Shimon Peres. “One Region, Two States”. Washington Post. February 10, 2009: “The difficulties of a two-state solution are numerous, but it remains the only realistic and moral formula to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Stephen Walt. “What do we do if the ‘two-state’ solution collapses?”. Foreign Policy. February 10, 2009: “What vision will President Obama and Secretary Clinton have for the Palestinians and for Israel when they can no longer invoke the two-state mantra?
There are only three alternative options at that point. First, Israel could drive most or all of the 2.5 million Palestinians out of the West Bank by force, thereby preserving “greater Israel” as a Jewish state through an overt act of ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians would surely resist, and it would be a crime against humanity, conducted in full view of a horrified world. No American government could support such a step, and no true friend of Israel could endorse that solution.
Second, Israel could retain control of the West Bank but allow the Palestinians limited autonomy in a set of disconnected enclaves, while it controlled access in and out, their water supplies, and the airspace above them. This appears to have been Ariel Sharon’s strategy before he was incapacitated, and Bibi Netanyahu’s proposal for “economic peace” without a Palestinian state seems to envision a similar outcome. In short, the Palestinians would not get a viable state of their own and would not enjoy full political rights. This is the solution that many people — including Prime Minister Olmert — compare to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is hard to imagine the United States supporting this outcome over the long term, and Olmert has said as much. Denying the Palestinians their own national aspirations is also not going to end the conflict.
Which brings me to the third option. The Israeli government could maintain its physical control over “greater Israel” and grant the Palestinians full democratic rights within this territory. This option has been proposed by a handful of Israeli Jews and a growing number of Palestinians. But there are formidable objections to this outcome: It would mean abandoning the Zionist dream of an independent Jewish state, and binational states of this sort do not have an encouraging track record, especially when the two parties have waged a bitter conflict across several generations. This is why I prefer the two-state alternative.
But if a two-state option is no longer feasible, it seems likely that the United States would come to favor this third choice. After all, supporting option 2 — an apartheid state — is contrary to the core American values of freedom and democracy and would make the United States look especially hypocritical whenever it tried to present itself as a model for the rest of the world. Openly endorsing apartheid would also demolish any hope we might have of improving our image in the Arab and Islamic world. Lord knows I have plenty of respect for the Israel lobby’s ability to shape U.S. foreign policy, but even AIPAC and the other heavyweight institutions in the lobby would have great difficulty maintaining the “special relationship” if Israel was an apartheid state. By contrast, option 3 — a binational state that provided full democratic rights for citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds — is easy to reconcile with America’s own “melting pot” traditions and liberal political values. American politicians would find it a hard option to argue against.
Bottom line: If the two-state solution dies, as seems increasingly likely, the United States is going to face a very awkward set of choices. That’s one reason why Obama and his team — as well as Israel’s friends in the United States — should move beyond paying lip-service to the idea of creating a Palestinian state and actually do something about it.