Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Jerusalem this evening, trying again to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It's his fifth trip to the region in recent months, and this question remains unanswered: Is the two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians still alive and kicking?
This question has been in play since the British Peel Commission proposed separating Palestine into Jewish and Arab states in 1937. Then, most Jews in Palestine supported the plan, while Arab leaders rejected it, leading the British to withdraw their support when a new commission declared the idea un-implementable. In the ensuing decades, the partition plan, renamed the two-state solution, remained on the negotiating table, and even came to be considered the region’s only hope for peaceful coexistence.
In the run up to Mr. Kerry’s last visit to the region, in May, the viability of the two-state solution was a question of great interest to my staff at Moment Magazine – an independent North American magazine of Jewish politics, culture, and religion. We asked a range of Middle East policymakers, scholars, and activists – all across the spectrum, from the far right to the far left – to share their thoughts on the feasibility of side-by-side states. A rare, nuanced and often surprising discussion took form, transcending the clichéd categorizations we have come to expect on the Israeli-Palestinian question. These responses provide crucial clues as to what peace talk negotiators are up against, and what Kerry and the Obama administration must do to help bring about two states.
The issues remain much the same as they have for the decades-long, on-again off-again peace negotiations. The status of Jerusalem, Palestinian “right of return” (whether Palestinian refugees can return to their forbears’ land now in Israeli-held territory), Israeli settlements in the West Bank – all remain points of contention. What is different now is a mood that has settled over many of the parties involved and those watching from afar: a sense that the window of time in which a robust two-state solution was achievable may have closed.
One of the most striking aspects in the discussion is the mirror viewpoints of Palestinians and Israelis on the far left and right. Indeed, the similarity is uncanny. Spokespersons of both extremes argue that the two-state solution is nothing more than a carefully constructed illusion with no possibility of real-world application.
Dani Dayan, a leading advocate of right-wing Israeli settlers, contends that the concept has always been a farce. “The two-state formula never really existed,” he says. “Like a kind of diplomatic ‘Truman Show,’ it existed only in an imaginary world.” He condemns what he calls the “two-state industry,” which has “fed itself with optimistic narratives and crises to be defused in order to keep itself alive.” He says that “in the real world, it was a mirage, looking tempting from afar but revealed to be hot air when approached.”
In Mr. Dayan’s view, the best possible solution at the moment is to ”do the most beneficial things you can under this circumstance” – including “removal of checkpoints and a potential dismantling of the security fence, joint large-scale industrial projects, renovation of refugee camps.” This “will not mean peace,” he says. It will be “at most a peaceful non-reconciliation. It will not be the final status; it will be temporary until new options arise."
On the other side of the spectrum, American political science professor Virginia Tilley – a well-known critic of partition – agrees wholeheartedly. “Of course the two-state solution is dead,” she says. “It’s been dead for a long time. I don’t think it was ever alive…The British clarified formally in the 1930s that partition was never intended, and certainly the situation is far more impossible now.” Ms. Tilley argues that the continued belief in the two-state solution allows Israel to accrue territory. “The longer everybody keeps going along with the idea of a two-state solution, the longer Israel can keep building settlements, which is a full-fledged state project to effectively annex the entire country.”
Tilley sees only one path forward to resolution: a rejection of the premise that enthnicity or religion should make up a nation – a Jewish state and a Palestinian-Arab state. “A mass, nonviolent movement, with 300,000 Palestinians coming over that racist wall with signs saying, ‘equal rights, democracy and freedom,’ would transform this entire conflict in a day,” she says.
“When people realize what’s going on,” Tilley explains, “realize that the two-state solution was never viable, and finally accept that the only solution is giving equal rights to everybody and giving up the idea of an ethnic democracy – which has been given up everywhere else in the world – then there will be peace.”
It is in the center that a divergence of opinion can be seen: Here thinkers envision slightly different practical paths to achieving a two-state solution, and there is beauty – and hope – in the nuance. Leading Israeli negotiator Shaul Arieli says that Israeli settlements aren’t the insurmountable obstacle some make them out to be.
“Inside the [main Jewish settlement] blocs we have relative Jewish dominance, but outside, complete Palestinian dominance,” he says. It is possible, he continues, to create borders that connect the major Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank as well as East Jerusalem neighborhoods to Israel by annexing “around 6 percent of the West Bank, which can be compensated with one-to-one land swaps, thereby reaching a two-state solution.”
Israeli cinematographer Dror Moreh, director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers,” thinks it’s worth spending Israel’s political capital to convince settlers, especially those who would need to be evacuated, that in leaving the settlements they would be doing what is in the best interest of Israel. “We need to be clear and say, ‘Yes, we sent you and you served and did your job, but we need you to do something else and come back now,’” he says. “This needs to be done seriously.”
Efraim Halevy, former head of Mossad (the Israeli national intelligence agency), believes that the best way to achieve two states is through low-profile negotiations. “We have to seek a practical understanding that will serve the interest of both sides without the other side having to renounce its devotion to its basic ideology,” he says. “An example of this is what happened recently in Gaza: When the people from Gaza began shooting rockets, Israel resorted to a weeklong operation, and out of the blue, on the eighth day of the conflict, a ceasefire suddenly emerged.”
He explains: “Nothing is known in public about this ceasefire, no documents have been published and there is no official information on who actually negotiated the ceasefire agreements. In practical terms, somehow ways are being found to do things that have not been done for several years, such as opening up the fishing area for Gazans. I think that similar things can be done with the Palestinians in the West Bank through negotiations with lower visibility.”
David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process, argues that tunnel vision is best when it comes to negotiations. The disputed territory of Jerusalem and whether Palestinian refugees can return to their homes “are two narrative issues that cut to the self-definition of the parties,” he says. “They deal with very explosive issues like religion and nationalism. It seems to me you’re better off dealing with the practical issues of borders and security, creating the two states, and deferring these other two questions of Jerusalem and refugees.”
These “can-do” suggestions aside, those in the center or moderate position on this issue are not dictating policy or public sentiment. This poses a challenge for Kerry and the many others who still think two states are the best or only option. Rather, the “can’t dos” and “we shouldn’t dos” dominate the public forum, fueling suspicion.
Kerry and those in the center with practical ideas about how to proceed on the ground must strengthen their voices or risk continuing to be unheard. Already public support for two states is ebbing: “Today, after almost two decades of the Israeli left and outside ‘mediators’ pushing a so-called two-state solution on us, I believe that it is clear to the vast majority of Israelis that this fallacy will not lead toward peace and coexistence in our region,” says Likud party (far right) Knesset member Danny Danon.
Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab finds the same thing to be true among Palestinians. “More and more Palestinians are abandoning the two-state solution for the one-state solution, even while knowing that most Israelis still hold onto their desire for a majority Jewish state,” he says.
Is this yet another swing of the two-state pendulum, or is it the end? That public sentiment truly marks the end of the two-state solution is doubtful. But until a leader appears with a vision to mobilize the center, the saga of the two-state solution will continue unresolved.
Nadine Epstein is the editor and publisher of Moment Magazine, a bimonthly of Jewish politics, culture, and religion. For more, go to momentmag.com.