With the Trump Administration recently revealing its long-awaited “Deal of the Century,” a polarizing reaction across the political spectrum was quick to follow.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opposition rival Benny Gantz, as well as much of the American pro-Israel political establishment, embraced the deal. They hailed it as a revolutionary shift in the peace process paradigm – one which recognized Israeli sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem, the entirety of Jewish communities between river and sea, and the essential security region of the Jordan Valley.
This is in contrast to more classical models of a two-state solution based on ‘67 borders, which downplayed the inextricable Jewish connection to Jerusalem, hinged upon the depopulation of Jewish communities in the West Bank, and pushed Israel into a vulnerable security position that would lack strategic defensive depth and see the possibility of Palestinian missiles raining down on exposed Israeli territory which accounts for 70 percent of the Israeli population and contains key infrastructure, including Ben Gurion Airport.
As a nation that has suffered two Intifadas, decades of guerrilla warfare, thousands of missiles from the Gaza Strip over numerous years, and countless terror attacks, it isn’t exactly unreasonable to see why Israel would categorically reject the possibility of such a reality.
Reciprocally, the Palestinian reaction labelled the deal as dead on arrival. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who did not have any of his officials involved in the crafting of the deal, denounced it as a “conspiracy deal.” The Arab street was more forceful in its rejection, with large-scale protests in Ramallah leading to photo burnings of President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and dozens of protesters outside the US embassy in Jordan calling for the closure of American and “Zionist” embassies in the country.
Many policy analysts along with Palestinian activists and progressive allies suggested the proposal was an unviable Bantustan. To justify their claim, they pointed to things such as the complete lack of border controls, the interloping of Israeli roads and enclaves into Palestinian territory, the lack of complete geographic contiguity within the West Bank, and the unilateral replacement of 30% of West Bank territory with remote territory in the Negev Desert. Moreover, some noted that the granting of key territory in East Jerusalem, including the all-important Old City with its Muslim and Christian sites, is untenable.
Looking at both narratives, it is easy to sympathize with both.
From the Israeli side, the ‘67 border model imposed by the international communities was viewed as the forced detachment of Jewish connection to some of its most holy and historical sites. As a Jew, I completely relate to this frustration. Having the world tell us that the boundaries of ancient Jerusalem is exclusively Palestinian seemed to be a slap in the face.
This is the city which was the political capital of the Israelite and later Judean kingdoms, the site of the destroyed Temples which Jews have yearned to restore while in exile, and the area which had a Jewish majority from the mid 1800s onward (and a plurality before that). It is the city which we have mourned to return to for two millenniums; the city which is institutionalized into our thrice daily prayers; the city which is the direction toward which we pray; and the city which is verbally proclaimed to be returned to at the conclusion of every Passover seder.
It is the basis for three fast days each year mourning its destruction, with the fast of Tisha B’Av invoking soulful recitation of the prophet Jeremiah’s lamentations upon seeing Zion’s ruins. It is the basis for the practice of a Jewish groom shattering a glass under his foot during his wedding, the sobering ritual amid the most joyous day of his life hearkening the words of Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill; let my tongue adhere to my palate if I fail to recall you, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy.”
Similarly, cities such as Hebron, which is the burial site of the Jewish Patriarchs and which has had numerous resettled communities throughout the ages, are viewed in the Jewish conscience as intimately Jewish. Moreover, the very name “Jew,” which has historically delineated Jews in diaspora from their gentile counterparts as a distinct national group, attests to the region of ancient Judea, which roughly corresponds to the present-day West Bank and Jerusalem area. To unilaterally strip the Jewish connection to all these cities and regions for the sake of separatist “peace” was to many Jews seen as an affront.
If there’s one thing to laud the Trump peace vision for, it is the eradication of this forced severance of Jewishness from these areas.
From the Palestinian perspective, however, a rejection of this peace plan is easily understood. The plan legitimizes Israeli settlements deemed by the international community as unlawful. It strips the iconic Palestinian Muslim and Christian heritage sites in Jerusalem from its proposed capital, including al-Aqsa, the Dome of the Rock, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Instead, it relegates what would be deemed the Palestinian capital of “Al-Quds” to the utmost peripheral eastern areas behind the current separation barrier, such as Abu Dis and the Shu’afat Refugee Camp.)
It also devoids the Palestinian state from any true autonomy. Not only would demilitarization be a precondition, but Israel would be the sole overseer of Palestine’s borders. This would make Palestine beholden to the graces and wishes of those who they perceive as their historic oppressor, with no counter mechanism to regulate missteps. As aforementioned, the swiss-cheesing of Palestinian territory means Israeli sovereign areas within their state, unequal land trades, and lack of contiguity. It’s hard to look at the proposed map and honestly say that it looks like a normal state.
These points become more prevalent when it’s noted that the very agreement to ‘67 borders to which the Palestinian Authority nominally agrees to is itself viewed as a concession: it comprises just 22% of historic Palestine, despite Palestinian Arabs having been 67% of the pre-Israel population. It has also in past negotiations agreed to the principle of being demilitarized. To then say that the categorical Palestinian rejection to all these further conditions is “radical” or “absolutist” is disingenuous.
True, the Palestinians probably won’t be offered a better deal in the future, and it’s true that historically the terms for peace conditions have progressively downscaled in Israeli concessions; but to corner Palestinians into an ultimatum of accepting the status quo or an objectively bad deck of cards is not exactly exerting the moral high ground. Palestinians would rather withstand their current plight with dignity than formally enshrine their degradation into law.
With the seeming irreconcilability of both people’s narratives and aspirations, the question ultimately becomes: What then? What then, indeed. To be perfectly candid, there is not a single proposed solution to the conflict that would address the key grievances and needs of both peoples. Concessions of some sort will have to be made no matter the solution. That is inevitable. The question is which solution would work best, realistically be accepted by both peoples, and have the potential to be implemented by Israel.
The international community as a whole and most orthodox policy gurus have come to the conclusion that the answer to this is the two-state solution based on ‘67 borders, with some negotiation to address logistical and other needs. “Two states for two peoples,” as the prescription goes.
The idea is seen as centrist and reasonable: It is accommodative of current realities on the ground; it is recognizant of the irreconcilable national and ethnoreligious distinctions between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs; and it acknowledges the historic need of Jews to have ensured safety within their own historic homeland after centuries of persecution and a recent mass genocide.
While this pathway is seemingly agreeable on the surface, a number of issues ultimately manifest when one probes deeper. These issues are primarily based on the consistent lack of ability of key compromises to be agreed upon. There have been several models negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians based on the two-state paradigm since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. All have failed due to a number of recurrent issues.
Take Ehud Barak’s offer to Yasser Arafat in 2000. Barak was willing to recognize a Palestinian state, but wanted to put off the “explosive issue” of Jerusalem and protract discussion on the question of Palestinian refugees for one to three years. This led to a blatant rejection from the Palestinians.
Yet perhaps the most generous deal in recent history, and the one which came closest to being realized, was Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer to Mahmoud Abbas. In these negotiations, too, certain irreconcilable issues came to light. Key among them was the status of Jerusalem and descendants of Palestinian refugees. Another was the status of settlements and security in the Jordan Valley. Abbas was more accommodative of negotiation on these issues than his predecessor, loosely agreeing to international control of the Old City, NATO patrol of the Jordan Valley, the agreement that a complete return of Palestinian refugees could not occur, and land swaps with Israel to allow the majority of settlers to remain under Israeli control.
Again, however, key problematic themes kept being returned to. While some issues were mostly technical, like whether the international control of Jerusalem should be limited to the Old City alone or encompass some Palestinian neighborhoods around it, others were more fundamental in nature.
One such example was the status of settlements. While Abbas’ concessions would have allowed more than 60 percent of settlers to remain in place (mostly major settlement blocs already bordering the Green Line), this would still mean that 40 percent – or what today is estimated to be over 185,000 Israelis – would have an unresolved status. At its most generous extension, the earlier Camp David peace talks envisioned annexing up to 80 percent of the settlement populace, but even that would leave over 92,000 Israelis in this predicament.
That’s also assuming such extension would even be possible at the end of the day. Within the five major settlement blocs, ones such as Ma’aleh Adummim intersect the contiguity of the West Bank and Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Another difficulty is the settlement of Ariel. The second most populated settlement, it is 20 kilometers east of the Green Line. It is hard to imagine how its annexation would be possible within the classical two-state conception.
Moreover, it’s difficult to see how the settler population itself would be dealt with if one of these prior two-state models were to have materialized. It is one thing to clear 8,000 Jews from settlements, as was the case in the unilateral 2005 Israeli evacuation from the area; it’s another when you’re dealing with a number of 92,000 to 185,000 (particularly colossal by Israeli standards). A considerable percentage of these settlers, besides for having a steadfast ideology and rooted identity to their land, are armed and potentially willing to fight for their cause. They also for the most part have zero desire to live under a Palestinian state, and Palestinians have no interest in incorporating them into their own.
The entire history of land swap talks have not only overlooked the likely resistance of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, but of Israeli Arabs as well. A number of prior proposals, for instance, have included Israeli land transfers of areas bordering the Green Line with large Arab citizen populations. The region known as “The Triangle,” with some 300,000 Israeli Arabs, is the most noted example. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman formally proposed this in 2004. Known for championing the demographic Jewishness of Israel as passionately as its secularism, Lieberman is of the belief that the less of a “fifth column” there is within Israel, the better. This was one of the foundations for its mention as a possibility in the Trump peace plan, which was staunchly protested by the Triangle’s residents. Having to deal with 300,000 people potentially losing citizenship, especially when resisted en masse, would obviously be a logistical nightmare.
Another issue in prior deals was, again, the status of Palestinian refugees. In the 2008 negotiations, Abbas conceded that the topic had to be negotiated, explicitly asserting that a full realization of the right of return would undermine Israel as a Jewish state. However, he would not agree to Olmert’s measly offer of 5,000 returnees over five years and primarily symbolic recognition. In negotiations before that, the issue has generally been understood by negotiators and mitigators as needing to tread the delicate balance of a realistic number which would not demographically overwhelm Israel, yet which is rooted in genuine justice. What this balance would look like, exactly, has never been demonstrated.
If all the aforementioned issues have proved to be endemic to the two-state paradigm, how much more so does this apply to Trump’s “Vision for Peace”? Some may be quick to retort, as the New York Times’ Bret Stephens did in a recent op-ed, that Palestinians consistently failing to accept deals only ends up entrenching their plight. This trope can be traced back decades to the famous statement by former Israeli diplomat Abba Evan: “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
However, these accusations ignore the bilateral and good-faith negotiations that have genuinely occurred in the past. It also typically lays the blame on the Palestinian side in a very one-sided manner, ignoring real logistical issues that have roadblocked prior talks as well as technical realities.
As an example, the often-touted 2008 offer from Olmert had several aspects to it which tend to be very muted by those who bring it up. One was that Olmert told Abbas to sign an agreement, though he refused to let Abbas take the map and study it, much less further negotiate it after reviewing it with officials. When one takes into account that logistical issues were yet to be resolved at that point, the absurdity of expecting an in-the-moment agreement is further realized. Additionally, a number of Abbas’ advisers had advised him to not sign an agreement at that time, as Olmert was in a lame-duck period. A new American administration was also to come in the following year.
Within the two-state vision, the interim separation paradigm yielded nothing but travesty. Take the widely praised Oslo “Peace” Accords. As a pathway to a Palestinian state, the agreement essentially outsourced much of the Israeli security apparatus and civil administration to Palestinian control. The West Bank became partitioned into three zones – A, B, and C – which continues to this day. Later, in 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew all its settlers from the Gaza Strip in the hope that it would be a step towards peace.
While it would be disingenuous to imply that there wasn’t visibly existent tension on the ground before these initiatives, the aftereffects have been unquestionably worse. Older Israelis will still tell stories of driving into Jericho or Ramallah in the early years following the Six-Day War. This was not too dissimilar to the current reality in East Jerusalem, formally under unified Israeli control (at least de jure, if not always de facto) since 1980. It is not exactly an oasis of genuine coexistence, but openly observant Jews in sizable numbers stroll the streets of the alleyways in the Arab souq, mostly without issue. Having Jews purchase from Arab stores speaking Hebrew isn’t uncommon. Tourists are plentiful, and one would be amiss to spend some time in the area without seeing American Jewish yeshiva boys wandering about.
In Gaza, the situational reality following Israel’s withdrawal led to the rise of the Islamist extremist group Hamas, thousands of missiles fired at Israeli cities, and the responsive Israeli shelling of Gaza which led to thousands of civilians dead, injured, and/or homeless. With the density of the enclave, blockade on its waters, dire poverty, and half its residents unemployed, it’s difficult to make the argument that this outcome has been beneficial for either Israelis or Palestinians.
All prior historical examples point to the inescapable reality that a two-state solution has systemic logistical obstacles and will, though its separation paradigm, lead to the further exacerbation of tension and conflict. The viable alternative Israeli society should contemplate moving forward is one of further incorporation and interdependence. This is the same theme which post-WWII Europe was built on, with supranational entities such as the European Union leading to economic prosperity and formally combative nations immersed within their longest period of peace in millennia.
Of course criticism of the two-state solution will invariably evoke critics to in turn ask for an alternative model. A complete one state solution, especially one which satisfies the Palestinian demand for return of refugees, would immediately be criticized as definitionally undermining Israel as a Jewish state at the very least. At worst, it would be grounds for the sort of civil war that plagued the Balkans and Lebanon decades ago.
Though this criticism would be valid, it’s important to reject false binaries when proposing an alternative vision to the two-state principle. A vision is a long-term trajectory, and trajectories aren’t always ripe ground for the implementation of a finish line from the onset. It would be beyond naive to think any sort of egalitarian or kumbaya resolution could be conjured anytime soon. In fact, it’s likely that certain key areas of national disagreement would remain dormant regardless. That doesn’t mean, however, that the existence of ambiguity in the totality of things means we ought to resort to the immediate and absolute, especially when we have solid grounds for being skeptical of its feasibility.
Another false binary that needs rejecting is the notion that there is no viable alternative solution which doesn’t fall within an ironclad one-state unity or two-state separation model. The truth is there is an endless array of such potential models; ones which can preserve the concept of Israel as a Jewish State in its demographic and definitional composition, and which also are rooted in genuine justice. Two such examples are the confederation and federation models.
The former model would work similar to the European Union, where separate states are still intertwined through things such as porous borders, a common currency, cooperation, and freedom of movement (though notably, not citizenship, which would be an important dynamic in an Israel-Palestine solution which allows the unity of homeland but preserves nationalized distinctions).
Such a dynamic would avoid many of the prior failures of negotiating complete separatism and delineating the exact boundaries of each nation’s territory. Access across the land would be guaranteed, and the residency and working rights of an Israeli or Palestinian in the other’s state would not impact the national composition of it, much like the theoretical right of 446 million (post-Brexit) EU residents to move into Ireland does not negate the Irishness of Ireland with its population of 4.83 million.
The latter model, the basis for over two dozen nations in the world, would be similar to a place like Belgium, where distinct regions work together under a centralized system but still maintain a high level of internal autonomy and geographic separation between regions. The country is undoubtedly to some extent an internal “mess”: It has three official languages (Flemish, French, and German); it is partitioned into the northern Flemish region and southern Walloon region (with a bilingual capital enclave in Brussels); and it has a history of nationalist/separatist movements, particularly in Flanders. Nevertheless, it works. It is an economic powerhouse, the center of the European Union, and a place where, despite internal lack of complete national unity, the distinct national communities coexist.
In an Israel-Palestine federation model, such as this one envisioned by Emanuel Shahaf and other Israelis, a similar dynamic would be at play: Jerusalem would, like Brussels, be a united bilingual capital; the rest of the country would be divided into national cantons between the Jewish and Arab communities (which would also allow for more expression of their diverse sub-communities), with political power shared between the cantons and overarching federal government. While the plan is not perfect and does not completely address the final status of the refugee question and Gaza, the extent to which it would be implemented would unquestionably open more pathways for reconciliation and prosperity than the separatist one.
Some form of combination of these two solutions is also possible.
Alternatively, there are related, yet distinct, comparative models. The United Kingdom is one such example. While England is the undoubted hegemonic country in the union in terms of demographics and culture, the independent and distinct countries of Wales and Scotland are included within it too. Scotland is still able to be its own country with a distinct internal identity, politics, and flavor despite being part of a larger kingdom – and one which had centuries of tension and war with it at that. All citizens can move anywhere else within the kingdom, irrespective of country barriers.
Whatever practical “solution” can be theorized about down the line, we are unfortunately many years away from such realizations. But that doesn’t mean we should shy away from the vision and aspiration, or from telling the naysayers an alternative is not only possible but frankly preferable. In the meantime we should backtrack from the false belief that the Jewish narrative and aspiration in the Land of Israel needs to be at the expense of the Palestinians. It isn’t a sum-game dynamic. Both peoples have a rooted and complete identity with the entirety of the land, and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed it is the height of contempt to demand that one side cede its intimate connection to it.
While the landscape for national reconciliation may be distant, we can work on genuine good-faith measures to decrease tensions, increase cooperation, free up movement, bolster economies, and create the conditions for “local peace” – which will God-willing transform to the national level down the line. In a society between river and sea where for the first time in decades support for a two-state solution is below 50% among both Israelis and Palestinians, this transformation in mentality becomes more pertinent than ever. The more Israel engages in unilateral separation, the more at risk Palestinian society becomes of becoming a repeat of Gaza; the more it is willing to further incorporate Palestinian society, the higher the chance of having another Acre or Haifa.