Why Kerry Was Wrong to Say the Two-State Solution Is Nearly Dead

We shouldn't take the settlements as an irreversible fact

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Palestinian shepherd Abu Shadad herds sheep near Jerusalem as the Jewish settlement known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim is seen in the background April 25, 2012. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

In an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on April 17, John Kerry became the first US official to put an expiration date on the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kerry stated not only that the window for two states is closing, but also, notably, that the timeframe is shockingly short: "a year, year and a half to two years or it's over." Failing to mention what is expected when this two-year window lapses, Kerry's words remain cryptic. But they echo a widely shared sentiment among world leaders, diplomats, and pundits, from Ban Ki-moon to Thomas Friedman. Arguably, though, it is an attitude that plays into the hands of the adversaries of the principle of "two states for two peoples" which President Obama reaffirmed in his rousing speech in Jerusalem. It is, moreover, false.

If Kerry genuinely believes in the imminent demise of the two-state option, he must envisage dramatic geopolitical changes in the near future. Otherwise, what might render a hitherto feasible arrangement defunct? While certain political, demographic, and regional developments may tip the scales against partition, most observers pin the end of the two-state solution on the ever-expanding Israeli settlements. It is becoming increasingly common to identify a looming red line beyond which the number of settlers or the extent of settlements will render an Israeli pullout obsolete.

The idea that the two-state solution is losing relevance in the face of growing settlement activity is hardly new. Its origins can be traced back to an "irreversibility thesis" that Israeli intellectual Meron Benvenisti has been propounding for 30 years. Benvenisti is quoted in a New York Times article from November 1982 claiming that Israel's "de facto annexation" of the West Bank sets the clock on five minutes to midnight as to dividing historical Palestine. The Doomsday clock has been ticking ever since, but although it is evident that the settlements are the single most crucial obstacle to peace, it is less clear why so many people consider their presence irreversible. For even the doomsayers cannot deny that the settlements are an extremely costly venture which remains completely dependent on Israeli funding. Reel in the infrastructures, rescind the lavish benefits, provide incentives and reparations for repatriated settlers, and the whole problem shrinks back to manageable proportions.

In a strange turn of events, the irreversibility thesis --for years the domain of pro-Palestinian supporters of the so-called one-state solution -- is increasingly being espoused by the Israeli right. In a July 2012 New York Times op-ed, Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council (the representative body of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories), called Jewish settlements in all areas of the Occupied Territories "an irreversible fact." Affirming growing disillusionment with the two-state solution as "wonderful news," Dayan urged the international community to relinquish "its vain attempts to attain the unattainable two-state solution." Even prominent leaders of the liberal wing of the Likud Party made similar comments; Reuven Rivlin, the former Speaker of the Knesset, has recently stated that "there can only be one-state between the Jordon and the sea" and that "it is clear that the idea of partition has failed."

Ironically, the irreversibility thesis could not have been more opportune for the unsustainable settlement project. Realizing that political support is infinitely stronger than landholding, settler leaders aimed from the get-go at what they called "settling the hearts" -- securing the empathy of the general Israeli public. But while their territorial endeavor thrived, their support among Israelis never soared. Public opinion polls consistently show that support for the two-state solution trumps support for the occupation and settlements. And so, having failed to muster support by undercutting the desirability of partition, the settlers now question its feasibility.

It should be stressed that alarmism about the impending end of the two-state option is a self-fulfilling prophecy. All this talk of the closing window for two states is encouraging settlers to play for time. If they can grab another hill or forestall an eviction of an illegal outpost, there will come a time in which their untenable project becomes irrevocable simply by outlasting the patience and stamina of its opponents. The Israeli right doesn't really have an endgame. So far they have not been able to come up with a plan to keep the Occupied Territories under Israeli control without abrogating the Jewish nation-state, and they know that the vast majority of Israelis would disown the settlements in a heartbeat when the moment of truth arrives. From their perspective, then, the permanent temporariness of the status quo is far superior to any possible resolution of the conflict, which is why they are politically galvanized by the alleged downfall of the two-state solution.

There is great urgency in bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a close, but not because facts on the ground create an irreversible reality. The conflict has to end because the occupation causes needless suffering and humiliation, and because peace and integration into the region is Israel's paramount national interest. Reiterating the hackneyed formula on the closing of the window for peace stresses that urgency in a way that gratuitously energizes proponents of the status quo and pushes peace further away. In fact, Kerry would be well-advised to drive home the message that the two-state solution is alive and kicking, that a Palestinian state will be established even if another decade of pointless political maneuvering passes by, and above all that the only real choice Israel faces is between pulling out of the Occupied Territories before the next cycle of violence erupts or, tragically, right after.