The Two State Solution and the Next Four Years
The cynics among us will believe that nothing much will change in the next four years in the Middle East but that is a particularly narrow view. There have been important changes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along with the relationship between the US and Israel. The Bush administration was aggressive in their efforts to reshape the region and trapped in a narrow ideological position that always seemed to favor the military. Obama’s first four years were characterized mostly by patience and changes in certain political conditions such as the Palestinian economy, settlement construction, and security. But Obama did not foreground the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; he did not stake his presidency on it or claim that he had new ideas or directions.
The problem now, and Obama’s most prominent obstacle should he be reelected, is resuscitating the peace process and getting back to discussions about the political viability of the Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition with the right wing parties is necessary for him to govern but brings about a mix of partners that is thoroughly incapable of making the necessary adjustments that will improve the situation. The tensions between Hamas and Fatah continue and keep the conflict inflamed such that Hamas can interfere with any progress on the part of Fatah. But if Obama gets another four years he might be able to play a more significant role in a two state solution because the main parties – the Israelis and Palestinians – are incapable of reaching an accord on their own.
Things have been quiet of late. There have been few efforts toward settlement and many believe it’s a calm before the storm. Of course the Israeli leadership has been waiting until after the elections (which will be just a few days from now) to see who they will be doing business with. But whomever is elected president must engage in a workable two state solution that addresses the history and aspirations of both sides. Romney, at present anyway, is thoroughly incapable of doing this. A significant campaign plank for Obama has been that a vote for Romney is a vote to return to a way of doing things more characteristic of the Bush administration. This will be equally true in foreign policy as in economic policy. And although Romney is probably more moderate than the campaign represents, I have still seen nothing in his policy or speeches to indicate the sympathy or nuance necessary for genuine settlement of this dispute. At present, the task of solving the conflict is made more complicated by a loss of confidence in the two state solution. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become even more dangerous and unsolvable because the most viable and politically legitimate option (the two state solution) is losing credibility.
In the earlier days of the conflict the Palestinians expressed little interest in the two state solution because they saw it as artificial and, more importantly, were clearly not inclined to offering the Israelis a parallel right to a state. Later they came to accept a two state solution but not with full enthusiasm. But a second Obama administration will be in a much better position to inaugurate a state even though conditions are more difficult. Interestingly, there is more enthusiasm for building a Palestinian state among global leaders and Europeans than from the Palestinians themselves. A Palestinian state in the future will provide one barrier against extremism and help with forging coalitions with Iran and other Islamists.
The next president will have to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with skill and sensitivity. There’s a danger that a two state solution is an American solution or, even worse, an Israeli one rather than a mulilateral solution. Many Palestinians feel that the idea of statehood has been distorted and that anything they agree upon would be something other than their own.
There is a real chance that statehood could dissolve into the background as a Palestinian achievement. There’s so much cynicism and lack of confidence in the process that both sides see statehood is an impossible achievement. But Obama is actually in a better position than any previous president to resuscitate the two state solution because of his ability to speak to diverse audiences and thereby improve America’s standing. If Obama actually became engaged in the Middle East peace process and deployed all of his powers of diplomacy he just might succeed.
The world is growing weary of the endless repetition of issues such as security, refugees, Jerusalem, and borders. The entire peace process is filled with slogans and clichés about peace that does not get anyone any closer to goals. Obama is in a position to find a new language to reconnect both sides to their national aspirations and do it in such a way that all sides are strengthened. All of this of course is assuming he is reelected.