There is almost universal agreement that a two state solution – Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and Palestine as a state for the Palestinians – is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. The question is: how should Israel deal with this reality?
A diverse and distinguished group of Israelis have suggested that Israel take immediate action in order to build an atmosphere that could keep open the possibility of a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians at some time in the future, and some have even put forward their peace plans. These include Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, now a member of the Knesset; Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin, former head of Military Intelligence of the Israel Defense Forces and now the director of respected Israeli think tank, the INSS, and Ami Ayalon, former director of Israel’s domestic security agency, and, most recently, Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor party and of the Opposition in the Knesset.
I believe this to be the way Israel must go because there must, at some point, be two states for two peoples, living side by side in security and peace and, if that is the objective, Israel must take some action now to make that objective achievable.
As to the necessity of having two states for two peoples, the alternative–one bi-national state stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River–will not be both Jewish and democratic. The demographics of the area preclude this. There is now a bare Jewish majority in what would constitute the bi-national state. By 2020, Palestinians would constitute 51% of the population and, by 2030, 56% in that area. Thus, Israel will no longer be a Jewish state, unless the Palestinians living in that state will be denied the same voting rights as the Jewish minority — and then it would not be a democratic state.
As to the second premise, living with the status quo and continuing the policies of the Government, particularly its continued settlement activity, is not an option for a variety of reasons. First, for the last six months, Israel has been suffering through a wave of violence of a kind never before experienced, perpetrated mostly by young Palestinians, acting on their own. And, while there is no excuse — I repeat, no excuse — for this violence, which has been incited by irresponsible Palestinian leaders and social media, I suggest that the root cause is the feeling of helplessness to change the situation and hopelessness that it will ever change — a toxic combination, which makes these young people susceptible to being influenced by the incitement. High ranking persons in the Israeli security establishment have expressed the same view. Action by Israel may well give these young people some hope that their lives and futures can change for the better, calm their despair and tamp down the violence.
Further, taking action will allow Israel to strengthen its position and standing with certain of the Arab states, Europe and the United States.
There is now a confluence of interests between Israel and many of the Arab states: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and, possibly, Turkey. They are all committed to defeating ISIS and preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. However, they demand a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
In 2002, the Arab League put forth its “Arab Peace Initiative,” which included a pledge to recognize and normalize relations with Israel if it met certain conditions. Israel found the conditions unacceptable and rejected the initiative. There have been indications that the Arab states are prepared to compromise on the objectionable conditions. An Israeli acknowledgment that the Arab Peace Initiative could form a basis for future negotiations would be a constructive step.
Europe has been problematic for Israel, constantly criticizing Israel for its settlement policy. The French have proposed a Peace Conference, and rumors abound that France and New Zealand are considering introducing another UN resolution. The tensions between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government are well documented. They persist mainly over the settlement policy of the Israeli government. Action by Israel changing its settlement policy could discourage further troublesome initiatives.
Each of the plans mentioned above contemplates drawing tentative lines which would include the settlement blocs in the future Jewish state and limit building to the settlement blocs. Significantly, unlike the plan for the withdrawal from Gaza, none of the plans contemplates withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from the West Bank. Thus, those who use the Gaza withdrawal to warn against any withdrawal from the West Bank miss the mark.
The exact composition of the plan is not critical so long as it is credible. However, for the reasons stated, an embrace of the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for negotiations would bring the Arab States into the process, and cessation of construction outside the settlement blocs and the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would convince the US and the EU that Israel is serious about moving toward a two state solution.
Robert Sugarman is a past Chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and of the Anti-Defamation League. The views expressed are his own.