The Coalition Talks Raise a Key Question: Are There Alternatives to the Two-State Solution?

As Binyamin Netanyahu intensifies his efforts to persuade Tzippi Livni and Kadima to join his coalition government—his dismay at the prospect of presiding over a narrow right-wing government, at a time of immense challenges to Israel’s security and economic stability, is no secret—a crucial issue was put forward by Livni as a key condition for such an alliance. For her, and for the great majority of the voters who gave her their support (let alone the followers of Labor and Meretz, to her left on the Zionist spectrum), the most important challenge is the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state: These are political code words for the need to accept the inevitability of partition and the two-state solution—or else, as Ariel Sharon recognized when he ordered the Disengagement from Gaza, Israel may soon face the terrible choice between Palestinian majority rule, which would soon destroy all that was built here, or a nondemocratic system, which would contradict our basic values and sever our links to the community of free nations.

In taking this position, Livni is sustained not only by its intrinsic logic, but also by the formal position of the international community. UN Security Council Resolution 1850—adopted a few days before the outbreak of violence in Gaza—stressed the “irreversibility” of the Annapolis negotiating process, which assumed the two-state solution as its final outcome. This vision has, in fact, been greatly advanced, but not yet brought to conclusion, in Livni’s long talks with the Palestinian negotiator, Ahmad Qureia (Abu ‘Alaa), as well as in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s own channel with President Mahmoud Abbas. It is strongly supported by the present U.S. administration, as the State Department made clear in its recent response to AJC and as Senator George Mitchell made amply clear as he began his mission—let alone by Europe and much of the rest of the world.

Yet, as of now, the prospect for an agreed set of fundamental guidelines (kavei yesod, in political Hebrew) for the new coalition—which would be couched in language that enshrines the basic acceptance of the two-state solution, while offering the obvious reservations about Israeli security, realities on the ground (read: the settlements), and the need for territorial compromise—seems remote. Netanyahu has to sustain his ability to put together a narrow coalition, should his efforts with Kadima fail; and as seen from his point of view, going out on a limb in support of the two-state solution—which the small right-wing parties reject, root and branch—would be an act of folly. Moreover, there are strong voices within his own party who make a forceful case against any commitment to a Palestinian state, when it is all too obvious that the Palestinian Authority is far from ready to shoulder the full attributes of sovereignty.

It is not as if Netanyahu does not recognize the demographic, regional, and international aspects of reality that argue for some form of Palestinian statehood down the line; after all, it should be remembered that the Likud government, under his leadership, did not turn away in 1996 from the Oslo process, which outlined a potential line of partition, and indeed, was willing to say that it left all options open for the future. Moreover, his strongest partner now in a narrow government, should one be put together, would be Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu with its fifteen seats, as compared to the far right with its four; and Lieberman is, in effect, a strong supporter of the two-state solution, albeit along new borders of ethnic separation rather than based on the historical lines drawn by the sword in 1948 and 1967. However, the political constraints described above, as well as the burden of recent experience, and the ideological disdain toward the naïve assumptions that attended earlier stages of the peace process restrict Netanyahu’s options. They lend weight, moreover, to the argument, put forward by Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Yaalon—the IDF chief of staff during the vital years when terror from the West Bank was brought to a halt, and now a Likud leader and a prospective candidate for high office—that the “short” way to a Palestinian state, if pursued now, would turn out to be long and misguided, whereas the “long” road of building from the bottom up, without a preconceived outcome imposed in advance, will prove shorter and surer in the fullness of time.

Therein lies the challenge: Can a coherent alternative be put forward to the present course of action toward a two-state solution, as outlined by UNSCR 1850 (and promoted by the Israeli left and center-left)? Can such an alternative be suggested in a way that does not alienate the U.S. government and the West? The answers vary, and to a large extent depend upon, and reflect, political biases. Here are some of the options:

  • “Economic peace”: A strong bottom-up effort with the Palestinians, leaving vague the permanent status issues and focusing upon changes in their daily lives; an option rejected by the Palestinians themselves, and criticized as inadequate by Senator Mitchell. Still, at least theoretically, it could be made to work—if, and only if, what Netanyahu could generate for the Palestinians would prove to be real and substantial improvements on the ground: “shovel-ready” projects that would make their lives better, the removal of checkpoints, and even of settler outposts (can the right do what the left was deterred from doing?), and other significant gestures. Such a dramatic shift from past polices cannot be bought on the cheap.
  • A breakthrough with Syria: A tempting option for those who have already lost all hope of a Palestinian agreement with Israel—and are still looking for new openings. A “Nixon to China”/Bibi to Bashar scenario has been favored for some time now by the IDF and much of the Israeli intelligence community, who wish to see Syria removed from Iran’s grip. It is difficult to imagine, however, that Syria would agree to anything without a prior Israeli commitment to total withdrawal—precisely the point on which previous talks foundered, and which Netanyahu would be extremely reluctant to concede.
  • A regional solution, based on the Arab Peace Initiative: Another tempting thought, being heavily speculated upon by the left and center-left, but not likely to be favored by the right. There are contained within that document, as Netanyahu, former FM Sylvan Shalom, and Yaalon would probably all agree, positive elements that should not be ignored. President Barack Obama has praised the initiative, but made it clear that he does not regard it as holy writ; so did President Shimon Peres, using his moral authority to advance ideas that his ceremonial office cannot actively pursue. But for the so-called API to be “operationalized” under present circumstances, further steps may be needed: perhaps an American reassurance that the terms of the Arab offer can be, and will be, reconciled with the commitments contained in the April 14, 2004, exchange of letters between George W. Bush and Sharon (namely, that Israel will not be required to return to the 1967 lines as they were, nor to accept Palestinian refugees in its sovereign territory). If such bridging language can be found, the prospect of taking the negotiations away from the cramped quarters of the Annapolis talks and into the large hall of regional recognition might make a difference.

For any of this to be made possible, however, in any Israeli political constellation, it would first be necessary to change the present regional dynamics, which at this time seem to favor Iran and the radicals. Unless the necessary diplomatic and other measures are taken to remedy this trend and reverse Iran’s nuclear drive, it would fast become pointless to speculate about the two-state solution or its alternatives: No progress at all can be made in a world in which Israel faces existential challenges, and those who reject any form of coexistence would be emboldened. Translated into the current language of American diplomacy, if Dennis Ross fails in his newly assigned mission, there will be little that Mitchell will be able to do on his.
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