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This nearly unanimous consensus is the surest sign to date that the two-state solution has become void of meaning, a catchphrase divorced from the contentious issues it is supposed to resolve. Everyone can say yes because saying yes no longer says much, and saying no has become too costly. Acceptance of the two-state solution signals continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle by other means.
Bowing to American pressure, Netanyahu conceded the principle of a Palestinian state, but then described it in a way that stripped it of meaningful sovereignty. In essence, and with minor modifications, his position recalled that of Israeli leaders who preceded him. A state, he pronounced, would have to be demilitarised, without control over borders or airspace. Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and no Palestinian refugees would be allowed back to Israel. His emphasis was on the caveats rather than the concession. As Netanyahu was fond of saying, you can call that a state if you wish, but whom are you kidding?
As for Hamas, recognition of the state of Israel has always been and remains taboo. Until recently, the movement had hinted it might acquiesce to Israel’s de facto existence and resign itself to establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This sentiment has now grown from hint to certitude.
President Obama’s June address in Cairo provoked among Hamas leaders a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. The American president criticised the movement but did not couple his mention of Hamas with the term terrorism, his recitation of the prerequisites for engagement bore the sound of a door cracked open rather than one slammed shut, and his acknowledgment that the Islamists enjoyed the support of some Palestinians was grudging but charitable by American standards. All of which was promising but also foreboding, prompting reflection within the Hamas movement over how to escape international confinement without betraying core beliefs.
The result of this deliberation was Hamas’s message that it would adhere to the internationally accepted wisdom — a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967, the year Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas also coupled its concession with caveats aplenty, demanding full Israeli withdrawal, full Palestinian sovereignty and respect for the refugees’ rights. In this, there was little to distinguish its position from conventional Palestin-ian attitudes.
The dueling discourses speak to something far deeper than and separate from Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu underscores that Israel must be recognised as a Jewish state — and recalls that the conflict began before the West Bank or Gaza were occupied. Palestinians, in turn, reject recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, uphold the refugees’ rights and maintain that if Israel wants real closure, it will need to pay with more than mere statehood.
The exchange, for the first time in a long while, brings the conflict back to its historical roots, distills its political essence and touches its raw emotional core. It can be settled, both sides implicitly concur, only by looking past the occupation to questions born in 1948 — Arab rejection of the newborn Jewish state and the dispossession and dislocation of Palestinian refugees.
Both positions enjoy broad support within their respective communities. Few Israelis quarrel with the insistence that Israel be recognised as a Jewish state. It encapsulates their profound aspiration, rooted in the history of the Jewish people, for a fully accepted presence in the land of their forebears — for an end to Arab questioning of Israel’s legitimacy, the specter of the Palestinian refugees’ return and any irredentist sentiment among Israel’s Arab citizens.
Even fewer Palestinians take issue with the categorical rebuff of that demand, as the recent Fatah congress in Bethlehem confirmed. In their eyes, to accept Israel as a Jewish state would legitimise the Zionist enterprise that brought about their tragedy. It would render the Palestinian national struggle at best meaningless, at worst criminal. Their firmness on the principle of their right of return flows from the belief that the 1948 war led to unjust displacement and that, whether or not refugees choose or are allowed to return to their homes, they can never be deprived of that natural right. The modern Palestinian national movement, embodied in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, has been, above all, a refugee movement — led by refugees and focused on their plight.
It’s easy to wince at these stands. They run against the grain of a peace process whose central premise is that ending the occupation and establishing a viable Palestinian state will bring this matter to a close. But to recall the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian clash is not to invent a new battle line. It is to resurrect an old one that did not disappear simply because powerful parties acted for some time as if it had ceased to exist.
Over the past two decades, the origins of the conflict were swept under the carpet, gradually repressed as the struggle assumed the narrower shape of the post-1967 territorial tug-of-war over the West Bank and Gaza.
That so many attempts to resolve the conflict have failed is reason to be wary. It is almost as if the parties, whenever they inch toward an artful compromise over the realities of the present, are inexorably drawn back to the ghosts of the past. It is hard today to imagine a resolution that does not entail two states. But two states may not be a true resolution if the roots of this clash are ignored. The ultimate territorial outcome almost certainly will be found within the borders of 1967. To be sustainable, it will need to grapple with matters left over since 1948. The first step will be to recognise that in the hearts and minds of Israelis and Palestinians, the fundamental question is not about the details of an apparently practical solution. It is an existential struggle between two worldviews.
For years, virtually all attention has been focused on the question of a future Palestinian state, its borders and powers. As Israelis make plain by talking about the imperative of a Jewish state, and as Palestinians highlight when they evoke the refugees’ rights, the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel.
Hussein Agha is a co-author, with Ahmed S. Khalidi, of “A Framework for a Palestinian National Security Doctrine.” Robert Malley, the director of the Middle East Programme at the International Crisis Group, was a special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs to President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001.
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