Stephen M. Walt

A Two-State Solution Requires Fixing Both States

As attention remains riveted on Iran, readers should not miss two important pieces on the Israel-Palestine front. The first is Tony Judt’s blockbuster op-ed from today’s New York Times, which demolishes most of the myths about Israel’s "settlements" and calls them — all of them — what they are: illegal. My only difference with Judt’s ...

As attention remains riveted on Iran, readers should not miss two important pieces on the Israel-Palestine front. The first is Tony Judt’s blockbuster op-ed from today’s New York Times, which demolishes most of the myths about Israel’s "settlements" and calls them — all of them — what they are: illegal.

My only difference with Judt’s analysis — and it is a minor one — is his suggestion that Israeli leaders have repeatedly "hoodwinked" American officials about the nature of the settlement enterprise. That may be true of George W. Bush, who seemed to accept Ariel Sharon’s world-view rather uncritically, but it’s not true of most of Bush’s predecessors. Every U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson formally opposed the creation of settlements, and some administrations (e.g., Richard Nixon’s) also referred to them as contrary to international law. And even George W. Bush repeatedly called on Israel to stop expanding the settlements, to little avail, of course.

The real problem has been that no president has been able to put sustained pressure on Israel to stop building settlements, because to do so would trigger reflexive opposition from AIPAC and the other hard-line elements in the Israel lobby. Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush both took on the lobby and were able to make some modest progress, but both paid a significant price for doing so. Subsequent U.S. presidents have effectively sub-contracted their Middle East policy to individuals (e.g., Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk under Clinton and Elliott Abrams under Bush) who were connected to key groups in the lobby and personally opposed to putting any pressure on Israel, so it’s hardly surprising that settlement expansion continued even though it was contrary to official U.S. policy. Moreover, as the Washington Post recently reported, the State Department issued an opinion in 1979 that the settlements were "inconsistent with international law." That opinion, the Post reports, "has never been revoked or revised." But it has been ignored.

The result of all this, as Judt makes clear, has been to "create facts" that make a two-state solution increasingly difficult — and maybe impossible — to achieve. But don’t forget former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s warning: "If the two-state solution collapses, Israel will face a South African style struggle for political rights." If Israel continues on its present trajectory, in other words, it will become an apartheid state. And once that happens, Olmert said, "The state of Israel is finished." By turning a blind eye towards the settlement project for decades, in short, Israel’s so-called "friends" helped pave the road to a very bleak future.

Judt will undoubtedly receive the usual denunciations from hardliners committed to defending the status quo; we can expect the usual retorts in the letters’ section from Abe Foxman of the ADL or David Harris of the AJC. But anyone with a genuine commitment to Israel’s future should welcome his honest and eloquent piece. And the Times deserves credit for running it.

The second piece is a terrific commentary by Helena Cobban on the internal paralysis within the Palestinian national movement, and especially the current weakness of Fatah. Most people already know that Fatah and Hamas are bitter enemies, and that this rift is an obstacle to peace. But Cobban shows that the problems are in fact deeper than that, and will require sustained attention to repair.

The dysfunctional nature of current Palestinian leadership has many origins, and lots of different groups bear responsibility for it. As Rashid Khalid documents in The Iron Cage, the British did their best to decapitate the Palestinian Arab community during the 1936-1939 Arab revolt, and the expulsion of the Palestinians at the hands of the Zionists/Israelis in 1948 further decimated and divided the community. The Arab states subsequently reinforced these divisions by backing competing Palestinian factions in order to advance their own selfish interests. Key PLO leaders — including Yasser Arafat — made serious blunders themselves. Israel also did its best to reinforce Palestinian disunity by aiding Hamas in the late 1980s and by arresting or assassinating Palestinian leaders, and especially anyone who looked like they might be legitimate leader and capable foe. Given the various forces that have worked to keep the Palestinians weak and divided, it would be shocking if their leadership were not problematic.

But if our goal is peace, then we need strong and legitimate leaders on both sides. It follows that if Israel wants a durable peace, it has an interest in doing everything it can to strengthen Palestinian leaders. As Barack Obama clearly understands, halting settlement expansion and removing the hundreds of checkpoints that are strangling Palestinian daily life would be an important step in both symbolic and practical terms. Agreement on the basic principles of a two-state solution — starting with an agreement on borders — would strengthen moderate leaders and force Hamas to choose between being part of the peace process or being increasingly irrelevant to the Palestinian future. Today, Israel’s long-term interests are advanced not by encouraging division and rancor on the other side but by helping foster a greater sense of national unity and the creation of strong and effective Palestinian institutions. The multinational effort to train Palestinian security forces (under the leadership of U.S. general Keith Dayton) is a step in the right direction, but it will only succeed if viable statehood in the near future is a realistic possibility.

When making war, it is good to face an adversary who is weak and divided. But when it comes time to make peace, it is best if one’s former foe is competent, legitimate, efficient, and able to live up to its commitments. Convincing Israelis of that radical but rather obvious idea will be one of Barack Obama’s most important tasks.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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