Will Biden save the two-state solution?

President-elect Joe Biden must know that opting for confidence-building measures, instead of pushing the sides into negotiating a permanent settlement, would only perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

al-monitor A man, mask-clad due to the COVID-19 pandemic, holds up a copy of Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom declaring Joe Biden as president-elect while sitting on a bench at a park in Jerusalem on Nov. 8, 2020. Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images.

Nov 26, 2020

Most foreign policy pundits argue that conditions are not ripe for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and advise the United States to limit its ambitions to building confidence between the parties, while improving the Palestinian performance as a reliable partner.

President Reuven Rivlin addressed precisely this issue Nov. 22, expressing hope that President-elect Joe Biden will help restore confidence between the parties. Summing it up bluntly, Rivlin said, "We can say two states for two people, one state for all the people, federation, confederation, we can do a lot — but first of all we have to build confidence.’’

To deny the importance of mutual trust between Israel and the Palestinians is tantamount to denying motherhood and apple pie, but is "confidence building" an indispensable precondition for reaching a permanent settlement? I think not. The sequence should run in the opposite direction.

The 27 years that have elapsed since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords have been littered with failed attempts to build mutual trust between the parties. These attempts failed even when conditions were significantly better than they are now. Right-wing Israeli governments have been busy undermining the two-state option, and the Palestinian side has been weakened and divided. Unsurprisingly, a recent poll found a significant deterioration of the trust Israelis and Palestinians place in each other’s commitment to peace.

Much of this distrust derives from the interim nature of the Oslo Accords, which deferred to a future date resolution of the essential issues: borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements. At the time, both sides knew that insisting on resolving these issues at that time would have caused their endeavor to collapse. They preferred to achieve a dramatic breakthrough: a historic mutual recognition and the initiation of a momentum that would lead to a permanent solution later. In my book on my years alongside Israeli leader Shimon Peres, I describe a dramatic moment in his office when Uri Savir, the head of our negotiating team, having painstakingly analyzed the inherent weakness of an interim agreement, concluded, “I’m putting a gun on the table and I invite you to kill the whole thing off."

The hope was that the interim period would create a climate of cooperation and deepen the mutual commitment to resolving the difficult issues along the way. But an alternative scenario, in which the conflict would escalate as each side jockeyed to strengthen its position in final status negotiations, was also foreseen. Indeed, the years have shown that the stronger side, Israel, has been much more effective in trampling the status quo and establishing facts on the ground.

Since the signing of the agreement in 1993, Israel has tripled the number of settlers beyond the Green Line. The deepening Israeli occupation has convinced many Palestinians that Israel is not a serious partner for peace, and years of terror and rocket attacks have led many Israelis to the same conclusion about the Palestinians.

Reality refused to wait patiently for confidence to be built. In each of the years of this fake status quo, about 3,000 Jewish additional settlers moved into the territory designated for a Palestinian state (the area beyond the settlement blocs adjacent to the 1967 line.) Today, about 130,000 settlers live there, and we are getting closer to the point of no return when it will no longer be possible to divide the land between the two peoples. Evidently, the impasse will eventually lead to another intifada and unbearable bloodshed on both sides.

To prevent such a tragedy and stop the slide into a binational state where violence is the currency, there must be a binding international decision on the parameters of a permanent settlement. Still, with each passing year, the parties are less able to reach such an agreement themselves. Hence, the only person capable of generating a move to avert this tragedy is Biden.

The parameters for such an agreement are well known: two states based on the 1967 lines, territorial swaps of equal size, East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, a fair solution to the refugee problem and strict security arrangements, including disarming Hamas and the demilitarization of the Palestinian state.

The logic of the process needs to be reversed. The pleasing illusion that building confidence will lead to a political settlement must give way to the reality that only credible endgame parameters will breed confidence. A clear political horizon would give the Palestinians a tangible incentive to resolve their painful internal rivalries and defeat the armed elements opposing peace. At the same time, with the parameters, Israelis would know that their country has a final border. The temptation to settle beyond it will disappear, as the binding international decision will end the unconstructive territorial ambiguity.

Biden, after he becomes president, could justly ask why he should want peace more than the parties involved. But he must also recognize that a policy proposal placed on his desk that rules out the pursuit of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement and instead recommends settling for "confidence building" is a formula for continued deterioration into a binational reality of apartheid and violence.

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