The New York Times recently joined the growing clamor warning of the possible demise of the two-state solution. The failure to reach a two-state solution does not mean, however, that a one-state solution, or some other approach, is preferable. What is needed is not a paradigm change, but a change of leadership in both Jerusalem and Ramallah, and possibly in Washington.
There are two competing conceptions of the one-state solution. The commonly accepted approach, favored today by some Palestinians, speaks of a single democratic state in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. It sounds good in theory, but is really a denial of 2,000 years of Jewish national aspirations and a call for a binational state. Fortunately, history has provided Israel with a preview of a binational reality; it is called Syria, or Iraq. Unsurprisingly, after just 70 years of renewed independence, an overwhelming majority of Israelis are unequivocally opposed.
The other approach, favored by the Israeli Right, ensures Israeli control over the West Bank, but provides Palestinians with self-rule. In essence, it is not very different from the current reality, in which Palestinians ostensibly vote for their own parliament (if elections were actually held), but not Israel’s Knesset, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) provides public services. Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians are firmly opposed.
The contours of a two-state solution, conversely, have been clear for years: Israel withdraws from over 90% of the West Bank, with land swaps for the remainder; Jerusalem is divided along its ethnic lines, with a special regime for the Old City and holy sites; Palestinian refugees are allowed to return to the Palestinian state, but not Israel; the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state.
Unlike the Barak and Olmert governments, Israel’s current hardline coalition has no intention of making the necessary concessions and the Likud party has become a right-wing rabble.
Contrary to the popular image, however, even this government has limited West Bank settlement overwhelmingly to the “settlement blocs,” which all sides recognize will be annexed to Israel.
Nevertheless, some 2,000 people a year have settled outside the blocs over the past decade, slowly creating a de facto binational reality and making a future withdrawal that much harder.
The Palestinians, for their part, have consistently rejected every proposal for a two-state solution, starting with the very first, by the British, in 1937, when the UN proposed partition in 1947, twice when they faced dramatic peace proposals in 2000 and again in 2008. The international community is focused on settlements, as an easily understood, visual, obstacle to peace, but it is unclear whether there is any two-state solution that the Palestinians will accept. PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ grotesque distortion of Jewish and Israeli history at the recent meeting of the PLO Central Council further strengthens these doubts.
The Palestinians have responded with fury to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, elements of the putative American peace plan that reportedly favor Israel, the cut in UNRWA funding and more. In a sign of desperation and weakness they declared that they no longer trust the US as a neutral mediator and are severing contacts.
First, no one, including the Palestinians, ever considered the US neutral; Israel is a close ally, they are not. The reason that the Palestinians have, nonetheless, always sought US mediation is because no other party can provide both sides with the necessary assurances and inducements, or can extract Israeli concessions.
Peace will be achieved, if at all, with American assistance, and the Palestinians know it.
Second, it is time for both sides to get a serious jolt and reality check, and in that sense US President Donald Trump’s “foreign policy by firebombing” approach may be appropriate. The Palestinians must be forced to finally recognize that their self-defeating all-or-nothing approach has truly left them with nothing, and face the price of statehood. They have avoided this reckoning for 70 years, since Israel’s establishment, and it is high time they do so, or face a potential lifting of American aid and support for a Palestinian state.
A wake-up call is also necessary for Israel’s right wing, which has become increasingly strident and self-confident since Trump’s election, and which has similarly avoided a reckoning ever since the 1967 war. If the supposedly friendlier Trump administration adopted a clear position and applied pressure, the effect would be significant, even dramatic.
Israel’s Right would be forced to confront the truth, that no one, even Trump, will accept Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and that Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state can only be secured by a two-state solution.
Some believe that we have crossed a “point of no return,” beyond which no Israeli government will have the economic and political wherewithal to move the nearly 100,000 settlers who live outside the blocs. In the 1990s, however, Israel successfully absorbed one million Russian immigrants who did not speak the language, have jobs, homes, or employment. In some months, 30,000 immigrants arrived.
Israel can certainly relocate 100,000 citizens who speak the language, many of whom will retain existing jobs, and will have to move no more than a few miles.
It is a question of leadership. The Trump administration must carefully weigh the timing of its peace initiative. It is not enough to want peace.
Peace is also a function of political realities and leaders’ ability to make the wrenching concessions required.
Today, and for the foreseeable future, the political constellation in both Jerusalem and Ramallah could not be less propitious. Another failed initiative will simply make it harder to achieve a breakthrough when the necessary circumstances do materialize.
Moreover, a breakthrough should only be attempted if and when the US is truly willing and capable of putting its clout on the line, and of making the sustained and focused effort required.
Trump is hardly the prime candidate for the job. If he does present a peace initiative, Trump must be willing to see it through to the end and exert heavy pressure on both sides, or refrain from doing so at all.
In the meantime, the administration should focus on preserving the conditions for a two-state solution for the future. To this end, it should resurrect and demand Israeli adherence to the Bush compromise, whereby the US accepts settlement in the “blocs” and existing neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, in exchange for a cessation of construction in other areas. It should also help promote Palestinian reunification between Gaza and the West Bank, without which the PA cannot conclude a final peace agreement, even if it wants to.
The two-state solution may be on life support, but it remains the only game in town. The next attempt to reach a breakthrough must not fail.The author, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, and author of Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change.