US Involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Photo by Ted Eytan via Creative Commons
Photo by Ted Eytan via Creative Commons

Two-State Solution or Perpetual Conflict? Exploring Historical Realities and Future Possibilities. 

By Allison Schwartz and James Zogby. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.

Israeli-Palestinian Peace Will Not Come to Fruition Any Time Soon

By Allison Schwartz – Policy Communicate Associate, American Enterprise Institute

The Long History of Failed Peace

A two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is not feasible, at least not right now. It is almost a truism of Middle East policy that a two-state solution is the only viable road to a more peaceful Middle East in which Israelis and Palestinians live side by side without conflict. But the reality is that despite decades of negotiations interspersed with war, the two are no closer to peace than they were in the early 1990s. Indeed, Israelis have learned to live and prosper without peace, while Palestinian leaders have weakened their position, squandered opportunities for more democracy and more prosperity, and otherwise positioned themselves squarely among the worst of the Middle East’s rejectionists. There is no reason for optimism that the near future promises any rapprochement.

Why does the prospect of peace seem so distant?  The easy answers remain the same: Palestinians make bad choices, Egyptian tyranny in the 1950s, Palestinian Liberation Organization terrorism in the 1960s and 70s, more radical terror in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, and Iranian aggression in the 21st century. And Israel refuses to cede territory inviolable to Palestinians Jerusalem, for example and builds settlements that erode the sense there is any commitment to a Palestinian state worthy of the word. 

A Weakening Palestine

But there are other problems as well. The world has moved on from the Palestinian cause; it has become the redoubt of extreme leftists, anti-Semites, Iranian fundamentalists, and Salafi fellow travelers. The Palestinians’ diminished capacity to contribute to regional politics gave the Gulf States the green light to initiate the Abraham Accords, fostering cooperation to counter Iranian influence and ambitions to obtain a nuclear bomb. 

Then there is the truth that all know, but few dare utter: The Palestinian people suffer more from the ill‑advised choices of their leaders than from the actions of Israel. A two-state solution will be close to impossible without a change in Palestinian leadership. On the one hand is Hamas, an Iranian terrorist proxy in the Gaza Strip, which prioritizes armed resistance and the eradication of the Jewish state. On the other is Fatah, the Palestinian Authority’s preeminent political party, with leader-for-life Mahmoud Abbas, who prioritizes his own political primacy, embracing performance art over peacemaking. (Just a few weeks ago, he threatened to withdraw Palestinian official recognition of Israel in a speech before the United Nations.) This dynamic is further complicated by the geographical divide within Palestine, where Hamas controls Gaza and Fatah leads the West Bank, with the two regularly battling for the hearts and minds of the luckless Palestinians. 

As Palestinian choices have dwindled, their preferences have become more extreme. Much like Syrians who were forced to choose between ISIS’ and Assad’s tyranny, many Palestinians have been reduced to debating bad and much worse: polls reveal that if an election were to occur tomorrow, Hamas would likely defeat Fatah. If the Palestinians elected a Hamas leader, any prospect for a peace process would become an impossibility. 

While many would expect Palestinians to embrace the same Faustian bargain adopted by so many in the Arab world economic security for political servitude the Palestinian people have been denied even that. Rawabi, the first planned city built for and by Palestinians in the West Bank, was intended to be an oasis for tech startups. Instead, it became a mirage. The Trump administration’s attempt to incentivize the Palestinian leadership through hundreds of millions in domestic economic investment received a dry response. In turn, neglecting economic reform has led to a decline in aid from the Arab States and a contracting economy. 

How We Move Forward: An Attempt to Bring Long-Lasting Peace

In light of these unpleasant realities, it should be no surprise that successive U.S. administrations have set aside the once vital “peace process” in favor of other pressing international priorities.

The U.S. could take a front seat in steering a two-state solution by supporting the creation of an environment more conducive to negotiations. But Palestinian economic progress is the sine qua non to creating that environment. In addition, Washington must more assertively encourage Abbas to groom a politically viable successor or allow genuinely free elections. These are first steps to be sure, but without them, all efforts at peace will go nowhere. 

In the end, the pieties are correct. There should be both an Israeli and Palestinian state, where people have the right to live in peace and prosperity. But the reality is, we are not there; fewer and fewer people care, peace ranks low on the agenda for the Biden administration, the Israeli government, and, apparently, the Palestinian leadership. The two-state solution may be the only option at some point, but right now, it appears most leaders have chosen another: Do nothing.

In Response to Allison Schwartz

By James Zogby – Co-Founder, Arab American Institute

The Real Threat of ‘Doing Nothing’

Allison Schwartz is right about a few things:

  1.  A two-state solution would have been a desirable outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  2.  Politics on both sides are not conducive to such a resolution
  3.  Given current realities, a two-state solution is not feasible

Beyond these elements, I take significant issue with her assessment. Aside from one sentence in the second paragraph, her entire piece is focused on Palestinian missteps and the current dysfunctions in the Palestinian polity. There is no mention of the deeply dysfunctional state of Israeli politics.  Only scant references to the past and present Israeli behaviors were made. Behaviors which have not only made a two-state solution impossible but also contributed to systematically weakening the Palestinian government by creating deep divisions and deformities within their leadership. In addition, there was no criticism of successive U.S. administrations’ failures in their stewardship of the decades-long “peace process.” I also profoundly disagree with what appears to be her passive acceptance of the notion that because the conditions for two states do not exist, we “do nothing.” 

With all due respect, doing nothing other than mouthing pieties about desiring two states is precisely what we’ve been doing for years, and why we’re in the mess we’re in.  

Losing Hope in a Two-State Solution 

A quarter-century ago, when the two-state solution was still possible and we were optimistic about a path to get there, I was co-chairing Builders for Peace, a post-Oslo project launched by then Vice President Al Gore. It was created to support the ongoing peace process by promoting economic development and employment in the Occupied Palestinian lands. Our goal was not to substitute economic progress for peace but to create the prosperity and hope needed to sustain the process until the “final status negotiations” slated for the end of a five-year transitional period. 

Frequent trips to the region, however, left me deeply concerned. New hardships were being created for Palestinians by the closures and expanded checkpoints Israel put in place after a Jewish extremist massacred Palestinians at al Ibrahim Mosque. The brutality and demeaning behaviors of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and in Hebron were deepening animosity and weakening moderate Palestinian voices who sought peace. American businesses initially interested in investing in Gaza or the West Bank gave up after realizing that the Israelis wouldn’t allow Palestinians to easily import raw materials or export finished products, nor access resources in the territories. Meanwhile, settlement expansion continued at a rapid pace. 

The Clinton Era: The End of the Promise of a New Future 

At one point, I met President Clinton who asked me how Builders was progressing. I gave him my honest assessment and said, “Since Oslo, Palestinians have become poorer, less employed, less free, and have lost more land to settlements. They aren’t experiencing the benefits of peace and are losing hope.” Most troubling was that his negotiators ignored our entreaties to take seriously these Israeli-imposed impediments to Palestinian prosperity and freedom. They saw our work as a nuisance and distraction from their “important peace negotiations.” 

While meeting with the negotiating team, I was shown the map of the West Bank hanging in their office, featuring a number of little green blobs marking the areas under control of the Palestinian Authority. The negotiator boasted, “Look where we are! When we’re done, all these dots will be connected, and Palestinians will have their state.” I replied, “But with settlements and road-building expanding, what if the dots never get connected? That’s the way things are going.” He dismissed this as pessimism on my part. 

But it wasn’t pessimism; it was reality. I was on the ground in the West Bank watching the possibility of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state slip away to creeping annexation, which our “negotiators” viewed as unimportant — they were fiddling while Rome burned.    

I warned Clinton that if this mindset of ignoring Palestinian rights and Israeli-created impediments continued, Palestinians would lose trust in us, the process, and the hope of freedom from the occupation. Upset by my report, President Clinton asked me for a detailed memo. I received a lengthy response from the president, but nothing was done to correct this downward-spiraling trajectory.

Israel’s Continued Offenses 

During the past three decades, Israel’s settlement population has quadrupled. Today, 130 “recognized” settlement colonies and scores of “non-recognized outposts” are positioned in strategic locations, connected by Jewish-only roads and infrastructure, and protected by Israeli military posts along with more than 100 checkpoints. Palestinian lands are strategically cut into isolated “bantustans”, making a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. In addition, many of the new settlers are extremists whose incidents of vandalism, harassment, and terrorist attacks against Palestinians have been increasing at an alarming rate. 

Meanwhile, East Jerusalem, once the economic, cultural, social, educational, and essential services metropol of Palestinian life, has been severed from the West Bank by dense settlement construction. These constructions include a Berlin-style barrier wall, built inside of the 1967 borders, separating Palestinians from each other and their lands with devastating consequences for Palestinians both inside Jerusalem and outside. In addition, Israel has entrenched itself in the rich agricultural land of the Jordan Valley, evicting Palestinians and demolishing their homes and farms. 

America Can No Longer be an Enabler

All this on our watch. We have been the enablers who have allowed Israel to operate with impunity, turning a blind eye to their behavior, funding it, and protecting them from international sanctions. And now, after this cancerous growth has eaten away at the shrinking cadaver of the occupied territories, we cannot simply absolve ourselves of responsibility by saying: “But we support a ‘two-state solution.'” 

Neither a one nor two-state solution appears to be on the horizon because none of the parties involved are willing or able to take the steps needed to realize either outcome: not the U.S., the dominant right wing in Israeli politics, nor the dysfunctional, divided, and dependent Palestinian polity. 

If all we can do is dream about solutions that no one is able or willing to implement, do we do nothing? Not at all. Because while some fantasize about the future, the lives and the rights and futures of innocent Palestinians continue to be placed at risk. “Doing nothing” only provides Israel more time to consolidate its hold over Palestinian lands.  

A different tack is imperative. Instead of debating long-term outcomes, I believe we must focus on the human rights concerns of Palestinian people by pressing Congress and the White House to condition US aid to Israel based on their violations of Palestinian human rights and international law. If we were to enforce our own laws that govern our arms and aid, it would send a powerful message that would challenge the Israeli right’s sense of impunity and help to reignite the now dormant Israeli peace movement, altering the rightward drift in Israel. It would also bring new hope to Palestinians that we can, in fact, serve as an honest broker, strengthening the voices of moderates who seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. 

Tough medicine, to be sure. But “doing nothing” — which essentially means continuing to coddle Israel with massive amounts of aid while shielding it from international condemnation, and doing nothing to address the human rights of Palestinians — is what got us into this mess. More of the same will only make things worse.

This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Civility Without Borders” series, covering a range of topics fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. Through this series, we ask scholars, journalists, government officials, and activists to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.

Allison Schwartz
Allison Schwartz
Policy Communicate Associate, American Enterprise Institute at American Enterprise Institute

Allison Schwartz is a foreign and defense policy communications associate at the American Enterprise Institute and a master’s candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown. Allison received her BA from the University of Miami in 2019.

James Zogby
James Zogby
Co-Founder, Arab American Institute

James Zogby co-founded the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community, in 1985 and continues to serve as its president. He is Director of Zogby Research Services, a firm that has conducted groundbreaking surveys across the Middle East. In September 2013, President Obama appointed Dr. Zogby to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He writes a weekly column published in 12 countries. He is featured frequently on national and international media as an expert on Middle East affairs. In 2010, Zogby published the highly-acclaimed book,  Arab Voices.

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