The stone engraver has taken his place in front of the two-state solution gravestone ready to carve the dates for an idea that in the end was still born. The dates carved will be July 7, 1937 - January 20, 2017. We tend to think the two-state solution as a product of the Oslo Accords twenty years ago. In fact, it was first proposed by the British through the Peel Commission a year into the Arab Revolt (1936-39) in the hopes of ending the struggle between the Zionist immigrants and the Palestinian population. (Some say the first partition took place during the spring of 1921 when Winston Churchill created the Emirate of Jordan east of the Jordan River). Two years later in 1939, on the eve of World War II, the British abandoned the idea of a two-state solution in favor of establishing a ceiling of 75,000 Jewish immigrants to Palestine over the next five years and then closing the doors entirely.
Eight years later with six million Jews dead the United Nations took another look at the two state solution creating the U.N. Partition Plan of November 29, 1947. That idea quickly went up in smoke with the invasion of the newly declared State of Israel by Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. Over the next 19 years the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, areas that according to the Peel Commission and the U.N. Partition Plan were meant to be part of a Palestinian state, were occupied by Egypt and Jordan with no effort made to establish an independent Palestinian state there.
While implied within the Oslo Accords (1993) the idea was not fully articulated. The two-state solution would reemerge in March 2002 in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1397 and the Arab Peace Initiative. Israelis and Palestinians would not agree to the idea of a two state solution until the Annapolis Conference of 2007. Today, eight years later, despite great efforts by the Obama Administration, we are no closer to the implementation of the two-state solution. Many claim there are only another eighteen months before viability expires. Feeding that countdown are the growing realities and established facts on the ground, as well as the end of President Obama’s and President Hollande’s terms in 2017.
What has prevented an idea, almost eighty years old, from taking hold? That answer is found in a complicated dance of historical, political, and social elements. One of the most critical is the foundation stone of perception. That is to say in conflict key perceptions can become imbedded that harden, clouding how each sides sees and understands the other side.
For the Palestinians, the Zionist movement from its first declarations and movement of people into the region was perceived as the latest in a long history of European behavior set on maintaining a hold on the Middle East going back to the Crusaders. Napoleon in 1799, and Lord Palmerston and Lord Shaftesbury in 1840, all advocated for a Jewish state. In 1907 the British Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman brought together European scholars to explore ways for Europe colonial interests in the Middle East to remain viable. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, and by extension Zionism, was seen through this lens.
The Zionist movement saw itself as the legitimate return of a people who had miraculously kept their connection to a land alive for over 2,000 years of exile; an exile whose conditions were growing more and more desperate and intolerable. For many Zionists Palestinian opposition to that narrative was unfathomable. In Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World, James Carroll writes, “After the Eichmann trial, Israeli cohesion, combined with a renewed contempt for the sympathy Arabs had displayed for Hitler’s genocide, effectively undercut whatever possibility there might have been of Zionist empathy for, or Israeli self-criticism concerning, the indigenous population of Arabs.”
For both the Palestinians and the Israelis the other isn’t just an enemy, but represents the ultimate enemy who once again needs to be confronted with extreme prejudice. Such a dynamic leads to the failure of the imagination when it comes to working in consort with the other side to change the status quo. It also contributes to a state of moral disengagement that brings the parties further and further apart. As described in Albert Bandura’s theory, such a withdrawal consists of palliative or advantageous comparisons in which one side justifies its actions committed against the other by comparing it to something they perceive much worse the other has done to them. This leaves no room for the issues of emotion, trauma, responsibility, acknowledgement and an understanding of the other to be addressed.
How to mitigate the aforementioned dynamics that materialize out of the foundation stone of perception are complicated by a number of elements. Kevin Avruch speaks about understanding the important relevance culture plays in conflict. He is a forceful critic of those who diminish or dismiss culture as a dimension that needs to be taken into account, particularly by those sitting around the negotiating table. One area where cultural differences adds to the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict is language. Edward Hall talks about high-context and low-context cultures when it comes to how cultures communicate and express themselves that easily can be misinterpreted by another culture. In Hall’s rubric Israel is low-context and the Palestinians are high-context. In his astute book, Culture and Conflict in Egyptian Israeli Relations: A Dialogue of the Deaf, Raymond Cohen makes that point when it comes to Israelis and Egyptians, and by extension to Israelis and Palestinians. This is one area where Secretary of State Kerry’s Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace needs to be more effective in translating and defining, not only words, but the cultural nuances at those moments when both sides talk past each other through their expressive cultural differences.
If the Israelis and Palestinians are locked in this dysfunctional dance which all contribute to the inability to resolve the conflict through the negotiated establishment of two states then at the same time the Quartet, particularly the Americans, are shortsighted when it comes to utilizing one of their main allies on the ground. There are scores and scores of Palestinian and Israeli People to People (P2P) organizations within the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) such as the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, the Parents Circle, PeacePlayers, the Search for Common Ground, the Jerusalem YMCA, Kids4Peace and countless other organizations who day in, day out build long-term bonds and dependence between Palestinians and Israelis as well as mitigating the foundation stone of perception.
Until recently poll after poll showed the majority of Palestinians and Israelis supported a peace agreement when defined as partition with the establishment of two states. Today, that is barely the case with such support slipping; a casualty of the ongoing deterioration of the confrontation between the two peoples as the conflict grinds forward with its violence, insults, and loss of hope. What is needed is a positive thunderbolt to strengthen those Palestinians and Israelis who have supported the concept of two state solution in the past by letting them know they are not alone within their community as well as across the divide with such convictions. Hearing more about Israelis and Palestinians who have been changed by meeting and working with the other and the sincere friendships that come out of those encounters will strengthen their resolve.
If an agreement is reached creating two states there will be immense, including violent, push-back from those opposed to an agreement. For that agreement to have any chance to succeed, those who support peace must be fortified. A key way to achieve that is for President Obama to make the work of the Palestinian and Israeli P2P efforts more pronounced. A visit by the Michelle Obama and Jill Biden would shine a light on the uplifting work of these Israeli and Palestinian NGOs.
For too long the U.S. State Department and the rest of the Quartet have approached negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians in classic track one diplomacy. It is time to change that orientation and take advantage of what the Palestinian and Israeli P2P programs and activities can bring to the peace process by their modeling in real and tangible ways what can be. These NGOs have been pleading to be part of those efforts for years and their offer should be finally taken up and utilized. What is needed is not track one, or track two, or track three diplomacy, but a fuller integration of high level governmental negotiators employing and taking advantage of the transformative work of these P2P NGOs; what Aila West calls whole or full track diplomacy.
In eighteen months the stone carver will engrave the final dates of the two-state solution idea, and we will head towards unilateral actions that will create two states or back into a one-state entity. Neither will be a solution and will only create different dynamics for the conflict to continue. If there is any chance for that not to happen then the deeply embedded elements addressed above must be engaged in ways suggested here. If that happens, perhaps, a parleyed two state solution will become a reality and the engraver can instead carve the words of Hubert H. Humphrey, “Peace is not passive, it is active; peace is not appeasement, it is strength; peace does not happen, it requires work.”