

The spokesperson also pointed me to Douglas Alexander's speech in July 2013 in which he said: 

"…to those who say a two state solution is now a fantasy, I say it is a fantasy to think a one state solution could ever be either sustainable or consistent with Israel’s democratic values.

A one state solution is simply not a solution at all.  It would mean either the demise of Israel as a Jewish state or the demise of Israel as a democratic state. It would be the end of the dream of national self determination for the Jewish people."

Labour MP Peter Hain, who served in the cabinet from 2002-2008 and as minister for the Middle East from 1999-2001. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.