A regional, “outside-in” approach to Israeli - Palestinian peacemaking can shape a clear pathway for pursuing two states for two peoples.
by Dennis Ross*
“Looking at two-state or one-state, I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one both parties like. I can live with either one.”
That is how President Donald Trump responded to a reporter’s question at the joint press conference he held with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month at the White House. While many interpreted this as a walk-away from the position supporting a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that the United States has held since George W. Bush adopted it in the fall of 2001, President Trump was saying he could agree to whatever the parties could accept.
Will they agree on one state? The short answer is no. To be sure, there are Israelis and Palestinians who favor one state, but they mean very different things by it. Most of those on the Israeli right who support it believe Israel will remain the state of the Jewish people, with Palestinians incorporated within it the way Israeli Arabs are an accepted minority, with individual rights but not collective rights.
Some others on the right, like Israeli Knesset member, Micki Zohar, see a role for the Palestinian authority but little more than “any other local regional council jurisdiction, the boundaries are clear, they can work in partnership with us.” His plan, in his words, “is based on defining clear boundaries for the Palestinian Authority; it will not grant them citizenship or voting rights.” In effect, local self-rule would be the answer for the Palestinians and Israel remains unchanged.
Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home party in the governing coalition may not use the same words as Zohar, but he opposes a Palestinian state and speaks of limited autonomy for the Palestinians—the practical approach is, at least at this stage, similar to Zohar’s one state concept. But this is a mirage-- Palestinians won’t accept such an outcome. And for those in Israel who see a regional approach involving the Arabs in peace-making, Arab leaders won’t agree to an outcome that provides the Palestinians less than a state. (To be sure, that state will have built-in limitations - in terms of its military, for example- but it will still be a state.)
For those Palestinians who speak of one state, their concept is not compatible with the existence of Israel. Indeed, they have a different state in mind. In truth what they have in mind is a Palestinian state. Consider the words of Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement: “you cannot reconcile the right of return for refugees to a two state solution. That is the big white elephant in the room and people are ignoring it—a return for refugees would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state”.
For Barghouti, if all the Palestinians return, then Palestinians would be the majority and dominate the state. Many polls now show younger Palestinians favoring a one state outcome based on one person, one vote. Notwithstanding the reality that the number of Jews will outnumber Arabs for some time to come in any one state configuration, Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab and a member of the Knesset, in a recent interview said that while he still favors two states, in one state he would be the prime minister.
In response to questions on the Israeli flag in a one state outcome, he said “that would have to change;” the national anthem, “it would be changed.” The law of return that allows all Jews to establish residency in Israel - “That would automatically be annulled.” This idea is also a mirage.
Obviously, Israeli Jews would not accept such an outcome. The problem is the slogan “one state for two peoples” is simply unrealistic. There are two peoples. They reflect the reality that there are two national movements—a Jewish national movement and a Palestinian national movement. There are two separate national identities. Inevitably, in one state, one of those will seek to dominate the other. In the Middle East, in most states where there is more than one identity, there is conflict—and between Israelis and Palestinians we are talking not just about religious or ethnic differences but also national differences. One state for two peoples may sound good but it is a prescription for enduring conflict.
It is precisely because we are dealing with a historic conflict in which two national movements are competing for the same space that the only viable answer is two states for two peoples. These are two distinct peoples who have established clear national aspirations. Coexistence is possible but as two states residing next to each other, not one in place of the other or one subsumed in the other.
In the case of Israel, it is exists. It is a real state, with a per capita income of over $35,000 per year; it has a vibrant hi-tech sector, which has led Israel to being described as the “start-up nation.” Its technologies in cyber, water and drought resistant crops, medicine, science, energy, and the military are cutting edge. It has the strongest military in the Middle East—and the will to fight for its existence. The traumas of Jewish history and the wars it has fought since its existence make Israeli leaders sensitive to Israeli security and all threats to the state. The state of Israel is not going anywhere.
But Palestinians are also not going anywhere and cannot be wished away. They won’t be submerged in an Israeli state but they will also not supplant the state of Israel or use demography as a weapon to destroy it form within. Today, their weakness and division makes it hard for them to agree to anything. The appeal of what is being called an “outside-in” strategy is the idea that the Arab states can play a role in peace diplomacy, dealing with Israel not in place of the Palestinians but providing a kind of cover for Palestinians and Israelis. There is logic to it: both Palestinians and Israelis alike need “cover” for taking politically difficult steps toward each other that the Arab states could provide.
Consider that today Palestinians view even talking to Israelis as a concession; on their own, they can’t make any compromise with Israel. They need the Arabs to help share the responsibility for any adjustment in their position. But Arab cover also matters for the Israelis. Israelis are convinced that any concession to Palestinians will yield nothing in return from the Palestinians so they now look to compensation or reciprocity from the Arab states - which effectively might amount to reaching out and opening up to Israel and, perhaps, integrating them into a region where common threats are seen from both Iran and its Shia militia proxies and radical Sunni Islamists.
While the logic may be powerful, peace-making requires building a foundation. That has been lost and must be re-established. With the deep disbelief that both Israelis and Palestinians feel toward each other and Arab states not having been steeped in the peace diplomacy and negotiations of the past, the ground must be carefully prepared. Fanfare and big initiatives are not needed. But thoughtful, low visibility discussions designed to have all sides begin to prove themselves to each other is an essential starting point. In fact, quiet diplomacy in the near term should aim to find points of common ground; produce parallel steps that can restore both a sense of possibility and demonstrate the seriousness of all sides; shape a clear pathway for pursuing two states for two peoples.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.