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Avoiding two states, getting one state

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Over at her personal blog, War and Piece, Foreign Policy’s Laura Rozen calls the latest New York Review of Books piece by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha on the prospects of Israeli and Palestinian peace "dangerous."

She doesn’t explain why but — without having spoken with her — I’ll venture agreement with her, and not in a way that diminishes Malley or Agha*.

It is dangerous not because of its central proposition — that Obama should radically recast how the West talks about the conflict — but because it almost explicitly makes a point that should be obvious: If Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman want to avoid talking two states, they better get ready to start talking one state.

I have yet to see this stated publicly by anyone in the U.S. or Israeli governments, or by any of the mainstream think tanks that consider Middle East policy in this town.

Agha and Malley don’t come right out and say it, but it is clear by their qualifiers that they see it as an option. Here’s an example — note the "might well."

There may be another way. Its starting point would be less of an immediate effort to achieve a two-state agreement or propose US ideas to that effect. Rather, it would be an attempt to transform the political atmosphere and reformulate the diplomatic process. This would entail, first, identifying and recognizing fundamental Israeli and Palestinian concerns and aspirations and then placing them at the core of the process. In turn, this would involve altering how a US-supported solution is conceived and presented to both sides so that Palestinians see it as the outcome of their national struggle and Israelis as the culmination of their historic quest rather than as the byproduct of others’ strategic pursuits. The end result might well be the same—two states, living side by side. But the journey would be more authentic and its destination more acceptable.

Or, might not.

And here’s where they note the echo of the prospect of "one state" on the Israeli side:

When Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, calls for dropping timeworn slogans—land for peace, two-state solution—he has a political purpose. He also has a point. Endless repetition has not brought realization of these goals closer, and it has chipped away at their credibility. America’s discourse can reconnect with both sides’ hopes and needs if it addresses them and reverts to basics—namely, acknowledging and redressing injustices suffered by Palestinians and providing Israelis with the recognition and normalcy historically denied them.

The point made by Agha and Malley is two-fold:

1) Israel and its allies apply to the Palestinians the notion that statehood is an endgame, as it was for the pre-state Zionists. The authors suggest that for the Palestinians statehood is, instead, one of several means that have been considered to redress historical wounds — and that those wounds (displacement, marginalization) are far more important than trappings that satisfy western notions of national fulfillment.

2) Nothing gets done unless you demarginalize the marginalized. Much of the article addresses the need to bring in the Palestinian refugees; but — and this is what is dangerous — the writers make the same point about the settlers:

The US should reach out to skeptical constituencies that would make a difference but are left indifferent by current talk of a two-state agreement. One example is the settlers, an active and dynamic Israeli group yet one that the outside world typically treats as modern-day lepers. A more inclusive political process could recognize their views and concerns, consider their interests, and invite them to take part in discussions.

How does one consider the needs of the settlers and those of the refugees in the same vision? A small core of Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals have, for a number of years, proposed this solution: a single state.

It’s an elegant proposition, which might explain its growing appeal. If you can’t come to an agreement on separating the West Bank from Israel, on making Jerusalem the capital of two states, then don’t. Live together.

It’s also nuts: Belgium, with two secularized Catholic constituencies separated only by language, still has togetherness issues. Yugoslavia split up, in part, because Serbo-Croatian-speaking Christians couldn’t get along with … Serbo-Croatian-speaking Christians. And on and on. We live in a world atomizing further and further into nation states, partly because it is the least worst means of keeping the peace. Talk of a Jewish-Arab federation is delusional.

Make no mistake, one state is not what Malley and Agha are proposing: Instead, they are saying that a peaceful solution must accommodate two polities that don’t necessarily embrace two states.

They have a point, which is why I think that Israel and the pro-Israel community need to make it abundantly clear, and now, why two states is preferable.

In doing so,  no substantial sector should be marginalized, on either side. Too often I’ve heard settlers — and I mean the individuals, the families — vilified as deliberately obstructionist by dovish sectors in Israel and in the U.S. pro-Israel community. Framing a two-state solution solution for this sector might involve prepating them for the pain of a phsyical move — but it should be done without making them feel like villains and fools.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Israeli leftists say of settlers in the Hebron area, "why are they risking their children’s lives?" Instead, the question should be: "How do we recognize your dedication to keeping Hebron meaningful to Jews in a way that makes sense for the overwhelming Palestinian majority?" I realize that Baruch Marzel is not about to collapse in gratitude at this rhetoric; but it would go someway to defusing how his extremism can at times sway settlers and other Israelis.

On the Palestinian side, this means recognizing the pain of displacement while at the same time making it clear that renationalization is not an option within the Green Line.

Clearly, I don’t agree with all of the conclusions in the Malley and Agha article: not only is now not the time to discount two states; the very fact that it is not resonating means it needs a better and more insistent pitch. Furthermore, it baffles me why they would see President Bush’s support of Palestinian institution building as "pernicious" because it made the prospect of statehood "humdrum." Palestinians aren’t bored teenagers, and, if anything, Bush deserves credit for treating them as adults. Finally, I don’t believe  that Hamas will be appeased by any national unity formula that does not remove from office Mahmoud Abbas.

Nonetheless, it is an important and sensitive piece. And it should finally put to rest ideas that Malley — vilfied repeatedly as an enemy of Jews, especially when his name is coupled with Obama’s — somehow is hostile to Israeli interests. Name for me any other think-tanker in Washington calling for recognition of the legitimate interests of settlers.

*This is the team that, in another NYRB piece, attempted to dismantle the conventional wisdom that Yaser Arafat was responsible for scuttling the 2000 Camp David talks when he turned down an unprecedented offer from Israel. I say "attempted" because, from covering those talks, I still believe that Arafat’s cowardice and the Palestinian failure to internalize the permanence of Jewish nationhood were the principle villains; on the other hand, Malley and Agha raised important points about how Ehud Barak’s obtuseness and Bill Clinton’s accelerated approach did not help. But that’s another blog post.

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