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Welcome to the Gulf News Debate. This month, two of our leading opinion writers are arguing on the viability of the two-state solution for the lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis. For the contrasting view to this article, click here: Palestinians deserve an independent state

Fifteen years ago, I moved to Palestine with the hope that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations process will one day bring peace to the Middle East through the creation of an independent Palestine, free from the vestiges of Israeli colonial and military rule. As an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, I spent more than six years working to achieve a “two-state” solution. After countless negotiation sessions and scores of proposals, my optimism transformed into realism: Despite years of negotiations, I saw that the Palestinians had moved further from their quest for their rights and freedom than they had before the negotiations began.

Today, 22 years since the Yasser Arafat-Yitzhak Rabin handshake on the White House lawn, the negotiations process and the two-state model at its core both have proven to be failures and, far worse, fundamentally detrimental to Palestinian rights. Israeli colonists living illegally in the West Bank have tripled since pre-negotiation days, reaching a staggering 600,000 today and with colonies continuing to spread and encroach upon Palestinian land throughout the West Bank and occupied Jerusalem.

Moreover, while the colonies continue to expand, owing to the lack of international outrage at what clearly is illegal colonisation, this colonisation now is viewed as normal in Israel. Worse still, this colonisation is being tolerated and viewed as a fact of life elsewhere, leading to the belief that it is acceptable for Palestinians to “compromise” on their territory as a condition for “achieving peace”.

Numerous reasons

Analysts have put forward numerous reasons for the failed negotiations and the imperative of reaching a two-state settlement. They argue that Palestinians need to work harder to achieve peace; that more Palestinian concessions must be made and that Palestinians need to be practical. But these arguments fail not only to address the underlying reasons for the lack of peace in the region, but also fail to account for the decades of failed diplomacy. In short, if the key to peace in the Middle East was simply about drawing a line or border, it would have been drawn decades ago. The actual problem is that the two-state model ignores the root cause of why there is no peace: It is because of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population; its conquest of Palestine; its colonisation of Palestine with foreigners and its subsequent labelling of this colonisation as “independence”.

The two-state model conveniently — and absurdly — ignores these realities and blatantly demands for Palestinians to accept their dispossession, exile and the theft of their land. We are to be content instead seeking comfort in a tiny, still colonised and occupied fragment of our historic homeland while Israel is granted legitimacy in the face of numerous actions for which it should be held criminally responsible.

Focus on fulfilment of rights

It is past time to move to a different model, one that focuses not on the division of land that has never historically been divided, nor on the creation of a “state”, but that instead focuses on the fulfilment of rights. Our energies should be spent focusing on equal rights for all individuals in the land, irrespective of religion, on seeking reconciliation rather than separation and on protecting minorities rather than systematically discriminating against them. In short, the egg cannot be unscrambled and it is past time to face this fact.

I am under no illusion that achieving equality for Palestinians and Israelis will be an easy feat. Power is never shared voluntarily by those who wield it. Many will argue that the proposed approach will reward Israel’s colonisation rather than challenge and reverse it. In fact, precisely the opposite is the case: Israel’s actions are rooted in the belief that it has superior rights. Pressing for one state is premised on the idea of undoing the ethno-religious privilege that currently defines Israel, where Jews are afforded superior rights to Palestinians, irrespective of whether these Palestinians are citizens of Israel or non-citizens living under Israel’s military rule.

Blatant discrimination

Functionally, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories already are a single entity, though Palestinians live in ghettos and behind walls, are systematically denied the same civil and political rights as Israeli Jews. For Palestinian citizens of Israel, while they are permitted to vote in Israeli elections, they are denied the same rights as Jewish Israelis, with more than 50 laws that explicitly privilege Jews, as well as countless others that marginalise non-Jews.

Meanwhile, millions of Palestinian refugees have been forced to live in exile for nearly 70 years, while Jews around the world continue to freely immigrate to Israel and live on a land to which Palestinians hold the rights.

Changing perspectives

Perspectives already are changing, with more than a quarter of Palestinians supporting a single democratic state, despite the absence of any political party advocating the position. While Israeli perspectives are changing too, the primary obstacle to one state is the widely held belief in Israel, and in much of the world, that Palestinians are not entitled to live freely on their historic homeland, but instead must negotiate with their occupier and oppressor to have any prospect of being allowed to live on a tiny portion of this land.

In short, the two-state model and negotiations process is premised on the belief that Jews have, and should continue to have, superior rights to Palestinians. This system of ethno-religious privilege — similar to the privilege that ruled apartheid South Africa — must fall. History demonstrates that ethnic privilege ultimately fails in a multiethnic society. Palestinians and Israelis are fated to live together. The real question is how — under a system of ethno-religious privilege or under a system of equality.

Diana Buttu is a Ramallah-based analyst, former adviser to Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators and policy adviser to Al Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.