Did President Trump Just Kill the Two State Solution?

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The idea that the so-called “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict was the only path to a resolution to the long running conflict has been a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy for over 20 years. The concept of two states for Palestinians and Jews was the basis for the original UN partition plan for historical Palestine in 1947. The 1993 Oslo Accords gave international recognition to the concept, established the Palestinian Authority to govern portions of the West Bank and began a five-year transitional process towards the formation of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza. This so-called Peace Process never went anywhere. In 1993, there were 300,000 Jewish settlers living in occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Today, there are over 600,000.

Last month, following a U.S. abstention allowing the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 supporting two states and condemning the Jewish settlement project, I wrote an articlearguing that this resolution was largely symbolic since the concept of two states was no longer realistic given the enormous number of Jewish settlements on land envisioned for a Palestinian State. This week in his press conference, following a series of meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and administration officials, President Trump seemed to recognize this reality and to back away from long-standing dogma when he said, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like”.

Many Palestinians, particularly the younger generation, have recognized this reality for some time. A prominent Palestinian businessman described to me his conversation with his daughter, who at the time was a sophomore at MIT. She said, “Dad it’s over. We need to recognize that they won. We tried everything, violence, (that only proved that we aren’t very good fighters), negotiation and non-violence. Nothing worked. They won. They get the land, the water, the resources, everything.  I just want to know where I get my free education and healthcare and where do I vote.” Another Palestinian friend said to me, “I don’t care if it’s called Palreal or Israelstine, it’s the only way.”

Even this relatively mild statement by President Trump provoked a vehement response from those who have been committed to the two-state framework as the only way forward. Jewish congressmen attacked Trump’s remarks as threatening the existence of the State of Israel.  Addressing the issue of how a bi-national Israel must choose between being a democracy which is no longer Jewish or being an apartheid state, NY Times writer Tom Friedman summed up the dilemma for Zionist Jews when he wrote in an op-ed piece entitled “President Trump: Will You Save the Jews?” Now, “that debate will not be about which are the best borders to defend the state of Israel,” said the Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal, “but whether the state is worth defending in moral terms.”

Given the history of the Trump administration over the past few weeks, one certainly must be skeptical that what is said actually reflects policy; however, if it does, it could be a major step forward toward resolving the conflict. A first step in solving a problem is to recognize the brutal reality.

Israel and Palestine: Is There a Way Forward?

Originally published for American Herald Tribune

One thing I learned during my military and business careers was that the first step in solving any problem is to recognize the reality. Wishful thinking is not conducive to solving a problem and has, unfortunately, been the basis for U.S. policies related to the situation in Israel and Palestine for far too long. If any progress is to be made toward solving this intractable problem, a large dose of reality is essential.

So, what is the reality?

  1. Approximately 600,000 Israeli Jews live in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
  2. Over one million Palestinian Arabs (Muslim and Christian) live within the borders of Israel defined by the so-called “1967 borders” or “green line.”
  3. With the influx of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, immigrants with little experience with democracy, the Israeli electorate has become more right wing and this phenomenon is reflected in the Israeli government and its policies. The present Israeli government has shown little or no interest in creating a viable Palestinian state.
  4. The religious parties who believe that God gave them the land of Israel from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea are crucial to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition and thus have power beyond their small numbers.
  5. The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) is illegitimate (elections have not been held for 10 years.) and corrupt. It has no credibility with the Palestinian people. However, Israel depends on the PA to maintain security control in the West Bank.
  6. Hamas and Fatah cannot agree on a unity government and a common negotiating position.
  7. Jews and Palestinians each have a national narrative and identity and want their own state. Neither group wants to see a bi-national state as the solution.
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Credit: Brian Holsclaw/ flickr

Despite the policy statements by the U.S. and its western allies calling for a two-state solution, it is evident that a so-called two-state solution is no longer a viable option and hasn’t been for almost two decades. One might be tempted, given the seemingly intractable nature of the situation, to give up and walk away from the problem. Unfortunately, this also is not a viable option. The current stalemate is a major contributing factor to the instability in the Middle East and, therefore, the U.S. has a national interest, beyond the humanitarian concerns, in a peaceful resolution. The status quo is not tenable. Many policy makers have declared the “two-state solution” to be on life support. This is true. The problem is that the patient is brain dead. We need to pull the plug, hold a funeral, go through the mourning process and get on with life. So what does that look like?

Several years ago, when I attended a conference in Jerusalem that included Israelis, Palestinians, as well as internationals, one Israeli panelist commented, “The trouble with you Americans is that you think that every problem has a solution.” If thinking that “every problem has a solution” is a crime, then I plead guilty. The attitude that we are capable of solving our problems is one of the things that makes America great. Despite the obstacles, we can help solve this problem as well. Recognizing that the “two-state solution” is no longer possible, a number of thoughtful analysts on both sides have proposed creative ways to address the issues. Examples are here and here. While I agree with the position that we cannot want a solution more than the parties themselves, we can take steps to make a just and peaceful solution more likely.

By unconditionally funding and supporting both sides of the conflict, the U.S. facilitates risky and unhelpful behavior. Making financial and political support conditional would go a long way toward forcing the parties to face reality and take positive steps toward a solution. Given the political realities in the U.S., making aid to Israel conditional is probably impossible, however, withdrawing aid to the Palestinian Authority would have much the same effect. The PA would collapse and all responsibility for governance and security on the West Bank would fall to the Israeli government, with significant financial consequences. In the short run, an increase in violence is likely, but maybe that’s what it will take to focus everybody’s mind on finding a solution. The alternative is a continuation of violence and death for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Third Intifada – Six Things that You Should Know

Originally published on Foreign Policy Journal

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The Al-Aqsa Mosque at the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount (Godot13/Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I participated in a conference call on the growing violence in Israel/Palestine. The call included Palestinians and Jews who were either on the ground or had been recently. The picture they painted about the deteriorating situation was very grim. Although, at some level, I knew much of what was discussed, several things stood out for me.

  1. What you read in the western mainstream media is wrong. Whether you read the New York Times, the Washington Post or any other mainstream media outlet, the underlying approach to the coverage is that the violence is being perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists and Israel is responding to these terrorist attacks. The reality is that the violence did not begin in the past few weeks. For years there has been a series of attacks by radical settlers in the West Bank on Palestinians, their homes, farms and businesses. These attackers have, in many cases been protected by the Israeli occupying forces. Over time the racist attacks have spread to Israel proper.
  2. It is not about access to al-Aqsa mosque. Although many of the recent confrontations have taken place at the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) as radical Jews have attempted to gain access to al-Aqsa and the Israeli government has responded by limiting access by Muslims to one of the holiest sites in Islam. While not the cause of the escalating violence, it was a trigger that motivated young Palestinians to take action.
  3. It’s the occupation. Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza since the end of the 1967 War and over time has annexed portions of this territory and built Jews-only settlements throughout. Despite an array of attempts to resolve the conflict and establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the occupation remains in place. We now have a generation of young people that – having grown up knowing nothing but the occupation, having seen the optimism of the Oslo Accords fade away under the pressure of expanding settlement, having no hope for anything but a brutal military occupation – has become frustrated, angry and radicalized.
  4. The 2014 Gaza War united Palestinians. As I wrote at the time, prior to this war Palestinian citizens and residents of Israel, even though they were second class citizens, tended to think of themselves as Israelis first and Palestinians second. Many knew little about conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. The death and destruction inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza during this war changed this mind set dramatically. They now relate intensely to the plight of their Palestinian brothers and sisters living under occupation. They are also more cognizant of their second class status in Israel. After the Second Intifada, Israel responded by building a wall between the West Bank and Israel. That strategy won’t work this time.
  5. Fear is rampant in all segments of Israeli society. The seemingly random nature of the violence has made the entirety of Israeli society fearful. Jews fear that the Arab construction worker, waiter or student could suddenly turn on them with a knife or vehicle. With the introduction of authorization for police and military within Israel to “shoot to kill” if they “suspect” that someone is a terrorist, Arabs see every policeman as a potential killer. One young Arab woman told a story of walking in East Jerusalem with a water bottle and then throwing it away, afraid that a policeman might think it was a weapon and kill her. Mizrahi Jews, Jews of Middle Eastern origin whose looks, culture and language are Arab, are afraid that they will be attacked by other Jews. The usually vibrant Old City of Jerusalem, filled with shoppers, students and tourists, is quiet.
  6. The Israeli government’s response to the violence has only made matters worse. The decision to combat the intifada by instituting even more violent and repressive measures and the inflammatory language used to justify the measures is counterproductive. The arrests and killing of Palestinian youth and children is increasing the anger and spreading the violence.
  7. Israel has a problem that they have no idea how to solve. Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini may have been prescient when he said, “The occupying regime in Jerusalem will vanish from the pages of time.”

Netanyahu Wins Big; What Did He Lose?

While I was in Israel in 2008, shortly after Barack Obama’s election victory, the mood in the Middle East was euphoric. Headlines in the Arab media proclaimed “Abu Hussein wins” and “A Dream Come True.” The expectations on the street that U.S. policies would change were unrealistically high.

As attention turned to the upcoming Israeli elections in March 2009, there was hope that Israelis also would elect a more moderate government and that the peace process would be revived. An Israeli friend of mine, known for his rather different political views, told me that his dream team was Bibi Netanyahu and Obama. “Netanyahu is so outrageous that even the Americans won’t be able to put up with him,” he said. He underestimated the tolerance of American politicians for outrageous Israeli behavior.

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Credit Wikipedia Commons

In this week’s election, Netanyahu and his Likud party have resurrected themselves from a political graveyard, in which they were predicted to trail their major opponent, the Zionist Union, by 4-5 seats, and achieved a stunning landslide victory. Expected by pollsters to get only 22 Knesset seats, Likud won 30 and positioned Netanyahu to form the new governing coalition.

While coalition building in Israel is always an adventure, with much horse trading over who gets the most coveted ministerial positions, Netanyahu should be able to pull together a coalition of right wing secular and religious parties. It has always been clear that the right would have an easier path to a governing coalition (a path that changed little in the election since Likud drew votes from other right wing parties) and that the Zionist Union platform differed more in tone than in substance. The magnitude of the Likud victory and the manner in which it was achieved, however, will have consequences for Middle East politics.

In the run up to the election, seeing Likud trailing by an ever-increasing margin, visualizing the end of his political career, Netanyahu panicked. With the help of his Republican friends in the U.S. Congress, he orchestrated his appearance in front of Congress and attempted to torpedo any nuclear deal with Iran. This move seemed to be designed to make his fraught relationship with Obama even worse. When this tactic did not seem to work, he decided to drop the fiction that he supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue and declare that there would be no Palestinian state if he were elected Prime Minister. This was a blatant move to draw votes from the other right wing parties. It worked. Then, in order to ensure a strong turnout, he played the race and fear cards, warning Jewish voters that the Arabs were coming to the polls “in droves.”

It worked. He won. But, what did he win?

With the “two-state solution,” long the cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy, now clearly dead, how much longer will a lame duck American President put up with Netanyahu’s antics? At some point Obama will reach the level of frustration that Bill Clinton reached when he famously said to his staff, “Remind me, who is the [expletive] superpower here?”

The European countries, already fed up with the lack of serious progress on the Palestinian issue, have yet another reason to distance themselves from Israel. The tendency in Europe to migrate from anti-Israelism to anti-Semitism will likely intensify.

At home, the electioneering race-baiting will undoubtedly increase the alienation of Israel’s Arab citizens who are now explicitly seen as the enemy. Palestinian Authority President Abbas, having staked his political future on a diplomatic solution, will be weakened even further. Israel’s Arab neighbors, having long promoted the “Arab Peace Proposal” as the path to a “two-state solution,” have had this option taken off of the table. Thus, meeting of the Arab League on March 28 will present some difficult choices.

In the name of political expediency, Bibi Netanyahu seems to have painted Israel into a corner, a place that will be difficult to leave. As Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf wrote yesterday, “For years we have been hearing that Israel will either end the occupation or cease to be a democracy. Could it be that the Jewish public [in Israel] has made its choice?”

Will 2015 be a game changer in Israel/Palestine?

My article can be found on www.foreignpolicyjournal.com as well.

After over 60 years of conflict between Arabs and Jews in Israel/Palestine and after over 20 years of political gridlock during the so-called Oslo Peace Process, conditions and events on the ground may be coming together to bring about significant changes in 2015. In 2014, two events laid the groundwork for these changes. First, the horrific Israeli war on Gaza, which killed over 2,000 Palestinians, most of whom were women and children, and which brought complete devastation to the infrastructure in Gaza, significantly altered the views of both the Palestinians and the international community at large, about the nature of this intractable conflict.

Second, the Palestinian Authority (PA) under President Mahmoud Abbas finally decided not only to talk and to issue threats about internationalizing the conflict, but also to actually take some action. These events, combined with the changing political situation within the major players — Israel, Palestine, the U.S. and the EU — have resulted in a much different political landscape.

The devastation and humanitarian crisis resulting from the Gaza War has united Palestinians, if not their leaders, not only in Israel/Palestine, but also in the diaspora. Within the international community, particularly in Europe, the devastation wrought on a trapped, defenseless population by the self-proclaimed Jewish State, has contributed to an increase in not only anti- Israel sentiment, but also anti-Semitism among the general population. Within the international Jewish community, a population long supportive of human rights, criticism of Israeli government behavior and support for boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) of Israel is becoming more common and vocal.

Organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a U.S.-based group which advocates for “peace, social justice, equality, human rights, respect for international law, and a U.S. foreign policy based on these ideals”, has seen its membership, contributions and influence grow enormously.

The PA, seeing 20 years of fruitless negotiation go nowhere, faced with choices of living with on-going occupation, pursuing a Palestinian state on the international stage or violent resistance, has finally decided to pursue statehood and membership in international organizations through the UN. The U.S., under Israeli pressure, has attempted to thwart this effort at every turn, several times vetoing resolutions that reflect its own policies. Despite strong U.S. opposition the PA has achieved Non-member State status in the UN and in April 2015 will become a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a status which will allow it to bring war crimes charges against Israel as well as restrain its own ability to use violence against civilians to achieve its political goals.

The U.S. and Israeli response to these actions has been to threaten to cut off funding to the PA. Israel has begun to withhold payment of tax revenues that it collects on behalf of the PA in accordance with agreements under the Oslo accords. U.S. law mandates a cutoff of aid to the PA should it bring a legal case against Israel in the ICC and legislation has already been introduced in Congress to cut off all aid. These two sources of funding make up a significant portion of the PA budget. In past instances of a cutoff of funds, the oil rich Gulf States have made up the difference.

In today’s environment of low oil prices, an environment that is already straining budgets in the Gulf States, such a rescue is unlikely. Should the funding cutoff continue for a period of time resulting in non-payment of salaries, a collapse of the PA is a likely outcome. This would end PA security cooperation with Israel, forcing Israel to bear the entire burden and cost of maintaining security, straining an already stretched Israeli budget situation.

On the domestic political side, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s unstable governing coalition has collapsed and snap elections have been scheduled for March. While any significant change in government policy is unlikely after the elections, the faces will almost certainly change. In Palestine, President Abbas, an unelected leader, is nearing the end of his run and is thinking about his legacy. He will find it difficult to back down. In the U.S., the Obama administration, having failed in two efforts to mediate the conflict, having maintained a staunch pro-Israel position throughout, faced with a hostile Congress and a lame duck status, seeing the PA move the issue to the UN, has lost all ability to influence the outcome. Obama is unlikely to wade into this quagmire again.

While nothing is certain in this fluid environment, it seems that major shifts are likely. Whether or not they are positive remains to be seen.