Palestinian President Abbas plans to set a deadline for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the achievement of a two state solution. His timing could provide a good opportunity for supporters of the concept to give the two-state formula one last chance, before moving on to lesser alternatives.
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Israel has traditionally shied away from the inclusion of a legally binding “date certain” in agreements and understandings; clashes over this matter were legion during George Schultz’s term as Secretary of State in the late 1980’s. Looking back, however, it’s clear that in the history of efforts to achieve a two-state solution, deadlines have been anything but binding: under the original Oslo Accords a final status agreement was to have been achieved by May 1999 and John Kerry’s peace efforts were slated to produce a final status accord by April 29, 2014, with myriad unfulfilled deadlines in the 15 years between them.
Abbas is now proposing to insert a new “date certain” that he hopes will create a sense of momentum, hang a Damocles Sword over Israel’s head, spark international pressure to reach a quick resolution and, most importantly, legitimize whatever steps the Palestinians might wish to take after the expected breakdown of such talks. Abbas could ask the United Nations to grant full statehood status to Palestine, he could try to drag Israel to the international Criminal Court or he could simply give up, hand over the keys to the West Bank and tell his people to start demanding full equality, Nelson Mandela style.
Israeli supporters of a two-state solution, including this writer, might consider following Abbas’ lead on this one. It’s true that hope springs eternal and that every once in a while you get a glimpse from afar of the two promised lands, separate but equal, but the vision repeatedly turns out to be an optical illusion: the closer you seem to be, the farther away you are.
This does not mean, as some right-wingers have arrogantly and ignorantly proclaimed in the wake of the Gaza conflict, that the two state formula was doomed or misguided from the outset. On the contrary, Israeli proponents of Palestinian independence were much more right, as it were, than they were wrong: most of their decades-old warnings about the impossibility of “managing the conflict” and the dangers of ongoing occupation have materialized in full. Israel is isolated and shunned in the international arena, its politics and public discourse are polarized and desensitized like never before and the country continues to spend far too much of its hard-earned dollars on settling the territories, policing them and periodically bringing them to heel, rather than on the country’s rapidly declining educational, health and social welfare systems. Not to mention the undeniable facts that Israeli Arabs are marginalized, Palestinians are radicalized and American Jewry, I’m sure you’ve noticed, is splitting apart at the seams because of the unresolved Middle East conflict.
But even if one remains convinced that the two state solution is the optimal arrangement for maintaining Israel's Jewish and democratic character while addressing the legitimate rights of the Palestinians, there comes a time when one needs to be wake up, smell the coffee and consider the possibility that the objective is not only unattainable but actually counterproductive. With the benefit of hindsight it hard to counter the argument that the perennial search for a two state solution has served as a cover for a de-facto annexation of the West Bank that absolves Israel’s of the need to grant the Palestinians full civil rights. Without the dangled promise of eventual peace, it would be much harder for Israel to look in the mirror and rebuff the claims of apartheid.
Barring an amicable parting of ways, Israel is headed for a certain fall, if not a total crash. In times of national emergency, in order to avert such a tragedy, Israeli patriots and Jewish supporters may need to consider lesser alternatives, the most obvious of which is the one-state solution. Not the one-state solution of the radical left, which would erase Israel’s Jewish character from the outset, nor the one-state solution of the illusionist right, which would keep the Palestinians in permanent underprivileged status. The only viable option, unpalatable as it may be, is the one proposed recently by leading representatives of the right, including former Israeli minister Effi Eitam and the late Uri Elitzur, once Netanyahu’s bureau chief: annex the West Bank, grant the Palestinians full citizenship and let the chips fall where they may.
Granted, such an outcome could endanger Israel's Jewish character in the long run, especially if it turns out that the “new demographers” who have been assuaging right wing fears about an eventual Arab majority were conveniently rigging the numbers, as many suspect. Even in the short run, the creation of a large Palestinian voting block in the Knesset could very well create a dangerous Jew vs. Arab dynamic that would exacerbate rather than quell internal conflict and strife.
Nonetheless, if a two state solution is not achievable and the choice is between an indefinite continuation of the democracy-degenerating status quo, including the perpetual disenfranchisement of the Palestinians, and a functional democratic society in which Arabs are free to vote and to get elected and to participate in government and to reflect their national aspirations in accordance with their political power - then obviously the second option is the more moral, the more justifiable and the more sustainable solution. And the one, alas, that is better for Israel as well.
The book of Ecclesiastes says that a living dog is better than a dead lion: one state in the hand may be better than two states that are no more than pie in the sky. The time is fast approaching, to borrow from an oft-used cliché used in connection with the Iran nuclear talks, when two-state supporters will need to ask themselves whether a bad solution is better or worse than no solution at all. The answer is becoming less and less obvious as time goes by.