This article was part of a roundtable series that was originally published in June 2019 by the Beirut School of Critical Studies working group in the Arab Council for the Social Sciences. It has been republished by Security in Context in October 2023. For access to all the roundtable articles, please visit this link:

By Ilan Pappe

One cannot overstate the unique role Britain plays in the history of Israel and Palestine. It began in the mid 19th century, with the work of Lord Shaftsbury, London literati with familial and social connections to the top decision makers in the Empire, in encouraging Jews to immigrate to Palestine and lobbying the British Empire to create a Jewish state there. It culminated with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which the Zionist movement welcomed enthusiastically and the Palestinians rejected vehemently. In the Palestinian narrative, to this very day, the declaration is depicted as the first, and crucial, milestone on the road to their 1948 catastrophe.

Britain ruled Palestine between 1918 to 1948. In those thirty years, the seeds of the present conflict were sown and Britain played a crucial role in allowing it to develop. The Israeli/Zionist narrative is more favourable to the British role during the Mandatory period, although it condemns Britain for not allowing enough Jews to emigrate from Europe during the years of Nazi rule and for limiting the purchase of land. Moreover, in the last years of the Mandate, the Zionist movement wanted the British out of Palestine and saw their presence as an obstacle for creating the coveted Jewish State. Relatively speaking, the British repression of this will was very soft compared to other operations against liberation wars in the Empire. It is quite possible that the Holocaust had something to do with it and in any case, it seems that after the second World War, the British will to retain Palestine weakened and disappeared once it was decided to withdraw from India.

The Palestinians as the native population of the country still today feel deeply betrayed by Britain (almost every national document since 1918 stresses the role of a ‘perfidious Albion’ in contributing to the 1948 catastrophe, the Nakba). Britain is directly rebuked for allowing Jewish colonization in the first place and then squashing by force the anti-colonialist movement that tried to liberate Palestine in the 1930s.

More explicit was the British role during the last year of the mandate. In that year, the Zionist movement, ironically as part of building a democratic state, which would have an absolute Jewish majority, began uprooting the Palestinian population (which were the natives and still around 66% of the overall population). Under the eyes of British officials and soldiers, the Palestinians were cleansed from their cities and towns during the month of April 1948. The British behaviour at that period is in many ways praised by Israeli historiography, while the Palestinians, wherever they are, condemn it fiercely.

From an Israeli point of view, Britain was a loyal ally (colluding with it in 1956 to try and topple Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt). Even since 1948, Britain’s Middle Eastern policy was welcomed by Israel, and the expectation is that the British support to the Jewish state will continue without any rethinking about the past and its implications and without any significant rebuke of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians. There is a much greater expectation on the Palestinian side, especially with the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, for a possible British review of its past policies in Palestine, a review which would be accompanied with a pang of guilt for doing so little to end the 1967 occupation and facilitate at least an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the siege on the Gaza Strip.  

The Two States, the One State Solutions and Britain

It is very doubtful at this moment in time that any Western government, including the British one, can affect in any significant way the implementation of the two state solution. The days of such a solution are gone and a different approach is needed due to recent developments on the ground: more than half of the West Bank is now almost officially part of Israel and in the rest of it there are pockets of Jewish settlements. The territorial expansion was followed by a large influx of Jewish settlers who are still flowing into the West Bank and changing dramatically the demographic balance there.

Moreover, the Israeli electorate, although supporting in principle the two state solution, votes repeatedly to parties, such as the dominant Likud party, that in their platform reject categorically the idea of a two state solution. On the ground, this political attitude resulted in the spatial and demographic Judaization of the West Bank to such an extent that even if in the next elections, the only possible rival party to the Likud, a new central party of ex-generals, the Kachol-Lavan (Blue-White) party, would come to power, there will be little hope for change. This party and its prospective partners in a coalition would not be able, even if willing, to make the minimal concessions necessary for the creation of a barely viable Palestinian state.

Secondly, the Palestinian Authority itself cannot negotiate fully without the Hamas any form of a two state solution, and given the very minimal prospective Israeli concessions, these two Palestinian factions are not likely to be able to carry out an agreement of a two state solution, based on the present spatial and demographic realities on the ground.

Even before the Trump administration, the USA was limited in its power in changing this process. Under Trump, Israel policy of incremental annexation of Area C will continue without any hindrance. The only unknown is whether the PA will still be seen by Israel as an essential component in its matrix of power. Britain, especially outside the EU, is even less able to influence these realities.

It would be advisable for policy makers to read the scholarly reap of the last ten years that explains in details the demise of the two state solution. This literature is unknown to policy makers, who preferred exclusively the production of knowledge that support the two state solution. This scholarly view shows very clearly that Israel since 2000 dimmed the differences between Israel proper and the West Bank, diminished the PA into insignificance and relies heavily on keeping the Palestinians in the West Bank as citizen-less people and those in the Gaza Strip as a besieged community. Maintaining this as a long-term status quo is something many Israeli policy makers believe is doable, desirable and realistic. In medical terms, they would like to keep the two state solution clinically dead but still visibly alive.

There is a strange warning coming from Western diplomats, politicians and journalists who talk and write about the demise of the two state solution. This scenario is depicted as a future catastrophe. This warning was voiced clearly in the last official speech by the former American Secretary of State, John Kerry, and President Obama, just before he left office. The essence of the warning is that the death of the two state solution can only lead to one scenario: an Apartheid state all over historical Palestine. The underlying message here is that a democratic state where Palestinians and Jews are equal, or share a bi-national state (similar to the models of Canada, Belgium or Switzerland), is a dangerous idea. In this age of democracy and human rights, this is, to say the least, a bizarre assumption that means that equality can only lead to Apartheid.

The move from the discourse of national rights, which needs to be anchored in a territorial nation state to the discourse of human and civil rights that can be safeguarded within a variety of possible political outfits is not welcomed everywhere, but is highly necessary in Israel and Palestine given the unique history and realities on the ground.

Instead of a modern day Britain trying to maintain the idea of partitioning the land as the only possible solution (as has been argued unsuccessfully in the last 70 years), it would be good to hear the political establishment echo some of the civil society’s agenda on Israel and Palestine. The division of the land is not the outstanding issue, but rather the 71 year-old denial of normal and equal rights to the Palestinians is the core issue. There is a genuine, and understandable, Israeli Jewish fear of granting equal rights after such a long period of oppression, but we wasted a long time evading the issue and with it we helped to produce more despair, fanaticism and violence on the ground.

It is the democratic legacy of Britain, its historical accountability, and not its Realpolitik ideas of partition that is most needed as an input.

Transition from one hegemonic discourse of diplomacy, the two state one, into new unchartered waters of a human rights discourse is very difficult. It has to be a measured process and not a revolutionary one. However, it is worth pointing out from Whitehall and Westminster that while President Trump may be justified in pointing to a moment of time that not much else can be done in diplomatic efforts towards a solution, much more can be done concerning human and civil rights on the ground. The Arab world is looking anxiously to see whether the concern for these rights elsewhere in the region would include the Palestinians. There is a strong and disturbing sense in the Arab world that Israel is exempted from the same human and civil rights yardstick that the rest of the region is scrutinised by.

Britain cannot decide for the Palestinians who will be their representative bodies or how they should bridge over factionalism and divisions. However, it should not examine these bodies based on the colour of their ideologies (religious or secular) but rather on their human and civil rights agenda. There is a difference between the old PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and Hamas charters that demand the return of the Jewish settlers to their homelands and the updated political documents of both movements. These documents seek to change, through a modern struggle, the nature of the political regime between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean. This new updated view gives hope that these Palestinian factions will also in the future accept a solution based on equal civil and human rights for both sides. It is very interesting that such views are now also put forward by the Israeli President Revun Rivlin (notwithstanding his titular post, his position is still a post of prominence).

Thinking out of the box of the two state solution will be a painful and long process, but it will create new alliances and open up new opportunities. For this to happen, we have to commence this long walk, otherwise, the vacuum will produce more violent and far less humane alternatives to the failing peace process. The alternative solutions will influence the future of the Middle East as a whole (and by extension has implication for the Jewish and Muslim communities in Britain, as well as all over Europe).

The nomination of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour party signifies that a different British course of action is possible. The backlash to his appointment, led by the Zionist lobby in Britain, accusing him of antisemitism, indicates how much work there still is to be done in order to make Britain accountable for its role in the geography of disaster that unfolded in Palestine.

Professor Ilan Pappe was born in Haifa, Israel in 1954. He graduated from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1979 and received his D. Phil from the University of Oxford in 1984. He taught at the University of Haifa until 2006 and then moved to the University of Exeter in the UK, where he is currently the director of the European Center for Palestine Studies. Pappe is the author of 20 books, among them The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2007) and On Palestine, with Noam Chomsky (2010).

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Oct 30, 2023
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