In an article published today in The New Republic, Ben Birnbaum warns that the prospects for a two-state solution in the Middle East for settling the conflict between Israel and Palestine are rapidly fading away. He bases this conclusion on the following observations:
• Israelis are comfortably living in cognitive dissonance: in surveys, two thirds report being in favor of a peace deal that envisages a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem and extending over areas of the West Bank and Gaza; yet, on election day, the majority voted for right-wing and extremist parties that oppose one of the key requirements for such a solution, namely the reversal of the settlement process.
• The trend is negative with extremist nationalist views on the rise among young people. Thus, for instance, the electoral base for the pro-settler Jewish Home Party is the age group between eighteen and thirty-five. This is the reverse from what can be observed among young Jews of the Diaspora who are increasingly alienated by Israeli politics.
• Palestinians do not fare much better with their concurrent support for Fatah and Hamas; moreover, the support for Fatah is waning and will probably expire with Mahmoud Abbas’ anticipated departure from politics because of ill health. According to Birnbaum, Abbas is still the ‘better partner’ for a two-state solution. Unfortunately, like many politicians of his generation, ‘he has not only failed to groom a successor, he has at times actively undermined potential heirs.’
One central mistake of the Middle-East peace process has been the failure of political elites to first, think outside their narrow narratives and reference frameworks, and second, communicate to their citizens the real-life implications of compromises. This is no specificity of the Israel/Palestine conflict but a typical occurrence in all ethnic and community conflicts.
The main reason such conflicts remain unresolved, as if ‘frozen’, for extensive periods of time has to do with the manipulation of public opinion with the help of nationalist ideologies and for the mere purpose of winning elections. Peace processes require long-term strategic thinking. Few politicians display this—and if and when they finally do they usually are too old to follow the solution through (see Ariel Sharon).
Ben Birnbaum’s analysis is not new. Ten years ago, the late Tony Judt was widely condemned for raising similar doubts and concerns in an article published in The New York Review of Books and entitled ‘Israel: The Alternative’.
Judt saw, already in 2003, that the two-state solution was doomed to fail. But he did not stop there. He dared confront the alternative, namely, the choice between ‘an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel’ [which Israel cannot afford if it wants to remain a democracy] and ‘a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.’ The creation of such a state would not be easy, not least because ‘it would require the emergence, among Jews and Arabs alike, of a new political class’–an idea representing ‘an unpromising mix of realism and utopia.’ But, he concluded, ‘the alternatives are far, far worse.’
Alas, the idea of a binational state of Israelis and Palestinians remains as much a taboo today as it was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. Therefore, it is time to think of alternatives to both the two-state and one-state solutions.
What may these be?
According to the theory of ‘complex power sharing’ developed, among else, by Stefan Wolff, one common mental blockade in ethnic conflict resolution is precisely the said tendency to think in terms of alternatives in conjunction with thinking in terms of end points, i.e. a valid solution to a conflict is that which covers all open questions and is final and conclusive. But the actual practice suggests that it is also possible to resolve ethnic conflicts mid-way by combining mechanisms and tools from different models.
If this too were not to work, then, as Tony Judt said in an interview in 2010, Israel, while no doubt surviving, perhaps even as a Jewish state, risks losing its relevance for Jews and non-Jews around the world ‘as people forget the original impulse and historical circumstances surrounding its foundation.’