Nader Hashemi was born in Canada. He now lives in Denver where he is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the author of Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies and co-editor of several books, most recently, Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.
My ideal preference is for one state in which Israelis and Palestinians will be treated equally under the law (based on liberal-democratic principles). However, we need to balance ideals with realities. Given the history of conflict, all the blood that has been shed and the deep distrust between the two parties, I think a practical and realistic first step would be to support a two-state settlement based on international law (i.e. the 1967 borders). This proposition has significant support among both Israelis and Palestinians, in the region, and among the international community. Who knows what might happen afterwards. If you can get to a two-state settlement based on the 1967 borders, then down the road some sort of confederation or rethinking of the borders and the political relationship between Israelis and Palestinians might be possible (in fact, I think it would be inevitable).
I support land swaps if this can advance a just and lasting settlement. Remember that the Palestinians have already conceded 78% of British-mandated Palestine to Israel. What they are demanding now is sovereignty over the remaining 22%—a proposition no Israeli government has been willing to accept (largely because of US backing).
I adopt an international law framework on the question of settlements as well as on most other issues related to this conflict. Israeli settlements are non-controversial in the context of international law, in the sense that they are illegal. The settlements that Israel has constructed since the 1967 war on lands seized in this war are illegal under international law. This also includes what has happened in East Jerusalem, which is often ignored when the question of settlements come up. This principle should be upheld as a point of departure in discussing a resolution of this conflict, especially where settlements are concerned.
Can Israeli settlements remain in a future Palestinian state? This would be up to the Palestinians to decide but my sense is this proposition is a non-starter, especially if the current arrangements are allowed to continue where Israeli settlers are subject to a different set of laws than Palestinians. If there is an agreement in which they can remain and be subject to the same set of laws, then the physical existence of the settlements is not a core problem. The question is: what law will they be subjected to, and will there be equality under the law for Israelis and Palestinians.
The related point that sometimes comes up is that there could be mutually agreed upon territorial swaps where perhaps Israel can retain some existing settlements while exchanging pre-’67 Israeli land of equal value. This might be possible, if done in the context of serious negotiations in which both sides are at the table seeking a permanent solution to the conflict based on the principles of international law; then, perhaps, some minor and mutually agreed upon land swamps might be possible.
We need to be clear on this point: Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. Just because Israel is the more powerful party and wants to keep these settlements does not give them a moral or legal right to retain these settlements.
As for those extremist Israeli settlers who cannot be swayed by economic incentives to move back to Israel (pre-1967), I think there is a simple solution. After a peace settlement, the IDF should simply announce that it is moving out of the West Bank and back to Israel’s internationally-recognized 1967 borders. If the remaining settlers want to remain in a Palestinian state, they are free to do so, but they will be on their own.
On the question of security, my point of departure is that one has to adopt a position where Israeli and Palestinian life is given equal status and value. I reject the standard assumption on this topic that only Israel has a security problem. In fact, I would argue that Palestinians have a greater security problem given the imbalance of power between both sides and the massive loss of life and human suffering that Palestinians have endured since the inception of this conflict. Gaza is a case in point but just the tip of the iceberg. This point is generally not acknowledged or recognized in the mainstream US debate on security as it is simply assumed that only Israelis have a security problem. I reject this deeply biased approach to the question of security.
I don’t rule out an international presence to advance collective security for both Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps, some form of an international peacekeeping or monitoring force under a UN mandate might work here. Obviously, the consent of both parties would be needed and perhaps this could be a temporary measure as a way of presiding over a transition period toward greater trust and stability.
International law on the question of Jerusalem says that anything Israel has done since 1967 is illegal. East Jerusalem is not part of Israel, which is why no country in the world has moved their embassy there – Israel’s claims to East Jerusalem are simply illegitimate under international law.
My own personal perspective is there are three options. One is to go back to the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem becoming sovereign Palestinian land and West Jerusalem remaining under Israeli control. A second option, which is my own personal preference, is to have a joint sovereignty where both sides can use the city in a unique arrangement and both can claim Jerusalem as their capital while sharing it in an equitable manner. The third option is to deny it to both parties and to make it an international area with a unique arrangement that allows access to both sides but sovereignty for neither.
The Old City should be under Palestinian control since this is how it was before the 1967 war. I know this is an unpopular position in Israel, but international law is clear on this issue.
With regards to Jewish/Israeli access to holy sites, such as the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, I think it would have to be built into a final agreement. There would need to be guarantees and recognition from the Palestinian side that Jews have a historic relationship to East Jerusalem and a right to pray and visit their historic sites. If it were up to me, I would strongly insist upon provisions that would allow free and unhindered access for Jews to Jewish sites in East Jerusalem that are considered historic and important. Thus, blocking that access after an agreement has been reached, would be a violation of the agreement. The details would have to be worked out, but I do not see this as a sticking point because before the conflict began, the religious holy sites were accessible to all. It was only when modern nationalism took root that things began to go awry.
This issue is the core of the conflict. Again, international law on the right of return should be a starting point for negotiations, where Palestinians have a right of return or to be compensated for what they have lost. Ideally, this should be an individual decision for Palestinians to make as to which option they choose.
Obviously, this issue is the most difficult one to resolve because if one implements it, the implications for Israel are significant. But let us also not ignore the obvious – the non-resolution of this issue also has huge consequences for the Palestinian people, most of whom are refugees. This point is often ignored when this topic is discussed (highlighting the biased assumptions that inform debate on the topic).
The details obviously matter and have to be negotiated by the two parties. The key questions are: how many Palestinians will be allowed to return to their homes in Israel? Will they even want to return given the passage of time? What does compensation look like? How will it be calculated and who will pay it? If a Palestinian chooses compensation, do they give up the right of return?
For Palestinians, the question of the right of return is fundamentally a moral and symbolic issue. They want recognition of their suffering and acknowledgement that they have been victims of dispossession. If Israel was to offer a statement that acknowledges this, particularly with regard to the 1948 war, I think it would be a step forward. There can also be other imaginative options. For example, a symbolic right of return with periodic visits for Palestinians that were dispossessed to their ancestral homes.
Finally, if a future Palestinian state is properly governed (i.e. not by the Palestinian Authority), it can accommodate many of the refugees who choose to return. This provides negotiators with many options to work with to resolve this very important issue.
Narratives are important but so are the objective facts of the Israel-Palestine conflict. On the latter, there is little debate in academic scholarship on the basic facts of the conflict. This should serve as a guide and a reference on how to solve the conflict.
Obviously, both sides have their own historical narratives. I think we need to acknowledge the right of both sides to have their own narratives and to allow these narratives to have a public hearing/be publicly recognized. The challenge for those who want a peace settlement is to go beyond their own narratives and to try and identify with the narrative of the other side. For the Palestinians, I think one of the most important things that should happen is to try to understand the Israeli narrative from the perspective of historic Jewish suffering and attachment to the land of Israel. Specifically, to listen and to try to identify with the deep insecurity, vulnerability, and sense of persecution that the Jews feel and have faced historically, particularly in Europe leading up to the creation of Israel. There were, and still are, legitimate fears that motivated the Zionist project. This is generally not understood or appreciated by Palestinians/Arab/Muslims. Likewise, on the other side, defenders of Zionism need to see how the other side viewed the Zionist project, especially the 1948 war, as part of a colonial project that was connected to the larger project of European colonialism and imperialism in the Arab-Islamic world. This is how most Arabs/Muslims saw it and continue to see this conflict (i.e. from the prism of their own historical experience). In other words, opposition to Israel is not motivated by anti-Semitism but rather a deep revulsion against Western encroachment, dispossession, humiliation and double standards.
In this context, while narratives are important, it is also important to acknowledge that we can’t roll back the clock and redo the conflict. We need to be guided by fairness, justice and equality for both Israelis and Palestinians. In other words, we need to try to figure out at this moment a just, equitable, and fair resolution of this conflict and how it might look. As I said earlier, an international law framework is a good starting point.
On BDS, I am sympathetic to the fundamental motives of the BDS cause—they want to address the topic of Palestinian suffering. While I am sympathetic to where they are coming from, I am critical of their call for a comprehensive boycott of Israel and their stubborn insistence that if you don’t support a one-state settlement, you are an enemy. I’m exaggerating here, but only slightly. The comprehensive boycott of everything Israeli, without making distinctions, alienates Israeli civil society groups, activists and academics, who are allies in resolving this conflict. It is misguided, counterproductive, and one that I don’t think is in the best interest of a just settlement of this dispute. With respect to the boycott of Israel, I distinguish between the occupied territories and the state of Israel (within its internationally recognized borders). The BDS activists do not. I support boycotts against what is happening in the occupied territories, but boycotting Israeli civil societies or academic institutions is not a decision that I support.
In addition to boycotts, civil disobedience and nonviolent campaigns are important to increase the cost of occupation and to stop settlement building. Without that, there is no hope for resolution. Israel has no reason to concede anything given the weakness of the Palestinian side. The monumental corruption of the Palestinian leadership is a key problem. This overlaps with the BDS movement. One reason it has gotten such important name recognition globally is because there is no serious and credible Palestinian national leadership that can lead the way toward a just settlement. Had there been such leadership, I think it would have reigned in the extremism within the BDS movement by providing a serious strategy that could lead to Palestinian self-determination and peace with Israel.
In my view, I think the biggest sticking point of the conflict is the complete absence of credible Palestinian leadership. The Palestine Authority is a joke (to put it politely). I think until the Palestinian national movement get its act together and provides serious leadership that reflects Palestinian public opinion, there is no hope for just resolution of this conflict. I am unaware of any movement in history that sought self-determination and didn’t have a credible national leadership leading the way. Leadership that is mature, incorruptible and politically serious. The model here is the African National Congress in South Africa or FRETILIN in East Timor.
I don’t have a problem applying the term to what is happening within the occupied territories because this is exactly what is happening there. In fact, South African human rights activists who know both cases say it is far worse in the West Bank than what they experienced in South Africa. Look up what Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said on the topic.
Objectively, I do not think the term apartheid applies to Israel proper so I do not use it in this context. But in the context of the occupied territories, yes. Mainstream Israeli newspapers, such as Haaretz, frequently use the term as do Israeli human rights organization such as B’Tselem. It is only in the USA/Canada where the term elicits controversy and sometimes hysteria among fanatical devotees of Bibi Netanyahu. Those who are familiar with the human rights documentation, however, are careful to use it where it applies and it certainly applies to what is happening in the West Bank. Just go there to see it for yourself.