An astonishing op-ed piece by Israeli President Shimon Peres appeared in the Washington Post on Tuesday, the day of Israel’s elections.
Peres wrote the piece to debunk growing interest in a “one-state solution” — the idea that Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank should coexist with Israelis in a single state. He insisted that “the only realistic and moral formula for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is the “two-state solution” — a Palestinian state existing side by side with a Jewish state.
Peres argued — and I believe he’s correct — that a single state for Israeli Jews and Palestinians is a formula for perpetual violence. Neither community wants it or is prepared to be ruled by the other. But why did Peres feel the need to stress this point in an American news outlet on Israel’s election day?
I can think of only one reason. Peres knows this election could deliver the final blow to the two-state concept — which many Israelis and Palestinians have already rejected — unless President Obama takes tough steps to revive it and push it forward.
The centrist Kadima Party, headed by current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, won a narrow plurality. But Livni will have trouble forming a governing coalition, since the bulk of voters split their ballots among several hawkish parties.
Waiting for her to fail is former prime minister and uber-hawk Benjamin Netanyahu, of the second-place Likud Party. He opposes any further Israeli territorial withdrawals and rejects Palestinian statehood. He may join forces with Avigdor Lieberman, whose party placed third and who wants to kick Israeli Arab towns out of the Jewish state.
A major reason the Israeli public has moved rightward is the belief that territorial withdrawals only bring more violence. Hamas rocket attacks on Israel after its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 fed these feelings. That’s why Israeli support for the war in Gaza was so high, despite its terrible toll on Palestinian civilians.
Most Israelis seem to have given up on peace; they just want separation from the Palestinians. Israel has fenced and walled off the West Bank and closed off Gaza. Gone are the days when Israelis and Palestinians mingled freely. Young Israelis and Palestinians have almost no contact with their counterparts, making it easy for each side to dehumanize the other.
But blocking Palestinian reality from their gaze won’t resolve the Palestinian problem for the Israeli public or state.
The status quo is untenable. More than 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem cannot live under occupation indefinitely. Moreover, their unhappy situation is stoking anger among the 1.5 million additional Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel.
Netanyahu’s talk of pursuing “economic peace” is nonsense. Occupation guarantees that a Palestinian economy won’t function. After Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, its tight control of border crossings made it nearly impossible for Gazans to import raw materials or get exports to market. That was true even before Hamas won Palestinian elections; economic desperation helped stoke Gazans’ anger.
Meantime, the West Bank has been divided into cantons by Israeli checkpoints, settlements, roads and blockades, which destroy its economy. This situation is made increasingly irreversible by the continued expansion of Israeli settlements. The growing militancy of settlers makes it more and more difficult for any leader to remove them. Yet their relentless growth dooms any prospect of a viable Palestinian state.
So the next Israeli government will face critical choices. If it continues current policies, the two-state option will become a dead letter. Israel will be left with two choices: Control the Palestinians by force, or make them citizens of one state.
President Obama must confront this dilemma immediately. Moderate Arab leaders such as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah still support a two-state plan that would call on all Arab states to recognize Israel. Such a plan could be backed up by U.S. security guarantees.
But unless talks revive soon, Arab publics — angered by the Gaza war — will push for abandonment of the two-state option. And unless Obama can press the new Israeli government to freeze all settlement growth, the two-state idea will become irrelevant.
At that point — as Peres foresees — the world will start pressing Israel to incorporate the Palestinians as citizens inside a single state.