Genocide scholar Omer Bartov says only a political solution can bring peace to Israel-Palestine — and he has one in mind

The Land for All confederation is a radical plan for peace, but it will require political will to make the most of this narrow window of opportunity.
Cover Image for Genocide scholar Omer Bartov says only a political solution can bring peace to Israel-Palestine — and he has one in mind
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Does Israel’s bombardment of Gaza constitute a genocide? Should politicians call for a ceasefire? For genocide scholar Omar Bartov, these questions are beside the point. 

A leading Israeli historian focused on genocide and Holocaust studies, Bartov says the more urgent question is how to make the most of this window to finally end the devastating cycle of violence in which Israelis and Palestinians are trapped.

“If you don’t seize the opportunity now to change the political paradigm, then you’re condemning them to years and years of more and more suffering and destruction on both sides,” he tells Analyst News. Doing so requires a change in leadership and strong political will from the international community. Otherwise, he says, the people of the Holy Land will be damned to endless violence. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. While the traditional two-state and one-state solutions now seem unfeasible to many analysts, Bartov says there’s another path forward that’s gaining interest among Israelis and Palestinians alike: A Land for All confederation, which envisions a single state encompassing both an Israeli state and a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.

Bartov, who teaches at Brown University, spoke to Analyst News about what comes next, from legal systems for justice and accountability to the radical imagination and political will needed to build peace. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

We’re two months into this war and, while there’s been a lot of debate and negotiations, it seems there’s no end in sight. What’s preventing a resolution? What is missing from the conversation?

What is missing is the most important thing: the political context.

Everything that is happening now can be seen as an opportunity. It’s seen as an opportunity by some people, certainly on the Israeli right, of ethnic cleansing in Gaza for so-called humanitarian reasons, removing the population of Gaza someplace, and then basically annexing into Israel and resettling it. As you know, there were settlements there that were evacuated under [former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon. Those people have never forgotten it, and they want to come back — but this time, just get rid of all the Palestinians. Of course, it’s also highly mobilizing for Palestinians. It’s tragic and horrible, but I’m sure that for every Hamas fighter that is killed, there are four young men who are willing to join now. 

But what is missing is the political opportunity that can come out of this; that is a discussion that is not happening sufficiently. 

There is a dire need to recognize — and nothing has shown it better than what has been happening since Oct. 7 — that there is no military or militant solution to this. There’s only a political one. If you don’t seize a political opportunity now, then you’re [forever] condemning these two groups, of which there are equal numbers. There are 7 million Jews and 7 million Palestinians living under one form or another of Israeli rule, and most of them are not going anywhere. They’re staying right there.

There’s not enough people who talk about it in Israel, and there’s no discussion that I can see among Palestinians right now, who are obviously disenchanted with the [Palestinian Authority]. And there’s hardly any international discussion; the Biden administration made some sort of weak noises about it.

That [international recognition] would change everything, but it calls for a change in political leadership. I think that Hamas is no longer, if it ever was, a legitimate partner for any negotiations. It won’t be destroyed but I think its hegemonic position in Gaza should cease. The current Israeli leadership is completely incapable and does not want any sort of solution. But a change in leadership, under pressure — and that leadership exists in potential — could change things dramatically.

I think that is the much more important discussion than whether it is genocide or not. Obviously, the violence has to stop, but it has to stop with a political horizon. Calls for a ceasefire on their own are not only insufficient; they may even be, in a sense, forcing people to go back to the prior position, which would ensure evermore destruction in the future.

Is the two-state solution just an idealistic notion that politicians pay lip service to while knowing it’s effectively not going to be pursued?

The two-state solution, that I also supported for many years, became a fig leaf. And I began to understand that more and more. It basically allowed the Israeli governments over time to extensively settle the West Bank, where there are between 500,000 and 700,000 settlers now alongside 3 million Palestinians. The traditional idea of the two-state solution, I think, is dead. It can’t happen. I’m certainly not the only one who thinks that and, although the U.S. administration [continues to promote] a two-state solution, it’s used as a slogan.

But what is possible? That’s the question. There are those who say that there would have to be just one state, a binational state. I don’t believe that would happen, and I don’t think it would be desirable, neither for Palestinians nor for Jews, and less for Palestinians. 

There is a plan. Although I’m hardly a leading figure, I’m part of a group which was gaining some steam before this happened. It talks about two states, yes — but two states in a confederation. There would be a Jewish state that would have a right of self-determination and a right of return, and there would be a Palestinian state that would have a right of self-determination and a right of return for all Palestinian refugees who would like to come back. These states would be along the 1967 borders. 

There is a dire need to recognize — and nothing has shown it better than what has been happening since Oct. 7 — that there is no military or militant solution to this.

Beyond that, there would be a clear distinction between citizenship and residence, so that people could have citizenship of one state but reside in another. That would mean that you would not necessarily have to uproot all the settlers who would be living now in a Palestinian state, although I suspect that many of them would leave anyway. But if they live there, they would have to live under the rules and regulations of the Palestinian state as residents, but not as citizens. They would vote, as they do now, actually, to the Israeli parliament. And if they broke the laws, such as going to the nearby village and burning it down, they would go to jail — as they should now, but they don’t.

Of the Palestinians who come back as refugees, certain numbers of them could be citizens of the Palestinian state; or they also could go and reside in Haifa or Akka [Acre] or Jaffa or other villages or cities as residents, but they would vote for the Palestinian parliament. So you would be in some ways squaring the circle. 

In Jerusalem, you would have a city that would have both the political institutions of both states and a roof government that would deal with all the issues which actually cannot be separated anymore anyway: infrastructure, water, energy, security, all those things. This is not a big country, and everything is connected there.

It sounds like a pipe dream. But I think it’s the only way that you can actually imagine these two groups sharing the same land, having a just system, having their own dignity of self-determination, their own institutions, without having barbed wire and minefields between.

In terms of what’s happening in Gaza right now, what happens next? We see historically that even where crimes have been characterized as genocide, little has been done to stop these atrocities from taking place. Once we’ve characterized the bombardment and atrocities in Gaza — whether as genocide, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing — what is the next step?

That’s a great question, but it doesn’t have any simple answers. War crimes, crimes against humanity, and, I think in almost all cases of genocide, tend to occur at a time of war. War crimes by definition happen in war. Genocide doesn’t have to, but in most cases, it is under the mantle of war. So that obviously also complicates matters because you need to distinguish between various types of violence that are occurring at the same time. This is what happened in the Armenian genocide, in the Holocaust, in Cambodia, in Rwanda — there was always a war there, too. And it’s not by chance. There’s a link between war and genocide – not all wars are genocidal, but most genocides are at war.

The second thing is that international law is applied by states. It’s not that you can just drag somebody and try them; it’s by agreement by state signatories. In order to first get involved in a war in some way, and then in order to bring heads of state or other officials to justice, other states need to be engaged in that — unless the state itself does it, which is the preference in international law. 

Now, the whole debate in Israel just before this horrendous series of events happened, between February and October, was over the weakening of its Supreme Court. A main argument was that if the Supreme Court is weakened, Israel would no longer be able to make the case that it has a functioning judicial system, which would mean that its pilots and its generals could be then indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Because Israel, then, couldn’t argue that if any crimes were committed, Israel would investigate them, and one could trust its investigations and its legal system.

Genocides have only stopped either because the perpetrators put an end to it — because they’ve done what they wanted to do — or because of military intervention.

Many of the pilots who are now bombing Gaza were the same pilots who said that they would not serve on reserve service, and half of them are volunteering as civilians to continue flying warplanes. They said they wouldn’t do it because they were afraid that Israel would become an authoritarian system: They would not want to get orders from such a regime, and they would then be vulnerable to international law. That’s the context.

You can see what happened in the past. The most recent case is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been accused of genocide. If Putin happens to travel to the Netherlands, he might find himself in The Hague. We can trust him not to do so, but by universal jurisdiction he could be stopped in another country. There was a case of him going to South Africa, which did not apply universal jurisdiction.

Finding political leaders, especially, as guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide is meaningful even if you can’t bring them to justice in the immediate future. It undermines their credibility and legitimacy in the international community. It limits their movements. It does have an effect. I don’t think it’s entirely toothless. For someone like [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, if this happened to him — I think his political career is over anyway — but he will hang on as long as he can. Being found guilty of something like that would mean that he wouldn’t be able to go anywhere, and that would be a death sentence for him. 

So it matters, but does it mean that it then stops the crimes being committed? No, it doesn’t. Genocides have only stopped either because the perpetrators put an end to it — because they’ve done what they wanted to do — or because of military intervention. The Genocide Convention is curious in international law, because it seems to allow for intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state, which international law hates allowing. The Cambodian or the genocide in Kampuchea was stopped because the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia. It didn’t invade it just to stop the genocide, but it did invade, and that was the end of that genocide.

That’s very unlikely in the case that we’re looking at now. I don’t think that right now we can argue for genocide. We can certainly make arguments for crimes against humanity and war crimes, but those don’t necessarily allow for international military intervention. I don’t think that these are useless, ultimately, because you’re talking about international engagement and international law. The way the international community can get involved is not simply through a judicial system. It gets involved politically. So if the United States were to say to Israel, “Look, if you continue doing this, we will stop supplying you with missiles,” that will change Israeli policy much faster than any judicial proceeding. The Iron Dome is being constantly supplied by the United States with more rockets; Israel cannot produce them fast enough. 

Because it’s international, you have to take the whole complex into account. By analogy, you could say that if you have a town in which there’s high crime, it would be good perhaps to have a larger police presence, but you also want to know the deeper reasons for that crime. You may need more social services, there may be unemployment — only applying the law is not going to solve it. In the case of Israel and Palestine, the main causes for the violence are political, and it is that politics that has to be addressed. It would not be enough and things would not stop if the heads of Hamas and/or the heads of the Israeli state would be brought to justice. The violence would continue without a political solution to it.

Many people lack the historical knowledge to be able to analyze the traumas unfolding right now – they don’t know how this began during World War I, they don’t know that Israel has been funding and propping Hamas for decades. There’s so much more than meets the eye.

I’ve been watching more Israeli media than I would like to, and that is coming up all the time. In Israel, everybody’s talking about the fact that Netanyahu’s policy for 20 years — it’s a well known fact — was to basically keep Hamas strong and keep the Palestinian Authority weak, so that he could say that there was no one to talk with. And whenever Hamas got out of hand, then they would use the policy of “mowing the grass,” of bombing it for a few days. And then achieving another two, three, four  years of quiet, and then funding it or letting it get funds from Qatar, knowing that it was arming itself. This was all known.

If the United States were to say to Israel, “Look, if you continue doing this, we will stop supplying you with missiles,” that will change Israeli policy much faster than any judicial proceeding.

One of the amazing things about all intelligence failures of all militaries is that when you look back and check, you find out that all the information was out there. And now it turns out that Israeli intelligence knew exactly what was going on; they just didn’t interpret it correctly. Or, in this case, Netanyahu didn’t want to pay attention to it. He was involved in something else. In that sense, he and Hamas were allies.

But it goes beyond that. The people to Netanyahu’s right — the certified Jewish supremacists who make up his government, who are racist, fascist, the worst kinds of people you could imagine, and no such government has ever existed in Israel before — those people and Hamas see the world through exactly the same lens. They are fundamentalists, they want to create a religious Jewish supremacist state, and they want the Palestinians to go away, in one way or another. Hamas in many ways wants the same thing. It wants an Islamic Palestinian state, and it would like the Jews to go back where they came from. They are mirror images of each other. 

Hamas began as something that was totally non-militant, as an organization that really was interested much more in actually caring for the population as a social organization. And that was why initially — long before Netanyahu, under Sharon — the Israeli authorities thought, “Well, let’s work with them because Fatah, these guys are fighting us, they’re terrorists. Let’s work with Hamas.” And Hamas changed — already in the First Intifada, but very much in the Second Intifada — and became real militants. Many Palestinians, including in the West Bank, look up to [Hamas] because Fatah has become a kind of collaborator with Israel.

The Jewish supremacists, now this religious national party in Israel, started off very differently. They were very moderate. Going back, the National Religious Party that was always in coalition with the Labour Party in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, they also morphed into something that is completely different — that is truly homicidal, expansionist, racist and anti-democratic. You can see a very strange learning from each other, not only because of the very cynical policies of Netanyahu. 

But these two movements — whatever they are, they’re not cynical, though sometimes you wish they were. They are dogmatic and fanatic. They keep emulating each other. That’s something nobody wants to talk about.

Note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the confederation plan highlighted by Omer Bartov. It is the Land for All confederation, not the Holy Land Confederation. We regret the error.