For more than seventy years, the "two-state solution" has been a negotiating point between Israel and the Palestinians. In negotiation after negotiation, the goal has been continuously restated, and yet seems ever more remote. With a right-wing coalition in power in Israel and a split between Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, and with both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion deeply pessimistic about any significant peace agreement arising from the talks that begin this week, the likelihood of a real two-state solution seems slim.
However, there are some hopeful signs, as pointed out in a recent New York Times article by Ethan Bronner, reporting from the Palestinian Authority city of Ramallah on the West Bank. In the piece, Bronner describes "increasingly reliable security forces, a more disciplined government and a growing sense among ordinary citizens that they can count on basic services." He cites economic growth in the West Bank as being up eleven percent over a year ago.
My own recent visit to Israel and the West Bank bears out much of what Bronner describes. Despite a heavy Israeli troop footprint, the presence of dozens of Jewish settlements and continuing hardship for ordinary Palestinians, there is a renewed vitality to life in Ramallah and the West Bank. For my Palestinian driver, who had expressed extreme skepticism about a negotiated solution -- along with most others, both Palestinians and Israelis, with whom I spoke -- the only moment of optimism and pride was when he drove me through Ramallah, pointing to Palestinian banks, hotels and upscale shops. As a veteran of many wars and the recent intifadas, the upsurge in economic growth on the West Bank was the sole glimmer of hope that I could see in his eyes.
As reported by Bronner and other observers, the push for economic growth, as well as the improvement in security, education and infrastructure, comes largely through the efforts of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad. Fayyad represents a new approach to the two-state solution. Unlike the rejectionist tack taken by Hamas, or the diplomatic approach of Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, this avenue favors building the Palestinian state from the ground up, rather than top down through international agreements.
The theory is that if the Palestinian Authority can succeed economically, with improved security and infrastructure for its citizens, then it will be able to build de facto statehood without having to depend on fragile diplomatic accords. It will then be in a much stronger position to negotiate the thorny issues that remain, including its borders with Israel, Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the status of refugees. Success for the PA, of course, depends on international support both from the West and from Arab countries. So far, some support has been forthcoming, although there is still much progress to be made in terms of private investment.
Of course, this is the Middle East, where optimism for peace is in precious short supply. Both Chairman Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel are taking great risks by returning to the bargaining table. There will certainly be rejectionists on both sides who will fight -- both literally and metaphorically -- against the two-state solution. But, in the end, economic progress on the West Bank may undercut those who advocate violence and confrontation, as more and more Palestinians and Israelis see a sliver of hope for the future.