In December, the United States under President Barack Obama abstained on UN Resolution 2234, which “reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
This past week, American policy under President Donald Trump took a sharp turn away from that Resolution with two key announcements. The first was that the two-state solution is not the only one the United States will support. The Trump administration signaled that it will consider other alternatives as well, without specifying exactly what those will be. The second was a cautionary note to the Israelis not to expand the territorial reach of their settlements to areas outside of those they have already occupied, mostly near Jerusalem. This statement echoes the understandings of former U.S. diplomat Elliott Abrams under George W. Bush (whom Trump unwisely rejected for a position as Rex Tillerson’s deputy at the State Department). The Abrams solution allowed the Israelis to place additional people in their existing settlements, but they could not expand the territorial boundaries—as a way to preserve the integrity of territories that would remain in Palestinian hands under any two–state solution.
The question the Trump announcement raises is whether any deal, two-state or otherwise, can resolve the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The current UN consensus for the two-state solution rests on some abstract vision for a just and lasting peace. But that vision pays no attention to the grubby questions of implementation, which is why there is no plausible deal on the ground. The only “settlement” possible is a continuation of the status quo, subject perhaps to modest adjustments that fall far short of an independent Palestinian state. This somber prediction rests on the simple proposition that no agreement to depart from the status quo is feasible unless it leaves both sides better off than they are today. It is easy, of course, to imagine Israeli concessions that will leave the Palestinians better off relative to the status quo. But it is virtually impossible to think of how the Israelis will be better off by surrendering territory (let alone territories within the pre-1967 borders) to an emergent Palestinian state in exchange for a binding promise of future peaceful coexistence between the two states.
The insurmountable difficulty with this approach rests on the timing of the reciprocal obligations. The territorial concessions from the Israelis will have to take place immediately. Once they do, by definition, the Israeli position will be more exposed militarily than it was before. The trick therefore is to imagine a set of institutional arrangements that will ensure the Palestinians perform their obligations in full after the Israelis have performed theirs. The familiar assurance problem is difficult enough to overcome when a seller delivers goods today in exchange for the promise of payment in a year. But there, the legal system can rely on guarantors, security interests in real and personal property, reputation, and a working court system to keep these deals in line. In this political context, however, these devices are woefully insufficient to counter the deep historical antagonisms that make a breach of that deal virtually certain. What devices can stem that defection? Not litigation before the World Court. Not intervention by the UN, certainly not after Resolution 2234. Not the United States, under an erratic Trump. The only steps the Israelis can afford to take are those that leave them better off even if the Palestinians take the most hostile stance toward them imaginable.
Here the past is prologue. Consider the Israeli decision to pull out of Gaza in 2005, followed by a Palestinian election in 2006—supported by the United States—which resulted in a Hamas takeover that remains in place today. The Abbas regime is now in its 12th year of a four-year term that commenced in 2005, because his Fatah party fears that Hamas would also win an election in the West Bank. While the Israelis, with the help of the Egyptians, can cordon off Gaza by land and sea, no such physical isolation is possible for the West Bank. Jordan, lying to the east, is a porous boundary from which other enemies of Israel could pass through or over.
The withdrawal from Gaza, coupled with overwhelming force in response to major Hamas attacks (three have occurred so far), remains a viable, if deadly, strategy for responding to the next attacks from there. Such an approach is probably superior to a costly occupation to defend a few Israeli settlements. But the case for Israeli occupation in the West Bank is far stronger given the risk of a Hamas takeover or other radicalization in the area. No two-state solution proposed today makes any sense so long as major Palestinian interest groups work fiercely for their preferred one-state solution, i.e., a state of Palestine, in which Israelis would have at best a subordinate status, assuming they were allowed to remain at all.
Yet suppose, for the sake of argument, the problems of future enforcement could be wished away. What deal could then be struck by the two sides? One obvious issue is the disputed status of East Jerusalem. Another is what to do with Israelis living in the West Bank, now about 600,000 people—most near Jerusalem—a number too large to be displaced. The Israelis will not yield East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, given the large number of Jewish citizens who have long lived there and the close historical ties of the Jewish people. And they would insist on the annexation of the West Bank settlements contiguous to Jerusalem, which the Palestinians emphatically reject. The Palestinians’ position is easy to reach under UN Resolution 2234, but a lot harder to defend against Israeli claims to some portion of these disputed territories. They have historical roots going back to Biblical days that cannot be wished away by any UN Resolution.
The grim logic of the Israeli position is that the inability to carve out a deal is attributable as much to Palestinian intransigence as to Israeli settlements. Everyone knows that Israel’s first military defeat could lead swiftly to its ultimate destruction. Whatever territory the Palestinians wrest from Israel by force, they will keep. The new territorial imbalance will create further military instability that will lead inevitably to further military attacks against Israel, each with greater odds of success. The asymmetry in rewards is not sustainable unless the Palestinians have something to lose from their decisions to reject deals, which they did without serious counteroffers in both 2000 and 2008.
At this point, one fair request is to ask the Palestinians to put forward a set of terms they are prepared to live with that would also be acceptable to the Israelis. The point here is that no bilateral negotiations can take place if Israelis are always under a duty to make concessions that the Palestinians can reject as insufficient. But what would those terms look like? Would they still insist that all Palestinians displaced since 1948 be allowed to return to their original homes, a position taken by the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions)? If the settlement does not go that far, will the Palestinian position require the removal of all Jews from their newly constituted state, including families who have lived in East Jerusalem and Hebron (home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs) even before the 1967 wars? And what protection would they offer to the holy Jewish sites that were desecrated during the Jordanian occupation between 1948 and 1967? Would they be willing to live with something like the Abrams territorial compromise on settlements? If the Palestinians do take over particular territories, what protections will they offer to Jewish citizens living there? Will these individuals receive the same sort of protection that Israel has consistently extended to the Arab populations now living in Israel? Will they be allowed to vote, attend university, obtain business licenses, keep their own homes, or hold government jobs?
I fear the answers to these questions, if stated candidly in advance, will point inexorably to total Palestinian dominance in its new territories. All further negotiations will collapse in the face of the institutional apartheid that will surely be built into any new Palestinian state.
Yet even if these issues could be gotten around, there are still questions of transportation and communication between the West Bank and Gaza, by land and air. There will need to be explicit negotiations over security issues between the two states on such mundane matters as the repeated unprovoked knifings of Jewish civilians by restless Palestinian youth. Astute observers can easily add issues such as water rights and reparations to the list. But the details don’t matter because no negotiations will reach that point. There is ample reason why no deal has been cut over the past 50 years, notwithstanding former Secretary of State John Kerry’s unrelenting determination to get matters settled. No mutually beneficial deal is possible. Nor is it conceivable to think that Jordan will take back all or part of the West Bank, or that Egypt will reabsorb Gaza. Neither nation wants to assume the crushing liabilities that come from the expansion of territory.
At this point, the only “solution” to the problem is to continue to work within the current framework, unhappy as it might be. It is not in the interest of the Israelis to shut down economic development in the West Bank or Gaza. Quite the opposite, their hope is that a dose of prosperity will give Palestinians something to lose, which would then serve as an effective brake on the kind of aggression committed by Hamas since 2005. The Israeli hope is that cooperation on economic matters could lead to a greater confidence and trust, which could in turn be followed by greater levels of Palestinian autonomy on matters of governance in portions of the West Bank.
The prospects here are not good because many Palestinian factions think they have much to gain by keeping the pot boiling so that ancient animosities will not be eased by economic and social cooperation. In this regard, they are encouraged to keep up the fight by BDS. These sanctions could never be powerful enough to induce the Israelis to accept an untenable two-state solution, but they are strong enough to undermine the low-level forms of cooperation that might ease some of the pain and embarrassment of the status quo. Thus BDS, along with other pressures, forced Israeli company SodaStream to move to the Negev from its location in the West Bank at the cost of some 570 Palestinian jobs. The current status quo may well seem untenable. But given the constellation of forces bearing down on the Israelis, everything else is worse.