This is the final chance for a two-state solution—and there is no other solutionby Tom Phillips / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
In August last year, in a Prospect article entitled “Failure is the most likely outcome,” I set out 10 rules that mean there might never be a happy ending to the Israeli-Palestinian, and therefore the Arab-Israeli, conflict. I also said that I hoped I was wrong, and so I welcome the efforts of John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, to demonstrate that peace still has a chance.
By all accounts Kerry entirely understands the strategic importance of this issue; is fully committed to tackling it; has the backing of Barack Obama; and has given careful thought to how to structure a negotiation. He seems, too, to have taken on board that any plans to boost the Palestinian economy make sense only in support of a political process, and cannot be a substitute.
The Americans’ goal of a final status agreement within nine months suggests they have absorbed the perils of looking for an interim rather than a final agreement, and understand there must be real results by the US mid-term elections, in November 2014.
The Arab League has given upfront backing to Kerry’s initiative, and has made it clear that it could accept comparable, minor territorial swaps, mutually agreed by the Israelis and Palestinians. The text of the Arab Peace Initiative—a comprehensive peace plan adopted at the 2002 Arab League summit—and my own conversations in the region indicate that they would also accept some agreed dilution of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The demographic logic for a two-state solution (if Israel wishes to remain a “Jewish state” albeit with a continuing Arab minority) is compelling to all except those who want to close their eyes to it. Israeli and Palestinian public opinion appears to continue to support such a solution, however much people on both sides might doubt it can be achieved. Israeli public opinion could be swayed further if their Prime Minister were behind an agreement and the Arab world were signalling clearly that “normalisation” of relations with Israel was on the cards. Important elements in Israeli civil society are working to explain the Arab Peace Initiative to Israeli politicians and citizens, and to shape a more creative response. Some Jewish and Muslim religious leaders understand the need for territorial compromise and could provide theological underpinning.
The European Union has done the right thing by prohibiting funding for Israeli entities and any projects outside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, sending a message to the Israeli public that the occupation of the West Bank remains just that and contravenes international law. To Palestinians, it signals that key players in the international community understand the centrality of the settlements issue, and to the US that the EU cannot be relied upon to toe American lines.
The mood of sombre realism that has characterised the launch of the Kerry process is positive: nobody thinks that this is going to be easy. But Kerry and Obama have to surprise us by demonstrating they can disprove one of the key rules I identified last year, that “only the Americans can, and the Americans can’t.” Media reports indicate that the Americans were not in the room for the second round of talks in mid-August. They need to be, all or most of the time, since left to themselves there is no prospect of the two sides agreeing on tough issues. There is a case, too, that it would have been better to keep the talks in Washington, away from local pressures.
Kerry needs the right negotiating team. Martin Indyk’s appointment as the US Special Envoy to the negotiations is a good start, though some will doubtless question his impartiality, on account of his previous links to Israeli lobbying bodies. Despite the American aversion to multilateralism on matters Israeli, Kerry must allow for meaningful international input. The Israelis will be reluctant to allow this, but there is no way their security concerns can be addressed without some understanding with key Arab neighbours. Nor would it be possible for the Palestinians to compromise on issues such as the right of return without the assurance that those same neighbours will support the package.
I worry, too, about another of my 10 rules, which holds that the difficulty of reaching a deal is compounded by the dysfunctional political systems on both sides, particularly as the current Israeli coalition is not one which could hold together in support of a sustainable peace agreement. Much depends on whether Netanyahu is playing for time, or whether he is prepared to take risks, including making concessions on the Old City and East Jerusalem, to go down as the man who brought Israel definitive peace with the region. I remain to be convinced, but the American strategy must assume that Bibi could be tempted by such a vision.
On the Palestinian side, will Hamas be true to its word and respect the outcome of any deal accepted in a Palestinian referendum? Does Mahmoud Abbas have the courage and political strength to accept difficult compromises, and the skill to sell these to the Palestinian public? Will Palestinians be able to reconcile their deeply-rooted but generally undefined sense that history owes them justice with the concessions that a realistic deal would inevitably require?
There are question marks, too, about the region, and what the Arab Peace Initiative now means against the background of instability in Egypt, civil war in Syria, and the Sunni/Shia conflict. Many Israelis see the fast-shifting regional sands as underlining why they will never be able to rely on their neighbours. And there are new problems. The API envisaged Israel’s normalisation in the region after a comprehensive peace not only with the Palestinians but also with the Syrians and the Lebanese—there is currently no prospect of this. How much normalisation will be possible if, for the moment, we are only talking about the possibility of an Israeli/Palestinian deal? And will events elsewhere distract Kerry’s attention?
Above all, beware of spoilers in the region, within Israeli and Palestinian society, and indeed in Washington, and of the rule that “the worst thing will always happen at the worst possible time.” The lack of a settlement freeze might reflect Israeli political reality, but repeats a major flaw in the Oslo process.
Pessimism remains in order. But even if the odds on failure are high, despair is never a policy option, and Kerry’s effort needs and deserves support. This really looks like the last chance saloon for a two-state solution—and there is no other solution, except continued conflict for the forseeable future. That is plain to anyone who has recently visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and seen the scale of settlement construction and the sheer weight of the Israeli presence, and what is happening in the minds of those on both sides of the Green Line. They deserve peace, and normal, peaceful states within internationally recognised borders.