The State of the Two-State Solution

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published April 15, 2009, issue of April 24, 2009.
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Perhaps you’ve noticed, but what with all the spring cleaning, Obama’s 24/7 whirlwind and Pesach, it may have escaped your attention: Our world is upside-down.

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the term “hard-liner” is used to refer to a person who opposed the idea of an independent Palestinian state. There were such people in Israel, in numbers that dwindled over the years. Ask them how they saw the future, and they’d wax eloquent about Israel’s right to the whole of the land, or about Palestinian perfidy or, even more commonly, they’d shrug their shoulders and say, “Who can tell how the situation will change in the years ahead? Why tie ourselves into knots? The status quo is not so bad.”

As against this, the two-state crowd said and sometimes shouted that time was not on Israel’s side, that the world was growing weary of this futile conflict, that muddling through was inadequate and, frankly, inappropriate for an allegedly sophisticated and enlightened state. More: The “benign” status quo was actually corrupting the consensual values that once characterized that state.

But by now, after two messy and inconclusive wars, one with Hezbollah in the north and the other with Hamas in the south, in the thick of growing impatience with a conflict that seems permanently stuck, there’s more and more talk of a “one-state solution,” a state that would reach from the Mediterranean to the Jordan and would (somehow) guarantee the rights and perhaps even a degree of autonomy for its component minorities (i.e., the Jews). Those who cling to the two-state idea — that is, those who believe that a Jewish state is both desirable and possible alongside a new Palestinian state — increasingly resemble, and feel like, a balloon with a slow but accelerating leak. They have become today’s hard-liners, hewing to Zionist axioms that once felt bold, evoked fervor, but now seem increasingly quaint, forlorn.

It took an unconscionably long time for the Palestine Liberation Organization to accept the idea of a two-state solution. Yet today, its most ardent advocate is Mahmoud Abbas, still president of the Palestinian Authority. And the Saudis are not far behind. In the meantime, Israel has a prime minister who is steadfast in his distaste for the two-state idea. The world has turned upside-down.

Fortunately, President Obama is apparently quite serious in his commitment to the two-state solution, even if that means provoking a real divide between Jerusalem and Washington. The Obama people have begun a quiet campaign with congressional leadership to prepare for what might be called “a confrontation,” but which in truth is no more than an insistent call on Israel to honor commitments it has long since formally accepted. This follows Obama’s March 24 press conference in which he said, bluntly, “the status quo is unsustainable.” Israeli officials, nervous and incredulous, try to paper over the impending tension, claiming that the differences between the two governments are, as one Cabinet minister put it, essentially “semantics.” (If that is so, count me as anti-semantic.)

So we approach a moment of truth for pro-Israel American Jews: Accept the sterile Netanyahu perspective, all foam and no beer, or stand firm, with Obama, against the status quo and for a two-state solution, which is to say, for a Jewish state.

Let there be no mistake: A one-state solution with Jews in control and the Palestinian majority offered less than full rights of citizenship is morally and politically bankrupt. It is an invitation to continuing violence. A one-state solution with the Palestinian majority in control means an end to the Zionist enterprise, to the Jewish state. But: A two-state solution is not an option that will always be available. Unfolding facts on the ground — growing Palestinian resentment, growing Israeli settlement — are already subverting its prospect.

In Khartoum in 1967, the Arab world famously issued its “three no’s”: No to peace with Israel, no to recognition of Israel and no to negotiations with Israel. First Egypt, then Jordan rescinded that doctrine. Now the Saudis and the Syrians are willing, even eager, to negotiate, as are significant elements among the Palestinians. And the Israelis? By turning toward Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, they turn away from the serious pursuit of peace, hence away from an enduring Jewish state.

There are times when what seems to be mere irony is in fact tragedy.

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