Rethinking the Two States

For scholar and diplomat Daniel Levy, this much is clear: until Israel loses its sense of impunity, the peace process goes nowhere

Children play a game of “Arabs and Jews” outside a school in Gaza City, February 20, 2019. Dylan Martinez/Reuters

For decades, the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli conflict seemed to be headed nowhere. Changing global trends that challenge strict adherence to the two-state framework, however, might redefine the conflict’s existing parameters and open up new prospects, Daniel Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project and the founding editor of the Middle East Channel at foreignpolicy.com, argued at a March talk hosted by the Prince Alwaleed Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR). Characterizing the current reality on the ground as complex and in flux, Levy explained, “We are witnessing, at one and the same time, the increasing impossibility and unviability of the two-state solution and, at the same time, the surprising resilience of the two-state paradigm.”

One of the reasons that the two-state paradigm has survived, according to Levy, is because the desire for national self-determination remains deeply embedded in the Palestinian psyche. Casting the two-state paradigm as the “glue that held together a peace process,” Levy said that this premise rested on the assumption that it was in Israel’s rational self-interest to have a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He explained that the longstanding logic was that without two states, Israel would be forced to sacrifice its Jewish majority or its democracy—two painful choices.

However, Levy stressed that the matrix of control created by the Israeli settler reality in the West Bank and Jerusalem “feeds into the kind of spatial cognitive map that Israelis and Palestinians carry around in their heads.” Levy argued that this map repeats the assertion to both sides that there is a growing permanence to the current reality. “This breeds, on the one hand, a sense of Israeli empowerment, and on the other hand, a sense of Palestinian despair and hopelessness,” Levy said.

Levy stated that the Palestinian national movement and leadership have become stuck in a “post-Oslo cul-de-sac” that sees them simultaneously attempting to manage liberation and limited self-governance under close Israeli supervision. Unable to challenge the status quo in a way that would incentivize Israel and the international community to drive forward the peace process, the Palestinian Authority “increasingly appears like an exercise in the law of diminished returns,” said Levy.

Therefore, in the current political reality, “impunity feels very unchallengeable for Israelis,” Levy stressed. This sense of impunity was facilitated by Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, which effectively cut around two million people living in the Gaza Strip out of the Israeli-Palestinian equation. According to Levy, this made the ongoing and permanent control of the West Bank more digestible to the Israeli establishment and public.

Even further, Levy argued, there is a growing trend toward “normalization against Palestinians” as Israel moves to normalize relations with the Arab World and the Trump administration takes unprecedented steps that challenge the logic of two states. While previous American administrations did not exert significant pressure on Israel to work toward peace, they were firm in their support for two states, Levy explained. Under the Trump administration, however, there appears to be a change in the understanding of two states as the desired outcome of a peace process.

What might this mean for the trajectory of the Palestinian-Israeli equation? In a bid for re-election, Levy said, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has attempted to sell to the public the idea that an “out and proud rightist Israeli leadership that refuses to give an inch to the Palestinians and that actually doubles down on Israeli control” has not faced the blow-back or international consequences. Explaining that Netanyahu uses this argument to challenge the premise that Israel needs to compromise in terms of returning Palestinian territories, Levy stated that this message allows no room for concessions or the incentive to make the hard decisions that would come with pursuing a two-state solution. However, rather than completely jettisoning the two-state paradigm, Levy predicted that Israel will continue to see its own self-interest in having the Palestinian Authority and its central security apparatus exist, at least in the short-term. Levy stressed that in the future, the Israeli leadership could see a greater benefit in dealing with local governorships and seek to “implode the Palestinian Authority.”

Providing evidence to support his prediction, Levy detailed Israeli efforts to proactively “de-nationalize” the way Palestinians are viewed and governed. Levy said these efforts to separate Palestinians from their national political aspirations are exacerbated by an American administration that is no longer talking to the Palestine Liberation Organization and essentially sells the idea that “the Palestinians should be dealt with as a humanitarian issue…in need of economic opportunity.”

According to Levy, these efforts to “de-nationalize” Palestinians or to implode the two-state paradigm are predicated on a “strategic collapse on the Palestinian side [and] an inability to do post-Oslo strategic thinking.” Levy asserted that, moving forward, the Palestinian leadership must regain its agency and break out of the “catch 22” that is running a national liberation movement and a limited self-governing authority simultaneously. An Israeli leadership that feels empowered and emboldened by the prospect of making Palestinian disenfranchisement permanent would need to begin to see that the new realities created on the ground will not continue to be cost-free.

While Levy acknowledged that the two-state paradigm is under significant strain, he stressed that for “one physical space that is being created to begin to be looked at as one political space” the Palestinians would have to undergo a difficult process of incorporating into their thinking that the Israeli Jews are not going anywhere. Levy closed by saying that the situation on the ground is entering a period of significant fluidity that could shift the Israeli-Palestinian equation. As both Israel and the Palestinian establishment will likely undergo political transitions in the near future, these changes could bring factional infighting and instability or lead to a change in strategy to break out of the confines of Oslo or provide space in the political discourse to seek alternative actions.

Similarly, Levy stressed that interesting developments are happening in the United States: once a bipartisan rock of American politics, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has become increasingly partisan, Levy revealed. He said that a new narrative of Palestinian rights and discomfort over the nature of the relationship with Israel is emerging from the Democratic party and parts of the Jewish-American community. While, this hasn’t yet been translated into policy, Levy argued that it could be and that it could serve to cause Israel to begin to think in terms of win-win scenarios rather than zero-sum equations. If there is to be hope for two states that are viable and sustainable, Levy stated, any future peace proposals—including the long-promised Trump administration plan—must be judged according to international law and existing parameters.

This article appears abridged in the Spring 2019 print issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

Jessie Steinhauer is a reporter-researcher at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

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