Comments by Israeli and Palestinian officials today represented an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, and go a long way to explaining why peace talks between the two sides are stalled, if not moving in reverse.
At the heart of their comments is East Jerusalem, the portion of the holy city that Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 war and that has in recent years become the frontline – both literally and symbolically – of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Nabil Abu Rudaina, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Reuters on Tuesday that Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must agree to a full settlement freeze – including East Jerusalem – or the chance of resumed talks under the auspice of the US would be "at risk." A spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu, who is visiting Washington for the annual meeting of the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC and talks with President Barack Obama, told reporters that the Palestinian demand was "illogical and unreasonable" and could "put the peace negotiations on hold for another year."
Support wanes for two-state solution
But there are already indications the delay is eroding support for the two-state solution, the centerpiece of peace efforts. Peace talks – which have dragged on for decades with continuous territorial losses for Palestinians – have growing numbers of Palestinians giving up hope for one Jewish state and one Palestinian state coexisting between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean.
A joint poll released this week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that support for the two-state solution among Palestinians dropped from 64 percent in December to 57 percent in early March. That implied shift toward a one-state solution, sometimes referred to as a bi-national state, came after announcements this year for a number of new Israeli housing programs in East Jerusalem.
Nabil Kukali, director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, interpreted the results in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. "On the whole, Palestinians support the peace process, but there are some changes in attitudes towards the two-state solution... the Palestinians feel hopeless and they don't think the Israelis will give the Palestinians one meter of their land." About 71 percent of Israelis were found to favor a two-state solution in the poll.
Announce new homes first, apologize later
Israel considers Jerusalem its "undivided and eternal" capital but its 43-year control of the eastern part of the city has long been contested by Palestinians, who make up a majority in the district but have increasingly faced housing evictions in favor of Israeli settlers. Israel's announcement during Vice President Joe Biden's visit earlier this month that it would build 1,600 new homes in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of East Jerusalem led to a rare chill in US-Israel relations. President Barack Obama had been urging Israel to adopt a full settlement freeze as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians.
But the Palestinians have long hoped that East Jerusalem – home to religious sites sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims – would be the capital of a future independent state. Though Israel has apologized about the timing of the announcement to build new homes, it has vowed to move forward and declared that neither the Palestinians, nor anyone else, has a right to tell them what to do in East Jerusalem. Though Israel annexed East Jerusalem after 1967 neither the United Nations nor most other states consider it to be legally Israel's.
Could the dream of two-states living in peace die? While it's unlikely to leave the peace process discourse any time soon, some in Israel and Palestine say that will be the inexorable outcome of settlement expansion, with the chance that a Palestinian population growing at a faster clip than Israels will eventually demand political representation in Israel on a one-man, one-vote model.
"A generation ago, the demand for establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel expressed a radical, post-Zionist stance," Israeli political scientist Meron Benvenisti wrote in Haaretz at the end of last month. "Now that this position has been deemed acceptable by the heart of the establishment, and even serves as the platform of centrist political parties, the circles that fought for it are distancing themselves from it. In its stead has come talk of a binational state."
Enfranchise Palestinians, or enforce apartheid
Dr. Benvenisti was deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek in the 1970s and was responsible for administering the predominantly Arab eastern neighborhoods of the city. In the 1980s, he was one of the loudest academic voices in Israel warning that Palestinian population growth could eventually leave Israel with the unattractive options of enfranchising the Palestinians, which would undermine the Jewish character of the Israeli state, or of administering a form of apartheid.
"Those hostile to Israel have discovered that the call for one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, a state based on civil and collective equality, is a powerful propaganda tool, because it is based on universal norms that enable critics to denounce Israel as an apartheid state," he wrote. "There is a growing realization that the chances of establishing an independent, viable Palestinian state no longer exist, aside from an entity along the lines of a bantustan... The diplomatic positions of Benjamin Netanyahu's government inevitably lead to a diplomatic deadlock and a deepening of the policy of annexation."
Benvenisti's views are as yet far from mainstream in Israel – or almost anywhere else. After all, a majority of Palestinians still favor a two-state solution as do most Israelis and major powers such as the US.
But recent events have also emphasized that the time for that option is drawing shorter.
"As long as in this territory west of the Jordan river there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic," Israel Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in February. "If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state."
(This story was corrected after posting to show that 71 percent of Israelis support a two-state, not a one state, solution. We apologize for the error.)