Middle East experts to look at viability of the two-state solution

Crown Center program celebrates Susser's new book on the subject

From left, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, Asher Susser of Tel Aviv University and Ahmad Khalidi of St. Antony's College, Oxford.

The “two-state solution” to Jewish-Arab struggles over the Holy Land has been favored by most of the world, and many on the opposing sides, since before the State of Israel came into being. The mantra of “two states living side by side in peace and security” has expressed the vision of American, British and other international leaders.

Lately, though, growing numbers of people, inside the region and out, have been wondering out loud whether the two-state solution remains relevant.

That is the question that will be addressed at a program being sponsored by the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in celebration of Professor Asher Susser’s new book, “Israel, Jordan, and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative.” The book, published by Brandeis University Press, was written in substantial part while Susser was a senior fellow of the center on the Myra and Robert Kraft Chair in Arab Politics.

The program comes at an opportune time, as more and more talk is being heard of a one-state solution. Some members of the governing coalition in Israel reject the “land for peace” formula that has been a cornerstone of Israel’s negotiating position in the past; some Palestinians say they’d be better striving for one state in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, where they are widely expected to become a majority in the foreseeable future.

Whether the two-state solution remains viable in this context will be discussed at Tuesday’s program in Hassenfeld Conference Center by three top analysts of the region, all of whom have direct experience with peace negotiations there.

They include Ahmad Khalidi, a senior associate member of St. Antony’s College Oxford and a former Palestinian negotiator; Robert Malley, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group and former special assistant for the Middle East to President Bill Clinton, and Susser, longtime director of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African studies.

Susser was interviewed by phone about the subject of his book and Tuesday’s program.   

BrandeisNOW: What is it that is imperative about the two-state solution?     

The lack of a two-state solution could have disastrous consequences, first of all for Israel, but for the Palestinians and possibly the Jordanians too. That is why two states is absolutely essential. If you do not have a two-state solution, you will end up with a one-state reality in which, eventually, Jews will be outnumbered by Arabs in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Israel will not be able to be the nation state of the Jews, obviously. It would eventually be a very unstable and unfriendly neighborhood in which Israelis and Palestinians would suffer from constant violence between their communities. 

You are talking about a generalized, continuous civil strife?

Yes, and that of course could have ramifications for the Jordanians. If there isn’t a two-state solution and there is great violence between Israelis and Palestinians, many of the Palestinians will leave for the Jordanian side of the river and destabilize Jordan.

It has happened before, huh?

It has happened before and they are very concerned that it could happen again. So a two-state solution really is essential for these three players: the Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians. 

Do the Israelis and Palestinians really not get this as well as the Jordanians, or is it that they have worked themselves into corners that they can’t seem to get out of?

I think that many Israelis do understand and many Palestinians do too. And indeed Israel and the Palestinians in principle are committed to a two-state solution. The problem is that the two parties have never had a concept of a two-state solution that both sides could share. The Israeli concept of a two-state solution is one in which there is an Israeli intrusion into Palestinian sovereignty for mainly security needs. The Palestinian idea of a two state solution includes a significant refugee return.

Is this what you’d say is the fatal flaw in Oslo – that these ideas existed and were sort of papered over as final status questions to be resolved later?

They weren’t ever resolved and they might not be resolved in the foreseeable future either. Therefore we have to look for ways and means of creating a two-state reality in which some issues remain unresolved but you have a two-state reality on the ground. That would be a lot better than a one-state reality that would end up being a disastrous, Yugoslavian kind of situation. 

Are the Israelis and Palestinians you referred to – the ones who understand why there has to be a two-state solution – are they also aware of the disconnect in each others’ positions that you’re talking about?

For the Palestinians, a two-state solution is an undesirable solution, but not one that they can improve upon, in which they would expect the Israelis to withdrawal from just about all the territories they occupy so the Palestinians see themselves as having already conceded the great majority of Palestine to Israel, and therefore are unwilling to make any additional territorial concessions in reference to the territories that were taken in 1967.

The Israelis see that as a very uncompromising, all-or-nothing kind of Palestinian position. Whereas the Palestinians see that as a very considerate position. It is extremely difficult to iron out the differences and create this reality on the ground and as a result the present stalemate. We seem to be sliding down a slippery slope here into a one-state reality which will be a lot worse than what we have had in the past. 

What makes you say that we are slipping towards a one state reality rather than we are just in a long term stalemate?

Because the situation on the ground does not remain the same. What is called the status quo isn’t really the status quo, it changes really every day. The balance of power demographically between Jews and Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, Israeli settlement activity, they change every day. Eventually you will have a situation where there might be so many settlements and settlers inside what is the future Palestinian state where even if Israel were to arrive at a point in the future where it wished to withdrawal it wouldn’t be able to. You reach a point of no return where essentially you create such a mix of Israelis and Palestinians intermingled in one territory which is the West Bank that they will be inseparable from each other. 

So what would be a realistic hypothesis how to change this in a positive direction in terms of a two-state solution? 

We are quite distant now from a two-state solution. I would argue that instead of allowing ourselves to gravitate into a one-state reality, we have to revive what I call the two-state dynamic.

One part of this dynamic is the Palestinian efforts to build the institutions of a Palestinian state and to gain international recognition for a Palestinian state. These are being conducted unilaterally by the Palestinians.

At the same time Israel, should initiate unilateral activity of its own to redeploy in the West Bank, to withdrawal from segments of the West Bank, to withdrawal settlements, to withdrawal outposts, to withdrawal the military from significant parts of the West Bank to enable the Palestinians to actually control a contiguous territory that could become the backbone of a future Palestinian state.

You would have these two unilateral policies conducted not as part of an agreement but as two parallel simultaneous unilateral acts, preferably coordinated by a partner like the United States, where it is not up to the United States to deliver Israel to the Palestinians or to deliver the Palestinians to Israel, but simply to coordinate.

These two parallel simultaneous unilateral acts will not result in an agreement between the two parties, which is too much to ask for these days, but will result in a practical, pragmatic situation on the ground, in which most of the West Bank is available for a Palestinian state to emerge. There will be a two-state reality and there will be questions that will not yet have been resolved, like the final borders, like exactly how should Jerusalem be partitioned, and in the longer run what will eventually be done about the refugees.

But these issues should be negotiated not from a position where there is no Palestinian state, where only at the end of the road we arrive at a Palestinian state. Rather these outstanding problems should be negotiated from a situation which is already a two-state reality.

Outside of Israel the general perception is that domestic political considerations in Israel make this inconceivable. Is that not true? 

Inconceivable is a very strong word. Difficult I agree, very difficult. It will require first and foremost of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud to understand that it is in Israel’s supreme interest to do this. There are people in the Likud who understand this. There are people in a number of different parties in Israel who understand it perfectly well. It is a question of political will. It is a question of addressing very militant right wings.

There are no parties in Israel that are strong enough to supplant the Likud and initiate something like this; really it is a question of bringing the Likud from the right, where it is at present, to the center.

We can have new elections within the next year or so, which the Likud would probably win. Then the Likud has the option of creating a centrist secular coalition or a national religious, right wing coalition like it has presently. If Netanyahu as the head a new government chooses to take the centrist secular role, there is a real possibility that this could become policy. It is not inconceivable that that might happen after the next elections.

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