Too Late for Two States? A Stale Debate Makes News

Palestinian street scene (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

Palestinian street scene (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

Estimated cost of removing settlements (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

Estimated cost of removing settlements (Israel Channel 2 news, screenshot)

I’m not a fan of Israel’s Channel 2 news, but I watch it online precisely for the reasons that I dislike it. Its broadcasts exemplify wonderfully Israel’s ‘extreme centre’, the mainstream, consensual  prejudices, defensiveness and self-righteousness of Israel’s ‘white tribe’, its Jewish, Ashkenazi, middle class. It is (not coincidentally) the channel on which Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid used to host a talk show, and then the ‘Friday Studio’ news magazine programme. That honour is now held by Danny Kushmaro, who this week (31 May 2013) filed his own extended report: ‘Two States: Have We Missed the Opportunity?’ As one of his interviewees, academic and former politician Meron Benvenisti, pointed out, the significance of the report is that it raises the question of whether a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is possible, and explains to the viewers that this is a stale (literally ‘mouldy’) debate.

It is indeed a stale debate for Benvenisti, who made the case as long ago as 1984 in his West Bank Data Project report that the Israeli settlement project in the Palestinian Occupied Territories is irreversible and that there could be no divided sovereignty between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. However, for Kushmaro this is newsworthy. He framed his recorded report from the studio by presenting  as obstacles to the two state solution the presence of 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, along with the lack of political leadership on both sides,.

Ostensibly, the point of the report is to contrast the official Israeli government policy of ‘two states for two peoples’ with its impossibility. The first point is established through a series of clips of footage in which Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid and Shimon Peres all state their support for the two state policy. Netanyahu does so thrice, once in English for good measure. The case that the opportunity for two states has passed (or that it never existed) is made in three interviews, the first being with Meron Benvenisti, whose skepticism about it predates its adoption by the mainstream Israeli peace camp, especially Peace Now, during the first intifada. Retired politician Yossi Sarid represents the mainstream left, telling us from his living room that ‘the State of the Land of Israel’ has defeated the ‘State of Israel’, that ‘we’ have all been defeated as the settlers are leading us to the ‘end of the Zionist dream’. While he still hopes for another ending, he fears that as far as two states go, ‘the train has already left the station’. For the politically illiterate, he adds that Netanyahu’s declared acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel was a ‘statement of political charlatanry’. Former Defence Minister Moshe Arens concurs in his interview that the settlers have won, but he has consistently opposed Palestinian statehood. Additional support for the case is made by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, whose point in a brief interview is that while most Palestinian still support a two state solution, they no longer believe it is a practical possibility, and by leading Fatah official Abu Ala, who in a short clip says that if the two state approach has failed, there will be one state.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, himself a settler, makes a hapless case for the official government line, undermining it by pointing out that it is only a theoretical issue, a matter for Israelis to discuss among themselves, given the condition of the ‘Palestinian side’. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni sounds more convincing when she insists on her commitment to the two state solution as the only way to sustain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, despite the difficulties and complexities. Yet, she seems to have been interviewed in the lobby of the studio, as if to indicate that her formulaic statements belong in the never-never land of no progress on peace talks, alluded to in Elkin’s interview, so long as there is ‘no partner for peace’. The issue is, she says, to get into the negotiation room, but she is not in a room herself. The most forceful arguments for the two state approach came for the studio pundits, especially Amnon Abromovich and Udi Segal, commenting after the report. The former claimed the naysayers had formed a link between extreme left and right, which is just what someone from the extreme center would say. The latter managed to make it sound as if he was arguing with him, while insisting that there is no alternative to the two state solution, that former rightists such as Olmert and Netanyahu had come to accept it, that when push comes to shove Israel will make the decision and withdraw, that it is unthinkable that a Palestinian from Nablus would become a citizen of Israel, and that those settlers living outside the settlement blocs (which contain about 75% of the settlers on about 4% of the West Bank) who do not wish to leave can stay. Whatever point Danny Kushmaro had tried to make in his report, they were having none of it. After all, how could they be considered experts if they changed their minds after 13 minutes of footage?

There is certainly much missing in the report, such as a graphic telling us what are the cost of Israeli government support for the settlements, and the additional costs of occupation, including building and maintaining the separation wall. The most significant omission is the range of debate within Israel (as well as Palestine) about alternatives to the two state solution. For example, in the summer of 2012 there was a whole issue of the political science journal Public Sphere, published by Tel Aviv University, dedicated to the question of a single state as a utopia or emerging reality. Kushmaro’s report pitted Benvenisti against the Israeli left, but there is a vibrant if small left which since the collapse of the Oslo process has been discussing with some intensity the question of what sort of political entity should replace Israel and its military occupation: a bi-national state, a federal or confederal arrangement, a unitary state of civil equality, or even no state at all. That is not a stale debate, but one worthy of its own Friday evening extended coverage.

Visually, however, the report seemed to be making another case too. Although the number of 350,000 Israeli settlers is repeated in a graph several minutes into the report, the camera favours the physical existence of the settlements as evidence of the irreversibility of the settlement project. Settlements are shown as the backdrop to Meron Benvenisti’s interview, from a viewpoint where he could show how in the area between East Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim known as E1, wherever one can see trees there is an Israeli settlement. Ze’ev Elkin also points out his own settlement and neighbouring ones during his interview from a similar vantage point, as the camera sweepingly takes possession of the land. When the figure of 42 milliard shekels (over $11 milliard) is cited as the cost of evacuating 70,000 settlers, it is displayed on screen against a background of settlements seen from afar and above. When it is suggested at the end of the report that perhaps a new solution to the conflict is needed, we see settlement building activity, to which we return, complete with heavy machinery and then a shot of a multi-storied set of dwellings built on a hillside, at the very end of the report, which concludes that with each passing day the two state solution becomes less possible. Oddly, the report only shows settlers in footage of them being removed by Israeli authorities from the Gaza settlements. Once, we see such scenes during the interview with Moshe Arens who refers to the ‘uprooting’ of those settlements as a national trauma, while patriotic music plays in the background. We see similar scenes, as well as the forced evacuation of a small hill-top settlement, when the report emphasises how difficult it would be to remove tens of thousands of settlers. Settlements appear in the report to be concrete manifestations of possession of the land, scoped from other points of visual mastery of the landscape, not places where people live.

By contrast, on the occasions when we are shown Palestinian areas of the West Bank, we see streets full of cars and people, first when we are told that the Palestinians would not accept the removal of only 70,000 settlers, but at least 150,000, and then as the backdrop to a couple of vox pop pieces in which two Palestinian men from Ramallah state that 19 years of negotiations have brought no progress and that they would prefer rights and equality under Israel (backing up Shikaki’s assessment). The other typical shot of the Palestinian areas is of graffiti-covered walls (not only the separation wall). Twice we see Arafat’s iconic face, once when the commentary says how many more settlers the Palestinians want to go (as if Arafat is the cause of such ‘intransigence’). His other appearance comes at the point in Kushmaro’s voice-over when he says that the Palestinian Authority is on the point of financial collapse. Along with Arafat’s portrait, we see shots of Palestinian flags and maps on the walls. So, it seems that the Palestinians live in crowded streets, hemmed in by walls decorated by nationalist sentiment. Empty Israeli settlements shot from afar; busy Palestinian streets filmed up close. Somehow, the camera (the shots, the editing, the soundtrack) cannot help but reiterate that whatever the political solution may be, what we see before us is alien settlement and an occupied people.

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