from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

The Misplaced Optimism of the Two-State Solution

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Middle East peace at the Department of State in Washington (James Lawler Duggan/Reuters).

Although Secretary of State John Kerry billed his speech on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process as a last-ditch effort to save the two-state solution, he actually outlined precisely why such an outcome is entirely unlikely.

December 29, 2016

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on Middle East peace at the Department of State in Washington (James Lawler Duggan/Reuters).
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In the spring of 1991, when I was a research assistant for the director of studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, I met Joseph J. Sisco. Long-since retired, he had been the assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South Asia and undersecretary of state for political affairs. Among other things, Mr. Sisco (as I called him, even though he told me to use “Joe”) played an important role in Middle East diplomacy in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. I was fortunate that Mr. Sisco took an interest in me. He was generous with his time, and on the few occasions that I published op-eds, he was gracious enough to offer his comments and encouragement. I remember some years later I ran into him on the DC Metro. This was just about the time when the Oslo process was starting to come undone by waves of suicide bombers attacking buses in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other Israeli cities. After greeting each other, I asked Mr. Sisco what he thought about the prospects for continued progress in the context of such gruesome bloodshed. He replied, “Steven, you always have to be optimistic.” That was the last time I saw him in person; he died in late 2004. I am afraid if Mr. Sisco were still alive, his perspective would likely be darker than it was that day aboard the Red Line, especially after the spectacle of this past week.

The entire episode—the United Nations Security Council resolution, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power’s speech, the Israeli government’s (over)reaction, Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response—was entirely unnecessary and manifestly unhelpful because it maintains the fantasy of a two-state solution, diverting resources and attention away from thinking about and planning for other potential and more likely outcomes. I have written this before, but it bears repeating: The two-state solution is no longer an option because the alleged partners for peace (Israelis and Palestinians) are not actually interested in settling the conflict. The Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot claim to want two states living side by side while it routinely delegitimizes Israel and the Jewish connection to the land. The PA’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Fatah cannot claim to want to settle the conflict when, at the same time, they glorify, in Arabic, violence against Israelis and Jews. The people who run the Gaza Strip—Hamas—are more up front about their goals to liberate all of Palestine, meaning all of the territory that is Israel. For its part, the Israeli government cannot argue in good faith that it wants a two-state solution when it encourages its citizens to settle on the land that would be part of the Palestinian state. Even if one were to assume that Abbas and Netanyahu genuinely wanted a two-state solution, the politics of Palestinian nationalism and, for Netanyahu, the exigencies of coalition management, which means placating settler interests, preclude anything other than maximalist positions.

What was so interesting about Kerry’s speech was that he billed it as a last-ditch effort to save the two-state solution, but he actually outlined precisely why such an outcome is entirely unlikely—he made the very same arguments I make in the paragraph just above. Kerry might have gotten more credit had he framed the speech as a statement about the fallacy of two democratic states living side by side in peace and offered some thoughts about how best to manage the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians going forward because a one-state solution is not going to happen either. Also, it should have been shorter by thirty-five or forty minutes.

Kerry does deserve credit, however. He is the first American official to articulate clearly and in public the agenda of the settler movement and the ministers who represent it, which is to preclude the establishment of Palestinian state. The secretary also made clear the limits of American power when parties to a conflict define their struggle in existential terms. This is worth underlining given the American inclination to believe (including Kerry, ironically) that, with enough grit and determination, the United States can meaningfully contribute to the resolution of these kinds of conflicts. This should also shatter any Arab illusions about Washington’s ability to force a solution on the parties. These are important points about American foreign policy, but they have been lost in the dueling commentaries, tweets, and media appearances of partisans to both sides of the debate.

It’s been twenty-five years since I first encountered Mr. Sisco, and I guess I have come to expect nothing less from Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans when it comes to this unresolvable conflict.