“The two-state solution is dead! Long live the two-state solution!” has resonated as the battle-call of the decade, a nostalgic swan song of the halcyon days of hope of the Oslo era. But the past week or so has seen a hushed gathering of liberal intellectuals around the deathbed of the Israeli-Palestine dilemma and a two-state solution.
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Several writers and analysts on both sides, having abandoned eulogizing the two-state solution and embracing what seems like a death wish, are practically daring territorial maximalism to take its last gulping breath, marking the end of the two-state solution and allowing for the reincarnation of the region as Greater Israel or Greater Palestine.
But what concrete changes have occurred in 2013 that could have triggered this move? And what does the revival of the discourse over the death of the two-state solution mean for those who still hold on obstinately to the idea of a future where Israeli and Palestinian states exist side-by-side?
The month of February 2013 has done little to warm the hearts of faithful advocates of an amicable divorce between Israelis and Palestinians. The results of the Israeli elections in late January and the ongoing coalition talks for the Knesset majority have thus far produced little promise of progress on the peace process, with Yair Lapid’s lip-service commitment to return to the negotiation table, Benjamin Netanyahu’s stubborn silence, and Naftali Bennett’s outright rejection of a Palestinian state in his first speech before parliament earlier this week.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama’s scant attention to the conflict in the State of the Union address — a mere one mention of Israel and none for the Palestinians — betrays reluctance by the talks' traditional broker, despite the president's planned trip to the region in March. Further, the U.S. Embassy in Israel has been accused of colluding with the Palestinian Authority to thwart Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, in a further attempt to stall discussions.
The Israeli government, in the interim, has continued to enact its erratic policy on settlement growth — constructing new units in the Beit El Ulpana neighborhood while demolishing part of the Maale Rehavam outpost — in spite of public comments by its own national security adviser Yaakov Amidror that settlements are a serious “diplomatic problem.”
The chattering class picked up on this discouraging theme later this week. Writing in The Forward earlier this week, writer, translator, and (usually centrist) social critic Hillel Halkin opined that the land for peace paradigm should be declared dead, and called upon Israeli society to reconsider the idea that settlers could continue to live in their settlements - under the auspices of a Palestinian State. He proposed reframing what he called “the simple syllogism:”
(1) Peace between Israel and the Palestinians depends on the establishment of a Palestinian state. (2) Jewish settlements cannot exist in such a state. (3) Therefore, the settlements are an obstacle to peace.
Halkin declares that the situation can and should be reframed: settlers and settlements could (and perhaps should) remain under Palestinian rule, reversing the logic that settlements prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and threaten the two-state solution. He cites the trauma of previous disengagements, the radical nature of likely settler opposition and the domestic political damage that would ensue as being the prime factors that mean "There isn’t the remotest chance of it [relocating settlers] happening."
This idea is hardly new — Rabbi Menachem Fruman from the West Bank settlement of Tekoa has long championed the idea — but the ‘mainstreaming’ of its discussion (and, it should be added, its converse, the annexation to Israel of Area C) signals the death throes of the two-state model. While Halkin is certainly right to revise the dominant narrative that settlements are the only obstacle to peace, his recasting of the settlement narrative is problematic both in theory and in praxis: The idea of leaving Jewish West Bank settlements intact gives carte blanche for Israel to abdicate any state authority or political will for future disengagements from any parts of the occupied territories and from a practical standpoint (which Halkin himself concedes) may pose grievous threat to the life and livelihood of this geographically captive population.
More interesting than Halkin’s arguments is the timing of his article, in light of the general melancholic climate in the Middle East.
Irreversibility, the idea that Jewish settlement in the West Bank has passed a critical mass or 'red line', is a popular and self-reinforcing discourse in Israeli political culture. It has been almost 30 years since Meron Benvenisti’s “five minutes to midnight” speech," where the former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and political activist evoked the atomic doomsday clock to describe the dilemma of the “irreversibility” of the settlements. In his study, "The West Bank Data Project", that year, he quoted from Yeats' poem “A Second Coming:”
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
In a follow-up article Benvenisti wrote in The New York Review of Books, he described the current period as “a turning point for Israel,” and that “this essay can be read [as] a eulogy for the humanistic tradition in Israel. It can also be read as a plea for a new beginning.” In October 2012, in an interview with Ari Shavit, Benvenisti was even more trenchant: “The Green Line, which was the great alibi of the left, no longer exists. The Green Line is dead the Land of Israel is...a single geopolitical unit. [Partition] is as impossible geographically and physically as it is psychologically.”
Certainly, the situation has become more complicated (and indeed constrained) since 1982, but if the two-state solution has been at death’s door since then, what can we make of this born-again discourse in 2013?
The truth of the matter is that while Carlo Strenger correctly asserted in Haaretz last week that there is no such thing as a status quo on the settlements, the recent refrain that settlements have reached the “point of no return” is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for Israel-Palestine. The mindset that settlements and settlements alone constitute the prime obstacle to peace has in fact overtaken the (difficult) reality on the ground: The real obstruction is a lack of will on the part of both sides, rather than pure geographic determinism. The more this refrain is repeated, the more it becomes a self-perpetuating mythology. Irreversibility becomes the victim of its own irreversibility.
As Aesop’s fable warns, there are tragic consequences to crying wolf too many times, as this last round of bemoaning Israel’s fate may prove. Israeli and Palestinian journalists, analysts, politicians and even figures from popular culture have a responsibility to actively engage in finding creative answers to the serious questions raised by one or two-state futures. They must stand their ground in preventing both populations from being carried along in the stream towards the inevitable Greater Israel or Greater Palestine that does not provide a just and equitable solution for both peoples and which denies the national rights of the weaker side.
While doomsday may yet come, the biggest danger to Israel this decade is if the country accepts the self-fulfilling prophecy of irreversibility, rather than continuing to fight for a Jewish and democratic future.
Dr. Sara Hirschhorn is a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, researching the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the U.S.-Israel relationship.