No unilateral Israeli path to two states

The composition and track record of the current Israeli government leads Palestinians to expect very little from Israel in the way of advancing peace. After five decades of military occupation, and repeated failures of two decades of bilateral negotiations based on the Oslo Accords, there is a clear need for new ideas. But the proposals offered by Amos Yadlin’s post last month, “Two states, four paths for achieving them,” do not accord with basic realities on the Palestinian side, and as such do not offer a viable pathway to a two-state outcome.

Yadlin’s argument is premised on the belief that a negotiated two-state outcome is not possible today because of a Palestinian refusal to engage. He argues: “It appears that in 2016, the Palestinians do not view a two-state solution…as a preferred outcome.” Palestinians, by contrast, see their leaders’ actions, like the November 2012 UN General Assembly resolution that accorded Palestine observer state status, as efforts to save the two-state solution in the face of Israeli actions that undermine it.

The outcome Yadlin offers as one that would meet Israel’s needs would require Palestinians to forfeit basic components of statehood and basic principles of Israeli-Palestinian peace that are enshrined in international law, such as the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their or their families’ places of origin in what is today Israel. 

Similarly, Yadlin calls for Palestinians to accept “limitations on their sovereignty” to meet Israeli security concerns. From a Palestinian perspective, though, that sovereignty has been systematically constrained already by Israeli policies, including annexation of territory and the expanding settlement enterprise. These are but two examples of divergent viewpoints between Israelis and Palestinians that doom each of the “four paths” Mr. Yadlin proposes to reach a two-state solution. 

Each of Yadlin’s proposed paths for Israel—negotiations toward a final status agreement (with the expectation that they would fail due to Palestinian intransigence), pursuing a regional agreement, seeking an interim bilateral agreement, and taking unilateral action—is problematic.

“A negotiation process resulting in a final status agreement” – The Oslo Peace Accords and the 20 years of unconsummated negotiations that followed were an intensive effort to achieve just that. However, they failed in part because they did not address the fundamental asymmetry between the parties to those accords—Palestinians recognized a state, and Israel, in turn, recognized the representative body of a national movement seeking its right to self-determination. 

If Israelis were serious about two states, and heeded lessons from the failed interim agreements of the Oslo process, a good starting point would be for Israel to reciprocate the political recognition of Israel that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) made back in 1993. Israel’s recognition of the state of Palestine is long overdue, especially after more than 130 countries—including the Vatican—have done so. 

This symmetrical recognition would also define the end game upfront as the outcome to which both sides are already formally committed—and then both sides can spend their negotiating energies on realizing two states living in peace.

“A regional agreement” – The notion that a regional track could substitute for the bilateral track suggests a failure to learn from the past. At many points throughout the history of this conflict, Israeli politicians and policymakers have sought to transfer the Palestinian issue onto other regional states—as in the Camp David I agreement with Egypt, or the suggestion that Palestinians should instead create their state in Jordan, a sovereign country. 

It is positive that Mr. Yadlin seems to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative (API) as a means for progress toward two states—but it can only play the role he envisions if it morphs into something it is not. 

The API is not a starting point for negotiations, but rather terms of reference for an agreement that Arab states would recognize as sufficient to gain Israel normalization within the Middle East. As such, Yadlin’s call for an “updated version” in which the “plan should be decoupled from the issue of the [occupied] Golan Heights” and “not be conditional on a solution to the refugee problem according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 194 from 1949,” do not take into account Arab governments’ own interests in these issues. Regional peace for Israel is unattainable without Israel first making peace with Palestinians.

“An interim bilateral agreement” – When Palestinians accepted the interim agreements of the Oslo bilateral process, there were 100,000 illegal settlers on the ground. Two decades of negotiations has left us with over 500,000 settlers and with the Palestinian community in the West Bank and Gaza further fragmented and battered. This is why the Palestinian leadership has been crystal clear in rejecting another interim agreement. 

Without more than verbal commitments to a viable two-state solution, and without a clear pathway to get there, another interim agreement would only allow Israel to create more “facts on the ground” that would preclude such a solution. It is hard to understand how such a proposal would offer Palestinians any hope of progress, given the experience of the past two decades. 

“In the case a negotiated agreement cannot be realized, an independent Israeli determination of its own borders” – It is even harder to understand how a unilateral Israeli determination of its own borders could, as Yadlin argues, “reinforce the agreed two-state solution paradigm,” especially because this would likely require massive Israeli military force (along with continued blind support from the United States) to create more facts on the ground. It’s understandable why Israelis would prefer to negotiate this conflict with themselves rather than engage with their adversaries, but it is the vast disparity in power between Israelis and Palestinians, not the logic of conflict resolution, that gives Israelis the realistic ability to do so. Still, this does not mean that unilateral decisions by Israel will one day find support among Palestinians. 

It’s understandable why Israelis would prefer to negotiate this conflict with themselves rather than engage with their adversaries, but it is the vast disparity in power between Israelis and Palestinians, not the logic of conflict resolution, that gives Israelis the realistic ability to do so.

It is the nature of international conflicts that they can “end” only in one of two ways: either the two parties agree to a solution that meets their mutual interests, or the side with greater power dictates, imposes, and enforces an outcome over the objections of the weaker side. In proposing unilateralism as a “solution,” Yadlin abandons the more sustainable former pathway for the latter, which I see as doomed. 

If Israel’s leadership is serious about reaching a two-state solution, the road is defined and clear. It requires that Israelis grapple with the real interests and demands of Palestinians as of equal substance and value to their own, rather than wishing them away. Equality can be achieved in two, truly independent states; or this conflict will default to a single state—as warned by President Obama and Secretary Kerry—marred by a civil rights struggle that may take another 70 years to bear fruition, but whose result is pre-defined.