For more than two decades, when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all roads led to a single ideal: a negotiated two-state solution under which Israel and an independent Palestinian nation would exist side by side in peace.
Today that ideal is in pieces.
Increasingly, pundits on the left and right pronounce the two-state solution dead or dying. Given recent events, it’s easy to see why.
In the last month, the United States chose not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. Secretary of State John Kerry followed up with a rebuke of Israel’s role in the stalemate, while Israel’s supporters fumed.
Countering that squeeze on the left, President-elect Donald Trump nominated settlement supporter David Friedman as ambassador to Israel, and promised to relocate the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Furious Palestinians said such moves would inflame the region.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to allow permits for Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, something critics say impedes peace.
Like Jews everywhere, Bay Area Jewish leaders have watched current events with a range of emotions and reactions. Wherever they stand on the political spectrum, all agree the two-state solution is inert and that the Trump administration needs to move the needle.
Some worry the needle might break.
U.C. Berkeley Jewish history professor John Efron expressed pessimism, declaring the two-state solution “stalled, if not dead.” And were it to move forward, he doubts a Palestinian state today would resemble anything like that envisioned decades ago.
“It would be so severely diminished in size that it is not clear that the Palestinians would accept that shrunken territory,” he said. “On the Israeli side there seems hardly any political will to evacuate settlements and uproot the nearly 500,000 Jews who now live on land that was originally imagined as being part of the territory of a Palestinian state.”
Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the left-leaning New Israel Fund, shares a measure of Efron’s pessimism. “It’s very much in vogue in triumphant circles on the right and in depressed circles on the left to declare the two-state solution is over,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind, we’re further away than we have been in a long time. It’s not that there are no partners or that we don’t know how to resolve the conflict. The issue is will, and on the Israeli side there is no political will for a two-state solution.”
Oakland entrepreneur Isaac Applbaum, on the other hand, rejoices over Trump’s hardline pronouncements on Israel. Like Sokatch, he sees red flags when it comes to the two-state solution, but he lays the blame on the Palestinian side.
“I am still under the impression that for the most part the current Israeli government is still in favor of it,” said Applbaum, a Republican stalwart who has befriended many Israeli leaders over the years. “But relations with Palestinians are so bad there is literally no one to deal with on the other side. If Palestinians are given ample economic incentive, we can go back to whichever plan is most acceptable. If that doesn’t happen and there’s no one on the other side to make peace with, I’m not sure how the two-state solution works.”
At the dawn of the Trump era, uncertainty is rife. Supporters see the new president’s admiration of Israel as a welcome change from the frosty Obama years, but others see Trump as too biased in favor of Israel to be an honest broker. With so many dispirited about the prospects for peace, it’s fair to ask: Whither the two-state solution?
The issue is will, and on the Israeli side there is no political will for a two-state solution.
Negotiators already know what a two-state solution would look like — borders roughly along the 1967 Green Line with agreed-upon land swaps, Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, a resolution of the so-called Palestinian right-of-return, strict Israeli security guarantees and, most likely, a shared capital in Jerusalem.
They know what it looks like but thus far have not sealed the deal. The 1993 Oslo Accord, which enshrined the two-state solution, brought hope but also triggered an intifada. Later negotiators came close, especially former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, but both ended up disappointed, and their offers were met with further Palestinian violence.
Through road maps and quartets, Camp David and Wye River, Clinton parameters and Bush initiatives, the two-state solution endured as the ever-elusive goal.
Over time, terror, Gaza wars, settlement growth, Palestinian incitement and a host of other factors whittled away at its viability.
The dysfunctional Obama-Netanyahu partnership now gives way to a new administration, one that has made bold promises but issued inflammatory statements as well. No one knows how it will play out.
“One of most worrisome things about Trump,” Sokatch said, “is what appears to be a profound sense of incuriosity, ignorance and absolute certainty that … he knows what he knows and nobody can tell him anything.”
He worries that the normal checks and balances that regulate debate over domestic issues do not apply when it comes to foreign affairs, and that Trump will overturn years of steady American policy regarding the Middle East.
“The Republican Party has struck the two-state solution from its platform,” Sokatch noted. “Trump nominated [Friedman], who not only is on record as not being supportive of a two-state solution and is a funder of hard right-wing settlements, but has called supporters of J Street worse than kapos,” Jewish concentration camp inmates who brutalized fellow prisoners on Nazi orders.
Support for the two-state solution is J Street’s central organizing principle. “It’s not some pipedream of the Democratic Party or the left-wing fringe,” said Rachel Eisner, Northwest regional director of the left-leaning organization. “This is longstanding bipartisan policy of the United States. We’re very concerned that one of our two major parties has abandoned it.”
At the moment, the plan remains a goal of the United States, Europe, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “We know this is the only solution,” Eisner said. “There is no other solution.”
Observers on the right don’t agree. David Kadosh, Western region executive director of the Zionist Organization of America, doesn’t even buy into the nomenclature.
“We believe it’s a misnomer,” he said. “The two-state solution implies that Israel is not a state already. Israel is a state recognized by international community with secure boundaries and a functioning government, with its capital in Jerusalem.
“In reality it’s a Palestinian state solution,” Kadosh said. “There is no indication [Palestinians] would live up to the obligation to have peaceful coexistence with Israel, even if granted what they were asking for.”
The ZOA supports the right of Jews to settle in the West Bank, and also approves of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Kadosh said America must avoid “pressuring Israel into solutions that might endanger its security, meaning a two-state solution without direct negotiations.”
Previous presidents have promised to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem, but none followed through once elected. Trump, however, seems serious.
Given that the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital, it’s a notion once thought impossibly incendiary. Now that the impossible appears imminent, observers are reassessing the impact of such a move.
“The tough thing is to figure out what the actual reaction of PA leadership will be as opposed to what they say now,” noted Sam Lauter, a San Francisco Democratic Party political consultant and longtime AIPAC activist. “I look at the possibility of the move as a potential complication, one of many, that comes with the territory. There are so many trigger points, you have to ask which are real and which are being dealt with rhetorically.”
Applbaum thinks moving the embassy needn’t be a provocation, especially if Trump arranges for the new facility to be located in West Jerusalem. That part of the city, Applbaum and many others agree, is 100 percent Israel.
“It’s not questionable territory,” he said. “So moving the embassy there seems like a very natural thing to do that many presidents have promised to do. If you make a promise to the Israelis, the Palestinians or anyone else and you fulfill that, it’s a show of faith.”
There’s a word for a political situation where you don’t get to vote for the regime that controls every aspect of your life. Unfortunately that word is in Afrikaans.
For mainstream liberal Zionists such as Palo Alto resident Daryl Messinger, the current state of affairs is cause for anxiety. As chair of the board of the Union for Reform Judaism, she said she speaks on behalf of millions of American Reform Jews who uniformly want to see a two-state solution.
Her organization has long called for bilateral negotiations, condemned Palestinian violence and incitement and demanded an end to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Despite the challenges, Messinger says the parties cannot walk away. “I don’t want to see us backing down or moving away from pushing for a two-state solution,” she said. “I certainly don’t want to give Netanyahu and his government carte blanche on settlements, but I’m afraid that’s where it may go.”
Sokatch believes Netanyahu, for all his complaining about Obama, had it good for the last eight years. The prime minister’s poll numbers at home rose as he stood up to the American president, all the while accepting increased U.S. aid and cooperation.
At the same time, Sokatch said, Netanyahu had an excuse to neuter pro-settlement sentiment by claiming the Obama administration had tied his hands. With Trump in the Oval Office, that excuse disappears.
“So you obviate the two-state solution,” Sokatch said of one likely option available to Netanyahu. “Israel annexes certain areas, some get citizenship, the rest live in a permanent autonomy to vote for local leadership. There’s a word for a political situation where you don’t get to vote for the regime that controls every aspect of your life. Unfortunately that word is in Afrikaans,” referring to apartheid.
Kadosh dismisses that argument, countering that Palestinians and the Arab countries rejected the two-state notion from the start. He cited the 1967 Six-Day War and Israel’s subsequent peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan as examples of the most effective strategy: peace through strength.
“The Oslo Accord ended in failure,” the ZOA leader said. “Ehud Barak offered 97 percent of what [Palestinians] asked for, a tremendous deal that went beyond anything, and the Palestinians rejected it with a wave of suicide bombings. We think it would be a tremendous security failure to impose on Israel an unaccountable Palestinian state.”
The great unanswered question remains: If the two-state solution dies, what then?
Only a handful of outcomes follow, none of them satisfactory. Israel could annex the West Bank, placing 2.5 million Palestinian Arabs under its authority. However, extending the vote to them would undermine Israel’s Jewish majority. And denying that right, or expelling the Palestinian population, would make Israel a pariah state.
Veteran diplomats, such as former Sen. George Mitchell of Maine and President Obama’s former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, have called for a redoubling of efforts to preserve the idea. Ross and his colleague Stuart Eizenstat wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this month calling for a Plan B in lieu of bilateral talks.
Under the plan, Israel would cease settlement activity deep in the West Bank, while permitting it in large blocs near the Green Line presumed to become part of Israel proper in a final agreement. The plan would further call on the World Bank and other entities to empower the Palestinian economy. But the authors admit this is no substitute for a real negotiated peace deal.
Lauter quotes the words of Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, who said he has two nightmares about a Palestinian state: “That there won’t be one and that there will be one.”
“I don’t mind if someone tries something new,” Lauter said. “Maybe there’s something the new administration will try that hasn’t been tried, and that might actually have a shot at working. We have to acknowledge that things have not worked.”
Jonathan Graf, a member of the American Jewish Committee’s regional S.F. board, said he and his organization, which works to grow support for Israel, refuse to give up.
“We’ve seen what the power of quiet diplomacy can do at home and abroad,” he said. “We’ve watched the world change in ways that are incalculable over the past 30 years. There’s no reason we can’t be optimistic about achieving lasting peace within the context of the two-state solution with the next or subsequent U.S. administrations.”
Not everyone sees the future through shaded glasses. Applbaum overall said he feels “super bullish” about Israel’s role in the world, and expects good things from the new president.
“You’re going to see a lot of fairness out of the Trump administration,” he said. “ I don’t think it will be all rosy for Israel. There will be hard decisions on both sides, but [America and Israel] will do this as close friends.”