Hussein Agha and Robert Malley offer their advice for the Obama administration on approaching this conflict. They believe that the “two-state solution” paradigm that has guided negotations does not need small modifications but rather rethinking, as it has not led to an agreement. In fact, they argue that the American and European embrace of the two-state solution has weakened it in the eyes of Palestinians:
The new millennium began with the near-universal acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state, which is precisely when its support among Palestinians began to slip. President Bush, the first US president to have ardently endorsed it, framed it as the answer to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and then hurriedly narrowed the challenge to the mundane task of building state institutions. Gone was the revolutionary aura with which Arafat imbued the idea; the struggle, no longer about freedom and the end of occupation, became about erecting responsible structures of government.
One of Bush’s least noticed but most profound and pernicious legacies in the region might well turn out to have been this transformation of the concept of Palestinian statehood from among the more revolutionary to the more conservative, from inspiring to humdrum. A small fraction of Palestinians, mainly members of the Palestinian Authority’s elite, saw the point of building state institutions, had an interest in doing so, and went to work. For the majority, this kind of project could not have strayed further from their original political concerns.
Today, the idea of Palestinian statehood is alive, but mainly outside of Palestine. Establishing a state has become a matter of utmost priority for Europeans, who see it as crucial to stabilizing the region and curbing the growth of extremism; for Americans, who hail it as a centerpiece in efforts to contain Iran as well as radical Islamists and to forge a coalition between so-called moderate Arab states and Israel; and even for a large number of Israelis who have come to believe it is the sole effective answer to the threat to Israel’s existence posed by Arab demographics. Those might all be good reasons, though none is of particular relevance to Palestinians; and each only further alienates them from the vision of statehood, the purported object of their struggle.
They argue that the same is true of Mahmoud Abbas, who finds himself in a very weak position due to his dependence on the U.S. and Europe.
Agha and Malley argue that a new solution needs to start again with the hopes and fears of both Palestinians and Israelis in the broadest sense. They argue that the current approach to negotiations ignores the fervent Palestinian nationalism of the refugees in other countries as well as the Israeli settlers who believe in an Israel expanded to its biblical boundaries. That would seem to me to introduce some very difficult variables into an already difficult situation, but they argue that the current approach hasn’t truly addressed the desires of both parties. Towards the beginning of the article, they summarize the desires of both sides and why the two-state paradigm doesn’t necessarily fit them:
A workable two-state agreement would address a large share of the two sides’ aspirations. It would preserve Israel’s Jewish character and majority, provide it with final and recognized borders, and maintain its ties to Jewish holy sites. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would live free of Israeli occupation, they would govern Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and refugees would have the opportunity to choose normal lives through resettlement and compensation. If meeting those goals were sufficient, why have the parties proved incapable of settling the dispute?
Aspirations reflect historical experience. For Israel’s Jewish population, this includes displacement, persecution, the life of the ghetto, and the horrors of the Holocaust; and the long, frustrated quest for a normal, recognized, and accepted homeland. There is a craving for a future that will not echo the past and for the kind of ordinary security—the unquestioned acceptance of a Jewish presence in the region—that even overwhelming military superiority cannot guarantee. There is, too, at least among a significant, active segment of the Israeli population, a deep-seated attachment to the land, all of it, that constitutes Eretz Israel.
For Palestinians, the most primal demands relate to addressing and redressing a historical experience of dispossession, expulsion, dispersal, massacres, occupation, discrimination, denial of dignity, persistent killing off of their leaders, and the relentless fracturing of their national polity.
These Israeli and Palestinian yearnings are of a sort that, no matter how precisely fine-tuned, a two-state deal will find it hard to fulfill. Over the years, the goal gradually has shifted from reaching peace to achieving a two-state agreement. Those aims might sound the same, but they are not: peace may be possible without such an agreement just as such an agreement need not necessarily lead to peace. Partitioning the land can, and most probably will, be an important means of achieving a viable, lasting, peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. But it is not the end.
I think that the whole article is worth reading if you’re interested in this issue. Like Rashid’s piece on Pakistan in my last post, it tries to give a point of view that’s not completely American-centered.
You may have noticed that in this post and my last, the authors had critical words about Bush’s impact on both of these problems. Although I wasn’t a fan in general of his foreign policy, I think that these criticisms point something out that’s bigger than whether someone agrees with his policies. In both cases, Bush had understandable goals: allying with Pakistan to fight al-Qaeda and pushing along the idea of a Palestinian state. But in both cases, if you buy the authors’ arguments, they had unintended effects: letting the Taliban fester in Pakistan and helping to make a Palestinian state “boring.”
At campaign time, these policies are easy to support or criticize under the assumption that when we act, other countries will react in a simple and predictable fashion. But it’s important to remember that other actors are not inanimate objects that obey some political version of Newton’s laws but complex assemblies of people and institutions that have to make their own choices within certain constraints that may have much or little to do with us.
Hat tip: Jeffrey Goldberg