The idea that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead has been repeated so many times in the
past several years that it has taken on the droning sound of a mantra. Yet at the same time, we continue to hear pleas like the one that Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour made as the Security Council was about to reject the Palestinian resolution calling for an end to Israel’s occupation: “Those eager to save the two-state solution must act and cannot continue to make excuses for Israel and to permit, and thus be complicit in, its immoral and illegal behavior.”
So which is it? Must we abandon the two-state solution and think of other formulations or do we desperately need to revitalize and resuscitate the process we’ve been working on since 1993? Perhaps there is a better answer: a completely different approach to the two-state solution.
Ambassador Mansour was making the case for continuing to plug away at the two-state solution as we’ve known it for the past two decades. But it’s hard to argue with the notion that, at the very least, reaching that solution seems, at the moment, impossible. For some, this is seen as proof that only a single state solution is viable. For those of us who believe that two states living together is the better option, we can either despair or seize this opportunity to re-think the path to a two-state solution. We have been locked on a solitary course for two decades, but the idea of two states is not necessarily synonymous with the flawed, and failed, Oslo peace process.
What’s needed, if there is still to be a two-state solution, is an understanding of why two decades of Oslo failed, and what can be done differently.
A Flawed Process
The Oslo Accords represented the greatest moment of hope in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. For the first time, there seemed to be a real path to a peace that, while still imperfect, would allow both Israelis and Palestinians to build their futures in peace.
The Accords created the Palestinian Authority and established the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the leadership body recognized by Israel. In major Palestinian population areas, the P.A. was granted full autonomy (referred to as Area A), while in some others, they had administrative authority and worked jointly with Israel on security (Area B). Large swaths of the West Bank remained under full Israeli control (Area C). The difficult issues such as refugees, final borders, and Jerusalem, among others, were to be negotiated over a five-year period. Of course, the process went on much longer without making more progress.
Over the course of two decades, the Oslo Peace Process hit many bumps in the road. That should have come as a surprise to no one. The Israel-Palestine conflict is not a simple dispute, and the passions that are aroused among and between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs touch on nationalism, religion, colonialism, racism, anti-Semitism, and the geopolitical interests of parties far beyond the banks of the Mediterranean and Jordan Rivers.
Every time such a bump was encountered, each side predictably blamed it on the bad faith of the other. Sometimes there was merit to those arguments, sometimes less so. Either way, the blame game illustrated the need for an honest broker to mediate the talks between the parties. It needed to be a party that could be fair to both sides, but also strong enough to hold both sides’ feet to the fire in order to keep the process moving forward.
The United States seemed to be the only party that could possibly fulfill both of those needs, and so we slid into the role of broker. But it turned out that we were ill-suited for the part. Although the U.S. was probably correctly seen as the only force that could deliver both the Israelis and Palestinians, its “special relationship” with Israel and the negative view of the Palestinians among most Americans made it impossible to keep domestic U.S. politics out of the peacemaking arena. When that was added to the real U.S. interest in Israel’s security, a much greater interest than it has in the rights and freedoms of Palestinians, the United States became more a part of the problem than of the solution.
A Flawed Vision
Beyond the problem of America’s role, Oslo itself was rooted in a problematic vision, one which reflected an issue that would dog the process right up to the present day: the relative power of Israel versus that of the Palestinians. This is complicated today by the fact that, despite being the undisputed military power in the Middle East, Israelis live in constant fear of attack, and this fear is a fundamental factor in popular views of foreign policy. Some might argue that this fear is unwarranted, given the country’s stability and military strength. Others will point out that the years of the second intifada, in particular (2000-2005), saw Israeli civilians come under the sort of sustained attack that most of America and Europe can only imagine. Either way, that argument is irrelevant; the fear is there, it affects Israeli views of their security needs and their views on policy regarding the Palestinians.
The Oslo Accords reflected the power imbalance from the very beginning. When the Declaration of Principles (the first of the Oslo Accords documents) was signed, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized the right of Israel to exist in peace and security and declared any clauses in the Palestinian Covenant denying Israel’s right to exist invalid. In response, Israel merely recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.
The imbalance continued in the ensuing documents. While carefully spelled out measures were agreed upon to combat Palestinian terrorism against Israelis, settlement expansion was not explicitly forbidden. Where the goal of peace for Israel was pursued in every piece of the Accords, creating a Palestinian state was never explicitly mentioned. As a result, settlements expanded with increasing rapidity over the years, and Israelis could continue to debate whether they were willing to permit a Palestinian state to come into being without worrying that they might be violating the Accords.
Israel could hardly be blamed for this. The Israeli government was merely doing what any government would—trying to maximize the benefits for themselves while minimizing the sacrifices they’d have to make to attain them. They were essentially handed a stacked deck and they played it. Palestinian moderates and intellectuals like Edward Said, PLO Foreign Minister Farouk Kaddoumi and poet Mahmoud Darwish raised objections to the structure of the Accords – many of which have proved prescient – and the way they were agreed to. But they were generally ignored and quite incorrectly lumped together with those who rejected peace with Israel under any terms.
The deck was stacked even further against success in 2004, when U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon exchanged letters. Bush’s letter to Sharon was in part motivated by his desire to reward the Israeli Prime Minister for his decision to fight right-wingers even in his own party, at the time, to pursue the withdrawal of settlements and the Israeli military presence within the Gaza Strip. At that time, diplomacy was largely focused less on permanent status agreements than on quelling the intifada and concomitant large-scale Israeli military actions in the West Bank that were raging.
In his letter to Sharon, Bush stated that, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949…It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
This was taken by Israel as tacit American approval of Israel’s intention to keep the three largest settlement blocs in the West Bank, a view neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have disputed. While Bush was correct that this was an integral part of prior negotiations, his statement here ended such negotiations, leaving the Palestinians with little leverage to ensure that they would be fairly compensated for sacrificing those pieces of the West Bank.
The President didn’t stop there. He also stated, “It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.” Again, this was likely going to be the case, but by laying this out as an American position, Bush curtailed Palestinian leverage in negotiating the terms of settling the refugee issue. Essentially, the Bush administration unilaterally pre-determined the disposition of two key final status issues in favor of Israel. Palestinian faith in the U.S.’s willingness or ability to act as a fair broker has never recovered.
One cannot have reasonably expected Sharon, or any Israeli leader, to refuse such gifts from an American President. But these and other developments over the years altered the playing field. By the time talks between Israel and the Palestinians fell apart last year, many analysts, this one included, doubted that the Palestinian people would accept the deal the Palestinian Authority was still trying to win.
How Do We Fix It?
There is no magical formula for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the end, any solution is going to be imperfect and will have passionate detractors from a variety of different viewpoints. It will, undoubtedly, leave both Israelis and Palestinians wanting more.
But there are steps people can take, both in and out of government, to bring to the floor a solution that is more logical and would stand a better chance of long term success than the one envisioned in the last days of Oslo.
- Bring in more voices. The notion that the parameters of a solution are set in stone must be combatted. The realities on the ground have changed since the days of the aborted Taba Summit in 2001, the Geneva Initiative, and the Clinton Parameters. Particularly, the voices of those who support a single democratic and/or bi-national state as well as those who advocate some sort of federal arrangement between the two parties must be considered. Even those of us, like myself, who advocate a two-state solution must acknowledge that these viewpoints are often born out of emphasizing the flaws in a two-state arrangement. Bringing these viewpoints in can not only help sharpen a two-state framework, but can also diminish opposition to whatever solution ends up taking center stage.
- Re-examine the basic principles underlying any final agreement. The Oslo documents did not focus on human rights principles, for example, nor did it spell out roles for outside parties in the process, allowing political forces to dictate these points. A list of guiding principles, a Second Declaration of Principles, if you will, can also work to negate the Bush letter of 2004, and allow for negotiations that could conceivably lead to the viability and contiguity of a Palestinians state while also ensuring security and more defensible borders for Israel. These two goals often clash, and only a strong commitment to both can possibly lead to both sides being minimally satisfied.
- Change the conception of a two-state solution from “Israelis here, Palestinians there” to one that envisions mutual cooperation and interdependence between the two states. This, much more than any military might, helps ensure Israel’s security, as it gives the Palestinians a strong interest in a secure Israel and vice versa. At the same time, any fledgling Palestinian state is going to desperately need help in building its economy after years of poverty and dependence on aid. No country is better positioned to do that, or has more at stake in accomplishing it, than Israel. But this can only come about through cooperation, not separation. It would also allow for maximal sharing of resources, particularly water, which is a primary Israeli concern regarding leaving the West Bank.
These fundamental steps represent a sea change in how a two-state solution can be approached. If we are to keep that goal alive and avoid repeating, or continuing, the failures of Oslo, they are also indispensable.
Mitchell Plitnick is the Program Director at the Foundation for Middle East Peace