The US’s empty commitment to a two-state solution

A man walks along a road by Israel’s separation barrier between the occupied West Bank village of Nazlat Issa and the Arab-Israeli town of Baqa al-Gharbiya in northern Israel on February 1, 2020. | Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

An outdated policy stands in the way of efforts to defuse violence in Israel and Palestine.

It’s a particularly dangerous moment for Israel and Palestine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the Middle East last week on a previously scheduled trip after 48 hours of violence: a terrorist attack in East Jerusalem killed seven Israelis and an Israeli raid on the refugee camp of Jenin killed nine Palestinians, culminating a month in which Palestinians experienced the highest level of killings at the hands of Israeli forces and Israeli settlers in more than a decade. The situation called for US leadership.

Blinken was there to “urge de-escalation,” as the Biden administration described it, at a time when an extreme far-right Israeli government pushes for incendiary changes to the judiciary that contradict Israel’s stated democratic tenets, reorders the way the occupation of Palestinian territory is administered, and pursues a variety of policies that likely violate international law.

Yet throughout the trip, Blinken’s comments felt retrograde, like they came from another era.

He kept offering up calls for a two-state solution. Since the presidency of Bill Clinton, American policy has focused on creating a sovereign, independent Palestinian state alongside Israel with Jerusalem as its capital, on the land that Israel has occupied since the 1967 war. A version of the two-state solution has broadly been the consensus of Democratic and Republican presidents, the United Nations, and US partners. But recent Israeli governments have expressed little political will for Palestinian statehood. The Trump administration reversed longstanding US policies in ways that undermined Palestine (while still sticking to two states), and Biden’s team has since offered no hints of how to revive the long dormant negotiation process.

If the two-state message rings hollow, that’s because the US still has an outdated approach to the Middle East that simply doesn’t acknowledge what’s happened in Israel over the last several decades.

The US policy does not take into account how entrenched the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem has become. Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank has made a viable Palestinian state all but impossible. The US-led talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization have been on hiatus since President Barack Obama’s second term, and even at the time, there was little hope that they would amount to much. And Arab states like Morocco, UAE, and Bahrain have abandoned Palestinians, as they normalize relations with the State of Israel and eliminate any incentives for negotiations toward a Palestinian state.

Even establishment voices like former Ambassador Martin Indyk, who served as Obama’s Middle East envoy and is now a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledge that a one-state reality has set in.

To be fair, figuring out a new policy toward Israel and Palestine is no easy task. The US has come to be so dependent on Israel as a close security partner in the Middle East that it seemingly has overlooked its transgressions. Moreover, US politicians are reluctant to overhaul its approach and rankle influential domestic constituencies in the process.

But no good policy can rest on an outdated understanding of the facts on the ground. Clinging to a two-state solution that many leading Middle East experts do not view as workable is counterproductive and cedes US leadership. A commitment to a Palestinian state in name only cheapens and undermines its very possibility and boxes out the development of more practical policies that meet the moment. It leaves the US with few options in taking a leadership role in a place that’s central to US national interests and security.

So Blinken’s recent trip failed to defuse the tensions. Were it not for the empty words about the two-state solution, he might have had to describe the situation as it is, says Rashid Khalidi, the preeminent Palestinian historian and professor at Columbia University who has researched US presidents in the Middle East.

The secretary of state, according to Khalidi, would be reduced to saying, “We don’t care about the Palestinians. We know that Israel is going to do what it wants with them. There will never be an independent, sovereign Palestinian state.”

As Khalidi put it, “The moment you admit that the emperor has no clothes, everything changes.”

Why this moment is so explosive for Israel and Palestine

The new Israeli government that took office in January is brazenly exclusionary and illiberal. It has declared in its own guidelines that the “Jewish people have the exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” and it has already taken steps to strengthen settlements and push punitive measures against Palestinians for going to the United Nations and International Criminal Court.

But the actions that have foreclosed the possibility of a two-state solution are decades in the making — a trend that has been concealed by the persistence of US politicians discussing Israel and America’s shared democratic values. Successive US administrations have said that there is “no sunlight” between the US and Israel, and that the security relationship is “ironclad.” Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan on a recent trip described the US commitment to Israel as “bone deep.” That narrative is now a much tougher sell with Israel’s undemocratic forces ascendant.

At the same time, Israeli settlers number more than 700,000 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — and they have grown more aggressive. (The village of Khan Al-Ahmar outside Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, for example, has long been under threat of demolition, and now its residents face imminent displacement and dispossession.) Settlers are integrated into Israeli leadership, the military, and security services, and they control part of those services. The de-facto annexation of Palestinian land is the policy of this new Israeli government.

Israeli actions, like construction of a hulking, concrete separation barrier between Israel and the occupied West Bank, have rendered the proposed borders of the future Palestinian state moot. Further cut off by Israeli settlements, Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank has been reduced to unconnected cantons, with a network of settler-only roads sometimes being the only connection between them. This brutal new geography puts into question a Palestinian state’s economic viability.

Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images
Paelstinians watch from a rooftop in Nablus, the funeral procession of Nabil Ghanem, killed on June 19 by Israeli forces near a security barrier in the occupied West Bank, on June 23, 2022.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian government run by 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas is fractured, dysfunctional, and increasingly authoritarian. It also essentially is the subcontractor of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. And the Israeli blockade of Gaza represents an ongoing humanitarian disaster. The conditions are set for what may be an unpredictable wave of resistance, perhaps in the form of a third intifada (or popular uprising) with a generation of Palestinians having little prospect of being enfranchised.

“The tolerance of the Palestinians for outrage and for incessant humiliation and for systematic murder of Palestinians, most of whom are always invariably civilians, is growing more limited,” Khalidi said. “And that means the situation is actually more explosive.”

The domination of the Israeli far-right, the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and divisions among Palestinian political leadership mean that there is no peace process. There may never be another one. Fifty-two percent of Middle East scholars, according to a 2021 survey, say a two-state solution is no longer possible. For 59 percent, the current circumstance is “a one-state reality akin to apartheid,” which leading Israeli, US, and international human rights organizations have also documented.

There are some in the US who recognize this reality: Young American Jews are less likely to unconditionally support Israel than previous generations. Black Lives Matter activists link the struggle for rights in Palestine with those disenfranchised in the United States. A movement pushing to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel shows what the next phase of peaceful protest against Israeli policies might look like — and the result has been laws in 34 states that seek to ban the right to boycott when it comes to Israel.

The US establishment, however, is striking back against these voices and enforcing red lines around the conversation around the Middle East. Even pointing out the current untenability of an end to Israeli occupation and a sovereign Palestinian state can hurt one’s career in Washington. That’s what happened to Sarah Margon, an accomplished former congressional staffer and rights advocate, whom President Biden appointed to the top human rights position at the State Department. That assistant secretary role requires Senate confirmation, and for almost two years, the Republican ranking member of the committee refused to move her nomination forward — because of a tweet.

In 2018, Margon praised Airbnb for removing listings in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Though Margon is Jewish and the ranking member, Sen. James Risch (R-ID), is not, Risch accused her of antisemitism and used it as a pretense to hold up her moving out of committee. After being frozen out, Margon recently withdrew from the role, and the US State Department still lacks a top human rights official.

All the while, the US strengthens its relationship with Israel as its government pursues policies that are more and more extreme. Before Blinken’s visit, the US and Israel conducted a military exercise that looked like a dress rehearsal of a war with Iran — and distastefully created a video-game-like highlight reel of it — as Israeli settlers escalated violent attacks on Palestinians.

US policy toward Israel doesn’t need to be this way

Could US policy toward the Middle East be at least a little more realistic and address how dangerous this moment is?

“We continue to believe, as the president said on his trip to Israel and the West Bank last summer, that two states — based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps — remains the best way to achieve our goal of Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace and security,” a State Department spokesperson wrote by email. “And, of course, it’s vital to preserving Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.”

The State Department spokesperson conceded that currently “the prospects of a two-state solution feel remote,” though they emphasized, “we are committed to preserving a horizon of hope.”

More US policymakers should clearly acknowledge just how limited the possibility of a two-state outcome is. A “do no harm” approach is a better guiding principle than the current two-state word salad that will only further undermine US credibility in the Middle East.

Or else, to show that the Biden administration is indeed committed to an independent Palestinian state, it should state clearly what it’s actively doing to advance that. To start, allowing a Palestinian diplomatic office to open in Washington and re-launching a US consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinians, undoing Trump policies that undermined Palestinian representation.

Even if the US remained committed in name to the two-state solution, there are plenty of things Blinken could have said or done during his trip to show that the United States was willing to use its leverage to adjust to the dangerous status quo. He could have hinted that the use of American weapons is in violation of the Leahy Law for purposes that aren’t defensive. He could have cut off the use of 501(c)3 charities that send US money to illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. He could have said that the US might no longer stand up for Israel in international forums like the United Nations Security Council or the International Criminal Court.

But the reality is that the US remains complicit in some of the Israeli government’s most destructive policies. “These are American weapons, paid for with American tax dollars, $3.8 billion of them every year, that are used to gun down Palestinians, mainly civilians,” Khalidi explained.

Blinken said his first priority on the Middle East trip was to “calm things down.” Speaking to reporters, he explained, “my hope is that if that succeeds, then we can look to both sides to take some positive steps to try to rebuild confidence, rebuild trust, and that in turn lays the foundation for at some point pursuing two states.”

By most accounts, he failed to accomplish the first half of that equation, and the mythical two-state outcome is as far off as ever. In reality, those who push for it, without anything to back it up, are only prolonging and perpetuating an endless conflict.

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