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U.S. Policy and the Concept of a ‘Viable’ Palestinian State

Author: Scott B. Lasenksy
August 1, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


“A Palestinian state…needs to be politically and economically viable,” President George W. Bush, speaking at the White House, April 4, 2002.

“A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for. So I challenge Israel to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state,” President George W. Bush, speaking at the White House, June 24, 2002.

I. Introduction

As President George W. Bush first affirmed on April 4, 2002, the United States believes there can be no sustainable settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict without the establishment of a “viable” Palestinian state. 1 Such a state has to be a principle feature of any negotiated settlement. A future Palestinian state that is not viable would be dangerous to its neighbors, the entire region and harmful to American interests. But how is the notion of “viability” to be understood -- and what are the implications for U.S. policy?

The Bush Administration should be applauded for its decision to affirm U.S. support for a “viable” Palestinian state -- and to increasingly include this concept in U.S. policy pronouncements, including the Road Map. However, the Administration needs to offer a clearer, more specific vision of a final settlement if a “viable” Palestinian state is to be realized. According to President Bush, progress with the Road Map is a U.S. national security imperative. But without further clarification, the concept of “viability” will become an empty slogan and a hollow codeword as events on the ground further erode prospects for a two-state settlement.

The emphasis of this paper is on understanding the notion of “viability” and evaluating how it fits into U.S. policy toward the peace process. The focus herein is on attributes of viability for which understandings with Israel are necessary. Subjects, like governance, which are primarily the domain of Palestinians, although important determinants of viability are not addressed. 2

First, the notion of viability is assessed both in the abstract and in relation to other cases in contemporary international affairs. Second, the paper reviews the development of the U.S. position, with special emphasis on the Bush Administration. Third, the role of outside actors in promoting viability is examined. Here, specific policy recommendations are offered to enable the USG to clarify what remains a vague idea. A final section offers some general conclusions about the concept of “viability” and the implications for U.S. policy.

II. Conceptualizing Viability

There is no accepted international standard of what makes a state viable. Physical endowments are important, but not solely determining. Viability should be understood in multi-dimensional terms, having as much to do with hard assets (i.e. territory, natural resources, military power) as it does with soft assets (i.e. efficient and legitimate institutions of governance, a shared identity among the citizenry). Viability also exists within a spectrum. States like the U.S. or Canada lay at one end (strong viability), with Somalia or Albania laying at the other end (weak viability).

What makes a state viable depends largely on domestic considerations such as enforcing internal security, ensuring political stability, providing essential services to the populace and meeting external security threats. Implicit in the notion of viability is that neighboring states do not impose constraints that undercut these basic requirements. Therefore, Israeli security demands (and to a lesser extent Jordanian and Egyptian ones) regarding territory, natural resources and security, need to be consistent with the minimum requirements of Palestinian viability. But this is not to say that constraints or limitations demanded by neighboring states necessarily put viability at risk. In fact, they can potentially ensure viability.

The international norm of state sovereignty, while universal, is far from absolute in contemporary international affairs. Adjustments or limitations on sovereignty are too numerous to list. A number of former Soviet states have agreed to maintain Russian military forces and border guards. Japan observes limitations on the size of its military. More than one hundred states have agreed to foreswear the development of nuclear weapons, and to accept intrusive international inspections to verify compliance. Egypt observes a rigid demilitarization regime in the Sinai. Germany and Korea allow large American military forces to operate on their territory.

As mentioned above, the international system exhibits what can be called a viability spectrum. There are small, resource-poor states like the Benelux countries and Singapore that display fairly robust degrees of viability. At the same time, there are states rich in natural resources and/or territory (e.g. Congo, Somalia) that do not. States can achieve (or secure) viability largely through internal means, as with the United States, China post-1949, or Great Britain. Viability can also be secured (or guaranteed) externally, as with East Timor or South Korea post-1954.

Territorial Contiguity

When conceptualizing viability, territorial contiguity is one of the essential attributes of all states in the modern nation-state system. States that lack contiguity, like Pakistan pre-1971, West Germany/Berlin pre-1989, Armenia/Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan, tend to face great difficulties and -- as in the case of Pakistan -- viability is severely challenged. Virtually all states in the modern era display a high degree of territorial contiguity, with divided territories at least accessible by sea (e.g. U.S., Oman, Malaysia).

Therefore, when assessing the requirements of a viable Palestinian state, one of the most challenging issues is territorial contiguity -- both within the West Bank, and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Bush Administration has already indicated that the U.S. expects a future Palestinian state to have contiguous territory throughout the West Bank, and not to be comprised of isolated batches of territory (see section below on Bush Administration statements). The White House has also spoken out against the Israeli separation fence, a project which has involved the appropriation of large tracts of West Bank land -- leaving some Palestinian areas virtual islands, and promising a similar fate for other areas.

Literal contiguity is not the problem, particularly given Prime Minister Sharon’s pledge to ensure some measure of connectivity. Rather, the real question is the degree of contiguity a Palestinian state would enjoy in the West Bank. Until the Bush Administration and the Quartet take a clearer position on the territorial dimension of a final settlement (for which the Road Map is silent), continued Israeli settlement activity and the security demands of the Sharon government place great doubt on whether the degree of contiguity can meet even the most minimal Palestinian requirements to ensure the normal flow of people and goods -- and also secure political support from the populace.

Contiguity between the West Bank and Gaza Strip is a related, but separate question. Palestinians have long demanded a sovereign land corridor connecting the two areas. Israel has long objected to such a demand. By definition, a sovereign Palestinian land corridor would compromise Israeli territorial contiguity. Oslo-era plans for safe-passage corridors, which were still subject to Israeli sovereignty, were hardly a better solution. Only one corridor was briefly opened, and under extreme Israeli security measures. None exists today.

Considering the lack of confidence between the parties, and the poor record of joint arrangements, a cooperative framework appears unlikely to function effectively. Therefore, the greatest hope for maximizing viability and minimizing Israeli security concerns may lie in establishing an international or third-party functional arrangement for managing the land passage between the West Bank and Gaza. (See section below on role of outside actors.)

Political Viability

As mentioned earlier in this paper, viability is also measured in soft assets like political legitimacy. The Bush Administration has said a Palestinian state needs to be “politically” viable, but has provided few hints about what that means. Two possible conclusions could be drawn from public opinion polls and prior diplomatic activity. In terms of Palestinian public opinion, the viability of a future state would likely be challenged if a significant constituency of Palestinians did not support its territorial and security parameters.

According to polls by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a strong majority of Palestinians in the territories would support a negotiated settlement based on the 1967 borders and other arrangements as laid out in the Clinton plan and the Saudi initiative. 3 This includes the refugee issue, for which a more recent PSR poll indicates that a vast majority of refugees support the functional solutions presented by Clinton -- and in fact do not seek to return to pre-1967 Israel. 4 This polling data indicates what kind of settlement is required to ensure that a future state is politically viable. (Furthermore, Palestinian support for a negotiated settlement also rests on having a capital in Jerusalem.)

Precedent is also an indicator. All Arab-Israeli peace settlements have been concluded on the basis of establishing full, peaceful relations and security guarantees in exchange for full Israeli withdrawals. It is difficult to imagine a territorial resolution with Palestinians that does not adhere to a defining principle of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations since the 1970s.

But the Bush Administration has not identified any of these standards as part of its vision of a “viable” Palestinian state. These omissions have made it easier for Israelis -- particularly those in the Sharon government -- to argue that a sustainable settlement could be based on a formula that adds up to less. It has also allowed the Palestinian leadership to avoid making clear decisions on issues like refugees.

III. Development of the U.S. position

U.S. support for a two-state solution, not to mention a “viable” Palestinian state, is a relatively new phenomenon.

In supporting the 1947 U.N. partition plan, the U.S. endorsed the establishment of an Arab state in Palestine. But after the 1967 war, the U.S. position became less clear. The Nixon and Ford administrations focused largely on peace negotiations between Israel and its neighboring states, rather than the Palestinian issue. Statehood for Palestinians has not been an American priority. President Carter, despite his evident sympathies for the Palestinian national movement and his inclination to support the cause of statehood, refrained from official declarations or policy actions in support of a Palestinian state. The 1978 Camp David Accords, mediated by Carter, established a framework for a five-year period of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. But the landmark agreement did not call for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

President Ronald Reagan continued the U.S. policy of not endorsing statehood. In his 1982 initiative, Reagan said “the United States would oppose both Israeli annexation (of the West Bank and Gaza) and an independent Palestinian state.” 5 (At the time, it should be noted, the PLO and the Palestinian national movement largely rejected Israel and any suggestion of a two-state solution.) The PLO’s December 13, 1988 declaration of statehood was not recognized by Washington, although Reagan did respond to a number of positive Palestinian declarations by opening an official U.S.-PLO dialogue. Reagan’s approach on the statehood issue was continued by George H.W. Bush. After the first Gulf War, Bush’s intense diplomatic intervention succeeded in launching a comprehensive peace process at Madrid, but the process did not involve negotiating directly with the PLO. Nor did it endorse statehood.

The 1993 Oslo accord established a framework for temporary Palestinian self-rule and implicitly put off the statehood question until a permanent status agreement could be reached. Throughout the Oslo years, President Clinton acted as mediator, facilitator and even arbiter, but consistently refrained from taking a position on statehood -- since it was not addressed in the interim accords.

Then, following the failed 2000 Camp David summit and the outbreak of intense Israeli-Palestinian violence, Clinton put forward American positions on each of the permanent status issues, including statehood. This was a momentous step for an American president. After privately presenting his “parameters” to the parties in December 2000, Clinton publicly discussed his plan in a speech to a pro-Israel group in January 2001 -- becoming not only the first U.S. president to endorse the idea of an independent Palestinian state, but also the first to call for a “viable” state.

I think there can be no genuine resolution to the conflict without a sovereign, viable, Palestinian state that accommodates Israeli's security requirements and the demographic realities. 6

Clinton explained what he meant by a viable state. It would need to include;

Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza, the vast majority of the West Bank, the incorporation into Israel of settlement blocks…(for) Palestine to be viable (it) must be a geographically contiguous state…land annexed into Israel (for) settlement blocks should include as few Palestinians as possible, consistent with the logic of two separate homelands. And to make the agreement durable, I think there will have to be some territorial swaps and other arrangements. 7

Although Clinton did not endorse a one-to-one formula when it came to land swaps, he did say that territory annexed to Israel for the purpose of incorporating settlers should be minimized (and he did not endorse the idea of Israel permanently retaining any territory for security purposes). But Clinton failed to broker a final status agreement and shortly after taking office the incoming Bush Administration declared that his parameters were no longer U.S. policy.

After initially avoiding serious engagement in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, following the September 11 attacks the Bush Administration first endorsed the establishment of a Palestinian state. 8 Then, in April 2002, at the height of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Bush went a step further and said any future Palestinian state “…needs to be politically and economically viable.” 9 (About the same time, the Arab League and the U.N. Security Council also endorsed the two-state idea.)

In his landmark June 24, 2002, speech Bush went even further. Although he refrained from supporting Clinton’s positions on final status issues, Bush went beyond his predecessor in tying statehood to internal governance -- a theme the Administration continues to repeat (but is not addressed in this paper). 10 The president also said Israel bore a major responsibility in helping establish a Palestinian state.

A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for. So I challenge Israel to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state. 11

Since the June 24 speech, the president and his top advisors have continued to reiterate the U.S. call for a “viable” state that is peaceful, democratic, “credible,” and territorially contiguous. Perhaps the clearest definition of what the Administration means by “viable” was offered by Secretary of State Colin Powell and NSA Condoleezza Rice at the Aqaba summit in June 2003.

(Powell) A contiguous state has to be a state that both sides accept and that is viable. It can have an economy, people can move back and forth freely. And both people(s) feel they have achieved their objective. They have a state that they can call their own, living in peace with another state.

(Rice) the (Israeli) Prime Minister made important statements about territorial

contiguity of the Palestinian state. 12

The president, returning from Aqaba, said “Israel has got responsibilities…(it) must deal with the settlements. Israel must make sure there's a (contiguous) territory that Palestinians call home. 13

IV. The Role of Outside Actors in Promoting Viability

Core Principles

To convert the current moment of promise into meaningful progress, and to transform the call for a “viable” state into an effective diplomatic instrument, U.S. policy needs to incorporate a number of core principles. Otherwise, the Road Map process may never lead to a negotiated settlement that assures Israel's security and identity and also guarantees a viable Palestinian state.

First, a permanent, negotiated settlement can only be based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed exchanges of territory. This is the same formula that established peace between Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Furthermore, there can be no sustainable solution without meaningful Palestinian territorial contiguity. The president articulated (however inelegantly) the latter at the Aqaba summit, but the larger principle still lacks a clear American endorsement.

In order to realize the president's vision of "two states, living side by side in peace and security," any solution of the Palestinian refugee problem must be acceptable to Israel. On this score, most Americans understand why Israel is demanding that Palestinians relinquish their claim to return to pre-1967 Israel. (As noted above, Palestinian public opinion surveys also reflect that the issue is resolvable.) This core trade-off -- between territory and refugees -- is inescapable if the objective remains protecting Israel's security and its identity while at the same time ensuring the viability of a future Palestinian state. Explicitly stating this formula and incorporating it in the president's vision would strengthen the process.

Second, the U.S. must ensure that the cease-fire is followed in short-order by full disarmament of Palestinian terrorists and the rejectionist factions. Putting off disarmament today may be the price for building quick momentum for the Road Map, but down the line the process (and the future Palestinian state) will fail if armed groups are left intact and are allowed to challenge Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority. A Palestinian state will never be viable if its governing authority cannot maintain a monopoly on the legitimate use of force -- something that remains a defining feature of all states.

Third, the road map's stated goal of "an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel" is inconsistent with continued expansion of Israeli settlements. An immediate end to Israeli settlement activity is a sine qua non. Without such action, the Road Map will fail and a Palestinian state will never be viable.

At the Aqaba summit, Ariel Sharon committed to "immediately begin" dismantling illegal outposts (i.e. settlements built since 2001 without Israeli government approval), and a handful outposts have been taken down so far. But if the past is prologue, Sharon is likely to drag his feet -- which is why the Administration must continue to press Israel and ensure that all 60-100 outposts are removed.

Fourth, a Palestinian state must be demilitarized, most likely beyond arrangements discussed in the last round of negotiations (see section below on security guarantees). Fifth, the United States must make clear that the objective of the Road Map, in fact the objective of any process, is finality and achieving a solution that is both sustainable and enduring. Continued Israeli settlement activity or long-term Israeli control over large parts of Palestinian territory will only breed continued conflict. Just the same, continued Palestinian terrorism and demands for a "right of return" to Israel will never lead to an enduring settlement. It is essential for the United States to keep the parties focused on a sustainable settlement, and to identify roadblocks put up by either side.

Economic Assistance

In addition to articulating these core principles, there are other roles the U.S. and outside actors can play in promoting viability and supporting the larger Arab-Israeli peace process. When it comes to economic affairs, it is obvious that a Palestinian state will not be economically self-reliant. Therefore, continued financial assistance from outside parties will be necessary to secure viability. Considering both the damage caused during the Intifada, and the increased likelihood that economic activity with Israel will remain low for the foreseeable future, a Palestinian state will likely be more reliant on external assistance than during the Oslo years. Furthermore, significant outside funding (perhaps $20-30 billion) will be needed to fund a refugee settlement that would be part of a final deal, in addition to the substantial costs outside parties would bear for peacekeeping deployments.

Economic support from outside parties does not undermine viability. Even Israel continues to receive external assistance. In its early years (and in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s) Israel received considerable amounts of government aid and private charitable contributions. Most post-conflict states, like Cambodia, El Salvador, Bosnia and East Timor, are heavily dependent on international assistance. The challenge for a future Palestinian state will be whether -- over time --its reliance on international welfare can be reduced.

Security Guarantees and Arrangements

There is little international debate about whether a future Palestinian state would need to observe limits on its military capabilities and accept other security conditions. Rather, the debate is over the degree. Would a Palestinian state be allowed to send troops abroad for training purposes or peacekeeping missions? What kind of weapons systems would a Palestinian be allowed to acquire -- mortars? missile-defense systems? tanks? submarines? Would outside parties be allowed to observe Palestinian border crossings with Egypt and Jordan? and who would be responsible for monitoring flows of people and goods?

Numerous states accept limitations on their military capabilities. After World War II, Germany, Austria and Japan all adhered to severe restrictions. Under U.S., Russian and international pressure, former Soviet states agreed to relinquish their nuclear weapons stockpiles, as well as some conventional weapons. There is nothing enshrined in international law that precludes a state from agreeing to limitations on its military capabilities.

The security arena may be the hardest circle to square, since each party’s strategic assumptions have evolved dramatically since the high point of the 2000-01 negotiations. For Israel, the deterioration of the security environment has strengthened the need to tighten border regimes and more closely manage demilitarization arrangements. For Palestinians, security concerns have also changed, and they now seek greater assurances against Israeli invasions or other punitive measures.

Therefore, to deal with new security imperatives, third-party security arrangements will likely need to be more robust than previously conceived (including the size and duration of peacekeeping or tripwire forces.) More international involvement is needed, not only because previous negotiations failed but because the total collapse of security cooperation has pushed mutual confidence to a new low. Should the Road Map process move forward, the events of the past 2-3 years will undoubtedly increase the burden on third-parties and outside actors.

V. Conclusion

The Bush Administration has repeatedly endorsed the need for the establishment of a Palestinian state that is “viable,” and not a state in name only. But with the exception of making such pronouncements and articulating benchmarks for governance, the Administration has failed to endorse the kind of specific positions that would put real teeth on the notion of viability.

To its credit, the Bush Administration has not been totally silent. Administration officials have identified some elements of the present situation that are incompatible with the notion of a viable Palestinian state. For example, it is increasingly clear that President Bush sees Israeli settlements as inconsistent with a “viable” Palestinian state. In addition to the Road Map’s call for a cessation of settlement building, Bush’s demand for contiguity indicates a belief that virtually all Israeli settlements -- particularly isolated ones -- need to be ceded. Following NSA Rice’s June 28 visit, it is also clear that the White House also sees the Israeli separation fence -- as currently designed -- as harmful to prospects for peace and inconsistent with a viable Palestinian state.

Moreover, the Administration has said the continued existence of armed Palestinian terrorist groups in the territories cannot be reconciled with the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Administration pronouncements on this point have only grown more explicit. Washington also views Yasser Arafat’s continued involvement in Palestinian decision-making as problematic for a future settlement.

But the Administration’s strong rhetoric on these issues has failed to achieve definitive results. In some cases, like with settlements and the separation fence, there has been no change in Israeli policy.

As argued in this paper, the Bush Administration’s concept of a “viable” Palestinian state, while potentially important, remains too vague. Without further clarification and policy actions, to simply repeat the call for a “viable” Palestinian state will do little to move the Road Map process forward and secure a negotiated two-state settlement.


1 Remarks by President Bush in the Rose Garden, April 4, 2002.

2 The subject of governance has received wide attention, and numerous studies are available. For two examples, see “Strengthening Palestinian Public Institutions,” Report of an Independent Task Force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, 1999; and International Crisis Group, “The Meanings of Palestinian Reform,” November, 2002.

3 Two-thirds of Palestinians say they would support such a settlement. PSR poll, May 15-19, 2002.

4 See James Bennett, “Palestinian Mob Attacks Pollster,” New York Times, July 14, 2003.

5 Reagan quote from William Quandt, Peace Process, Washington: Brookings Institution, second edition, 2001, pg. 255.

6 Remarks by former President Bill Clinton to the Israeli Policy Forum, January 7, 2001.

7 Remarks by former President Bill Clinton to the Israeli Policy Forum, January 7, 2001.

8 Remarks by President George W. Bush, October 3, 2001, quoted from The Jerusalem Post October 4, 2001.

9 Remarks by President Bush in the Rose Garden, April 4, 2002.

10 Speaking after the Aqaba summit, Rice said “final borders is really not the only thing that constitutes a state. And one of the breakthroughs of June 24 (2003) was to say to the Palestinians the content of the state, the character of the state is going to be extremely important to getting to a resolution of the final status issues. If it's democratic and transparent and peace-loving and doesn't aid and abet terrorists, that is going to make it much easier to sit down with an Israeli partner and talk about how to divide the land.” Remarks by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice at Town Hall Los Angeles Breakfast, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, California, June 13, 2003.

11 Remarks by President Bush in the Rose Garden, June 24, 2002.

12 Remarks by Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to the Press Pool, King Hussein International Airport, Aqaba, Jordan, June 4, 2003.

13 President Bush’s remarks aboard Air Force One, cited in Elizabeth Bumiller, “The President’s Trip: Unguarded Moments,” New York Times, June 4, 2003. The Quartet’s Road Map echoes the Bush Administration’s call for a viable state. “A settlement, negotiated between the parties, will result in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors,” declares the Road Map, which was released April 30, 2003. The word ”viable” is mentioned four times in the Road Map.

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