Nothing beats the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians
Let’s take a moment for a thought experiment. I do this days after more Palestinian attacks on Israelis, including the horrific murder of a mother of six children; soon after Israel announced the expropriation of another 370 acres of land near Jericho; and after Majed Faraj, the Palestinian security chief, announced that Palestinian security forces had intercepted 200 potential terrorist attacks against Israel. The thought experiment focuses on whether the “Plan B” for the Israel-Palestine dispute should be Israel’s annexation of the territories it occupied in 1967 and the extension of full citizenship rights to the Palestinians in those areas.
To be sure, I still count myself among the dying breed of those who believe fervently in the two-state solution—two states living side by side in peace and security, each enjoying sovereignty and political independence in part of the land that both claim as their exclusive national homes. This is still the best, by far, of all possible outcomes of the dispute. This is not to say that the two-state solution is without faults. Thus far, the two sides have not been able to agree on critical details, and there is no guarantee that achieving two states would assure peaceful relations. But the two-state solution, based on partition of the land, appears to offer the best chance for long term peace. I would dump all Plan B’s and C’s in a heartbeat if leadership emerged in Israel and Palestine—and in the United States—that proved willing to move toward a two-state outcome.
I still count myself among the dying breed of those who believe fervently in the two-state solution.
But hoping for better, stronger, more farsighted leadership is not a substitute for policy. The fact is that both Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are further today from bringing forth such leaders than at any time before. Even if Benjamin Netanyahu yields the prime minister’s office to another contender, no one in Israel is proposing the kind of far-reaching accommodation toward which Ehud Olmert was heading in 2008. None of Mahmoud Abbas’s likely successors has even articulated a reasonable peace plan. And none of the candidates for U.S. president is likely to be as committed to the search for peace as Barack Obama has been, and even his commitment has fallen far short of what is needed to move the recalcitrant parties toward peace. The sad reality is that politics—not policy, per se—is what blocks progress toward a two-state solution.
The sad reality is that politics—not policy, per se—is what blocks progress toward a two-state solution.
In the absence of progress toward two states, are there better alternatives than throwing in the towel and looking at annexation as Plan B? The search for alternative Plan B’s is a fool’s errand. Some of those ideas are creative, but none of them will be accepted by both sides. For example, one Plan B variant du jour rests on the premise of a “regional solution”—that is, having Israel and the Arab world reach a comprehensive peace agreement that includes a resolution of the Palestinian issue. Sounds good, except it makes no sense.
First, Israel has not accepted the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, the closest the Arab world has come to accepting Israel within the borders of the 1949 armistice line and agreeing to normalize relations with Israel once peace has been achieved. But no Israeli government has liked its terms, especially the paragraph on Palestinian refugees, the notion of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, and the API’s insistence on full Israeli withdrawal. Thus, the question to those who propose a regional solution today is whether there is a coalition in Israel ready to use the API as the basis for negotiating a comprehensive peace. I think not.
Second, the Arab world is in no position to deliver on what the API promises. The Arabs have never followed up the API by engaging Israel. And the premise of the API has been that the Arabs will recognize Israel and agree to normalize only after peace is concluded with the Palestinians (and the Syrians and Lebanese)– not a very attractive incentive for Israelis to enter a risky peace process.
The Arab world of 2002, however dysfunctional, was far more stable than the Arab world of 2016.
And third, the Arab world of 2002, however dysfunctional, was far more stable than the Arab world of 2016. The opponents of the two-state solution in Israel point to this when describing the security dangers that Israel would face were it to concede anything now to the Palestinians. Even if a comprehensive solution were to rest on the shoulders of Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s peace treaty partners, would Israeli skeptics truly be assuaged that these countries could assure Israel’s security in the face of continued instability (Egypt) or the impact of refugees and economic distress (Jordan)? Indeed, the idea of a regional or comprehensive solution based on Arab stability today is chimerical.
The alternatives to the regional idea are equally unrealistic. The idea of confederation rests on the agreement of Jordan (and potentially Egypt) to join a political entity with the Palestinians. However, neither state has indicated any interest in doing so.
“Maintaining the status quo” is a non-starter, because status quos are never static—as the events of recent years prove, they tend to get worse. How many Intifadas or stabbings will it take for the people of Israel to believe their own security chiefs, who recognize that these actions are born of frustration over the occupation and related grievances? Why should Israelis believe that the majority of Palestinians are interested in peace when Hamas—opposed to Israel’s very existence—still rules Gaza and commands significant popular support, and while the Palestinian Authority is crumbling and hardly represents anyone anymore? And how long will it take Palestinian supporters of armed and violent resistance to recognize that their abortive efforts to destroy Israel and indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians are repugnant: targeting civilians is a morally unacceptable tactic for any resistance movement.
Thus, the idea of “conflict management” or even “conflict mitigation”—staple products of those who support maintaining the status quo until somehow things change—is pernicious, for it rests on an assumption that the rest of us simply don’t understand the conflict.
The idea of a regional or comprehensive solution based on Arab stability today is chimerical.
A futile search for alternatives
And so it is for all other Plan B’s. Several years ago, my Princeton graduate students embarked on an effort to find a viable alternative to the two-state solution; and they told me at the outset that they intended to prove that such an alternative existed. In the end, they failed and returned to the idea that the only viable solution was to partition the land into two states. Others, too, have tried to find alternatives, and some retain the hope that their policy proposal might win the day. I wish them well—for I really do believe in peace, whether it’s via two states or otherwise. But I have no confidence they will succeed.
The idea of “conflict management” or even “conflict mitigation”—staple products of those who support maintaining the status quo until somehow things change—is pernicious, for it rests on an assumption that the rest of us simply don’t understand the conflict.
And so we are back to the thought experiment. This would take as a starting point what Israeli Minister Uri Ariel told my students several years ago: we (Israel) have won, and the land of Israel is ours. Under this scenario, Israel would:
- Formally annex the territories it occupied in 1967, basing its legal argument on its belief that these are “disputed” rather than “occupied” territories.
- In connection with this act of annexation, Israel would offer full citizenship rights to all the Palestinians living in the territories. While Israel would probably want to include only the West Bank in this arrangement, excluding Gaza would make it impossible to secure any support internationally, in that Gaza is as much a part of Resolution 242 as is the West Bank.
- Those Palestinians who accept citizenship would then enjoy equal rights with all other Israelis; those Palestinians who reject citizenship would be offered permanent residency, a status that would include certain rights and privileges but not full citizenship rights (for example, voting in national elections).
- Israel would then approach the United Nations Security Council to argue that these measures constituted an act of self-determination, and that the outcome represented an end of the conflict in accordance with Resolution 242. I am not a lawyer and I assume that many—including Palestinians and Arabs—would dispute this Israeli argument. But the process would change the status quo fundamentally and offer a real alternative to the two-state solution.
Could this work, and is it a real Plan B for the conflict? This is but a thought experiment. I suppose most Israelis will hate this idea for it exposes the most significant weakness of the Israeli right wing and the settlements movement, namely that it undercuts fundamentally the idea of a permanent Jewish majority state. Similarly, most Palestinians will also hate this idea because it forecloses the possibility of a real act of self-determination culminating in an independent state and forces Palestinians to confront the emptiness of the slogans that their leaders have employed over the years in the context of the Arab-Israeli dispute.
The thought experiment is thus not very sound. Perhaps, then, it will scare everyone enough for leaders to get serious about peace.
- Daniel Kurtzer
S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School; Former U.S. ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and Israel (2001-2005).