Two States – Still the One Exit

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece is up at The American Prospect:

Let’s face it: When Barack Obama said in Cairo that “the only resolution” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two separate states, he was courageously insisting — well, on what’s become conventional wisdom.

But not the unanimous wisdom. The hardliners on each side aren’t alone in questioning the two-state idea. On the street in Jerusalem, I’ve run into old friends, veterans of Israeli peace and human-rights activism who say we’ve passed the tipping point: There are too many settlements; Israeli withdrawal is impossible; negotiations on two states have repeatedly failed; the only solution is a single, shared Jewish-Palestinian state. I’ve heard Palestinian intellectuals, former supporters of a two-state solution, who say the same. Among writers outside the conflict zone, British Jewish historian Tony Judt may be best known for suggesting — back in 2003 — that as a nation-state, Israel is “an anachronism” and should be replaced by a binational state. Ironically, Obama himself may have given this idea a bit more traction among American progressives — his election proving, perhaps, that multiculturalism within one polity can work, perhaps not just in America but elsewhere. So is he pursuing an obsolete strategy?

Actually, no. This time the conventional wisdom is correct.

Difficult as reaching a two-state agreement is, it is still a more practical solution than a single state. It has more political support on both sides. And in a very basic way, more psychological than philosophical, most Israeli Jews and most Palestinians are nationalists: Their personal identity is rooted in a national community for which they want political independence.

Let’s imagine that tomorrow, Israel and the occupied territories are reconstituted as the Eastern Mediterranean Republic, with equal citizenship and rights for all, and elections are held. With the current population, the parliament will be split virtually evenly between Jews and Palestinians. One of the first issues that the parliament and judiciary will face is the settlements that Israel built — in large part on land requisitioned by the Israeli military in the early years of the occupation, or on what Israel declared to be “state land” under its stunningly wide interpretation of Ottoman-era law, or simply on real estate privately owned by Palestinians. In all three cases, Palestinian claimants will demand return of their property, quite possibly meaning the eviction of those living on it. The problem of evacuating settlers won’t vanish. Rather, it will divide the new state’s politics on communal lines.

Read the rest here, and come back to SoJo to comment.

20 thoughts on “Two States – Still the One Exit”

  1. There isn’t going to be a “one-state” solution or a “two-state” solution….there isn’t going to be any “solution”. The status quo is going to go on for the foreseeable future. Abbas himself said before his meeting with Obama that he can wait, that the situation in Judea/Samaria is “good”, plenty of US and EU money is flowing in and he and his PA cronies are lining their pockets. Life couldn’t be better. Why should he spoil it by making concessions like giving up the Palestinian “right of return” since that would only open him up to charges that he is a traitor.
    I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but for the Jewish pro-Zionist “progressives” who are daily tormented by guilt feelings for themselves benefitting from the expulsion or flight of Arabs in 1948 and thus pushing the Palestinians to accept an unviable mini-state which is supposed to lift this guilt off their shoulder, the Arabs don’t feel any need to help you with this, in fact they want to increase your guilt feelings so that you will eventually abandon Zionism altogether. Similarly for Obama, who can smell that Nobel Prize, just as his predecessor Clinton did, the Arabs feel no need to oblige to help find him a place in history. They take a long-term view of things, unlike the Jewish Left.
    Get used to it.

  2. You wrote:

    It may be a mistake to refer to the creation of two states as a solution. Politics doesn’t often offer solutions; it offers arrangements.

    That’s a refreshing change from the cheerleading one gets from most two-state advocates. It doesn’t go far enough, though. Will this arrangement lead to a decrease or to an increase in violence, in the short and medium term? Will Iran succeed in controlling Palestine as a client state, or at least influencing Hamas (or Hamas’ replacement) as it does Hezbollah? Could this lead to a Cold War-style proxy war between US/Israel and Iran/Palestine? What will be the new state’s approach to Iranian-supported armed militias (e.g., Hamas) which continue the armed struggle to liberate all of Palestine? Will the new state have an incentive to allow the low-intensity war against Israel to continue in order to extract further concessions? Will the state of Palestine be strong enough to suppress these militias even if it wants to, or will it be weak like the state of Lebanon? What will be the Palestinian people’s feeling towards their brothers who continue the armed struggle for liberation? Will the Palestinian people support the state’s violent suppression of the anti-Israel militias, even if it means civil war? What will be the international reaction if Israel responds – “disproportionately,” of course – against terrorists on Palestinian sovereign territory? After statehood, where will international pressure against Israel be focused? (My guess: on the “apartheid” oppression of Israeli Arabs.)

    Those are just a few of the questions that need to be addressed. Obviously no one expects perfect predictions, but even self-described realists seem to just stop worrying and hope for the best when they declaim that Palestinian statehood is the answer.

    By the way, I’m sure you know that Agha and Malley recently wrote an article in the NYRB on the two-state solution. I thought it was really good. It would be interesting to see a South Jerusalem response to that, if there hasn’t been one already.

    Oh yeah, I liked your Zeno’s Paradox analogy. And I still remember your Pauli Exclusion Principle analogy from Accidental Empire – I think it was about Alon and Dayan – because it was so apt. Your articles are a real pleasure to read, even though they’re wrong of course.

  3. There’s much I disagree with in Ploni’s comment (in particular, the notion that relations with Iran could even begin to resemble the old Great Power conflicts), but taking a step back, I really feel these discussions — especially with people who consider themselves strategic hardliners — are plagued by a form of status quo bias. Witness, for example, the lack of enthusiasm for re-occupying southern Lebanon.

    On a more positive note, I liked the Zeno’s Paradox bit as well. Great article and interesting comments, as always.

  4. If my “Cold War-style” description is too far-fetched, OK, leave it aside. All I was trying to describe was this situation: two interventionist, ideology-driven, nuclear-armed powers, the US and Iran, each struggling to advance its ideology and influence in the Middle East at the expense of the other. Neither will directly confront the other because of the risks, so they play out their conflict with (among other things) their two client states, Israel and Palestine. A classic low-intensity proxy war.

    I’m not saying this will necessarily happen. I’m saying that all the pro-statehood arguments I’ve seen implicitly assume that the State of Palestine will be independent of Iranian and Syrian control, and that it will also have effective supremacy over irredentist Palestinian militias (Hamas or its replacement). The assumption seems to be that the State of Palestine itself, viewed in a political vacuum, is all that matters. I’ve never seen anyone on the pro-statehood side talk about what it would be like if Palestine is a client state engaged in a low-intensity proxy war against Israel.

    I do support something like the status quo (which itself is obviously in constant flux), but I don’t see any “status quo bias” in my position. It’s not bias to count the costs as well as the benefits of changing the status quo. Maybe my thinking seems biased because the questions I asked were one-sided. There’s a reason I only posed questions for one side and not for the other (e.g., “What will you do when the Palestinians demand one-man, one-vote west of the Jordan?”). The reason is that unlike the pro-statehood side, those on the anti-statehood side actually answer the questions posed by their interlocutors.

  5. In your article you mention that the opinion polls have shown a recent increase in support for the two-state-solution. To me though, the figures suggest that there’s still a lot of indecision out there. Those kind of fluctuations can go in any direction.

    I have to say that even though I’m kind of ‘onboard’ with the two-state-solution (because most of the clever people seem to be) I’m not confident of it’s success if we ever get there. Partition has such a horrible record, especially sectarian ones. There’s a real chance that both entities will go into a spiral of extremism because of the perceived threat of the other. Just look at Korea or Pakistan. Partition in Northern Ireland created a sustained insurgency supported by elements in the south. You want an insurgency from Israeli arabs sustained by greater stability across the green line? The establishment of two states wouldn’t be an end, it would actually be the start of even more difficult process. That’s maybe part of the reason of why we are where we are at the moment, the possibility that two-states will actually increase the potential for a genocidal massacre or total defeat for one side or the other. You have to make both states look as much like each other as possible which is why I wonder whether dismantling settlements is really the way forward. At some point, for the good of the peace process, we need to see the blueprint for the Palestinian state and make sure it at least matches the democratic standards of Israel, including minority rights.

    What undoubtedly has to happen is that Israel must learn to absorb casualties. There’s no way peace can be obtained by the kind of disproportionate violence that has been dised out recently. Without Cast Lead, for example, there’s a possibility we could have been talking about a separate deal for Gaza just to get the ball rolling. Maybe that’s my European perspective, thinking about the Andorras and Liechtensteins, but that seems to be a city state ready to go. Is that completely unrealistic? Despite the rhetoric, Hamas has come quite a distance towards the acceptable negotiating position. Cast Lead looked to me like another preparation for an attack on Iran which looks suspiciously like another way of sabotaging a deal to allow continued expansion towards the Jordan River.

    There have been some interesting diplomatic developments which may change the mood music but a deal looks a long way off. I must say that the more I read about this conflict the more amazing facts I dig up. I just learned that arab states refuse to grant rights to Palestinian refugees. That’s a humanitarian disgrace rarely mentioned in the UK. It can’t be about the welfare of Palestinians but only a way to antagonise Israel. After all as far as citizenship goes you don’t generally give up one nationality when you acquire another one. There’s no real reason why a Palestinian would be giving up the right to return or compensation by accepting another nationality. Thumbs down for the arab league there I think….

  6. Duncan, another humanitarian disgrace rarely mentioned in the UK are the 850,000 Jewsis refugees driven from Arab lands stripped of their assets since 1948. It is estimated that apart from the billions of Jewish pounds confiscated by the Arabs, the Jewish land confiscated by the Arabs is about three times the area of Israel. from the area con

  7. Ploni, I think some the bias creeps in when considering—or failing to consider—the costs of the current situation. Hence my mention of Lebanon, which few people want to reoccupy despite the fact that it actually is run by a weak government unable or unwilling to bring its local terrorist group to heel. There are relevant differences between occupying a new territory and hanging on to land you already control, of course, but I still think the comparison can be illuminating.

    I’m perfectly willing to believe that there’s a nonzero chance that your parade of horribles will come to pass, though I probably think it’s lower than you do. I’d suggest, however, that speculating about what will occur is the wrong way to think about this. There are a range of possibilities, some more likely than others. Even if the most probable outcome is worse than the status quo (not that I think it is), withdrawing from the Occupied Territories might still be reasonable if the benefits of a peaceful settlement are sufficiently high.

  8. Duncan, you commented “we need to see the blueprint for the Palestinian state and make sure it at least matches the democratic standards of Israel, including minority rights….Maybe that’s my European perspective….”

    If you want to understand the Arab/Israel conflict, you need to understand the Islamic Arab perspective.

    The State of Palestine is listed as a member on the website of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) since 1967. In 1990 the OIC rejected the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights for being Judao/Christian/Secular and transgressing Sharia Law. In its place they devised and adopted the discriminatory Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam.

    I suggest you read up on the Cairo Declaration and Islam, plenty of material on-line. Then you will perhaps understand why the putative Palestinian state cannot match the democratic standards of Israel, including minority rights, and why no Islamic state signed up to the Cairo Declaration can recognise or tolerate the existence of a Jewish State, least of all Israel, a Jewish State created on land previously conquered in holy jihad.

  9. Hi Charlotte,

    You’re quite right about the Jewish refugees, that was another surprising fact I came across. I’d say it was more historic than ongoing though, less of an issue now, although still an important context for the peace deal so I take your point. For me I’m not all that interested in who did what first, who was worse to whom etc because it’s impossible to find any moral high ground in any of it. It’s more about what we do from here. Maybe that’s naive.

    I will read up on the Cairo Declaration so thanks for pointing that out. I’m fact-finding about the whole situation. I’ve probably fallen into the trap of thinking that I’m going to apply some of my formidable common sense to the whole thing and come up with a solution nobody’s thought of 🙂 Joking aside I did come across this article in Haaretz after posting my comment, where the Palestinian Prime Minister promises to match Israel in terms of minority rights. It doesn’t means as much as it might given the political situation in the Palestinian territories but it is interesting and encouraging. I’ve tried to do html without knowing if it’s supported so apologies if it looks messy.

  10. Raghav, on your Lebanon example, remember that lots of people (Ariel Sharon, for instance) did support changing the status quo by withdrawing from southern Lebanon. So maybe the reason no one’s talking about re-occupying the security zone is that it was the wrong thing to do in the first place.

    Regarding the costs of the current situation, it seems the rhetoric has shifted lately: now the rhetoric is, “What will Israel do in the near future when the settlements are too big to be evacuated and the Arabs demand a single state west of the Jordan? We must act now before it’s too late.” Or, interpreting the argument charitably: “Maybe you’re right that the two-state arrangement will make the conflict worse than it is now, but if you try to maintain the status quo then you’ll fail and things will get even more worse than what you fear.” Whatever the merits of that argument (I think it’s pretty weak), note that it does not argue against the status quo itself. In the narrow way I formulated the argument, it doesn’t even offer an improvement over the current situation.

    Finally, I’d like to see predictions of what kinds of scenarios are most likely given a two-state arrangement, and what approach Israel might take in each scenario. Apparently Gershom Gorenberg is realistic enough to agree that the war will most likely continue after the Palestinian state is established.

  11. P.S. I agree that a two-state arrangement might lead to peace and that it might be worth risking. But I don’t see any way to make that decision without considering alternate scenarios as I suggested.

  12. Duncan, just one comment on what you wrote. You said,

    I’m kind of ‘onboard’ with the two-state-solution (because most of the clever people seem to be)…

    It’s important to remember on whose behalf people are speaking. The two-state arrangement is definitely good for Europe and the United States. Europeans and Americans who oppose the two-state arrangement do so either out of divided loyalty, or out of a sentimental attachment to Israel, or out of stupidity. If anything, I’d say that it’s in the interests of those states to be strongly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. Since the end of the Cold War, Israel’s interests have been strongly incompatible with Europe’s and America’s true interests.

    In Israel, there are lots of clever people on both sides of the debate, and lots of dumb people too. Remember that Avrum Burg and Ehud Olmert both support the two-state arrangement. Is that the kind of intellectual company one wishes to be in?

  13. Hi Ploni

    I wasn’t accusing opponents of a two-state solution of not being clever if that’s what you thought. Like you say, that’s just the prevailing opinion I see on my TV and the websites I come across in my US/UK bubble. I hadn’t heard of Avrum Burg before but I definitely wouldn’t want to end up in the company of Olmert. I think we both have similar reservations about treating the establishment of a Palestinian state as an end. The aftermath, winning the peace so to speak, is going to be extremely difficult. The only thing you can do is try to sort out some of the peripheral issues of Syria, Lebanon, Iran and so on before you sign a deal. I think Syria looks desperate for a deal of its own from what I’ve been reading and some movement there might have a knock-on effect on the other problems. Then you have to make the two states look as much like each other as possible.

    I think the US in particular has some strategic interest in a strong, committed ally in the region to do some of its dirty work but Europe less so which is reflected in the different political tone you hear. Europe doesn’t appreciate US and Israeli foreign policy radicalising their significant muslim minorities that aren’t as integrated as they are in the US. Obviously most people and all governments want this situation to go away with the minimum amount of trauma possible.

  14. Ploni, you should know better than tarring all those with reservations about two-states with the same brush. As an anti-sectarian, liberal-democracy-guy I have a lot of those myself, but still I’d find myself much much rather in the company of Avrum Burg (and the hosts of this blog) than in that of Bibi.

  15. Hi Duncan,

    If you’ve had time to research the Cairo Declaration, you will by now have realised that the putative Palestinian state can’t “match Israel in terms of minority rights”, nor can the two states “look as much like each other as possible”, unless the Palestinian state jettisons Islamic values.

  16. Hi Charlotte

    I did read the Cairo Declaration and I take your point. It’s not an enlightened document. There are muslim states out there who exceed the standards set down in it though, so it’s not like there’s no hope. In terms of matching Israel I would say that we’re not talking utopian standards here either. A 2005 US State Department report on Israel and the Occupied Territories talked about institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against the country’s Arab citizens. So that’s a low enough base to aim at.

  17. Hi Duncan,

    Sovereignty is the right to exercise, within a specific territory of a kingdom or a nation state, the highest authority by the law – and be answerable to no higher authority.

    The Palestian Authority’s Basic Law states that Islam is the national religion and that Palestinian legislation is based on the principles of Islamic Shari’a law. On that basis, a Palestinian state is required to institutionalise legal and societal discrimination and can legitimately be called to account for failing to meet its discriminatory obligations set down in Shari’a law and the Cairo Declaration.

    If Israel fails to meet its own egalitarian standard laid down in its egalitarian Declaration of Independence and Basic Law, it can legitimately be held to account – as it frequently is. The same principle applies to the British government being held to account for failing to ensure that women’s pay be equal to that of a male.

    Are you suggesting that Israel abandons its founding egalitarian principles, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the western gold standard, and instead adopts Shari’a law and the Cairo Declaration in order to match an Islamic Palestinian state?

  18. Charlotte, I’m not sure what you mean. I’m just saying that the Jewish state falls short of the UDHR so the Islamic Palestinian state should be allowed to fall short of it too as a starting position. It would be better if they both acheived those standards, along with the rest of the world, but that’s unrealistic. The link I included to the speech by the Palestinian Prime Minister shows that they hope to exceed the parameters of the CDHRI, as some other ‘islamic’ states currently do. That’s reason enough to be optimistic that the two states will at least resemble each other enough to have a chance not to turn into the polarised and increasingly homogenous communities that can come about through partition. There are still plenty of dangers.

  19. Duncan, your comments are bizarre. Sovereign states are built on a foundation of law, not optimism as you would have it.

    You say “the Islamic Palestinian state should be allowed to fall short of it (the UDHR) too as a starting position”.

    The Islamic Palestinian state’s starting position is Sharia law and the discriminatory Cairo Declaration – not the UDHR. The UDHR and the Cairo Declaration are sets of rules. To judge the standards of adherence to the UDHR by an Islamic state is akin to judging the performance of a team playing cricket by the rules of football. They’re playing a different game by different rules.

    Can you explain why you think an Islamic Palestinian state would abandon the rules in the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam and embrace what the OIC calls the Judeo/Christian/secular UDHR or agree to be judged by its principles?

    When you write: “it would be better if they both acheived those standards…..” you are imposing your own western view of the world on Islamic states who do not share your worldview.

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