Analysis & Opinions - The Providence Journal

The Two-State Trap in the Mideast

| June 6, 2009

EVEN AFTER HIS RECENT meeting with President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still reluctant to embrace the "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Proponents of the idea, from Washington to Amman, tend to frame a stark choice: Either Israel retreats roughly to its June 4, 1967, borders in favor of a Palestinian state, or all-out war will ensue.

This is a false dichotomy and it may lead to detrimental results. It is false because, in fact, there is a continuum of options between these two extremes. The parties, for example, can maintain the status quo — a de-facto ceasefire between Israel and Fatah-led areas in West Bank, coupled with limited warfare between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

It is also false because a two-state solution does not guarantee a stable outcome: A weak (or even worse, a failed) Palestinian state next to Israel will most likely lead not to the end of violence, but rather to its perpetuation.

This is also a dangerous dichotomy, as it does not leave room for failure despite the fact that failure may come. The Palestinian national movement is deeply divided, and the Israeli public fears — based on the lessons of the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza — that leaving the West Bank would compromise its security. The logical conclusion from presenting a binary map for the future — two states or war — when a two-state option is highly unlikely, is that the proposed frame has a great potential to destabilize the situation, rather than calm it.

What can be done? First, the Obama administration should manage carefully the expectations of all parties. After the failure of the Oslo process, the ineffectiveness of the Geneva accords, the demise of "the road map" and the evaporation of the post-Annapolis negotiation, we do not need another abortive grand design.

Israelis and Palestinians alike are very close to losing any hope in the possibility of politics to affect their lives. Yet another disappointment could cement this sentiment forever.

Second, Washington should prepare a plan B, in case its two-state vision does not materialize. Recent history taught us that such a plan may come in handy. The absence of one contributed to the deterioration back to violence when Israeli-Palestinian peace talks failed in 2000–2001.

A possible plan B should include an attainable goal that would provide Israel with a prospect of security and the Palestinians with hope for a just and equitable future. For example, the Americans may want to reconsider Martin Indyk's idea of an effective international trusteeship in Palestinian areas vacated by Israel.

If the administration will choose to stick to a dichotomous framework it should, at a minimum, develop mechanisms that would diminish the effects of an "either-or" strategy and try to prevent both parties from being back at each other's throats should partition fail yet again. This could be achieved, among other options, by intimate U.S. involvement with both parties (a Washington sponsored hot-line between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza?), or by developing independent leverages that would deter Israelis and Palestinians from going back to the killing fields.

Do not get us wrong. A two-state solution is still the best possible outcome. But sometimes pursuing "the best," regardless of circumstances, brings about the worst. If we insist, to paraphrase a famous Roman adage, that "peace must be done though the heavens may fall" we might just find ourselves without peace and with the heavens collapsed on our head.

To dream of peace is both important and noble. But there are times, as American historian David Bell reminds us, when dreams of long-lasting, stable peace with justice result, paradoxically, in the escalation of war. Perhaps it is worthwhile to reconfigure our dreams.

Ehud Eiran is a research fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School. Nir Eisikovits teaches legal and political philosophy at Suffolk University. His forthcoming book is Sympathizing with the Enemy: Reconciliation, Negotiation and Transitional Justice.

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For Academic Citation: Eiran, Ehud and Nir Eisikovits.“The Two-State Trap in the Mideast.” The Providence Journal, June 6, 2009.

The Authors