Forgetting the History of the Two-State Solution by Gideon Hanft

Peter Beinart’s new book, The Crisis of Zionism, has provoked extreme controversy in the Jewish community. Beinart’s call for a boycott of “non-democratic” Israel (the occupied territories) has led to criticism from the mainstream American Jewish community.  While there have been persuasive critiques of the book, many reviewers have chosen to avoid answering the primary challenge that Beinart offers to advocates for Israel: how can Israel justify the continued building of settlements?  Andrew Sullivan uses this question to dismiss many of the responses to Beinart.  When this question goes unaddressed, he argues, powerful American organizations acquiesce to the current government's anti-democratic behavior. This failure on the part of American Jewish organizations has led several observers to pronounce the two-state solution dead.  The settlements, they argue, preclude the possibility of solution by establishing facts on the ground. While pessimism about the future of the conflict is entirely understandable in the aftermath of four years without meaningful change, these pronouncements ignore recent history.  The situation in 2012 is substantially better than the situation in 2000 and the situation in 2006, and yet commentators such as Sullivan and Wright choose to ignore how much it has changed. The settlements have not killed the two state solution now, any more then they did in 2000.

In 1999 when the Camp David negotiations broke down, the two-state solution was far more moribund than it is today. Ehud Barak was decisively defeated and the Palestinian Authority (PA) turned to violence.  After the Karine A affair, there was no possibility of discussion between the Israeli government and Arafat's PA, and the US basically had decided to wait for Arafat’s replacement. Hundreds of people were dying every month, and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were in the entire West Bank and Gaza.  Keep in mind that at this time no Israeli government had publicly endorsed the two-state solution.  Rabin spoke of something less than a state,   Netanyahu opposed the Oslo Accords, and Barak had never made a public announcement of his offers.  Furthermore, no American president had officially declared the goal of a two-state solution, and Clinton was always careful to avoid using the phrase publicly.

At that point, the likelihood of a two-state solution must have looked worse than it does now.  Yet within two years, Ariel Sharon was the first Israeli leader to publicly accept the two-state solution, and President Bush was the first American President to call for it. Ariel Sharon, who in 1999 was said to have killed the two-state solution with his temple mount visit, was the first prime minister to accept it, and later the first prime minister to withdraw from any settlements. By 2005, with Arafat’s death and President Mahmoud Abbas’s election at the head of the Palestinian Authority and his renunciation of violence, the stage seemed set for a solution. The Israelis had withdrawn from Gaza and were speaking of withdrawal from outlying settlements in the West Bank, and the Palestinians had replaced Arafat with Abbas. This sudden shift from 2000 to 2005 is the perfect example of how quickly the dynamics between the Israelis and the Palestinians can change.

In 2006, Ehud Olmert ran and won on a campaign of convergence.  His platform called for the withdrawal of all Israeli settlements beyond the wall, leaving behind only a military presence in the Jordan valley, and negotiations with President Abbas about the rest.  Only six years ago, Israeli voters basically accepted a platform that would have left 80 percent of the West Bank empty of settlers.  What killed convergence?  One element was the victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections; the other was the perceived Israeli defeat in Lebanon. Terrorism in Gaza and Lebanon, not settler extremism, killed unilateral withdrawal.

The two-state solution could have been pronounced dead again.  How could we have a two-state solution when there was not even one Palestinian government?  How could Israel withdraw from territory after its previous withdrawals resulted in Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon? Yet in 2008 after the Annapolis Conference, Olmert offered Abbas even more land than Barak offered Arafat at Camp David.  Despite eight years of settlement building, the Israeli offer at Annapolis exceeded the offer at Camp David.  (The acceptability of the offer is a different debate, but it is one worth having.) Maybe Olmert could not have gotten it through the Knesset (although Tzipi Livni won more seats than Netanyahu on a platform of continued negotiations), but after eight years of war and intifada, the Israeli government was offering more not less land for a Palestinian state.

Why is the two-state solution dead in 2012? Has there been a greater shift in Israeli politics after 2009 than after 2000? The polls today are showing the center left may not be able to beat Likud, but their total share of the vote will almost certainly increase in the next elections.  Even Likud, which did not accept a two-state solution in 1996, has now done so. While I concede that Netanyahu’s acceptance of a state is primarily a stalling tactic, with conditions that he knows no Palestinian leader could accept, the willingness of the supposedly “most right wing government” in Israeli history to publically endorse the concept of Palestinian statehood marks a major transition from the 1990s.  If the Israelis were capable of offering Abbas a better deal in 2008 than they offered Arafat in 2000, why is the two-state solution dead in 2012 when it was alive in 2004?  The two-state solution remains the only realistic means for peace in the region, and those who proclaim its demise fail to understand how we reached the position we are in now and how quickly this position can change.

Gideon Hanft is an online editor for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and a sophomore in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.