Tuesday, February 10, 2009
From the Sovereign State of the Have-Nots
Today, invoking the "two-state" mantra allows moderates to sound reasonable and true to the ideals of democracy and self-determination; but it doesn't force them to actually do anything to bring that goal about. Indeed, defending the two-state solution has become a recipe for inaction, a fig-leaf that leaders can utter at press conferences while ignoring the expanding settlements and road networks on the West Bank that are rendering it impossible. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is a perfect illustration: he has lately become an eloquent voice in favor of two states, warning of the perilsthat Israel will face if the two-state option is not adopted. Yet his own government continued to expand the settlements and undermine Palestinian moderates, thereby putting the solution Olmert supposedly favors further away than ever, and maybe even making it unworkable.
The same can be said for the Bush administration, which made frequent appeal to the abstraction, but refused to push Israel in that direction - actually taking action to undermine Palestinian moderates in its own right (read: the isolation of Arafat and, the weakening of his Fatah movement). The window of opportunity is closing, unfortunately:
There are two trends at play that threaten to undermine the two-state option. The first is the continued expansion of Israel settlements in the land that is supposed to be reserved for the Palestinians. There are now about 290,000 settlers living in the West Bank. There are another 185,000 settlers in East Jerusalem. Most of the settlers are subsidized directly or indirectly by the Israeli government. It is increasingly hard to imagine Israel evicting nearly half a million people (about seven percent of its population) from their homes. Although in theory one can imagine a peace deal that keeps most of the settlers within Israel's final borders (with the new Palestinian state receiving land of equal value as compensation), at some point the settlers' efforts to "create facts" will make it practically impossible to establish a viable Palestinian state.
The second trend is the growing extremism on both sides. Time is running out on a two-state solution, and its main opponents -- the Likud Party and its allies in Israel and Hamas among the Palestinians -- are becoming more popular. The rising popularity of Avigdor Lieberman's overtly racist Yisrael Beiteinuparty is ample evidence of this trend. And it's not as though Kadima or Labor have been pushing hard to bring it about. According to Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times:The result is that the next Israeli government, left to its own devices, is likely to opt for the status quo with the Palestinians - continued occupation of the West Bank, desultory peace talks, steadily expanding settlements and military force in response to Palestinian rockets or bombs. The long-term pursuit of a two-state solution will be brushed aside, with the argument that the Palestinians are too divided and dangerous to be negotiating partners."
Worse still, the alternatives are all considerably worse - though to varying degree:
One does not need to look far down the road to see the point where a two-state solution will no longer be a practical possibility. What will the United States do then? What will American policy be when it makes no sense to talk about a two-state solution, because Israel effectively controls all of what we used to call Mandate Palestine? What vision will President Obama and Secretary Clinton have for the Palestinians and for Israel when they can no longer invoke the two-state mantra?
There are only three alternative options at that point. First, Israel could drive most or all of the 2.5 million Palestinians out of the West Bank by force, thereby preserving "greater Israel" as a Jewish state through an overt act of ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians would surely resist, and it would be a crime against humanity, conducted in full view of a horrified world. No American government could support such a step, and no true friend of Israel could endorse that solution.
Second, Israel could retain control of the West Bank but allow the Palestinians limited autonomy in a set of disconnected enclaves, while it controlled access in-and-out, their water supplies, and the airspace above them. This appears to have been Ariel Sharon's strategy before he was incapacitated, and Bibi Netanyahu's proposal for "economic peace" without a Palestinian state seems to envision a similar outcome. In short, the Palestinians would not get a viable state of their own, and would not enjoy full political rights. This is the solution that many people -- including Prime Minister Olmert -- compare to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is hard to imagine the United States supporting this outcome over the long term, and Olmert has said as much. Denying the Palestinians' their own national aspirations is also not going to end the conflict.
Which brings me to the third option. The Israeli government could maintain its physical control over "greater Israel" and grant the Palestinians full democratic rights within this territory. This option has been proposed by a handful of Israeli Jews and a growing number of Palestinians. But there are formidable objections to this outcome: it would mean abandoning the Zionist dream of an independent Jewish state and binational states of this sort do not have an encouraging track record, especially when the two parties have waged a bitter conflict across several generations. This is why I prefer the two-state alternative.
In summation: settlement policy needs to be reversed in order to preserve the possibility of a two state solution, which is far more preferable to the alternatives. Halting the construction of new settlements, curtailing the expansion of existing settlements and dismantling others is politically unpopular in Israel. That's why the United States, as a committed friend of Israel, needs to step up in order to shift the calculus for Israeli voters. All things being equal with the United States, those Israeli voters are unlikely to countenance any such action on settlements.That's why all things can't remain equal. We must step up rhetorical pressure, and even begin to discuss withholding certain aid. The situation is beyond dire.