Elusive as ever, two-state remains the only option

Elusive as ever, two-state remains the only option
Comment: Rejecting the two-state solution and failing to offer equal citizenship to Palestinians would see Israel become an ethnocracy. The two-state solution must prevail, writes Otman Aitlkaboud.
7 min read
23 Feb, 2017
An Israeli settlement next to an Arab town, West Bank, 16 January 2017 [Getty]

President Donald Trump's bellicose first month in office involved dismissing what had been - up until very recently - accepted norms and bi-partisan US positions. 

At the start of his presidency this took the form of attempting to implement measures that flouted laws enshrined in the US constitution, designed to prevent discrimination based on race or religion.

The iconoclastic course charted by Trump continued last Wednesday as he invoked the possibility of considering a one-state solution to the century-long dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like," he declared.

Trump's announcement runs in the face of 25 years of an established Middle East doctrine, followed by both Republican and Democratic presidencies, which had as its main tenet the establishment of a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.

While Trump's unctuous proclamation in front of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may have alarmed many who see the two-state solution as the only path to peace, it was also a wake up call for US administrations' neglectful conduct over resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, since the signing of the Oslo peace accords in 1993.

Since then, the US has continuously paid lip service to Israel over its denunciations of settlement expansion, occasionally rebuking it in public, and wielding its veto in any Security Council resolution attempting to curb its actions.

By the time Kerry was able to offer a peace proposal in February last year, Netanyahu was unable to accept the deal

The Palestinians also felt that negotiations with both Israel and the Americans were not conducted honestly, believing that the peace initiatives since Oslo did nothing to tackle fundamental issues crucial to their interest. Failure to come up with working solutions to questions such as the Palestinians' right of return and the status of Jerusalem, continued to be major sticking points.

But the inability to solve the issue of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank continued to loom and made negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians increasingly unworkable with each new year.

This reality was exacerbated by Hamas and Jewish religious nationalists, who actively undermined any meetings between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Obama presidency - known for its strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu - revealed its frustration with Israel over its ceaseless settlement expansion, through a symbolic abstention (rather than a veto) from the UN Security Council resolution 2334 in December last year.

The Obama administration's final hour Security Council vote abstention, an unprecedented act, along with its funnelling of $221 million dollars to the PA, were gains that came too late for Palestinians.

  Read more: Symbolic but spineless: UNSC resolution on Palestine-Israel

How is it possible that a US administration that presided over a landmark deal with Iran, failed not only to produce incremental gains towards supporting a two-state solution, but also to oversee the prospect of a two-state solution dismantled?

The Obama administration's first attempt to convince the Israeli PM and Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas to agree on a framework for peace, came through the shuttle diplomacy of Middle East envoy George Mitchell, beginning in January 2009.

With pressure from the US president, Mitchell appeared initially successful, able to convince Netanyahu to initiate a 10-month settlement moratorium in the occupied West Bank.

But failure to extend it to building in East Jerusalem and to stop the construction of pre-approved settlements, were the reasons the PA initially gave for their unwillingness to engage in talks with Israel. Indirect negotiations between Israel and the PA did continue, and partial freezes were made in East Jerusalem in July 2009, only for building to resume once again.

Announcement of a further 1,600 homes to be constructed in East Jerusalem in March 2010 caused a diplomatic rift between the US and Israel during then Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel.

Further attempts were made to scupper the first direct talks between the PA and Israel in Washington in September 2010. Increased rocket attacks from Palestinian militants in Gaza, and a spate of attacks in the West Bank by Palestinian militants in August and September 2010, were designed to derail the talks.

Negotiations however continued, but Israel's failure to extend the 10-month settlement freeze and its demands for the PA to recognise it as a Jewish state, brought these talks to an end.

In 2014, Israel announced unprecedented settlement expansion, with 14,000 units slated for development within the West Bank

The next round of discussions spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry came in 2013 and ultimately collapsed in 2014. The main stumbling block continued to be settlement expansion.

Nationalist strands within Likud's government coalition were more pronounced in 2013 with the inclusion of Naftali Bennet's The Jewish Home party, within Netanyahu's new coalition. Kerry's peace initiative met an obstinate foe in Bennet and his supporters within government, who not only rejected any concessions given to Palestinians, but believed that the majority of the West Bank in area C should be annexed by Israel.

The religious Right influenced an increasingly hard-line stance within Likud, and it was in 2014, that Israel announced unprecedented settlement expansion, with 14,000 units  slated for development within the West Bank.

US Middle East envoy at the time, Martin Indyk, in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy believed that "The promoters of the settlement activity were the ones who were adamantly opposed to the negotiations, even though they were in a government that was committed to the negotiations."

Like George Mitchell, Indyk left his post with no results, and Kerry too, withdrew from negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians, instead concentrating on America's Iran deal and solutions for the conflict in Syria.

  Read more: Trump's one-state solution won't be an equal-rights one

It was this vacuum that created the perfect conditions for the religious Right to consolidate their position.

The growing appeal of nationalist views was compounded by Israel's recent war in Gaza, and the increasingly febrile situation on its border with Syria. This helped bolster hardline positions that already believed in the notion of 'Eretz Israel', and the excuses of conflict in Syria and Iraq were just other reasons not to entertain the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state whose fate may have also included civil conflict. 

So by the time Kerry was able to offer a peace proposal in February last year - which included the backing by Arab states of renewed talks with Israel and the Palestinians, and most significantly the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state - Netanyahu was unable to accept the deal.

Details of the secret summit held in Jordan with King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Sisi emerged earlier this week. But talks broke down when Netanyahu reportedly informed Kerry he would be unable to convince his right-wing coalition to resume talks with the Palestinians. 

It is in these conditions that the Hok HaHasdara law, was able to come to its fruition. The law passed on 6 February, allows for Israel to now officially recognise the expropriation of land in the West Bank, that it recognises is Palestinian-owned, and offer it to Israeli settlers.

The outright rejection of a two-state solution, while not offering equal citizenship to Palestinians living under its control, would see Israel's status reduced to an ethnocracy

While this law will embolden annexationists on the Israeli Right - with radical elements of the settler movement in Netanyahu's government increasingly pushing for further consolidation of gains in the West Bank, it is crucial that both the United States and Israel resist such a move.

The survival of Israeli "democracy" - as it stands - is dependent on ignoring the right-wing ideologues in its governing coalition. The annexation of parts of the West Bank as put forward by the leader of Likud's Jewish Home coalition partner, Naftali Bennett would surely mark its end.

The outright rejection of a two-state solution, while not offering equal citizenship to Palestinians living under its control, would see Israel's status reduced to an ethnocracy.

In spite of the alarmist responses to President Trump's vague consideration for a one-state option declared on 15 February, US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley's confirmation that the two-state solution remains the position of the American government, was an indication that the Trump administration's line is in fact the same one that has been toed 25 years.

The survival of both notions of Israeli and Palestinian statehood is dependent on the honest pursuit of this well-worn path: The two-state option - with all its seemingly irreconcilable differences - must still be the only option pursued by both Israel and the Palestinians, with or without US intervention.

Otman Aitlkaboud is an Executive Committee member of the Arab-Jewish Forum working on improving relationships between Arabs and Jews in the UK and beyond. He formerly worked at conflict resolution think tank Next Century Foundation and for the European Union External Action service in Armenia.

Follow Otman Aitlkaboud on Twitter: @OtmanA

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.