Self-determination: A New Way Forward in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

The two-state solution, if you believe the pundits, is dead, or at least on life support. Worse yet, it is Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who is shouldering most of the international blame for this impasse, despite the Palestinians’ obstinate refusal to even negotiate with his government until it implemented a complete settlement freeze, and their decision to walk away from the table after less than a month of peace talks.

The Palestinian Authority has escaped censure even for its unilateral statehood bid at the United Nations, a brazen violation of both the spirit and the letter of the Oslo Accords. Rather than condemning PA President Mahmoud Abbas for ignoring his treaty obligations, European governments, and even the US and Canada, reserved most of their ire for Israeli construction in parts of East Jerusalem with an already indisputable Jewish majority, and for plans to build in the prized E-1 area separating East Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim.

In truth, the Netanyahu government was always an easy target for self-serving international opprobrium. Despite surrendering more territory to the arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat in the 1995 Wye River Memorandum, Bibi was demonized based on his first premiership as an inveterate rightist, bent on denying the Palestinians their natural right to self-determination. The vagaries of Israeli coalition politics, which forced him to accept the brash and undiplomatic Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister, did not help either. Even before it officially took office, the Netanyahu government was being smeared by a coalition of Arab governments, European states hostile to Israel, and foreign-funded left-wing Israeli NGOs.

Bowing to international pressure, Bibi formally accepted the two-state solution in his Bar-Ilan Speech of June 2009. But his critical mistake lay in never following up on that shift. He never proposed a comprehensive plan to implement two states for two peoples, allowing his many detractors to paint him as obstructionist when he rejected Obama’s demand for borders based on the 1949 armistice lines.

If the next Netanyahu government is to avoid further isolation and international pressure, it must propose a new paradigm for Israeli-Palestinian peace that safeguards core Israeli interests and is in line with principles of morality and international law. Luckily, just such a paradigm exists: self-determination.

Self-determination refers to the right of any nation to choose its own political status. After bursting onto the world stage with US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points designed to end the First World War, it later become the cornerstone of the post-1945 UN, enshrined in the very first article of its Charter.

Moreover, the only compelling case for Palestinian statehood is based on self-determination. Zionists and students of history might scoff at the “historical” case for Palestine, ridiculing PA claims that the Palestinians are the unadulterated descendants of the ancient Canaanites or that Jesus of Nazareth was the first Palestinian. The legal case, too, is flawed, because it is unclear whether the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem ever truly constituted “occupied territories”, as Jordan and Egypt were themselves not the internationally-recognized owners of those areas. As the only legal heir to the Mandate of Palestine, one might argue that Israel has the best claim to all of the Mandate’s former territories. In any case, UNSC Resolution 242, which first called for Israeli withdrawals from land captured in 1967, never mentioned surrendering that land to a Palestinian entity, since no such concept existed at the time.

However, there is no doubting the Palestinian claim to sovereignty based on self-determination. If the Palestinian Arabs of Gaza and the West Bank truly wish for a sovereign state, they are entitled to such under the most basic aspects of international law. In fact, Netanyahu recognized this during his Bar-Ilan Speech, noting that “we must state the whole truth here. The truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians. We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them”.

But there is a catch. If West Bank Palestinians are entitled to separate their cities and towns and villages from Israel based on self-determination, so too are Jewish residents of the West Bank permitted to choose Israeli sovereignty over citizenship in a Palestinian State. To do otherwise would be to impose a hypocritical double-standard, denying the same human and national rights to Jews that must be granted to Palestinian Arabs.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his dual capacity as Foreign Minister, must make the boldest peace proposal of all: a new partition of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, based on the self-determination of individual towns and communities. This would be the supreme Israeli sacrifice for peace, offering the Palestinians a deal on the same principle that they arrogantly rejected in 1947 before doing their best to destroy the embryonic Jewish State.

Conveniently, implementing self-determination would not only be in accordance with the most basic moral and legal principles – it would likely secure a better deal for Israel than the discredited Oslo Process. Obviously, Jewish communities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would vote en masse for Israeli sovereignty over Palestinian control. Moreover, according to the most recent polls, a plurality of East Jerusalem Arabs would also prefer Israeli citizenship over that of a hypothetical Palestinian State, even claiming that they would move to Israel proper if their neighbourhood was surrendered to such a state. Thus, it seems that Israel would keep East Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and the major settlement blocs if the right to self-determination was respected.

One might object that self-identifying Palestinian areas within Israel proper, such as the Upper Galilee and the “Triangle” bordering the West Bank, would clamour to join the Palestinian State and thus bisect Israeli territory. However, if the outrage over the Lieberman Plan to unilaterally transfer these areas to Palestinian control is any indication, Israeli Arabs would much rather remain Israeli citizens living in sovereign Israeli territory.

The obvious pro-Palestinian counter-claim would be that respecting self-determination in this case would reward “Israeli crimes” of settlement-building and even ethnic cleansing. But this argument is easily dismissed. All borders, including the 1949 armistice lines currently favoured by the international community, owe their existence to ethnic cleansing. Jews were ethnically cleansed from East Jerusalem and Gush Etzion in 1948, and from Hebron in 1929.

Any set of Israeli-Palestinian borders will be arbitrary to some degree. Nevertheless, boundaries predicated on the will of the Land’s inhabitants are far less arbitrary than those based on the positions of the Israeli and Arab armies in 1948, long divorced from realities on the ground.

Of course, the borders created by strict self-determination would be almost unworkable – Israel would be permitted to annex isolated settlements such as Yitzhar and Beit Hagai, while the Palestinians could absorb Arab villages encircled by Jewish areas, such as Wadi Fuqin adjacent to Gush Etzion. For their mutual benefit, Israel and the Palestinians might agree to exchange these areas, compelling the residents of Yitzhar to either retreat to land kept by Israel or stay in place and accept Palestinian citizenship, while the residents of Wadi Fuqin do the same. Self-determination should be limited only when to do otherwise would threaten the contiguity and/or viability of either state, which would itself be a greater violation of self-determination.

The Palestinians would also be worried by the status of the vast Jordan Valley under self-determination, since the entire region, with the exception of the city of Jericho, has a Jewish majority population. Palestinians would certainly resent forfeiting more than a third of the territory that they had claimed under the Oslo Process.

Since the absolute number of Jewish residents of the Jordan Valley is relatively small, a potential solution presents itself. Aside from self-determination rights, Israeli claims on the Jordan Valley are based on credible security grounds, since that region could become a smuggling route for rockets that would enable terrorist groups to turn the West Bank into another Gaza Strip. In return for receiving sovereignty over the Valley, notwithstanding self-determination, the Palestinians should agree to a completely demilitarized state with a strong police force, assuaging Israeli fears of further Palestinian aggression. Ironically, this would also benefit Palestinian civilians, since an international peacekeeping force in the West Bank would temper Israeli actions far more effectively than a ramshackle Palestinian armed force.

The practice of using plebiscites to divide a territory, usually along ethno-linguistic lines, is not new. The current borders between Germany and Denmark, Austria and Slovenia, and Nigeria and Cameroon were determined by plebiscite. Many other international boundaries, ranging from those between Latvia and Lithuania to Cambodia and Vietnam, follow ethnic fissures, even in the absence of a formal plebiscite. It is worth noting that European borders established after the First World War that ignored the self-determination of local communities, such as those separating Germany from Czechoslovakia and Poland, ignited further bloodshed and eventually required full-scale ethnic cleansing in order to render them viable. That is the dark future which awaits Israelis and Palestinians if their border does not respect self-determination.

Because many current European borders were determined via plebiscite, European nations will find it hard to dismiss such a proposal emanating from Israel outright, fearing charges of hypocrisy and of undermining their own sovereignty. More importantly, Israel’s detractors, including the Palestinian Authority, will have difficulty justifying the denial of self-determination rights to Jewish residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem Arabs, since they cite “the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination” in virtually every speech and press release.

If the next Netanyahu administration wants to avoid the withering international pressure that doomed the Shamir government in the early 1990’s, while simultaneously providing a new basis for a durable peace, it must insist on self-determination. The next time that President Obama or the European Union demand that Israel withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines, Bibi should stand up for the natural rights of Jews and Arabs who prefer to live in the Jewish State.


About the Author
Aidan Fishman is a student of International Relations and Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto. Born and raised in Winnipeg, he seeks to inject a touch of Canadian civility into Israeli and Jewish discourse, while still maintaining a debater's ear for sound logic and an enthusiast's eye for stories and solutions hidden beneath the headlines.