The two-state dilemna

Advocates of a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians have failed to convince Israelis that keeping the state Jewish and democratic is worth the hefty price that must be paid for compromise.

kerry, abbas face reporters 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
kerry, abbas face reporters 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)

This is the second in a series of in-depth exploration of the peace proposals, at a time when the two-state solution is increasingly coming under attack. It was a remarkably frank moment.

An IDF official, a veteran of negotiations with the Palestinians who is also involved in the present talks orchestrated by US Secretary of State John Kerry, confessed recently in a closed forum that he faces a difficult dilemma vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
“On one hand, my job is to represent Israel’s interests,” the official said, “but I also realize that if I am too successful I will be setting the stage for the next conflict.”
Unpacking this comment, which reveals no small amount of hubris on the part of the official – as though his negotiating abilities are so excellent he can extract from the Palestinians a deal that is ultimately bad for them – helps provide insight into the dilemmas that face proponents of what Kerry has referred to as “two states living side by side in peace and security brought about through direct negotiations between the parties.”
Any two-state solution is built on contradicting forces. On one hand, Israel would like to see a future Palestinian state as minimalist as possible without a military, with restrictions on its control of the border – particularly the border with Jordan – with limited control of water sources and no control of airspace or the electromagnetic spectrum. That’s because many Israelis understandably lack a fundamental measure of trust in the Palestinian political leadership and see the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank as a Trojan horse. Better to make this potentially subversive entity as weak as possible.
On the other hand, even if the Palestinian political leadership were to agree to the creation of something less than what is widely considered to be a fullfledged state stripped of military power and lacking adequate control over international trade routes, airspace, water resources and other aspects of a “normal” sovereign state, doing so would inevitably lead to this quasi state’s downfall. Palestinian resentment would grow as the day-to-day difficulties of managing not-quite-a-state piled up. A Palestinian leadership that agreed to such an arrangement would be fair game for Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Salafists and even for factions within the PLO. The endeavor would inevitably be short-lived and lead to radicalization of Palestinian society.
At the same time, all advocates for a two-state solution – including those more pessimistic souls who have given up on Palestinian political leadership and call for a unilateral pullout from Judea and Samaria, such as Ami Ayalon’s “Blue and White Future” movement, or who have given up on Israeli leadership and reject “negotiation fetishism” as nothing more than a tactic used by right-wing governments to deflect international criticism while continuing to build on the West Bank, such as the liberal think tank Molad, agree that the status quo is untenable.
Perpetuating the dream of Greater Israel leads inevitably to two scenarios: forfeiting the Jewish state’s status as a democracy by denying the right of political representation to over 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank (1.5 million according to Yoram Ettinger’s right-wing American-Israel Demographic Research Group that advocates a one-state solution) or transforming Israel into a binational state that would at some indeterminate point in the future be unable to justify the specifically “Jewish” aspects of Israel such as a national anthem that talks of “yearning Jewish soul” or the Law of Return which offers automatic Israeli citizenship to all Diaspora Jews, or the Jewish National Fund’s monopoly over the allocation of land.
OVER THE past few weeks I have spoken with a number of prominent advocates for a peace agreement based on direct, bilateral negotiations using the formula of “two states for two peoples.”
(I will treat the unilateralists and other variations of a two-state solution in a separate article.) All seem to share a few basic axioms.
First, all agree that only through direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leadership will it be possible to truly settle the conflict. Repeatedly, people like Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, pointed to Lebanon in 2000 and the Gaza Strip in 2005 as proof that unilateral measures tend to strengthen the most extreme elements – Hezbollah and Hamas respectively.
Both pullouts were interpreted by Palestinians and the Lebanese as a sign of Israeli weakness and testimony to the efficacy of terrorism. The rise of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections is widely believed to be a direct result of the disengagement from Gaza.
It was the rise of Hamas in Gaza – while Fatah retained control on the West Bank thanks in large part to Israeli and American support – that has split Palestinian leadership and has made the prospects of a negotiated resolution so much more difficult. Oppenheimer and Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords and co-author of the 2003 Geneva Initiative, and other two-state proponents agree that any negotiated agreement must include Gaza, which would be connected by a strip of land crossing the Negev to the West Bank.
As Oppenheimer put it, “the Palestinian Authority will have to take over Gaza Strip in any future deal.”
Oppenheimer, Pundak and others hope that headway in talks would change the political reality, strengthen Fatah vis-à-vis Hamas and lay the groundwork for a future change in political leadership in Gaza.
Headway in talks would also, theoretically, strengthen Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and chairman of the PLO within Fatah.
Currently, Abbas is suffering from a major crisis of leadership. His democratic mandate ran out five years ago when his term as president ended in January 2009. The split between Hamas and Fatah has precluded new elections. Not a single faction in the PLO supported Abbas’s decision to enter negotiations with Israel back in July. Even within Fatah Abbas lacks strong support for the present negotiations. There still might be hope, however.
A survey published at the beginning of this month conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah found that 53 percent of Palestinians still support a two-state solution, though most (68%) said that chances were slim or nonexistent that a Palestinian state would be established within five years. Of course, what Palestinians consider to be two states – one Israeli and one Palestinian – is quite different from what the present Israeli government has in mind. Palestinians want to see Israel retreat to the 1949 Armistice Line, including from what Israel considers to be “consensus” settlement blocs. They want a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.
And they want Israel to agree to the “right of return” for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Palestinian refugees.
They also want Israel to apologize for its part in creating the Palestinian refugee problem and provide monetary compensation.
From the point of view of proponents of a negotiated peace agreement – unlike supporters of a unilateral pullout – Palestinian cooperation in reaching a compromise is critical to the peace process. The Israeli public would never be willing to make painful concessions such as the dismantling of Jewish settlements, the sharing of Jerusalem or various security arrangements in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere unless they can be convinced there is a credible Palestinian leadership committed to peace.
“I do not believe that it is possible to dismantle settlements in places like Itamar, Shiloh and Tapuah without a negotiated agreement,” Pundak said.
“That can only happen if you have a Palestinian leadership that agrees to end the conflict. Otherwise, what are you going to tell the people who live in these places? Why would they leave? Why would Israeli security forces be motivated to evacuate them, forcibly if necessary?” ANOTHER ASPECT of the two-state solution, which is o c c a s i o n a l ly overlooked, at least in Israeli discourse, is its ethnocentric, illiberal emphasis. Those supporting a negotiated two-state solution are normally labeled by Israelis as “leftists.”
But if left-wing ideology tends to emphasize universal, pluralistic values over more particularistic concerns such as nationalism based on ethnicity or religion, advocates of two states are far from leftists. In reality the underlying rationale behind the two-state solution is quite nationalistic in character, and that is precisely what makes it a popular political stance. The vast majority of Israelis want an exclusively “Jewish” Israel that gives preferential status to Jews in the fields of immigration, land allocation and political power.
They want a state that maintains a uniquely Jewish culture in which the Hebrew language is spoken, Jewish holidays are the official national holidays and all national symbolism is Jewish and Zionist in nature.
Israelis feel justified in demanding that there be one Jewish state in the world.
And the vast majority would never dream of turning Israel into “a state of all its citizens.” And Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to acknowledge Jews’ unique status in Israel by recognizing Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
This of course raises the question of the place of Israel’s large Arab minority inside the Green Line, which makes up about 20% of the population and other non-Jews such as foreign workers, African migrants and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who number at least 5% if not more. Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman’s proposal to cede an area in the north with a large Arab Israeli population known as “the Triangle” that includes Umm el- Fahm and Taiba, while controversial, goes to the heart of the demographic quandary presented by implementation of an exclusively Jewish state.
Israelis realize that between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there is not a strong Jewish majority. If the Palestinian population in Gaza is thrown into the equation, Jews might even be a minority. The only way to justify an ethnic-religious nation-state that gives preferential status to the Jewish people is to ensure a strong Jewish majority. Without such a clear majority, Israel would not meet even the most minimalist definition of democracy as “rule by the people,” “mass participation” or “majority rule.” And since Israelis want Israel to remain a democracy and remain Jewish, they understand that they must separate the Jewish and Palestinian populations.
As Oppenheimer put it, “I want the Law of Return, I want Israel to define itself as a Jewish state. The only way I can justify all this is by ensuring a Jewish majority.” And for Oppenheimer and others on the Israeli “Left,” the pain of uprooting Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria or compromising Israel’s security are prices worth paying to keep Israel Jewish and democratic.
THE DISCOURSE supporting the twostate solution is in the end not primarily about the injustice of “the occupation”; rather it is about Israeli interests.
For people like Oppenheimer and Pundak, reaching an agreement with the Palestinians is the ultimate Zionist act.
“Sometimes I feel like I am the last Zionist,” said Pundak, who claimed settlers were undermining Zionism.
To succeed politically, the Israeli “Left” have understood that they must promote the two-state solution as the best guarantee for the future of Zionism and not as a movement championing Palestinian rights.
MK Hilik Bar (Labor), chairman of the Knesset Caucus to Resolve the Arab- Israeli Conflict, told me that the Left made mistakes in the past as advocates of a two-state solution.
“I think we ran too fast to embrace peace,” Bar said. “We gave people the impression we were extremists. We forgot to emphasize our ties to the Land of Israel.”
Bar said that during the 2005 disengagement from Gaza he put an orange ribbon on his car to identify with the settlers who were evacuated from Gush Katif.
“I sat with tears watching them leave,” said Bar, who added that he has organized meetings between young Labor Party leaders and settlers in Judea and Samaria. “I want them to understand how difficult it is for people to be forced to leave their homes.”
Bar, whose mother is a child of a Holocaust survivor and father is Moroccan, explained the need to reach out to Sephardim who have tended to vote for Likud, Shas or right-wing parties, as essential for creating a broad enough base to implement a two-state solution.
He told me a story of how he and Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer, who was born in Iraq, were in a development town in the South campaigning for Labor before the January 2013 elections when they came across two old Moroccan Jewish women searching for food in a garbage bin adjacent to an openair market. They asked the women if they knew that Labor – under Shelly Yacimovich’s leadership – was running on a platform that aimed to fight poverty.
The women said that they did and admitted that the Likud’s economic policies were disastrous for people like them. But when they asked the women if they would vote Labor, they said they would not.
“‘Why?’ Fuad asked,” recalled Bar.
“Because Bibi will be strong against the Arabs,” said the women.
Gadi Baltiansky, director of the Geneva Initiative in Israel, said his organization devotes a lot of energies to educating politicians on the Right – including from the Likud and Shas – to the importance of reaching a twostate solution as an eminently Israeli interest. The Geneva Initiative brings together Israeli and Palestinian politicians in Ramallah and in Europe, it takes MKs on tours of Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley led by former military commander Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli to show that a two-state solution is feasible, and it conducts other educational projects. For the 10th anniversary celebration of the Geneva Initiative, which took place during Hanukka, Shas MK Ya’acov Margi lit the candles and made the blessings before an audience of more than 700.
“Against claims that it is impossible, we are trying to tell people that the alternative for Israel is much worse,” Baltiansky said.
Right-wing governments tend to be better positioned politically to negotiate peace. Part of the reason is the perception – real or imagined – that the Right will stand up more stridently for Israeli interests. The most obvious example was prime minister Menachem Begin’s decision to sign the Camp David peace treaty with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. But even Yitzhak Rabin’s success in mustering political backing for Oslo was due in large part to the Israeli public’s perception of him as a security hawk who took a strong stand against Palestinians during the first intifada and opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state. Similarly, only the likes of Ariel Sharon could muster the political backing to carry out the evacuation of Jewish settlements from Gaza Strip and North Samaria in 2005.
Governments led by Labor or by a centrist party – like Kadima in 2006 – inevitably face tremendous political pressures. Activists led by right-wing politicians take to the streets to demonstrate, galvanizing a strong opposition.
Under the circumstances, Netanyahu is, theoretically at least, uniquely positioned to sign a deal with the Palestinians if it should come to that.
Admittedly, he would face tremendous opposition within the Likud. Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud) warned in June, for instance, that the majority of Likud ministers would vote against a resolution on a twostate solution. Several Likud ministers rebuffed my requests for an interview with them that would focus on their position regarding a two-state solution.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz all declined an interview with The Jerusalem Post. So did MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud Beytenu). In June, Channel 2 met with a similar silence on the part of additional Likud ministers, including Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and National Infrastructure Minister Silvan Shalom.
Spokesmen of some of these ministers told me the reason for the silence was the sensitivity of the issue. Since these ministers are members of the security cabinet, and since the talks with the Palestinians are supposed to be confidential, it was not proper to conduct an interview on the subject right now.
But according to an aide who worked for a politician who just missed making it onto the Likud list for the January 2013 elections, the Likud central committee has become dominated by right-wing activists. The aide told me there were “blacklists” for politicians who were not hawkish enough ahead of the elections. MKs and ministers are well aware that if they come out too adamantly in favor of the two-state solution their future in the Likud will be in jeopardy. One member of the Likud’s central committee said that if Netanyahu had to compete for votes in the central committee based on the position he put forward in his speech at Bar Ilan University in October, and on other occasions in favor of creating a demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank, he would probably rank lower than figures such as Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, Coalition chairman Yariv Levin and Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who are all openly opposed to a twostate solution and advocate annexing all or most of the West Bank.
An agreement hardly seems in the offing any time soon so Netanyahu will most likely not have to grapple with the prospects of getting the present government to ratify a two-state arrangement with the Palestinians. If he did, he would face stiff opposition not just from Bayit Yehudi but also from inside the Likud, and not just from backbenchers.
YA’ALON HAS reportedly voiced supreme skepticism regarding the chances for Kerry’s peace plan. According to Yediot Aharonot’s Shimon Shiffer, Ya’alon said recently that the American security plan is “not worth the paper it’s written on.” And he said Kerry was acting out of “misplaced obsession” and “messianic fervor.”
“The only thing that can ‘save us,’” Ya’alon reportedly said, “is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”
Ya’alon later apologized. But the message was clear, the defense minister is strongly opposed to the creation of the sort of state that the Palestinians are demanding, namely one where there is no Israeli military presence on the ground in strategic places like the Jordan Valley.
Nor is it clear whether Liberman, who advocates a different sort of twostate solution with land and population swaps on both sides, would place his support behind a classic two-state solution.
At the beginning of the month, Liberman told a group of Israeli ambassadors his party would not support a peace agreement unless it included a territorial exchange that placed a large portion of Israeli’s Arab population within a future Palestinian state.
But he also said that Kerry’s positions on the peace process, including his understanding of Israel’s security needs and its demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, were the best offer Israel could expect from the international community.
“Any alternative proposals brought forward by the international community will suit us much less,” he said.
Many Likud ministers and MKs might, in theory, back an agreement that Netanyahu would be willing to endorse. And there seems to be a majority in the Knesset for a peace agreement, perhaps even without the support of Arab MKs. Yesh Atid, Labor, Meretz, Kadima and Hatnua would throw their support behind it. Shas and United Torah Judaism might also if they were made members of the government.
The question remains whether Netanyahu, together with those backing him in Likud Beytenu, would be forced to create another political party like Ariel Sharon did in 2005 after the Gaza disengagement.
But even if Netanyahu were to go to such extreme measures to push through a peace agreement – a highly unlikely assumption – what would such an agreement look like from the point of view of the Palestinians? Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid has said on numerous occasions that he is opposed to splitting Jerusalem. Nor does it look likely that a broad coalition of MKs would agree to a pullout of both settlements and a military presence from the Jordan Valley.
And Israel would also demand control over any future Palestinian state’s airspace and electromagnetic spectrum.
Of course, settlement blocs – not just Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion but also Ariel – would have to stay as well if Israel were to agree to a “two-state solution.”
Needless to say, the resulting Palestinian entity would be something less than what is commonly called a “state,” and even if the Palestinian political leadership presenting negotiating with Israel were to accept such a solution – which is highly unlikely – a Palestinian people unprepared for compromise would reject it outright or would quickly take steps to undermine such an agreement.
And that brings me back to the dilemma voiced by the IDF official that I began with.