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The Ever-Vanishing Two-State Timeline

Is the two-state solution to the Middle East conflict still alive? According to Secretary of State John Kerry, it’s on life support, but there are still two years for it to become reality. This piece of prophecy delivered last week in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee is presumably the justification for the peace offensive Kerry is planning on conducting in the coming months. This will keep the secretary busy shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah where, he says, he sensed a new seriousness of purpose in Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. The deadline of two years is supposed to scare these two leaders and presumably their constituencies that Kerry hopes to save from a future of unending conflict with patient diplomacy. His prediction has more to with his fantasies about achieving success in an endeavor that has chewed up and spit out better diplomats than the former Massachusetts senator than any actual chances of peace.

But however foolish Kerry’s ambitions might be, this idea of a definitive timeline beyond which peace is impossible is far more dangerous than the new secretary’s ego trip. The obstacles to a two-state solution are formidable right now. Indeed, they are so great that Kerry’s attempt to jump-start them at time when the prospects for a deal are less than negligible is actually a greater inducement to violence than the status quo. But by setting an artificial deadline without any real hope of success or by recognizing what the real threats to peace actually are, Kerry is doing more than setting himself up for inevitable failure. He’s also undermining any hope that peace can be achieved in the future.

The idea that the situation is ripe for a re-started diplomatic process is pure fantasy. While Israel has declared its willingness to negotiate peace without preconditions (a stance that has finally been endorsed by President Obama, who has apparently given up his first term determination to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of Abbas), the Palestinians aren’t ready to do so. They remain divided with Gaza under the control of Hamas, which will never make a real peace with Israel and the West Bank in the hands of a Fatah Party that is incapable of making peace even if wanted to do so. Unity between these two blood rivals is impossible, even though both are equally unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.

If, as the recent elections demonstrated, the overwhelming majority of Israelis have given up on the prospects of peace in the foreseeable future, it is not because they don’t want a two-state solution. Most clearly do, and even those who specifically reject it understand that were the Palestinians to ever be ready to end the conflict, they’d be ready to make the same sort of painful territorial compromises that past Israeli governments were ready to make. But the Palestinian rejection of generous peace offers in 2000, 2001 and 2008 and the conversion of Gaza into an independent Palestinian terror state have convinced them that peace is not possible. That’s why they regard the idea of allowing the West Bank to become another Gaza as not so much a mistake as it is insane.

But the peace processers and their cheering section among some American Jews who are determined to ignore everything that has happened in the last 20 years and pretend that land for peace hasn’t been already repeatedly tried contend that if peace doesn’t happen now, it never will. They contend that if Israeli settlements in the West Bank aren’t uprooted now, they will become too large to be extracted in the event of peace. They also say that in the absence of peace soon, the Palestinians will be too radicalized to ever accept Israel.

Both these contentions are wrong.

The first assertion about settlements is based on the Palestinian fantasy that all Israelis living east of the 1967 lines would have to be removed for peace to be possible, but this is absurd. The main settlement blocs where most of the West Bank Jews live are not going to be uprooted. Nor need they be for the Palestinians to have a state. They can have sovereignty in most of the West Bank and Gaza and even theoretically a slice of Jerusalem (though even that is probably unworkable) with most of the Jews staying right where they are. While the outlying settlements would be a problem, as Gaza demonstrated, if the majority of Israelis believed peace was the price of such a sacrifice, it would probably be made, either two years from now or in 20.

As for Palestinian radicalization, those expressing such worries are a little late. Palestinians have been rejecting Israel’s existence since it was born 65 years ago. They didn’t accept it when Jordan ruled the West Bank and half of Jerusalem and Egypt ran Gaza and they don’t now.

The United States is hoping to convey to the Palestinians that their only hope for statehood is to return to the negotiating table that they abandoned over four years ago. But there is more to it than that. Even President Obama appears to have caught on to the fact that Abbas is too weak to make peace. More importantly his party, which spews out hatred for Israel and Jews in the official PA media every day, is incapable of ending the conflict. And neither Fatah nor Hamas currently has the ability to give up on the right of return that means an end to the Jewish state.

For decades, we’ve been told the chances of peace are vanishing–but they are no more, nor less, realistic today than they ever were. Despite the changes on the ground, peace will happen if the Palestinians show they are ready for it.

What must occur is a sea change in Palestinian political culture that will accept the reality of Israel and that there will never be a right of return. That will be difficult for a Palestinian national movement that was created in order to stop Zionism and not to promote a local Arab identity. Given enough time it might be possible, although when that might be is impossible to say. If it ever happens, a two-state solution will not just be possible but probable. But until then the dwindling hopes for a two state deal must be put on hold.

That’s the message Kerry should be sending the Palestinians. But if he keeps talking about a deadline that must be met, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This sort of untimely urgency will only encourage the extremism he wants to combat and set the region up for another round of unnecessary violence that won’t help anybody. The Israelis are hunkering down to wait for the Palestinians to change; Kerry should show that he’s prepared to wait with them.


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