Once the casualties have been tallied and the war crimes allegations traded--and once, one hopes, Gilad Shalit has been returned to his family--attention is likely to focus on the long-term future of the Middle East. Since 1993, diplomacy has focused on the so-called two-state solution: a new Palestinian state or entity would arise alongside Israel and everyone would go home happily. It's not exactly going out on a limb to suggest this has not worked out as planned. In the aftermath of the Gaza War, it's hard to see any Israeli Government countenancing a further withdrawal from the West Bank, an event which might quickly lead to Hamas rockets pointed, not at Sderot and Beer-Sheva, but at Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ben Gurion Airport. Palestinians, for their part, are increasingly disenchanted with the two-state concept, which they see as a trick to maintain an unequal division of the land without addressing the underlying issues. While American and Israeli diplomacy both cling to a two-state concept, it seems a distant hope at best.
With the two-state idea in limbo, some experts--Palestinians but also a few Israelis--have begun to revive the one-state concept, which was the essential Arab position until about 15 years ago. Writing in today's N.Y. Times, Muammar Qaddafi, of all people, endorsed this solution, calling for the establishment of a new "Isratine" that would encompass Israeli and Palestinian aspirations under a single national roof. Israelis, of course, see this as simply a polite call for the destruction of their country, and have shown little interest in the concept. Yet in an odd way, with Israel controlling most of Mandatory Palestine and facing increasingly violent insurgencies from the Arab population--insurgencies that constantly threaten to involve indigenous Arabs together with those in the territories--the proposal has already been achieved.
My personal view is that neither the conventional two- or one-state solutions are viable under present circumstances. I cannot understand how two states, one of which has perhaps ten times the per capita income and hundreds of times the military power of the other, can live together peacefully without inviting outside interference. Nor can I understand how putting everyone together in one country would make things any better. More likely, it would lead to a new and more violent replay of the 1948 civil war, with the difference that the Jews, who control the economy, military, airports, and almost everything else of value in the country, would probably assert even more one-sided control.
To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, when all the solutions to a problem are improbable, you have to begin to look at the least improbable alternative. To me, the least dangerous approach has always been an interim and slow-moving rather than a full and immediate solution. I don't know exactly what this approach would look like, but here are some preliminary thoughts:
First, I think it needs to be recognized that the PLO and Hamas have failed to provide peace and security in the territories and begin to think about a new arrangement. Ideally this would involve some kind of direct involvement by the Jordanians (West Bank), Egyptians (Gaza), or a combination thereof. At the very least, there should be some kind of peacekeeping force, composed of European, Islamic, or neutral countries, to provide order in the territories and separate the Israeli and Palestinian forces. Many Israelis hate this idea, pointing out the failures of the Lebanon and (pre-1967) Sinai peacekeeping forces, and fearing that Israel would face rocket and suicide attacks without being able to strike back. Hamas itself has objected to having foreign forces on its territory. But the Sinai and Golan peacekeeping forces have produced relative calm for the past generation. Can anyone say the same for the West Bank and Gaza?
Second, and together with the above, there needs to be a serious plan to rebuild the economy in the West Bank and Gaza so that--if not quite the equal of Israel--it is at least robust enough that the residents have something to lose in a future conflict. This is often perceived as utopian, but is actually less so than commonly thought. In the first decade or so after 1993 there was a significant development of the Palestinian (as well as Israeli) economy. Many of the buildings that Israel knocked down in the past few weeks were put up in that period. An infusion of cash, together with stability provided by outside peacekeeping forces, would help it happen again.
Third, and most important, both sides must use the time gained above to make serious changes in what might be called constitutional structure--the legal and cultural arrangements by which each side understands itself and its relation to the outside world. The requisite changes on the Palestinian side are perhaps easiest to see. There needs to be a real acceptance of Israel, in Arabic and English, and by Hamas as well as Fatah or what's left of it. The UN and Europeans, who have been so eloquent in decrying Israeli atrocities, must condition further support on the elimination of textbooks that celebrate war and martrydom over peace and coexistence. It's pretty hard to make peace with people who think you are the equivalent of pigs or monkeys; many Israelis have probably stopped trying.
But Israel must make equally painful changes. It is frankly absurd that the country is debating whether Arab parties should be allowed to participate in elections, or whether Arab parents should be able to send their children to Jewish preschools. Even if every inch of the territories should be returned, more than twenty percent of the Israeli population will be Arabs, a much higher percentage if guest workers, Russian immigrants, and others with no or questionable Jewish background are included. A state that was a medina l'kol ezrakhekha
--a state for all its citizens--would be a far more likely candidate for peace than one which privileges Zionist Jews over all other residents. Orthodox Jews, who are frequently Zionists but increasingly emphasize the religious over the national aspect, might also feel more comfortable in such a state.
Finally, there must be meaningful peace with Syria and at least some kind of understanding with Iran and its surrogates. Little kids follow the big kids, not the other way around. A peace that does not involve these regional powers is likely doomed from the start.
None of this is guaranteed to succeed. But if something like the above could go forward for (say) 15 or 20 years--economic growth, state-to-state peace treaties, an end to cross-border violence and terrorism--it is at least possible the dynamic would change, and things that seem impossible today would start to come into focus. The most probable outcome, I think, would be a sort of one-and-a-half state solution, with two states controlling their own internal affairs but with a unified economy, foreign policy (anything is possible), and security apparatus. Issues which now seem uncompromisable, like the Right of Return (both Israeli and Palestinian) and control over holy places, would become much more so if the two sides learned, slowly but surely, to trust each other. A prolonged cooling-off period might also produce new leadership on both sides, reversing the militarization of the Israeli and Palestinian ruling classes that makes acheiving peace so difficult.
President Obama has promised an Administration that is realistic, patient, and honest. The honest truth is that Israelis and Palestinians are not ready for a final peace agreement, and that efforts to push them into one are likely to make things worse rather than better. A series of interim steps, involving substantial economic aid and involvement by foreign peacekeeping forces, offers at least the chance for long-term improvement. In American terms twenty years is a long time. In the Middle East it is nothing. Besides, Obama is only 47. In twenty years he'll still be around, and the world may look a lot better if he takes his time.