Rethinking a Two-State Solution

At a time of renewed scrutiny of U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, veteran Middle East expert Robert Malley, who served as special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs for President Bill Clinton, calls for rethinking Israeli-Palestinian talks to address concerns of Palestinian refugees and Israel’s right wing.

November 6, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

A veteran Middle East expert, Robert Malley, who served as special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs for President Bill Clinton, says it is time to "rethink" the current negotiations that have failed to produce a solution between Palestinians and Israelis. He says last week’s statement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he will not run for re-election "exposes the crisis that the Fatah movement that he heads and the political current that he represents has now reached." Malley thinks negotiations need to focus more on the Palestinian diaspora’s demand for recognition of their "right to return" to lands they left in 1948 and to Israelis’ demand that Palestinians and Arabs accept Israel as a "Jewish" state. And he says a way must be found to test Hamas’ intentions, to see if a lasting deal can be struck.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority announced he is not going to stand for reelection in elections slated for January.  He gave as a principal reason his unhappiness with the United States’ failure to secure major concessions from Israel.  Where does this leave the Obama administration’s Middle East initiatives?

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The odds of elections being held in January are pretty low. Hamas has said they won’t participate, which means Gazans won’t be able to vote. This in turn means that there’s a better than 50/50 chance that the electoral commission will say that the elections can’t be held. So for all those reasons, his threat may not come to pass in January.

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Palestinian Territories

As we’ve defined the parameters of a two-state solution, it hasn’t really addressed the concerns of today. On the Palestinian side: the diaspora, the refugees, those who have identified with Hamas; on the Israeli side the right-wing, the religious, the settlers’ community.

What was more important was that the meeting and speech reflected the frustrations and the desperation of the man who was himself reflecting the frustrations and desperations of his people. This was because of what is happening on the ground and because of what Palestinians see as the inability of the Obama administration--in which they had placed such high hopes--to achieve what Palestinians had counted on.  His speech also exposes the crisis that the Fatah movement that he heads and the political current that he represents has now reached. In recent years, Fatah sought to achieve sovereignty and independence through negotiations while building the institutions of statehood. Well, governing all Palestinians is no longer really what Fatah is doing, and reaching independence is what it has not been able to achieve.

Most of the Obama administration’s energy has been spent trying to get the Israelis to freeze settlement-building in the West Bank. But recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that it was all right for Israel to continue building 3500 units that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants, and said it was an "unprecedented" compromise by him to slow construction after they are built.  This led of course to a stormy reception by Palestinians and also other Arab leaders she met in Morocco.

What President Obama faced when he came into office was a region that was probably as unreceptive to the kind of peace ambitions he had, than at any time in the recent past. So the crisis was not of the U.S. making it but existed in the region. In particular there was a divided and weak Palestinian leadership [between Hamas and Fatah], and a dysfunctional right-wing Israeli government.

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In naming an envoy [former Senator George Mitchell] early and starting with a determined approach were things that a lot of the critics of the Bush administration, myself included, had called for. But I think what is of concern is not so much the failure to reach the goals that [the] Obama administration put up front-a full settlement freeze and the achievement of a two-state solution-but that they set the goals in the first place without a plan to address the situation if they weren’t able to achieve them. Frankly those goals weren’t achievable. A full settlement freeze is unrealistic. It’s just not something that any Israeli government has ever done. They certainly won’t do it in East Jerusalem, and the solution to the settlements problem is going to require delineating a final border between Israelis and Palestinians and dismantling those settlements that are on the Palestinian side of the border while Israel would annex those on its side of the border.

And the notion that the two sides could reach a comprehensive two-state solution, given everything I’ve just described about the region, is also not realistic. As a result of this effort to reach goals that were not realistic to begin with, you’ve had a number of casualties. U.S. credibility in the region has dropped again after the high that it had reached with Obama’s election and his speech in Cairo, and our relationship with Israel has become frostier. Perhaps most important, [is that] one of the last Palestinians with whom we believe we can do the kind of business we want to do has been dramatically weakened as a result of a number of steps, whether it’s the handling of the Goldstone report [where the United States pressured Abbas not to seek action on a UN report condemning Israeli’s actions in the Gaza war in January], or the handling of the settlement freeze. There seems to be no limit to the harm we can do to the Palestinians we purport to help, and that is something that is not peculiar to the Obama administration.

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Palestinian Territories

Does that mean a two-state solution is out of the question?

A two state solution as we’ve come to define it needs reinvention.

Intellectually the [Obama] administration understands that a divided Palestinian entity is an obstacle to reaching, implementing, and sustaining a peace agreement.

As we’ve defined the parameters of a two-state solution, it hasn’t really addressed the concerns of today. On the Palestinian side: the diaspora, the refugees, those who have identified with Hamas; on the Israeli side the right-wing, the religious, the settlers’ community. And you won’t be able to satisfy all of them, undoubtedly, but there needs to be a way to at least try to bring some of their concerns into the solution that you’re ultimately going to have to sell to them.  It’s very hard to imagine a solution that won’t entail the creation of a Palestinian state and Israel within the borders of 1967. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t change other elements of it so that it becomes both more attractive, and has a sense of novelty so that people when they see it don’t think, "We’ve seen this movie before, we know how it ends, and it doesn’t end well."

Give me some specifics on what we should do differently. Talk about the Palestinians.

You need to address the constituency, which on the Palestinian side is going to be a very powerful one, and it will become much more vocal as the time is coming closer to an agreement.  Today, those who are speaking are those in the West Bank, and in particular the leadership in the West Bank. But once you’re seeking to get an agreement ratified and endorsed, it’s going to have to have the acceptance of the diaspora and the refugee community, which are the majority of Palestinians.  They may not be the best-organized, they’re not the ones who are doing the negotiations, but they need to feel in some way that their interests have been taken into account.

Unfortunately for them and obviously for the process, the way the two-state solution has been discussed--including by very well-intentioned people--has been to say "the refugee problem is a card that the Palestinians will keep close to their chest until the very end, and then at the end they’ll trade it for East Jerusalem, or more territory." If the genesis of the Palestinian movement is a refugee issue, if the majority of Palestinians are refugees, and if the Palestinian ethos is so connected to what happened in 1948 [when thousands of Palestinians either fled or were driven out of what later became part of Israel], that won’t cut it.  So the answer is not to say, "They need a right of return to Israel," because that would be the end of the two-state solution. The answer is to see whether you can find a way to show that whatever solution you’re pursuing takes into account the world view, the histories, and the concerns and the aspirations of the diaspora.

The Palestinians are so divided between Hamas and Fatah, and the U.S. administration has been so careful not to show any interest in dealing with Hamas that this issue is really almost unresolvable.

Intellectually the administration understands that a divided Palestinian entity is an obstacle to reaching, implementing, and sustaining a peace agreement. This is opposed to the views of others that it’s better to have them divided because then we can deal with the "good guys" and the "bad guys" would be cut out. I think it could become extremely toxic. It would be damaging to President Abbas, to Fatah, and to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah if we were to now start engaging with Hamas. And also there fear is that if Hamas were part of the picture, you’d give the government in Israel another reason to try to stall the negotiations on the grounds that why should they be negotiating when the party on the other side includes a group that won’t recognize Israel and has sought its destruction.

Is there a middle road?

The administration should start thinking of what are the steps that can be taken to start a process of engagement with Hamas--which doesn’t have to be U.S. engagement with Hamas; it could be third-party engagement with Hamas, whether it’s individuals or third countries.

Well Egypt of course has been trying to reconcile the Palestinians for months now.

Egypt is both judge and party. It has its own important interests at stake-it fears Hamas because of the Muslim brotherhood, it has interests vis-à-vis Gaza. So yes, they can do their share, but they’re not the ones who I think can do the kind of indirect contact that is going to be needed at some point. What we need to think about is what we really want from Hamas. I don’t know whether Hamas as a movement can truly evolve in the way that we would like or not. I think that needs to be put to the test. What I do know is that current policy aimed at weakening Hamas by isolating Gaza and by trying to ignore Hamas hasn’t worked.  Hamas is too strong on the ground; it has too many tools and too many instruments at its disposal to remind people of its existence; the attempt to cut Gaza off has in fact entrenched Hamas’ rule there. And because the peace process is in the place it is, there are enough Palestinians who will lose faith in Fatah and will be attracted to Hamas.

Netanyahu insists that the Palestinians and Arabs have to recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." Is that a new demand?

It’s new and it’s not. Prime Minister Barak raised it at Camp David [in 2000] but the Palestinians shot it down.  When Prime Minister Netanyahu said that, I thought you could look at it in two ways.  You could say, "Oh it’s just a pretext, he’s just raising another new obstacle." But the fact that he picked that issue to raise out of others that he could have raised was not a coincidence. It’s because it reflects the yearnings, concerns, aspirations of the Jewish people of Israel.  What he mentioned became and was a very consensual position because Israelis deep down doubt whether the Palestinians-even those who are prepared to sign a peace agreement-truly accept and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state in their midst. So when Prime Minister Netanyahu said that I think we have to take it seriously, just as I think we have to take it seriously when Palestinians speak about refugee rights; these are not simply things that they throw out there.


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