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Now’s not the time to demand a two-state solution – former Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub

Now’s not the time to demand a two-state solution – former Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub
Daniel Taub, an international lawyer and diplomat who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, on 21 October 2014 in Cambridge, England. (Photo: Chris Williamson / Getty Images)

Taub was visiting South Africa this week, mainly to bring an Israeli perspective on Israel’s war with Hamas to the local Jewish community and other South Africans.

Now is not the time for the international community to push Israel towards a two-state solution, says Daniel Taub, an international lawyer and diplomat who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and as one of its negotiators in peace talks with Syria 

I don’t think we’re acting out of anger and grief. I think in practice we’re acting responsibly. But we are also a population at war and in bereavement.”

Taub was visiting South Africa this week mainly to bring an Israeli perspective on Israel’s war with Hamas to the local Jewish community and other South Africans.

Daily Maverick asked: Wouldn’t a big push from Israel right now – to create a viable Palestine state in the West Bank – give Palestinians something to hope for and draw them out of the orbit of Hamas? 

Taub replied that neither the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank nor the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), or its leader Mahmoud Abbas, had condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel on 7 October 2023, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

“To say that these are the people that you have to award statehood to It is not the time. I think there needs to be a process of healing before we can get there.

“And I think that if you do push before this happens, that’s when you get the instinctive responses that you’re hearing from Israel, and not just from the right of Israel, by the way

“There was a pretty broad consensual government decision that said we cannot accept a unilaterally imposed Palestinian state.”

Taub noted that Israelis are concerned that it may be too late anyway to shift the bulk of Palestinians beyond support for Hamas, as a survey had shown about 82% of Palestinians in the West Bank supported Hamas and its attacks – even more than the 72% of Palestinians in Gaza.  

It’s not clear that a two-state solution would actually be a solution, he said.

“The people who perpetrated the massacre of 7 October were not shouting ‘End the occupation’ or ‘Give us a state’. They were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.”

Rewarding the atrocities with a Palestinian state would only feed the appetite of Iran, which was behind Hamas, and the other fronts Israel is defending itself from, he said.

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International pressure

Israel’s closest ally, the United States, has been among the many members of the international community urging Israel to give the Palestinians some hope of a future state of their own, to counter the horrors of Israel’s war to root Hamas out of Gaza, killing some 30,000 people, most of them civilians.

Taub noted that the US had not been explicit about the timeline for a two-state solution. But whatever the timeline, “For Israelis to buy into a Palestine state, they need to see something that looks like a partner that’s prepared to take on the responsibilities of statehood.”

Daily Maverick asked him if it was not perhaps counter-productive for Israel to allow about half a million Jewish people to settle in the West Bank, which the 1993 Oslo Accords had designated as the territory for a Palestine state, in addition to Gaza.

Taub said the Jewish settlements in the West Bank were an issue of debate within Israel as well, but in practice, it wasn’t the obstacle to reaching an agreement. 

He said the main issue on which these negotiations, such as the 2000 Camp David talks, had floundered, was the PLO’s insistence on the right of return of all Palestinian refugees, not to a future Palestine state but to Israel itself.

Israelis suspected that meant: “You don’t really want a state side-by-side with Israel. You want a state instead of Israel.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: African countries join a united front against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories

Taub added that the international community often demanded that, for purposes of peace, there should be no Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Yet more than 20% of Israel’s population were Israeli Arabs. 

“Why is it out of the question that there should be a Jewish population within a future Palestinian state?” he asked.

And if the international community insisted that the Jewish settlers should be removed, it should also persuade the PLO to drop its persistent demand for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to within the borders of the state of Israel. 

“If we can have within a Jewish state Israeli Arabs who are judges and members of Parliament, why can Jews not live in and contribute to a future state of Palestine?”   

The international community has been calling on Israel for a ceasefire.

“Yet we had a ceasefire on 6 October. We have had ceasefires repeatedly over the past 18 years since we pulled out of Gaza, every one of which was broken by Hamas attacks. We need to ensure that a ceasefire is truly a lasting ceasefire and not just a pause for Hamas to rearm.”

When Israel withdrew every one of its citizens and soldiers from Gaza, the international community had assured it that if “things turned sour you would have all the legitimacy in the world to do whatever you needed to do to ensure your security”, he said.

He agreed that Israel needed to think about the future. But so did the international community, and its credibility was also being tested.

“Because when Israelis are asked to withdraw from the West Bank, close to Tel Aviv and the international airport, they remember how much latitude the international community’s promise of legitimacy actually provided when they were attacked from the areas they pulled out of.”

The day after

There has been considerable speculation about what Israel will do with Gaza when or if it accomplishes its mission of destroying Hamas. 

The problem, Taub said, was that “almost everything that people have mentioned has been tried and found wanting.”

An international force to administer Gaza has been one suggestion. But Taub said the failure of Unifil – the UN Interim Force in Lebanon – to prevent the rearmament of Hezbollah in south Lebanon did not inspire confidence in that option. 

Some had also proposed that the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank should be extended to Gaza. But Taub said Israelis saw no reason to believe that would not lead to a repeat of Hamas’ forcible seizure of power from the PLO in Gaza 16 years ago.

Taub was also sceptical that an Arab-led international force would actually take on Hamas and similar groups to ensure genuine security. 

He said most Israelis did not want the country to reoccupy Gaza. 

“But, for the immediate term, after this conflict, they don’t see a viable  alternative to a continued Israeli security presence.”

“It’s really hard to know what victory looks like in this particular conflict, but in a way, it’s easier to know what failure would look like. And one of the things that would be a mark of failure, I think for Israelis, is if the close to 200,000 Israelis who have been evacuated from the north and the south, don’t feel comfortable going back to live in their homes.

“Because that would mean Iran and its proxies had effectively succeeded  in shrinking the size of the state of Israel.” 

Civilian casualties

Taub said the death and destruction in Gaza was “unbelievably tragic… And it’s a constant moral dilemma that needs to be grappled with at every level.
But I do think you need to put it in some kind of perspective.”

He said Hamas had about 30,000 fighters but didn’t have a single military base because all its fighters hid within and beneath hospitals, houses and schools.

“And the dilemma is that not doing anything is clearly not an option. You can’t say the moment you hide inside a school, the terrorist group has impunity, because that would send a message to terrorist groups everywhere that using civilians as shields is an unbeatable strategy.

“And so Israel struggles with what level of precautions are appropriate.”

This to some degree jeopardised the success of its operations and increased the risks of life to its soldiers.

So, for instance, postponing its initial ground operation in Gaza for three weeks to allow civilians to evacuate from north Gaza had also given Hamas three weeks to booby trap areas and to move its leadership and its Israeli hostages.

Despite the high casualties in Gaza, Taub insisted Israel was observing the principle of proportionality under the law of armed conflict, which required that its operation had to be justified by the military goal it was trying to achieve.

He said international military officials and experts had confirmed that Israel often takes greater precautionary measures than their own armed forces would have to try to prevent civilian casualties. 

He cited measures that Israel has used such as dropping leaflets or firing knock-on-roof, non-lethal missiles to warn civilians to leave areas.

Taub added that “even if it’s brutal to talk about human life in this way”, the ratio of combatants to civilians killed in Gaza has been below the average of other cases of urban warfare.

Israel estimates that about 10,000 Hamas fighters are among the 30,000 total people killed so far in Gaza. That would be equivalent to a ratio of 1 combatant to two civilians, compared to the 1:4 or even considerably higher ratios of up to 1:9 in other cases of urban warfare, he said.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, however, has said, “Israel’s military operations have spread mass destruction and killed civilians on a scale unprecedented during my time as secretary-general.”

‘Delicate calibration’

Taub said the current situation had created several critical dilemmas for Israel, including what to do on the country’s northern border where it is coming under increasing attack from Hezbollah. 

But the particularly sharp dilemma is establishing a balance between two of the most critical aims of the current operation, which are the return of the hostages and the degradation of Hamas.  

These two goals were not necessarily in opposition because previous experience of hostage releases had shown that military pressure on Hamas had pushed it to do a deal, Taub said. 

“But there’s a very delicate calibration here, which is how far you go with the military pressure and what is the appropriate moment, what are the appropriate arrangements, that justify taking a pause in the action to allow for the release of the hostages.  

“And it’s made even more agonising by how deep this runs in Israeli society. We have a people’s army so every soldier feels in a sense like the child of Israeli society.”

He said that on 6 October Israel had been more deeply divided than at any point in its history (mainly because of opposition to the government’s initiative to limit judicial review of its decisions).

But now there was “wall-to-wall agreement” in Israel on the need for the Gaza operation and, by and large, on the way it was being conducted, he claimed.

“There is a genuine consensus in Israel that this is not a war we wanted, or – tragically – expected, but also this is not a war of choice… It’s a war of necessity. It’s a war of survival.”

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Taub said the surprise attack on 7 October had revealed a “catastrophic” failure of intelligence. 

The Israeli state had failed to perform its core mission, “to provide security to Jewish people after the horrors of the Shoah”.

Daily Maverick asked him, then, if the current crisis was the result of a massive failure of intelligence, would not the appropriate response have been to massively improve intelligence, rather than setting out to destroy Hamas, at immense cost to the civilians of Gaza?

Taub agreed that there were critical lessons to be learned regarding intelligence, but he said there were other fundamental lessons too. Israel also had to rethink the defensive strategy it had adopted against Hamas for the past 16 years.

Instead of sending its soldiers into the heart of Hamas-entrenched areas, Israel had relied on defensive technologies to shoot incoming missiles out of the sky or to detect terror tunnels.

Now it had realised that it was not sustainablefor you to have your population living a few hundred meters from a territory that is riddled with tunnels, with Iranian supplied weaponry, with the hospitals that are not hospitals and mosques that are not mosques and so on. And so I think the hunker-down strategy has also been found wanting.”

The ICJ case

Taub characterised South Africa’s legal actions against Israel by referring it to the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as part of a wider campaign of “lawfare” designed to tie Israel’s hands in its response to Hamas attacks.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ICJ ruling in SA’s genocide case against Israel lauded as ‘historic’ and victory for human rights 

He claimed Pretoria’s actions did not reflect a genuine concern for Palestinian rights, as it hadn’t expressed any concern about the brutalisation and the lack of freedom of Palestinians under the Hamas leadership or the massacres of Palestinians in Syria.

Taub said South Africa didn’t seem to have been motivated by a concern for human rights as it hadn’t taken a strong stance on some other atrocities, not even in relation to other cases of genocide, such as those in Darfur.

“And it doesn’t even seem to be about Israel’s operations,” he added, noting that South Africa had blamed Israel for the “conflagration” even before Israel had responded, on 10 October, to the Hamas attack on 7 October. DM

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  • Errol Price says:

    What a marvellously measured and rational yet, heart-rending exposition of the conflict from Mr Taub.
    A breath of pure fresh air amidst the vile vitriol and malignant anti-Israel diatribes that spew forth daily across the globe.
    And his commentary on the cynical and morally indefensible action of S. A. at the ICJ – breathlessly choreographed by its effete band of legal sycophants is spot on.
    Unfortunately, no-one will change their minds on any of the issues here.

    • John P says:

      What then is your answer to the Israel/Palestinian problem?

      • A H says:

        Why should Israel have to solve this problem on their own? All they are doing in trying to defend themselves against the Palestinian hordes, who seem hell bent on supporting terrorism despite all the valiant peace efforts and offers of self determination that they rejected. And now they are going out of their way to die and starve, despite all the IDF’s attempts to avoid them with their pinpoint bombing, and to deliver humanitarian assistance to them …. tsk! tsk!

  • A H says:

    As an outside observer I struggle with the lack of any consistent principles with which to judge this, or any future wars.
    – If this isn’t ethnic cleansing, what is?
    – If collective punishment of an entire population by depriving them of food, water and medical supplies isn’t a war crime, what is?
    – If the ICJ agreed that it was at least “plausible” that Israel was committing genocide at that point, what difference did it make what the motives, or how corrupt the SA Govt might be?
    If the real goal is to free hostages (which I do think is critically important) the way this war is being persecuted doesn’t make sense to me – more hostages have been directly killed by IDF actions than freed by them so far. Alternatively, if the goal is to render Gaza uninhabitable, and traumatising all Palestinians for generations to come, then the approach being followed makes sense.
    If anyone believes that end is justified by their peoples’ as yet unfulfilled need for revenge, let them make that case.
    But spare us the sanctimony, because that’s exactly the kind of rhetoric that the “terrorists” use to justify their abhorrent slaughter of innocent people.

    • Errol Price says:

      A hopelessly naive and in some respects bizarre commentary from AH.
      South Africa has almost certainly been acting as as stalking horse for Iran duly financed by them
      The aim of the ICJ proceedings was to secure a ceasefire and thereby a quick strategic and military victory for Hamas Iran. Of course it failed but that did not prevent S.A and its rag -tag mob of lawyers from misrepresenting the order of the court.
      Does AH suggest that there is no such thing as a just war ?
      For Iran and Hamas who are ideologically committed to the extermination of all Jews from the river to the sea the object is clear.
      Israelis have a somewhat different perspective.

    • John P says:

      Exactly, well said.

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