Copyright © Bernard Chazelle   June 2008   homeRomanian / Polish courtesy of A. Seremina/ M. Ivancov — travel to the West Bank

Why Israel Won't Accept a Two-State Solution

by Bernard Chazelle

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often narrated as a morality play, where offers are generous, lessons are taught, consciousness is seared, terrorism is rewarded, etc. Let's quit the blame game and focus, instead, on what's feasible and what's not. For starters, one can safely notch the right-wing fantasy of a Jordanian absorption of Palestine in the "Dream on, settlers" column. Ethnic cleansing is passé.

What about a one-state solution? Within 10 years, Jews will be a clear minority in the population west of the Jordan, so a democratic unitary state (eg, modeled on South Africa) would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, an outcome not everyone would greet with cartwheels. Though rarely discussed, a federal alternative could be envisaged. Besides the sticky issue of land division, however, the physical laws of politics work against it. Absent a modicum of trust and a desire to share a common fate, centrifugal forces might prove too powerful to forestall an eventual breakup. If Belgium, a model of harmony by Mideast standards, can barely pull it off, what chance does a (con)federal "Isratine" have? Don't expect a democratic binational state any time soon.

The two-state solution has its appeal. It would satisfy a majority of Palestinians and confer upon Israel the statehood legitimacy that it craves. It would bring the Jewish state peace with the Arab world along the lines of the 2002 Saudi Initiative, as well as a recognized right of self-defense against Palestinian cross-border attacks. Unfortunately, 40 years of history have gamed the system against the two-state solution. Once the only realistic road to peace, it is now a challenge likely beyond Israel's ability. This leaves the region with two options: Apartheid or war. Barring a miracle, it will get both. So let's talk about the miracle.

With its popularity fading rapidly, the main asset of the two-state solution is its consensual delineation: Taba '01 or any '67-border variant that ensures the viability of a Palestinian state. Opponents cite the failure of the 2005 Gaza evacuation to bring peace to the Strip as Exhibit A. They conveniently forget that the occupation continued and the total number of settlers was actually higher after the withdrawal than before. They ask, How do we keep a two-state solution from turning into a Qassam launch-pad expansion program? Such concerns must and can be addressed. But the stumbling block lies elsewhere—specifically, in a game-theoretic deadlock.

To understand this, it is best to begin with a paradox. Everybody knows that to "rewind to '67" would be a risky move for any Israeli leader and that the risk increases with every settlement expansion. Why then has the number of settlers doubled since Oslo? The never-say-die E1 project threatens to cut off East Jerusalem from the West Bank and divide a future Palestinian state into 3 (and arguably 4) noncontiguous parts. As I drove recently by the giant settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, I wondered how a Palestinian capital could ever be wrested from that urban octopus of Israeli control now girding East Jerusalem. Condoleezza Rice's latest bit of cheerleading was promptly acknowledged by an Israeli Cabinet decision to build hundreds of housing units in Givat Ze'ev. The number of checkpoints and obstacles was supposed to go down after Annapolis: it went up by 51. Can Israel be serious about a two-state solution?

When someone embarks on a diet and then proceeds to double his food intake, it is reasonable to wonder if he doesn't secretly enjoy the extra weight. Reasonable, yes; but, in this case, wrong. The crux of the paradox is not that Israel enjoys the status quo but that it has no incentive to play a land-for-peace game incrementally. Three reasons for this: Israeli aims are intangible (eg, promise of peace) but Palestinian objectives are concrete (eg, land handover); settler withdrawal is irreversible, whereas a lull in violence can be broken at any time; finally, the two-state solution is an asynchronous trade, ie, an exchange of a present good (land) for a future one (peace). Instead of addressing these deal breakers head-on, the Road Map tossed in a goodie bag full of sops (eg, governance reform, trade offices, demonstration of good faith), which only gave Israel political cover for sitting on its hands. Incrementalism runs against Palestinian interests as well because what they have to offer, peace, is not splittable into tradable chunks.

Besides ruling out a phased process, a highly asymmetric deal of the land-for-peace type requires either trust between the parties (nonexistent) or a mutually trusted arbiter with coercive power. Israel trusts only the US and coercion is not an option. Why not? Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar tells this joke: "Mr Prime Minister, would you like Israel to become our 51st state?" "Thanks but no thanks, Mr President." "Why not?" "Because, as a US state, we would have only two senators." The tragedy of US-Israeli relations is that AIPAC has deprived Israeli leaders of one of the most potent arrows in their political quiver: the "option" of letting Israel be (or appear to be) coerced by the US. Whether the US would ever acquiesce is another matter.

Some context: The US has always opposed national liberation movements that got in the way of its hegemonic aims, so why would it suddenly make an exception for the Palestinians? It is convenient to exonerate US policymakers by pointing the finger at the Israel lobby, but the root of the problem goes beyond AIPAC. Mearsheimer and Walt correctly answered the wrong question: Congress, indeed, takes its marching orders from AIPAC and US-Israeli relations are bad for both countries (though excellent for their establishments). No doubt the Israel lobby has stood in the way of a fair settlement. But to lay the blame squarely on it, one would need to make the case that US policy would be notably different in its absence. The evidence is unpersuasive. Israel has been the linchpin of Pax Americana in the Middle East since June 1967: Cold War then; Carter Doctrine now. The lobby may rejoice in this but can hardly take credit for it. In fact, if it ever deviated from US hegemonic goals (which might eventually happen over Iran), it would quickly discover the limits of its power.

It is undeniable, however, that efforts to stifle public criticism of Israel have created a climate of intimidation. Not everyone enjoys being called an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew for accurately describing the West Bank as an Apartheid society. Media gatekeepers and college administrators have been kept in line. The cranks at Campus Watch are shameless thugs, but what do we call the self-censoring academics and cowed public intellectuals who toss overboard any shred of moral courage to speed their ascension to power? Why must the New York Times feature opinions about Israel that cover only a fraction of the range on offer in Haaretz?

Intangibility, irreversibility, asynchronicity, plus the lack of mutual trust or of a trusted enforcer: these are the strategic reasons all incremental approaches to the two-state solution have failed so far (eg, Oslo I/II, Wye River, Road Map). As if this were not enough, two more disincentives have kept Israel from playing along. One of them is the paradox that, by curbing terrorism, the separation barrier has diminished the short-term added value of peace, a commodity whose market price tends to vary in proportion to its distance to the buyer's present sense of security. (Growing missile threats may soon mess up this calculus.) The other disincentive is Israel's lack of bargaining power. How so? To be effective, a peace agreement would require overwhelming support among Palestinians (whereas majority support in Israel would be sufficient). This niggling detail all but decimates Israel's bargaining power, as it presents it with a "binary" negotiating stand, where wresting the slightest concession quickly becomes counterproductive. Think of it as negotiating the purchase of a parachute: settling for half a parachute at half the price might be an option for the seller but not the buyer. For Israel, it's all or nothing.

What's wrong with "nothing"? Nothing, of course, is the current policy. It is also Zionism's death march. So you'd think Israel would have ditched the "Road Map to Nowhere" long ago and hurried to cut a two-state deal. Ah, if only it could, but you've heard it before: Hamas must recognize Israel; Abbas is a weakling; the terrorist infrastructure must be dismantled; etc. Hogwash. Israel drags its feet because it finds the peace pill unbearably bitter. How bitter? At the very least: dismantling 120 settlements; relocating 110,000 settlers; swapping pre-67 land for settlement blocs already in Israeli hands; rerouting the separation barrier; ceding control over 40% of the West Bank; sharing Jerusalem as a capital; letting in 10-50K refugees; giving away vital water rights; returning the Golan to Syria (no comprehensive peace without it); engaging Hamas; facing violent domestic opposition; endangering the careers and lives of Israeli leaders; last but not least, implicitly admitting that two-thirds of Israel's history has been a monumental blunder.

Whether these costs are just deserts or unfairness incarnate is not a subject I wish to address here—just as I will not discuss whether ceding a mere 22% of historic Palestine (a lousy deal by '47 standards) is an equitable compromise. These are the cards on the table today. To borrow a bon mot from his former chief of staff, Sharon pickled the peace process in "formaldehyde." In truth, Oslo was an incremental process doomed from the start, regardless of Rabin's fate. (Only Arafat could manage to make his people swallow such a stinker.) The parties could have changed tack along the way, but they didn't. No doubt the Palestinians did their part to undermine the peace process: wicked attacks against innocent civilians; failure of the PLO, like Algeria's FLN before it, to grow from a revolutionary movement into a governing institution; etc. Yet, like France in Algeria, Israel bears the ultimate responsibility for the conflict: occupiers always do.

That said, critics of Israel tend to underestimate the barriers to peace. This is not an excuse but a statement of fact: the two-state solution demands of Israel the kind of concessions history wrests from nations defeated at war. Having been defeated at peace, not at war, Israel is psychologically unequipped for the task. All the giving must be, de facto, Israeli and the taking Palestinian—the neat thing about having nothing is that you have nothing to give. Of course, Israel would be "giving" nothing—only returning what it grabbed in contravention of international law—but it is indicative of its delusions of innocence that it should always speak of generous offers, never of legal redress. Peace requires quick, painful surgery. The Road Map? Think of it as handing the patient a Swiss Army knife and asking her to cut off her own leg. Is it any wonder Israel has opted to live with the gangrene and cement the current Apartheid regime in the territories?

If Israel's 60th anniversary proves anything, it is that the Palestinian problem won't go away on its own. Sounding like a pyromaniac warning of the dangers of fire, Olmert put it bluntly: "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses [...] the State of Israel is finished." Squelched in 1948, the two-state idea began to gain mutual acceptance barely two decades ago; it took 15 years for Arafat to sell it to the PLO. It was not even part of Oslo and it has never captured the Palestinian imagination. Today, it elicits among Israelis not a sigh of hope but a collective yawn. The two-state solution may be that rare idea that goes directly from "futuristic" to "obsolete" without stopping at the intermediate stage called "timely."

Geopolitics is changing, too. Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran, the region's ascending power, now loom larger in the Israeli psyche than the Palestinian conflict. Israel has never lost a war against the Palestinians but it got bloodied twice in Lebanon. Peace with Syria has a low cost/benefit ratio for Israel and it appears to be back on the agenda. A deal would frustrate Washington because it wouldn't break the Tehran-Damascus axis, just as Jordan's normalization with Israel didn't hurt a bit its relations with Saddam or Hamas—who can forget King Hussein's ordering Bibi to provide Meshaal an antidote after Mossad botched his assassination? America's waning influence in the region may prove a blessing. It may force Israel to ditch its endless excuses and realize it is powerful enough to take the risks of peace: deal with Syria; engage with Hamas; and, crucially, end the occupation. One can dream. The evidence is somewhat less oneiric: unless Palestine accepts to become a client state of the US, Israel will never be leaned upon to set it free; and it won't do it of its own volition.

Approaching the two-state solution as an incremental exchange of piecemeal concessions is doomed. Outside coercion is ruled out, so a successful implementation would require of Israel to assume voluntarily the submissive posture of a vanquished nation: an unlikely scenario for a country unaccustomed to defeat and the behavioral exigencies that go with it. (Losing wars is bad, but that's how nations grow up.) The two-state solution calls for visionary leadership that Israel does not have, international prodding that is nonexistent, and an obliging enemy that has never much been the obliging kind. The final nail in the coffin might be its dwindling popular support.

Ominously for Israel, the military deterrent of a small country stuck in the heart of the Muslim world will not last. The clock is ticking. If Israel ceases to be a Jewish-majority state, what will Israeli parents say when their secular children ask them what's so cool about being a minority in a small country next to Syria when one could be a minority in a big country next to Canada? Israel must travel the painful road to Taba: all the way, all alone, and all at once. The odds are stacked against it. But then the odds of Moses parting the sea were never that good either.

                Click here to read about my trip to the West Bank