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The Erosion of the Two-State Solution

Ron Skolnik
December 3, 2017


by Ron Skolnik

Published in the Autumn 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

A “REAR PROJECTION EFFECT” is the term used for the old movie-making technique that causes an object — usually a person, often in a car or train — to appear to be in motion when, in fact, it is completely stationary. The trick is to simulate motion by projecting a moving image behind the stationary object and then filming them together.

I have been thinking about rear projection as an apt way of describing the changing perception of the two-state approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict: Like the stationary actor, the two-state idea and the solution it offers have remained largely unchanged over the decades, but the background image, if you will, has been shifting rapidly behind it.

Once upon a time, two states was a leftwing concept, borderline fringe, and in Israel almost treasonous. In the heady gung-ho days following the June 1967 war, “two states for two peoples” was a slogan employed in Israel solely by the predominantly Arab Rakach (New Communist List) party, whose 1969 convention stressed the “just national rights of . . . the Palestinian Arab people,” including “self-determination and national independence,” based on UN resolutions.

Even the most leftwing Zionists of the time steered clear of such provocative language: Mapam (the socialist United Workers Party, which later blended into Meretz) acknowledged the existence of a Palestinian Arab people, but pushed for a solution involving a combined Jordanian-Palestinian state. In the Labor Party, the dovish Aryeh “Lova” Eliav was forced out of his position as secretary-general and then out of the party altogether for insisting that the Palestinians constituted a nation, but even he balked at the idea of a “Palestinian state in addition to Jordan.” Eliav proposed instead “the possibility of self-determination for the Arabs of the two Banks” — i.e., both the West Bank and Jordan — who would decide together whether the state spanning the Jordan River would be a monarchy or republic, called Jordan, Palestine, or some combination of the two. In a 1972 book, he insisted that “no peace treaty [should] be signed with the Kingdom of Jordan if it [Jordan] does not represent and does not solve the Palestinian-Arab problem.”

In the American Jewish arena in the 1970s, the two-state idea was associated almost exclusively with the upstart progressive Breira (Hebrew for “alternative”), a movement that was quickly and cruelly vilified, first by rightwing American Jews, and then by large sections of the Jewish American establishment, as anti-Israel and a front for terrorists due to its contacts with PLO moderate, Issam Sartawi (who was assassinated by Palestinian hardliners in 1983 due to his own support for the two-state approach). Meanwhile, the mainstream National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the forerunner of today’s Jewish Council for Public Affairs, issued a statement that rejected contacts with anyone “advocating negotiations with the PLO,” insisting instead that Middle East peace would result from talks “between Israel and its neighboring Arab states” — in other words, without the involvement of the non-state Palestinians.

However, the emergence of the Peace Now movement in Israel in 1978, and its rapid growth into a mass movement in opposition to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, put dialogue between Israel and the PLO on the agenda, and wedged open American Jewish support for the two-state solution. As early as March, 1980, our magazine was calling upon our leftwing allies to recognize the potency of the Peace Now movement and to pressure the PLO to respond with its own initiatives towards mutual recognition and a two-state future (see Annette T. Rubinstein and Morton Stavis’ “To Our Friends Who Support the PLO” at 2010/02/jcarchive002.pdf). Jewish Currents would be advocating the two-state solution in virtually indistinguishable editorials for the next thirty-five years, as would a variety of American Jewish progressive organizations such as New Jewish Agenda, Meretz USA, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, and J Street.

Fast forward to today, and we see a two-state movement that is not only no longer a fringe phenomenon, but is regarded by a growing portion of the left, including the American Jewish left, as somehow an apologia for what they see as the inherent injustice of Zionism. The two-state solution is thus being eroded, and perhaps overtaken, by the rise of boycott politics.

WHAT HAPPENED between then and now? In many ways, the gradual withering of the two-state idea seems to be the consequence, rather paradoxically, of both its success and its failure — as well as its cooptation and corruption.

Its success came through its broad adoption by public opinion and the Western political establishment. In 1980, the European Community (a precursor of the European Union) broke new ground with its Venice Declaration, in which it called for a solution that allowed the Palestinian people to “exercise fully its right to self-determination,” allowed Israel to exist securely, and suggested that the pre-1967 Green Line could be a peace border. The U.S. was slow to follow — Ronald Reagan waited until late in 1988 to open a direct dialogue with the PLO — but by the early 2000s, the U.S. had joined the two-state camp, first in confidence via President Clinton’s December 2000 peace proposal (the “Clinton Parameters”) and then publicly in President George W. Bush’s speech of June 24, 2002 (“My vision is two states, living side by side in peace and security”). With Bush’s speech legitimizing Palestinian statehood, American public support for two states shot up to 58 percent in 2003 (a whopping 60 percent among Republicans) with only 22 percent opposed — the highest level on record.

In 2003, peace activists in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps collaborated on the Geneva Initiative, a permanent status two-state proposal that seemed entirely viable. Support for such a deal increased in late 2004 and early 2005, following Yassir Arafat’s death and his replacement by Mahmoud Abbas, and as Ariel Sharon’s controversial unilateral disengagement from Gaza was nearing implementation.

After its early years in the wilderness, the two-state solution had moved solidly into the mainstream. In 2010, despite nearly a decade without a diplomatic breakthrough, support for it stood at a robust 71 percent among Israelis and 57 percent among Palestinians. But as U.S.-led peace initiative after peace initiative failed (Oslo, Camp David II, the Roadmap, Annapolis, the Kerry effort, and so on) — often undermined by terrorist attacks or back-and-forth assassinations that strengthened extremism on both sides — the peace process came to be seen as more process than peace, as negotiations for the sake of photo-ops and to remain in the good graces of the U.S. government, rather than as good-faith peace efforts.

When President Obama’s forays into deal-making — grounded on his clear opposition to settlements, his rejection of Likud’s platform, and his articulated support for an agreement based on the 1967 borders — were firmly and repeatedly rebuffed by the Netanyahu government, the two-state solution seemed threadbare. Then, last year, the Republican Party jettisoned the two-state solution from its platform, while Donald Trump, since taking office, has refused to commit to the formula.

With American mediation having seemingly run aground and with the Israeli and Palestinian sides lacking either the political will or capacity to take meaningful steps forward, a growing number of Middle East watchers have soured on the efforts. The repeated demand by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to hold “direct talks with no preconditions” has long since been understood on the left to mean a pre-planned exercise in diplomatic sterility — that Netanyahu means to bog down movement toward a two-state outcome and to undermine its widely understood outlines.

The kind of informal talks and exchanges that once produced the initial Oslo accord and that were behind the Geneva Initiative have also come in for growing criticism among both Israelis and Palestinians and outside the region. More and more, the “peace process industry” has become a term of derision to describe that cadre of Israeli and Palestinian officials and ex-officials, journalists, scholars, and activists who regularly ply their trade at various pro-peace gatherings, which are paid for by NGOs, think tanks or foreign governments, and often end up rehashing old plans and catchphrases.

Historically speaking, the two-state approach to peace is not nearly as old as it sometimes seems, and in a pre-electronic era, it might have enjoyed a much longer runway. But with the breakneck speed of today’s politics, the two-state formula is increasingly viewed as quaint, even stale.

Co-optation and corruption have also played a significant role in the decline: As two states became part of an international consensus and a password to legitimacy, significant figures on Israel’s right came to the tactical conclusion that they needed to adopt the terminology while at the same time warping its meaning to fit their long-established ideology. Netanyahu, for example, under pressure from Obama, finally uttered the words “Palestinian state” in June 2009, but has made clear over the years that what this means for him is the same “autonomy-plus” plan he originally floated in 1997. In his long tenure as prime minister, he has never asked either his Likud party or his Cabinet to endorse a two-state plan, while his coalition colleagues, including many in Likud, are allowed to campaign in favor of annexation without sanction or reprimand. And he has recently amplified his insistence that he will never end the Occupation: “We are here to stay, forever,” Netanyahu proclaimed at an event to mark fifty years of settlement in the occupied territories.

Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman adopted the two-state formula five years before Netanyahu, but used it as a lever to advance his plan to eject and denaturalize potentially hundreds of thousands of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens; in Lieberman’s two-state vision, Israel’s borders would be drastically redrawn so that many Arab towns in Israel would be transferred into a future Palestine, while much of the West Bank that has been settled by Jews would be incorporated into Israel. Even far-right figures, such as Rabbi Benny Elon, have sometimes claimed they support a two-state solution, but by this they mean an Israel that includes the West Bank, and a state for the Palestinians in Jordan.

These distortions of the original two-state concept have made it easier to perceive it as a vehicle for expansionism and ethno-nationalism. At least within the American left, the two-state solution is now widely seen as an obstruction to possibly more effective anti-occupation tools. Enter calls for boycott and divestment.

I CONTINUE TO SUPPORT the two-state idea — though I also commiserate with the growing number of folks who don’t. More than fifty years into a supposedly “temporary” occupation, cynicism (from the left) about Israeli sincerity, and skepticism (from the right) about Palestinian flexibility, are entirely understandable. In Israel/Palestine, more and more people are throwing in the towel: A recent poll found that only 47 percent of Jewish Israelis and only 52 percent of West Bank/Gaza Palestinians now support the two-state plan in principle; even fewer back it when the specifics of a deal are cited.

Similarly, the percentage of Americans supporting Palestinian statehood has dropped to the low-to-mid forties in recent years, while a growing number want the U.S. government to push for a one-state outcome (34 percent according to a 2014 poll, up from 24 percent the year before). And, in an Ipsos poll last year, a surprisingly high one-in-three Americans (including many who define themselves as “pro-Israel”) agreed with the statement, “Boycotting Israel is justified,” while a separate study by Shibley Telhami found that 46 percent of Americans (up sharply from 37 percent in 2015) believe the U.S. should “impose some economic sanctions/take more serious action” in response to Israeli settlements.

This growing minority of Americans is probably onto something. In light of the record $38 billion aid package to Israel approved by Obama, the old saw, popularized by figures such as Dennis Ross, that Israel needs to feel assured of unconditional American backing in order to be confident enough to show flexibility now seems rather absurd. And history reminds us that Israel has, on several occasions, responded positively to U.S. pressure with important diplomatic concessions (e.g., the 1957 Sinai withdrawal, 1975 Sinai II agreement, 1991 Madrid conference). It certainly seems the time to entertain more assertive steps both to stop settlement expansion and end the occupation: terminating the tax-deductible status of donations to American NGOs that funnel money to West Bank settlements; enforcing labelling regulations so that settlement products may not be marked “Made in Israel”; one-for-one deductions from U.S. aid for every dollar spent by Israel on its settlement project. As citizens, we should certainly apply the appropriate screens to our purchases and investments. Creative ideas are welcome.

But such means of pressure on Israel, I would argue, be they on the individual (boycott), corporate or organizational (divestment) or governmental (sanctions) level, should always be crafted with an eye to a two-state goal. In the foreseeable future, the idea of Jews and Palestinians living harmoniously in one equal state seems closer to the realm of religious reverie than to actual policy. No practical plan for such a future is under serious discussion. And one unequal state, be it dominated by Jews, as is the present reality, or Palestinians, should not be a goal to which the left should ever give consideration. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently put it, a two-state solution remains “the only way forward — the only path towards the historic compromise that can settle this conflict and lead to a better future for all.”

I’ve heard it said by some pro-BDS folks in the West that since only the Israelis and Palestinians will decide the nature of the solution for their area, there’s no room for outsiders to specify a two-state preference. But as long as Israel’s right to exist is rejected by significant actors in both the Palestinian community (e.g., Hamas) and the broader region (e.g., Iran), and as long as legitimate security concerns prevail, such neutrality will rightly be viewed with deep suspicion both in Israel and by the vast majority of those who care about Israel. In this sense, the BDS movement’s official agnosticism about the two-state solution is ultimately a retardant on progress, viewed by mainstream Israelis as a cheap parlor trick that drives them to treat the anti-Occupation movement as an existential threat rather than an opening for a better future, and encourages them to “circle their wagons” and elect and reelect political forces who play to their fears and baser instincts.

High-level diplomacy alone has not delivered the goods and new tools of various types are needed for the anti-Occupation toolbox. But a real- world solution requires a horizon that is at least palatable to both sides of the conflict. If, at the moment, the two-state solution — notwithstanding its mustiness and lack of chic — remains the least-imperfect, least-unrealistic arrangement that can be suggested, it behooves us all to continue to say so.

Ron Skolnik (@Ron_Skolnik) is associate editor of Jewish Currents. His writings have been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Report, Tikkun, Palestine-Israel Journal and elsewhere. He previously served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel and as director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA).