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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.