The clock is ticking

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The near collapse of the roadmap in a hail of suicide bombers and helicopter gunships in the course of the past ten days is a poignant reminder of the fragility of our efforts to achieve a two state solution. Indeed, the idea of an agreed two state solution for Israelis and Palestinians has a very short and troubled history.

Throughout most of the conflict, international efforts to achieve a two state solution, including of course United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, were systematically rejected by the Palestinian leadership (and accepted by the Zionist and later Israeli leadership). Only in 1988 did the Palestinian National Council, meeting in Algiers, ratify 181 for the first time.

Only in the course of the past three years has an agreed two state solution emerged. It was Barak, at Camp David and Taba, backed by United States President Clinton, who first offered the Palestinians a state of their own. When Yasir Arafat rejected the terms of that offer in favor of violence, it became officially “null and void.” Then Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to officially endorse the idea, and George W. Bush the first American president to make a two state solution an official goal of US Middle East policy. Only in March 2002 did the UN Security Council, in Resolution 1397, endorse the idea–at about the same time that the Arab League ratified it within the framework of the Saudi initiative. It is of course striking that this rush to embrace a two state solution took place only after the process itself had collapsed into violence.

This brief survey of the short history, and consequent fragility, of the two state solution is particularly significant for those in the peace camp, in Israel and beyond, who have believed in and worked for this solution for decades, and who take it for granted.

It should not be taken for granted. While most Israelis today favor a two state solution, many of the critical actors are less than fully committed. Sharon’s version–a chain of non-viable enclaves–is a sham and a non-starter with Palestinians, hence not a formula for an agreed solution. The most energetic and dedicated sector on the Israeli political scene, the settlers, are working hard (at times with Sharon’s help) to make a viable two state solution impossible.

While most Palestinians endorse the idea, they also insist that Israel accept the right of return of Palestinian refugees to the Jewish state, which contradicts the logic of a two state solution and is unacceptable to the Israeli mainstream. And President Bush has yet to prove that he is willing and able to enforce or impose his welcome vision of a genuine two state solution.

Meanwhile the settlements and outposts spread, ostensibly ensuring that Israel will “win” the territorial war, even as Palestinian population growth ensures that Israel will lose the demographic war and cease to be a Jewish, democratic state. With every passing day it becomes more difficult to repartition mandatory Palestine, in the language of 181, between “Arab and Jewish states.” More and more Palestinians, including many moderates, are reverting to advocacy of a single state solution, which might be called “Israel” for a few decades but will gradually become an Arab state with an embattled Jewish minority.

After the Oslo Declaration of Principles was signed in September 1993, many key actors and observers pronounced the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a two state solution “irreversible”. The past 32 months have demonstrated just how mistaken they were. Nothing appears to be irreversible in this conflict. Hence we must be cautious in defining that virtual red line of geography, demography, hatred and politics beyond which a two state solution is irretrievable. Certainly the mainstream on both sides has not given up on the idea.

Yet unless Israelis can demonstrate convincingly a state-level capacity to roll back the settlement movement, and Palestinians can prove at the state level a capability of stopping violence and honoring the Jewish nature of Israel, the two state solution is liable to be seen in historic retrospect as a very brief episode in the tragic annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But how do we manage the conflict without it?

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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