At the end of the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry argued that the expansion of Israeli settlement activity beyond the green line both inside the West Bank and East Jerusalem was nearing a tipping point such that within the next two years, it would be impossible to realize a two-state solution. And some analysts believe we are already there. I don't agree with that. Yes, there are dynamics that put pressure on the viability of realizing and implementing a two-state solution. But we have not reached a point of no return.
One goal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has been to find a way in which you would draw a border between the West Bank and Israel. Given the changes on the ground, any solution will require some degree of territorial swap to try to bring the largest Israeli settlement blocs into Israel by gerrymandering the border.
Those who argue that a two-state solution is nearly impossible argue that the higher the number of settlers living in the West Bank, the harder any such partition will be to envisage. Otherwise, if there were an agreement, more settlers would either have to remain in a Palestinian state or somehow be repatriated to Israel either voluntarily, through economic incentives and other legislative incentives, or involuntarily -- as we saw with the Gaza disengagement. There is a point at which there will simply be too many Israelis that would need to be moved. But I don't think we're there.
I think the most immediate challenge is the divide between the West Bank and Gaza that creates a situation in which you have internal Palestinian politics drifting ever farther apart, with no contact, and fewer and fewer shared interests amongst Palestinians. It becomes harder to imagine what a unified Palestinian political platform would be, much less a Palestinian state that is divided by a salient of Israeli territory.
That gets to this unbelievable catch-22 that Abbas finds himself in. Here is a leader who is committed to non-violence and a negotiated settlement with Israel as the means to attain Palestinian national aspirations. He needs the realization of that goal in order to produce political results. For Abbas to gain legitimacy amongst his own people he needs to produce. But he can't produce because he doesn't have the legitimacy. Put another way, he needs and seeks a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital to bolstered himself in Palestinian politics, and then be in a position to enhance his legitimacy and therefore unify Palestinian politics around him and around this idea. But he's not going to get that state without having the legitimacy to make the kind of compromise that would be required to reach the deal with Israel. That's why I call it a catch-22. It’s a paradox: on the one hand, he needs to negotiate and make historic compromises, but he doesn't have the legitimacy to do so. And he needs the deal in order to get the legitimacy. This is why I believe he has pursued, instead, an international approach -- to try to put external pressure on Israel to make concessions rather than make more himself.
The conditions on the ground today are difficult. I mentioned the challenge of the settlement activity. I mentioned the challenge of a divided Palestinian policy. You also have also the challenges of security. Amongst the Palestinians, you do not have a monopoly on the use of force, which is one of the key attributes of statehood. Mahmoud Abbas does not control all of the organs of Palestinian military arms. Gaza is under the control of Hamas, a terrorist organization deemed as such by most of the international community. And Hamas, especially now, is all the more unwilling to cede and relinquish the military control that it has.
Abbas is exerting political and financial pressure on Gaza, which is putting a real hardship on its people and the national struggle. That pressure is very unpopular in Gaza and even in the West Bank. His priority is not to improve the conditions in Gaza. It's to advance his political agenda against Hamas and its allies. In that kind of environment you do not have any prospect of a unification of the Palestinian security organs, let alone the political ones. In that environment, how can we talk about the realization of a two-state solution?
Now, to me, all this points to a greater need for an internationally agreed-upon shared goal: some form of partition or the two-state solution such as the one that has been accepted by Israel, the moderate Palestinian leadership, and the international community as the least problematic and least undesirable solution. There are lot of problems with a two-state solution. It leaves everyone dissatisfied. It leaves both national movements facing very painful compromises. But no one has produced a better idea about how you reconcile those two national movements. If you enshrine the idea of the two-state solution as the goal, then it seems to me that the purpose of subsequent statecraft is to position each of the key parties on a trajectory towards achieving that. Efforts need to be harnessed around a new roadmap towards getting to that point.
What I'm trying to say is that pushing these two parties to a negotiation now will not succeed for important, rational, and legitimate political-structural reasons. Even if Abbas and Netanyahu today could agree as individuals on a platform or a political settlement, neither could sell it to their people, much less implement it between them. Given that reality, how do we get to a place where they can negotiate? To me, the starting point is not to go to the negotiating table. You go to the negotiating table when you have a prospect for success and a situation amongst the two sides and between them well-prepared for political compromise. Otherwise, as we have seen, the currency of negotiations becomes debased each time we open up a new round of negotiatons. It has resulted in a majority of Israelis and Palestinians viewing negotiations as a joke: “Ah, here they go again, more talks, blah, blah, blah. Nothing's going to happen.” That's harmful. For negotiations to succeed, Israelis and Palestinians have to believe negotiations can succeed. Therefore, you need prepare the groundwork for it. I've used the term groundwork broadly to mean both on the ground and figuratively, to mean politically, institutionally and otherwise.
Robert Danin is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.