The Two-State Solution Imperative

by August 2021
Barack Obama and Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing

The past two centuries have been witness to many seemingly intractable global problems for which solutions seemed out of reach. Yet, time and again, history proved that “impossible” problems were not insoluble after all.

Therein lies the hope for the Middle East, where the long-raging Israeli–Palestinian conflict remains the region’s keystone issue—one that, if resolved, would unlock solutions to other challenges impeding what could be and should be a bright and prosperous future for the people of the Middle East.

The United States has been at the forefront of this issue since the creation of Israel in 1948. One administration after another has labored, unsuccessfully, in a perpetual “peace process” that has failed to achieve sustainable peace and only sporadically has resembled a functional process. Progress has repeatedly fallen victim to spoilers in both camps, perpetuating a tense and unsustainable status quo that the world has come to regard as an inevitable end state.

During the Obama years, the Israeli prime minister was capable but not willing. His Palestinian counterpart was willing but not capable.

The region’s history suggests that opportunity to forge a more promising future arises in the wake of significant political change and public crisis. Such are the conditions today. With the recent change in both the US and Israeli governments, and the aftermath of intense violence engulfing the Gaza Strip, perhaps the conditions are ripe for renewed efforts by all stakeholders for a committed and energetic campaign to solve this strategically critical problem.

One thing is certain; if such an opportunity is to be seized and succeed, the US must play a pivotal leadership role in the process. Such an effort must be informed by the acceptance of two realities by all stakeholders. One, any solution will, once agreed, take considerable time and resources to implement. Two, the Israeli and Palestinian authorities will need to show that their leaders are both capable of and willing to engage in the process and see it through. During the Obama years when I served as his national security advisor, the Israeli prime minister was capable but not willing. His Palestinian counterpart was willing but not capable.

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Photo credit: Alex Brandon/Pool via REUTERS

Success will take more than American prodding and encouragement to advance the peace process. Over the years, no amount of American pressure has resulted in anything other than intermittent periods of relative peace, always terminated by renewed violence, fostered by Iran’s proxies bent on fostering regional conflict.

Relying on either of the parties to table a credible plan has been in vain. In the early days of the Obama administration, several weeks before the newly elected Israeli prime minister’s first official visit to the US, the then defense minister of Israel and former prime minister Ehud Barak, who had joined Netanyahu’s coalition, visited the White House, where I met with him in my role as President Obama’s national security advisor. In the privacy of that office, the defense minister, surprisingly, presented a plan for achieving a two-state solution. So impressive was the presentation that the president agreed to hear the briefing on the spur of the moment, in the national security advisor’s office. The plan he heard was detailed, balanced, and comprehensive. 

The defense minister inferred that the plan would be formally presented by the prime minister during his forthcoming visit to Washington. The prospect of an important breakthrough in the quest for a two-state solution fueled anticipation of the prime minister’s visit, which was to occur a few weeks later.

To the US administration’s astonishment, the prime minister never mentioned the plan during his visit to Washington. When asked about the peace plan described by the defense minister, Netanyahu denied any knowledge of it. Nevertheless, he adamantly assured the president that he was the one Israeli leader on whose watch a solution could be achieved. Despite his words to the contrary during many years in power, Prime Minister Netanyahu was never committed to finding a two-state solution. The misrepresentation that such an end state was his strategic objective created the serious strain in US–Israeli relations that lasted the duration of the Obama and Netanyahu administrations. The Trump administration’s four years in office shored up the bilateral relationship between Israel and the US, but did very little toward achieving a two-state solution that remains the best hope of peace.

US engagement in the Middle East, with a committed leadership role, remains at the top of the “wish list” for most of the region.

Moreover, the long-standing failure to bring the sides together to forge a lasting resolution to the conflict and the efforts that had repeatedly run aground caused—among other things—significant damage to American diplomatic prestige in the broader Middle East.

It is time for an American administration to take a step the US has been too reluctant to take, one which could make the difference both in bringing peace and restoring US influence in this vital region. That step is to advance an American plan for the establishment of a two-state solution, one that could be and should be supported by the international community as a basis for agreement between the respective Israeli and Palestinian leaderships.

To be clear, the US engagement in the Middle East, with a committed leadership role, remains at the top of the “wish list” for most of the region. Still, back home many do ask why this conflict must be resolved, and why the US must continue its role in finding an acceptable solution to this problem.

The answer is that the status quo leads nowhere positive. Countering bad global actors who will continue to threaten regional peace and stability—in part, by exploiting the Israeli–Palestinian issue—is a geopolitical imperative. The Iranian regime and its proxies feed on the situation, creating instability that spills onto the African continent and elsewhere, threatening global peace and stability in this century.

The humanitarian imperative requires we break the cycle of violence and fear that has, for too long, oppressed both the Israeli and the Palestinian people and remove the issue as an impediment to solving many other grave challenges to regional peace and security—job creation; development; food, energy and water sufficiency; and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to name a few.

Despite efforts to thwart the two-state solution, it remains the only viable goal for achieving peace, security, and prosperity in that part of the world. It will require both parties to break from their competing narratives of victimization and take the risk of recognizing each other’s rights and their own responsibilities. Success will require an approach synchronizing the top down (political willingness) and bottom up (building capacity) to create the conditions for irreversible progress. On this basis, the parties, with international support, can solve the pivotal issues and establish equitable and practicable arrangements necessary to end the conflict.

Hope lives at the intersection of resolve and opportunity. The changes in administration, the response to the threat of the coronavirus to the global community, and the aftermath of the latest round of Israeli–Palestinian violence—which showed its fruitlessness—alongside the promise of the Abraham Accords, and the availability of technological developments that can help solve core challenges all should help inspire resolve and create opportunity.

The US can foster and seize both, by tabling a comprehensive plan as a basis of negotiations, and working with all parties in the international community to see the process through to a durable, comprehensive, and fair two-state solution.

Not only can this historical watershed be achieved; for the sake of a peaceful and prosperous future, it must be.

James Jones
General James L. Jones served as national security adviser to President Obama, and in the George W. Bush administration as the State Department’s special envoy for Middle East regional security. A former commander of NATO forces, Jones retired from the US Marine Corps in 2007 after a distinguished 40-year career.
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