by Mitchell Plitnick
In a debate recorded by the Institute for Palestine Studies, human rights lawyer Noura Erakat squares off with Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, about the current peace talks and the prospects of a two-state solution. There was a lot in the exchange that was interesting, and it’s worth your viewing. But one point in particular caught my attention.
Both of them were asked this question: given the fact that the U.S.-brokered peace process has dragged on for twenty years with no end in sight, is it time to consider alternatives to the two-state solution? Each interlocutor answered according to their general bent, with Ibish stubbornly clinging to the two-state solution and Erakat advocating the consideration of a single, democratic state. Though the exchange was somewhat testy, it also proved interesting, and an important one to have, though I think the place it leads is not entirely satisfying to hardcore advocates of either position: a re-evaluation of solutions without being wedded to either one- or two-state formulations.
Ibish dismisses the notion of any alternative to the current process. For him, any alternative exists in a “counter-factual” world. There’s certainly plenty of substantiation for this view. Ibish is quite correct in saying that there is a global consensus around the current two-state formulation, and it would, at best, take years to develop an alternative solution. Indeed, any alternative is likely to be bitterly opposed by Israel, and the United States would very likely back that opposition, making Europe and the Arab League very reluctant to go in the other direction, even if they wanted to.
But Ibish’s blanket dismissal is, itself, counter-factual. At one time, the notion of a two-state solution was as unthinkable as a single democratic state is today. Further, as Ibish himself acknowledges, twenty years of efforts under the Oslo process have yielded precious little for the Palestinians (many, myself included, would contend the Palestinians are worse off today than they were twenty years ago), the United States is not capable of being an even-handed broker, settlement construction has only accelerated over the years and the disparity of power between the parties remains an enormous obstacle to peace. His only response to this is that two-states is the only option before us and anything else is “counter-factual,” which is only a barely diplomatic way of calling it naïve fantasy. That’s dismissive, it’s not a good argument.
Erakat, for her part, looks at the same factors and suggests that a different approach is needed. Whereas Ibish’s adherence to the current formulation is akin to that of a zealot, Erakat is open to alternatives. She considers the reasons Ibish cites in support of the two-state solution as proof of why this approach has failed. After all, she argues, considering all the international consensus and politics around this notion, if there has been no progress toward this goal for twenty years, what is there to do but consider alternatives?
Yet as glib as Ibish is in dismissing out of hand the idea that a new approach might be necessary, Erakat seems also to blithely dismiss the existing international consensus and how difficult it would be to reorient the global political sphere to a whole new solution, one which Israel would bitterly oppose. What emerges from the conversation is a disconnect with real politics in both directions.
The feeling was similar at J Street’s recent conference. There was an undeniable sense that the flagship two-state lobbying group has arrived in a big way. Joe Biden, Martin Indyk, Nancy Pelosi, and Tzipi Livni headed what was by far the organization’s most impressive list of speakers in its five-year history of national conferences. There were many other members of Congress who also spoke or attended the conference’s various functions. The organization has clearly acquired the clout it wanted, and the refrain at the conference that, as Ibish contended, the two-state solution is the only solution was repeated over and over to raucous cheers.
Yet the repetition itself suggested some level of desperation. There was also a palpable sense that the two-state solution is in dire jeopardy.
J Street’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami pointed out that under the current formulation, Palestinians would have to allow an international force to defend the fledgling state’s borders. As Erakat notes, this is a severe infringement on perhaps the most basic tenet of sovereignty, the right to self-defense. Ben-Ami also flatly stated that the Palestinians would have to accept the fact that no refugees would return within Israel’s finally established borders.
When I asked Ben-Ami if he was concerned that these might be terms Palestinians could not accept, he responded: “I think the ultimate deal will involve sacrifices and compromises. I don’t know what they will be but they will be hard to sell and all of us will have a tough selling job to do and we have to be ready to do that.” On the other hand, Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Jersualem Fund told me: “As far as Palestinians are concerned, the right of return is a human right. In my view, human rights are not negotiable.” Munayyer’s view echoes that of most Palestinians from across the political spectrum. Many (though far from all) are willing to negotiate on implementation, but there seems to be an universal agreement among Palestinians that the right of return must be fully recognized. This issue is being unwisely glossed over by supporters of the current process.
Ibish also stated that he saw little downside to the current talks “unless they completely collapse.” I actually see a very different danger. Collapse would not be so bad. Unlike in 2000, when the Camp David II talks collapsed, there are few who expect these talks to succeed, and the agreement to bring any deal to a public referendum alleviates concerns that the leaders will give away too much. These were the factors that had the Palestinian Territories at the boiling point thirteen years ago. Collapse today will not bring about a strong response, it will merely bring the situation back to where it was before John Kerry put so much effort into restarting the talks.
No, the danger here is that an agreement will be struck between the parties that will pass in an Israeli referendum but will fail in a Palestinian one, a concern I explained in detail recently. Such an outcome will allow the Palestinian public to be painted as rejectionists, which will likely make even the meager pressures on Israel from Europe and the even thinner ones from the United States disappear completely, making any process, be it geared toward one state or two, impossible to move forward for years to come.
What’s needed now is a reassessment. The terms of the current two-state process will not work. Palestine is expected to become a state with Israeli enclaves carved deep into it, in the settlements of Ma’ale Adumin and Ariel; it is expected to sacrifice its right of self-defense; and it is expected to give up on what is perhaps its most emotionally meaningful national tenet: the refugees. I can’t imagine a serious observer of the Palestinian public considering this acceptable, and ramming such an arrangement down the throats of either side is a recipe for disaster, not peace.
But that shouldn’t mean that the two-state solution must be abandoned, nor that a one-state formulation needs to remain off the diplomatic table. The issue is not one or two states, but a formulation where two nations can co-exist. We need to reject the notion that the Palestinians can accept less than full sovereignty and a substantive redress of refugee rights. We also have to accept that Israeli Jews are not going to be prepared to become a minority again, and that neither Zionism nor Palestinian nationalism are going to simply be eliminated or fade away in a sea of pragmatism.
In 1993, intrepid Israeli and Palestinian leaders really did produce an unprecedented breakthrough that resulted in the Oslo Accords. Politics and the disparity of power turned the deal sour. That can be done differently today. Hanging on to twenty years of failure is unworkable, but change for the sake of change is not a game that can be played in Palestine-Israel. One-staters and two-staters have been at odds for too long. If people of good will on both sides can come together, that can create an international political and diplomatic momentum to reframe a solution that can actually work.