Middle East Eye / June 8, 2023
As hopes dwindle for a two-state solution, Palestinians appear to have been abandoned by the international community.
French director Olivier Assayas’s masterpiece Carlos reminds us how symbolically, geopolitically and internationally important the struggle for the liberation of Palestine was in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a cause that inflamed imaginations worldwide.
Upon the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, the world depicted in his film – the political atmosphere, the intense and widespread pro-Palestinian sentiments, and the centrality, whether real or perceived, of the Palestinian struggle – seems to have largely evaporated, to the point where it is legitimate to ask ourselves whether Palestine is still a cause celèbre.
Is it still a factor that matters in international relations? If so, how – and if not, why?
On one hand, the answer seems to be a negative. The Israeli occupation is harsher than ever. Israel’s new coalition government, the most extreme in the nation’s history, is controlled by Jewish supremacists and religious fanatics. Israel is stepping up its illegal colonization of Palestinian land through brutal government and settler violence, while attacking the rule of law and even its own status quo.
Israel is a colonialist country, one of the few remaining ones on earth. It is also an apartheid state that shows utmost contempt for UN resolutions and even the most minimal standards of civilised behaviour; and the US, its partner-in-crime, allows it to enjoy ongoing impunity.
Even as the situation keeps getting worse, western governments have increased their cooperation with and support for Israel. It should be clear by now that there is no hope the US will exert any real and sustained pressure on Israel to change course.
The same can be said of other western states that appear unwilling to take concrete actions against Israel, such as ceasing aid and cooperation, or even merely threatening to do so. The most that countries such as France, Britain, Germany, Ireland and others will do is pay lip service to the two-state solution.
These meaningless declarations have had zero impact on the main three parties involved: Israel, the US and the Palestinians. Nor have they had any effect on the situation on the ground, characterized by an ever-expanding colonization that has already reduced what was supposed to be a future Palestinian state to almost nothing – and they’ve had even less influence on moving towards a long-term political solution.
This mix of complicit passivity, shocking cowardice and hypocrisy is now even more cruelly visible, as it stands in sharp contrast to the determined front the West has unanimously put up in opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When it comes to the decades-long suppression and oppression of the Palestinian people, this resolve evaporates instantly.
Recently, the French National Assembly voted down a resolution that condemned Israel’s apartheid regime, with both right-wing and left-wing politicians teaming up to reject the text.
France, which used to generate respect, empathy and admiration across the Arab world thanks to its courageous positions on Israel and opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, now appears to be going the extra mile for Israel by implementing anti-Palestinian policies at home: cracking down on pro-Palestinian groups, criminalizing boycott campaigns, and equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism at the highest levels of the state.
The more extremist, undemocratic, racist, violent and oppressive Israel becomes, the more unconditional support it receives from the West.
As for Palestinians, despite receiving some humanitarian aid that represents a fraction of what has been given to Ukraine in a single year, they have been all but abandoned by the West, which has given up on the two-state solution – even as diplomats continue to feebly invoke the notion.
Facts on the ground
With rare exceptions, Arab states seem to have abandoned the Palestinian cause, for two main reasons: firstly, the realization that the two-state solution, and thus the dream of Palestinian statehood that long governed the international community’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is dead.
Through faits accomplis on the ground, Israel has managed to create and impose the reality of a single state that is so extensive and entrenched, it is hard to see how the situation could change. Israelis benefit from that one-state reality and have become quite comfortable with the status quo, living in relative safety behind their walls in Fortress Israel. Palestinians, who have lost faith in their own political authorities and in the “international community”, have been left with few options, other than to resume their armed struggle in hopes of pushing for a more equitable compromise.
This temptation to abandon the two-state solution is understandable: 75 years since the Nakba, the world has utterly failed to get anywhere close to this solution. Today, it appears further away than ever. Long gone is the enthusiasm generated by the distant Oslo Accords. Fatigue and despair have settled in.
For years, scores of Middle East experts have been giving up on the likelihood of the two-state solution, suggesting that it is no longer possible and the most likely future is continued apartheid. In the words of analyst Nathan J Brown: “It is time to admit what most observers already know: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that diplomats have been dealing with for half a century is over.
“It is not that a solution has been found. Just the opposite: all the injustices and insecurities that afflict inhabitants of the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are now so deeply ingrained in daily life that no diplomatic framework can address them now.”
Making a bleak outlook even worse, none of the alternatives to the two-state solution is acceptable to a majority of Israelis and Palestinians.
The failure, rivalry and disunity of Arab states; the unconditional support of the US for Israel; the weakness and passivity of the Europeans; the failure of the Palestinian leadership; and the determination of Israel to extend its colonization and oppression of Palestinians, have all sabotaged the possibility of a two-state solution.
The situation today appears intractable, with the risk of a new intifada or fresh waves of Palestinian retaliation – the weapon of the weak against the violence of the strong, due to a lack of alternatives.
The second major reason why Arab states seem to have given up on the Palestinian cause is also a structural one, related to the ongoing normalization of relations between former regional adversaries.
In this new geo-strategic era of pragmatism in the name of one’s own national interests, Palestine does not feature as a priority – and often actually represents an obstacle and an embarrassment. It is a casualty of this slew of strategic rapprochements, recalculations and restructuring.
This new trend is best represented by the Iran-Saudi deal brokered by China and the US-brokered Abraham Accords, the latter of which skillfully combined carrot and stick, and has expanded over the past several years to non-signatories through high-profile visits, deals and partnerships of all kinds with Israel. And this trend is by no means limited to the Middle East region, as India’s tilt towards Israel shows. All of this functions as a powerful disincentive for Israel to do anything differently with regards to the Palestinians.
Given that Israel can continue to colonize, occupy and brutalize Palestinians, while normalizing relations with its former Arab adversaries and finally getting integrated into the region – and also receiving lyrical praise from the EU’s top authorities – the clear message is that Israel can have its cake and eat it too.
The two aforementioned trends have essentially relegated Palestine to a non-factor in the new international landscape. But there is nuance to this pessimistic assessment.
As professor Hamid Dabashi reminds us, the Palestinian cause still resonates in the global consciousness as “an expansive metaphor for broader global struggles against colonial occupation and injustice”. This popular solidarity movement effectively limits the decoupling between normalization with Israel and the Palestinian cause, thus preventing the total regional and international integration of Israel, despite the real progress it has recently made towards this goal.
As long as it continues its oppression and colonization of Palestine, Israel will remain largely a pariah state – one of the least popular nations on earth. Even in countries such as the US, more Democrats are now siding with Palestine over Israel. There has also been pushback against the process of Israeli normalization, which is finding its limits, as in the case of Saudi Arabia.
Above all, Arab public opinion overwhelmingly continues to reject normalization as long as Palestinians do not have their own state. For the “Arab street”, Palestine remains a sacred cause – maybe the only one that unites people beyond borders, nations, cultures and differences. Unlike their regimes, they are absolutely not ready to let Israel have its cake and eat it too on the backs of their Palestinian brothers.
Alain Gabon is Associate Professor of French Studies and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, USA