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The Two-State Solution: Never About Solving Everything

Like many people I know, I spent a lot of time wrestling with how to react to the recent New York Times op-ed by Rob Malley (who I know well and admire tremendously) and Hussein Agha, entitled "The Two-State Solution Doesn't Solve Anything."  Fundamentally, while I respect the sincerity of their analysis, I think they got it wrong.  Here's why:

It is a truism that politics make strange bedfellows.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict exemplifies this:  witness the strange alliance between right-wing Jews who want to keep every inch of the West Bank for Israel in perpetuity, and hard-line Christian Zionists who support Israel in order to hasten Armageddon, during which they believe most Jews will perish.


Similarly, in the years since the Oslo Accords, the two-state solution has been endorsed by a peculiar mix of Jewish and Israeli peaceniks and hawks, and Palestinian moderates and hardliners. 


The fact that people from such divergent perspectives have come together around the two-state solution does not mean that this formula has become "devoid of meaning" or "divorced from the contentious issues it is supposed to resolve," as some Mideast scholars suggest.


What it points to, rather, is the fact that the "peace process" - the process that was supposed to lead to implementation of the two-state solution - has for years been almost entirely bereft of substance. 


Indeed, the Bush Administration's historic adoption in 2001 of the two-state formula seemed to usher in an era during which empty rhetoric became an accepted substitute for political will.  This was a period that saw virtually everyone saying "yes" to the two-state solution. Some of those yea-sayers did not really support the formula, but given the absence of any serious peace process, they never expected the seriousness of their two-state commitment to be tested.


But the election of President Obama - who appears absolutely determined to achieve the two-state solution - changed things.   Today, those who endorsed the two-state solution cynically, half-heartedly, and opportunistically are getting worried. 


So Netanyahu grudgingly accepts the two-state solution, but demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel's right to exist "as the Jewish state" (as opposed to simply recognizing Israel or Israel's right to exist) - a demand that no Palestinian leader will accept.  And so Hamas accepts, in some manner, the two-state formula, but demands the full Palestinian right of return - a demand that no Israeli leader will accept.  


Those who argue that the resort to such arguments means that peace is not possible without first resolving these "dueling discourses" - reconciling the views of Israeli and Jewish hardliners, who argue that peace can only come when Palestinians embrace the Jewish narrative justifying Israel's existence, and Palestinian and Arab hardliners, who argue that peace is possible only if Jews and Israelis embrace the Arab narrative rejecting Israel's right to exist - are wrong. 


The effort to shift the debate to the most intractable, existential elements of the conflict - the competing narratives over Israel's creation and right to exist - is evidence not that the two-state solution is unreachable or impracticable, but that opponents of the two-state solution are petrified that it may be imminent.


If one day the two-state solution is implemented, there will surely be some Israelis (and Jews overseas) who will pray for God to restore the entire Promised Land to the Jewish people.  Similarly, there will be some Palestinians who will pray that God will restore all of historic Palestine to Arab hands.


So long as the sovereignty and borders of the two countries are respected, so long as violence is not used to try to change the two-state status quo, people can hope and pray for whatever they want.


The two-state solution was never about reconciling these largely irreconcilable existential narratives.  The two-state solution is about finding a modus vivendi.  It is a formula that, if negotiated and implemented in good faith, satisfies neither side entirely, but fulfils the aspirations of both sides to the greatest extent possible. 


It is a formula to allow Israelis and Palestinians - as people, not walking ideologues or ethicists - to begin to live normal lives and to subsequently, hopefully, build normal and friendly relations. 


Mutual understanding and reconciliation of the conflicting existential narratives of Israelis and Palestinians will hopefully be built, gradually, upon the two-state foundation - a foundation of respect, dignity and an equitable power relation between two sovereign states - not the other way around.