Killing the Two-State Solution Through the Suspension of Disbelief

Just in time for President Obama's long-awaited trip to Israel, perennial Israeli-Palestinian policy strategist Dennis Ross has published his 14-point plan to achieve Middle East peace. Ross claims that by following this plan, Israelis and Palestinians can "chip away at the sources of each side's belief about the other's commitment to a genuine two-state solution."

Ross frames his proposal in terms of "suspending disbelief." This framing makes sense, though not in the way Ross intends. To enjoy a magic show, the audience must ignore the fact that the magician isn't really sawing his assistant in half. Likewise, to take Ross' proposal seriously, readers must ignore the fact that in practical terms, his approach would actually kill off the two-state option entirely.

My colleague, renowned Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann, recently observed that he and I are part of a shrinking minority who still argue that the window is closing on the two-state solution. We are caught between those who believe the two-state solution is already dead and those who insist it can never be killed. The former come both from the depressed left and exultant right. The latter is composed primarily of former U.S. officials -- like Ross and Elliot Abrams -- who have long advocated U.S. policies grounded in twin articles of faith: that the U.S. should avoid clashing with any Israeli government, and that the Palestinians will ultimately accept whatever Israel and the U.S. agree is a reasonable solution to the conflict, regardless of its details.

The truth is, the two-state solution -- in terms of facts on the ground -- is still alive, but it is neither immortal nor infinitely malleable. This is not merely a subjective statement. A clear lesson of decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts is that three concrete conditions must exist for the two-state solution to be possible. First, it must be possible to delineate a border based on the 1967 lines that leaves two politically and economically viable, maximally contiguous states. Second, this border must allow for a politically and economically viable Israeli capital in Israeli Jerusalem and a politically and economically viable Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Third, it must be possible to compensate for changes in the 1967 lines through land swaps carried out on a one-to-one ratio.

At present, all three conditions exist, but barely. If current trends continue, particularly around East Jerusalem, or if Ross' 14-point plan (or something like it) is adopted, in a short time all three conditions will have been eliminated.

At the core of Ross' recommendations -- and others being bandied about (e.g. here, here, and here) -- is the suggestion that Israel adopt a decision to "limit" settlement construction to areas west of Israel's unilaterally-built separation barrier. Ross treats this as an Israeli concession that would demonstrate Israeli seriousness about the two-state solution.

In reality, it would do the opposite, gutting the very concept of the two-state solution. It would signal a unilateral Israeli decision that the 1967 lines will not be the basis of future negotiations, contrary to international consensus, previous peace efforts, and President Obama's May 2011 speech. It would signal that Israel has no intention of ever agreeing to any Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, giving the kosher stamp to Israeli settlement construction that will cut East Jerusalem off from the West Bank. Finally, it would mean that Israel is taking the entire notion of one-to-one land swaps off the table, since Israel lacks sufficient land reserves to compensate for the amount of West Bank land that is now west of the separation barrier (and bear in mind that this initial de facto annexation of around 10 percent of the West Bank would be the starting point of any future negotiations, not the ending point). For the Palestinians, this is not only a non-starter but a fait-accompli that blocks the way for future negotiations.

For those like Ross who believe the two-state solution is immortal and infinitely malleable -- that the Palestinians can be forced to accept whatever Israel and the U.S. deem reasonable -- this logic is of course unconvincing. Which is perhaps why Ross never bothers to spell out what this Israeli "concession" means on the ground for the two-state paradigm.

In short, Ross' plan is a recipe not for strengthening the two-state solution, but for imposing a unilateral Israeli vision of a Greater Israel extending beyond the Green Line, adjacent to a balkanized Palestinian entity. Such an outcome may be appealing to Benjamin Netanyahu and his U.S. apologists. It will never be acceptable to the Palestinians and the international community, and it certainly shouldn't be mistaken for a "solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Obama administration has a chance now for an historic reset in its relations with Israel and a do-over on its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this critical juncture, with the two-state solution hanging by a thread and his Middle East legacy in the balance, President Obama must be sober and clear-eyed. He and his aides must refuse to be seduced by simplistic proposals that, while wrapped in the language of peace and the two-state solution, will result in the opposite.