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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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