Palestine, Israel and the Struggle for Equal Rights

Many people who have a good sense of what the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is about may not understand why we are asking the one-state question—and why we’re asking it now. The international community has been unanimous on the need for a Palestinian state for more than twenty years, so why not press the moral advantage? It is a good question. And the best answer to it is the shortest one: Palestine has been colonized out of existence. I was lucky enough to gain an insider’s view as it happened.

For six years, I worked as a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team.  I attended countless negotiation sessions, examined scores of proposals and devised numerous counter-proposals.  Having spent these years at the negotiating table I came away with one commonsense conclusion—negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel would be futile so long as the power differential between the two parties was so drastically imbalanced. In other words, a nuclear-armed state boasting the unconditional support of the world’s only superpower does not negotiate with refugees—it dictates to them.

The Oslo process was marked by a powerful Israel freely imposing its will on the Palestinian people.  Rather than withdrawing completely to the 1967 boundary and removing all of the illegal Israeli settlements, Israeli leaders decided to colonize more and annex more Palestinian territory. Every Israeli proposal, and later the underlying premise of the negotiations, sought to accommodate Israel’s illegal behavior. Today, people who believe that the two-state solution is viable frequently evoke the concept of “land swaps.” In effect they’re saying, “The larcenist has succeeded; let’s respond to his bad behavior on his terms.”

Though I spent six years as a legal advisor, the negotiations have gone on for nearly twenty.  Today, Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to achieving a two-state settlement than they were in 1993.   In fact, they are further apart.  During this nearly twenty-year period the number of Israeli settlers tripled from 200,000 in 1993 to almost 600,000 today, and Israel has continually moved the goal post to its advantage.


But the two-state problem extends beyond the issue of borders. Each successive Israeli proposal that I saw sought to hobble the sovereignty of the “Palestinian state” by controlling the area’s natural resources.  And during my time in Oslo, Israeli negotiators refused to even discuss the future of Jerusalem—a city that is holy and integral to Palestinians—and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.  It bears emphasizing that without addressing these fundamental issues no solution—one or two-state—will succeed.

With Palestinians and Israelis fated to live together, the time has come to think of new alternatives.  Instead of seeking to divide the land on which they live, and myopically focusing on the creation of a “state,” perhaps we should together think of creating a model that seeks to fulfill our mutual inalienable rights.  Perhaps instead of focusing on separation, we should examine prospects for reconciliation.   The student-led One-State Conference at Harvard this weekend aims to explore this alternative by looking at the difficulties and challenges that equality for all poses as well as some of the answers it provides.

Perspectives are already changing.  Today, more than a quarter of Palestinians support a single democratic state, despite the absence of any political party advocating such a move.  Israeli perspectives are changing too, with even a right-wing parliamentarian noting of Israel’s policies that: “The result is a solution that perpetuates the conflict and turns us from occupiers into perpetrators of massacres, to put it bluntly.”

While many seek to stifle this conversation, owing to current realities it is one that must be had.  Today, Palestinians and Israelis are virtually equal in numbers living on the same land.  In a few short years, Palestinians will exceed the number of Israelis.  Israel’s continued control over the lives of Palestinians has led many commentators to compare Israel’s practices to those of “apartheid,” including U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  And, with the impossibility of negotiations in which Israel treats the Palestinians as equals and upholds international law, a two-state settlement remains a mirage at best and will only serve to perpetuate the conflict.  Israelis and Palestinians don’t have another twenty years to waste.

Diana Buttu is a fellow with the Middle East Initiative at the Belfer Center and an Eleanor Roosevelt visiting fellow at the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. She previously served as a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team in its negotiations with Israel and later as an advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.