WASHINGTON – The opportunity for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may already have expired. The question going forward, then, is what kind of democracy Israel intends to be.
The Obama administration’s frustration with the situation is understandable. The continued building of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is indeed unhelpful, and the decision to abstain on a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring the settlements illegal brought renewed focus and urgency to the problem. To what end, however, is unclear.
When everyone stops shouting, Israel will remain one of the United States’ closest allies – and, courtesy of President Barack Obama, the recipient of a $38 billion aid package that will ensure the Jewish state’s military dominance over its neighbors. Palestinian leaders in the West Bank will remain wary of negotiating any sort of two-state deal from a position of weakness. And the passage of time will make facts on the ground – expanding settlements and the ongoing security threat – ever more stubbornly entrenched.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech Wednesday on the conflict reflected his and Obama’s annoyance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has stayed in power by indulging the Israeli far right and the settler movement. But why would Netanyahu listen to Kerry’s advice when Donald Trump is about to be inaugurated as president? “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!” Trump tweeted this week.
Kerry argued that Israel would never be able to improve relations with Arab states until it made peace with the Palestinians. But Israel and key nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt now have a common enemy in Iran, which is growing in power and confidence. The proverb about the enemy of my enemy being my friend is always relevant in the Middle East.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would restart peace negotiations if Netanyahu, in the wake of the Security Council vote, declared a freeze on further settlements. I see no reason to expect Netanyahu to comply, especially since doing so would cost him vital political support – and since the next American president is already encouraging him to “stay strong.” So the bitter stalemate continues.
What vexes Obama – and increasingly angers leaders in Europe – is that the map of a two-state solution was drawn years ago and is gathering dust on disappointed diplomats’ shelves. It involves swaps in which Israel annexes parts of the West Bank that are heavily populated by settlers and the Palestinians receive slices of Israeli land in return. Israel insists that a Palestinian state be essentially demilitarized, which would make it less than fully sovereign. Netanyahu also demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel not just as a state, but as a Jewish state.
Which raises the question of what Israel becomes in the absence of a two-state deal.
“Today, there are … a similar number of Jews and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea,” Kerry said. “They have a choice. They can choose to live together in one state, or they can separate into two states. But here is a fundamental reality: If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic – it cannot be both – and it won’t ever really be at peace.”
In several interviews with me over the years, Netanyahu has essentially countered that it is easy to make such observations from the comforts of Foggy Bottom, Whitehall or the Elysee Palace, far beyond the range of the deadly rockets that too often fall on Israeli towns and cities. He is right in this.
But Kerry was also right when he said that “the status quo is leading towards one state and perpetual occupation.” And Netanyahu is dreaming if he does not think this has profound long-term implications for Israel.
How long will it take for the world to conclude that a de facto one-state solution exists? Another year? Five? Ten?
The moment will eventually come, and focus will shift to the political rights of the 2.8 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. With Arabs constituting about 35 percent of the population living under Israeli government control (including 1.7 million who already live in Israel proper), how can such a huge minority be permanently denied full participation in the nation’s civic life?
Israel is a vibrant democracy that takes seriously the moral and ethical requirements of Judaism. These are incompatible with perpetual occupation of the West Bank and the denial of basic rights to those who live there. There is no way around this contradiction. Something has to give.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.