12/13/2012 04:47 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

Unravelling the Complexities in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Every day brings new moves by the Israelis and Palestinians, presented in part as a form of tit-for-tat response to each other's actions. In turn, those moves bring a response from each side's supporters and antagonists in the public, the media and the governments of the United States and of other nations. The difficulty of sorting out who is right and who is wrong is that each side can offer a rational explanation for much of its conduct. It is only by peeling off argument after argument that one can get down to the point of judging the underlying approaches that each party brings to the conflict to see whether they make sense from the perspective of that party's long range interests.

One current place to start is the Palestinian National Authority's decision to seek UN recognition as a nonmember state, which the Palestinians won overwhelmingly, and the Israeli response to that decision. Supporters of the PNA bid make three arguments.

First, they note that unless the Palestinians did something to capture Israeli attention to their situation, there was no reason to believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu had any interest in actively pursuing a peace agreement with them. It was clear that the Israelis were intensely focused on Iran's nuclear ambitions and satisfied to let the Palestinian issue languish.

Second, they argue that during the period that there is no movement on an agreement, the Israeli government has continued to expand settlement activity. This creates facts on the ground that make it increasingly unlikely that sufficient settlements could be dismantled in the event an agreement is reached to leave the Palestinians with the contiguous territory required to form a viable state.

Third, they point out that the recent missile attacks by Hamas on Israel and Israel's aborted counter attack have elevated Hamas in the estimation of Palestinians and in its treatment by Arab states. Mahmoud Abbas, President of the PNA, had to take some action, they say, that would show the Palestinians and Arab governments that he is still in a position to lead the Palestinians in a meaningful direction. It is in Israel's own interests, they argue, to strengthen Abbas' position as the Palestinian leader. By attacking Abbas and the PNA effort, Israel can only enhance the power and legitimacy of extremist leaders of Hamas who oppose the very existence of Israel.

Challenging Abbas' appeal to the UN, the Israeli government says that is not the way to achieve a peace deal. They say that they stand ready to negotiate with the Palestinians without preconditions and that UN status only confuses the issue. Of most concern to the Israelis is the failed effort by them and the U.S. and Great Britain to convince the Palestinians to stipulate in their UN resolution that they would not attempt to file charges against Israeli officials in the International Criminal Court.

But the Israeli argument goes beyond the UN issue to the heart of the peace process. Look what happened when Prime Minister Sharon decided unilaterally to withdraw from Gaza, they say. We have been attacked by thousands of missiles sent into our land and cities by radicals in Gaza, killing, maiming and frightening our population. How can we take the risk of making a deal with the Palestinians and moving out of the West Bank, which is even closer to our population centers? So far, we have been able to protect our security with the combination of soldiers, settlements in strategic places, the wall and other measures. How can we risk giving that up?

The Palestinians respond: we have demonstrated that under PNA governance, the residents of the West Bank have lived peaceably with the Israelis, despite the difficult travel and shipping restrictions and increasingly encroaching settlements. If Israel doesn't recognize and reward those efforts at peaceful co-existence, then it opens the door for those, like Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who on his recent return to Gaza after years in exile called for armed "resistance, not negotiation" to wipe Israel away and create an Islamic state on all the land of Israel.

That statement by Meshal "exposes our enemies true face" says Netanyahu in response, proving that we cannot allow unilateral withdrawal and withdrawals like that allowing Hamas to take over Gaza. Netanyahu also notes that Abbas did not renounce Meshal's statements. Moreover, Israel must factor in the security implications of the upheavals following the "Arab Spring" taking place in its neighboring countries. While it is not clear how the political situation will evolve in Egypt, it is apparent that whether Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood prevail fully or in part, the relationship with Egypt will be less secure for Israel than under Mubarak.

In Jordan, the pressure on King Abdullah is growing as he desperately dismisses one government after another, with no clear picture how it will end. And as the civil war continues in Syria, it becomes less certain that an outcome in favor of the opposition, which includes an extremist element, will be favorable to Israel's interests. And, of course, above all, is the concern that Iran will achieve nuclear capability and use its proxies in Gaza, Lebanon and elsewhere to threaten Israel. But all of these developments also suggest that Israel will be in a stronger position if it removes the Palestinian issue as a source of public anger in these countries and is better able to strengthen its ties with other Arab opponents of Iran.

Dangerous circumstances like these facing Israel call for a strategic vision that is flexible enough to meet whatever exigencies may arise. In my recently published book An Entrepreneur's Journey: Stories From A Life In Business and Personal Diplomacy (p. 278) I record conversations with then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, where he described his strategy to create a peaceful relationship with Israel's immediate neighbors, including the Palestinians, so it could face with full strength the growing threat from Iran. Sadly, Rabin was assassinated by a religious zealot when the peace process had just begun with the Oslo Accords and a two state solution was not fully formulated.

What is Netanyahu's strategic vision? Although he has claimed to support a two-state solution, his actions regarding settlements his administration's treatment of the Palestinians and his inactivity in negotiations suggest otherwise. To be sure, Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have been derelict in taking action that would impel the process forward. Each side plays into the other's hand, providing excuses for failure to make progress. However, because Israel is the far more dominant party in this negotiation, it is within its power to establish the conditions for a two-state resolution or see it fail.

From the vantage of Netanyahu's supporters on the right and the religious Zionists who believe in the biblical promise of a Greater Israel, it may appear that the delays in coming to the table benefit Israel as it continues settlement expansion that eventually will preclude a viable Palestinian state. But there is ample reason to be concerned that the realistic alternative to the failure of a two-state solution is a bi-national state in which, as a result of a growing Palestinian population, Israel is no longer able to continue as a Jewish state without losing its status as a democratic state. It is worth noting that even some Palestinian supporters argue that there is no longer any possibility of a two-state solution because of the extensive settlements. Rather than push for a Palestinian state, they suggest that Abbas put in motion the process of Israeli absorption of the West Bank and creation of a bi-national state which would either give the resident Palestinian's full citizenship including voting rights or be accused of apartheid. There are also those on the far right in Israel who argue that the demographics have changed so dramatically with the birth rate of the religious Israelis that they can live with a bi-national state without the fear of a fast growing Palestinian population.

My own conclusion as a life-long Zionist is that a two-state solution is essential for the future ability of Israel as a Jewish state to live up to the Zionist dream. The price for the religious nationalists to achieve their biblically inspired agenda of a Greater Israel, with its potential of being challenged as an apartheid state, is too costly to Israel's security, to its reputation, to its economic success and to its rightful place among the nations of the world. Its own best interests are served by moving forward on a two-state resolution of the conflict.

Mr. Lifton is a businessman and political activist. His book
An Entrepreneur's Journey: Stories From A Life In Business And Personal Diplomacy has recently been published by Author House.