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In 2015, I published a Wall Street Journal op-ed called “The Two-State Situation.” The article assailed the peace process for pursuing the seventeenth century “Westphalian model” of direct talks between leaders, formal treaties, and permanent borders which no longer worked in Westphalia anymore, much less in the Middle East. In our region, contrastingly, agreements are indirect and informal and based on implicit understandings. More inappropriately, the peace process asked both sides, the Israeli and Palestinian, to make impossible concessions. Israel was asked to re-divide Jerusalem and concede most of the Jordan Valley, to uproot tens of thousands of settlers, and outsource its security to the Palestinians. And the Palestinians were required to give up their demand for refugee return, their support for terrorists in Israeli jails, and recognize Israel as the legitimate nation-state of the Jewish people. Instead of hueing to an alien no-win formula, I argued, negotiators must adopt a strategy indigenous to the Middle East and based on what both sides can do rather than what they can never contemplate.
Much has happened since 2015, most stunningly the Abraham Accords which Israel signed with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. These agreements utterly upended widely-held assumptions about the peace process—that Israel had to pay for peace with territory, had to uproot settlements, and redivide Jerusalem—and created a new paradigm to be emulated by all future agreements. Rather than hoping that normalization will flow from peace—forlornly, in the case of Egypt and Jordan—peace will ensue for normalization.
Though bitterly condemned by the Palestinians, the accords also provided the best opportunity yet for peace between them and Israel. By showing how they will be punished rather than incentivized by leaving the negotiating table, by demonstrating that is not on their side and that the Middle East will move ahead without them, the Palestinians are more than ever likely to engage. The question then will remain: engage toward what? What is the nature and scope of any workable, durable, and legitimate arrangement?
My answers to this question have not be altered by the passage of time. Just the opposite—participation in the last round of peace talks with the Palestinians, involvement in high-level diplomacy regarding Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, and access to classified information on the Palestinian issue, have all reinforced my views. I have come to learn, for example, the conflict is less about status and borders than it is about identity. Rejecting recognition of a Jewish people with historic claims to the land, for example, is as essential to Palestinian identity as a united Jerusalem is to Israelis. Many claims cannot ever be reconciled so they must be either side-stepped or refashioned. There is no evidence, today or in the past, of the Palestinians’ ability to sustain a nation-state or even lay the institutional foundations for creating one. There is no evidence that Palestinians will ever subscribe to the American and Israeli concept of “two states for two peoples,” as they do not recognize the Jewish people’s existence. Such mutual recognition is essential to a durable peace. Without it, one state—the Palestinian—will be legitimate, while the other, Israel, will be transient and devoid of historical roots. The result will be endless irredenta.
And even if a Palestinian state could be established, it would quickly fall apart—to Hamas at best or, at worst, to ISIS or Iran. Even if he signed the deal, the unelected Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas would have little power to implement it and, once Israeli forces withdrew, would be assassinated.
Then, as now, I believed that the answers lay not in an unattainable two-state solution but in acknowledging the two-state situation that already exists. There is already a Palestinian state with a government that collects taxes and maintains a police force and which could, if its leaders agreed, hold elections. Its flag flies clearly to the east of Israel’s Highway 6. That state, moreover, is recognized by some 135 countries and dozens of international agencies. I’ve even considered the ramifications of an Israeli recognition of Palestine. Either way, the entire debate over two or one states is moot. The only questions relate to the extent of that state’s sovereignty, Israel’s ability to defend itself, and the formality—or implicitness—of any agreements.
The answers, once again, arise from the reality on the ground. Over 400,000 Israelis live in communities in Judea and Samaria and more than 300,000—the majority of the city’s Jewish population—in East Jerusalem. Some 85% of Israeli settlements are concentrated in Area C, as defined by the 1990s Oslo Accords, which contains relatively few Palestinians. Areas A and B, both under Palestinian administration, are off-limits to Israeli civilians. Even in Hebron, Judaism’s second-holiest city, the Jewish settlement is miniscule. But Israel does maintain security control over all of Judea and Samaria, including the airspace and bandwidth, and reserves the right to pursue terrorists even in A and B. The Palestinians, for their part, exercise extensive autonomy in their areas, with minimal interference from, or even the presence of, Israelis. And though it does not have a capital in downtown East Jerusalem, the PA effectively rules the neighborhoods outside of the city’s security boundary, containing 80,000 Palestinians.
Meanwhile, some 170,000 Palestinian workers enter Israel daily and 30,000 work on settlements. Israelis and Palestinians are environmentally and commercially linked. Most of Israel’s construction stone and paper products, for example, come from Hebron. This is a two-state reality that has proven stable through successive attempts by Hamas to destroy it with a third Intifada. Israelis who speak of “divorcing” the Palestinians are unaware of the self-inflicted damage it would cause or the great benefits of our de facto co-existence. It is a reality on which Israelis and Palestinians, with the help of the United States and many Arab countries, can build.
Of course, this Palestinian state would not conform to the Weberian definition of a sovereign nation that holds a monopoly over force and extends its authority over all its population and territory. But, then again, even under the maximalist peace plans of the Clinton and Obama administrations, the Palestinian state was never going to be completely sovereign. It was never going to possess an army or the ability to sign defense treaties with foreign regimes. Rather, the Palestinian state was always envisaged as an autonomous body with some sovereign trappings but confined territorially and unable to threaten its neighbors. Similarly, the Palestinian state was never going to be contiguous but divided between Israel and Gaza as well as by a large concentration of West Bank Palestinians linked by tunnels and overpasses. Such structures already connect Jewish Jerusalem with the Etzion Bloc settlements, running peacefully under Palestinian Bethlehem.
That was the vision put forward in my Wall Street Journal article, of a secure Israel living side-by-side with a demilitarized, autonomous, Palestinian state based on existing territorial realities and enjoying massive financial support from outside. Though many specific agreements—on water reclamation or export licenses—could be signed, the major understandings would remain unwritten and tacitly backed by influential Arab states. It would enable those nations to fuse their immeasurable resources with Israeli technology, transforming the region and even the world, and to join with Israel in an open alliance against Iran. And it would provide the Palestinians with economic dignity and a diplomatic horizon. It was an interim arrangement that could become permanent but which, until it did, fostered economic development, cooperation, and peace.
The 2019 Peace to Prosperity Plan incorporated many of these concepts and not surprisingly. Early in the drafting process, I presented the “two-state situation” idea to the White House. Retained was the notion of a demilitarized Palestinian state based largely on demographic realities and exercising a large degree of autonomy. The state would be contiguous except for several tunnel and overpass links and, once Hamas was disarmed, connected by rail to Gaza. And the state would have its capital in one of the outlying East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Israel would retain complete security control over Judea and Samaria, including the Jordan Valley, and would not have to uproot any settlements. Jerusalem and the holy places such as the Machpelah Cave and Rachel’s Tomb would remain under Israeli sovereignty.
The U.S. diplomatic team also seemed to internalize my advice not to focus too much on what would be acceptable to the Palestinians. They hold the world’s record for rejecting peace plans, including the two-state formulas offered them by the British (1937), the UN (1947), Israel (2000 and 2008), and the United States (2000 and 2001), most often with violence. Even if Tel Aviv were conceded, I ventured, they would balk. Their leaders lacked the legitimacy to sign, much less to implement, such agreements, and would only use their positions to veto any final status proposal. Instead, I suggested, architects of the plan should aim at the Israeli public and the Sunni Arab world. Getting both those elements on board would empower the United States to implement its plan in a way that the Palestinians would at first rebuff but gradually, implicitly, accept.
Some of the plan’s provisions, though, went beyond the “two-state situation” and felicitously so. The plan called for compensating the Palestinian state with pieces of pre-1967 Israel—the very territorial swaps Israel rejected during the Obama years. It assumed that the PA would someday return to Gaza, a development opposed by many Israeli policymakers I’d worked with. Most encouragingly, the plan spoke of an infusion of $50b into the Palestinian economy, creating countless jobs and modern infrastructure. Only the other hand, the plan retained some fifteen Israeli settlements located within the Palestinians’ border rather than suggesting ways that those communities might be relocated, in some cases only a few miles away
But the greatest departure from the “two-state situation” lay in the plan’s formality and commitment to a final status. Once again, the parties were expected to sit at the table and sign on to documents and maps. The Arab states would also be present, their leaders lined up before the cameras. The Palestinians would have to give up the “right” of refugee return, cease supporting jailed terrorists, and recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Israel, on other hand, would be able to annex most of Area C and the entire Jordan Valley. Since the Palestinians would never agree to the former, Israel would proceed with the latter, gaining land but not peace with the Sunni states which were almost certain to object.
The nature of Middle East politics and diplomacy are unlikely to change by 2048. Neither are the politics, culture, and historical outlooks of Israelis and Palestinians. Though a well-funded and influential peace establishment may still exist in Washington, on campuses, and the media, still claiming that “everyone knows what the final status arrangement looks like,” in fact nobody ever has or will. Rather, the only realistic course is one that adapts itself to the region, is negotiated discretely and implemented quietly, its main agreements remaining unwritten. It builds on the status quo instead of dismantling it, strengthens co-existence without hampering it. And it gives the Palestinians the same opportunity the Zionists once had of building a state gradually, sustainably, over decades. On its one hundredth birthday, hopefully, Israel can look proudly on a two-state situation that meets its security needs, enhances its international standing, while preserving its democratic and Jewish identity.
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