The two-state premise for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes back to the very foundation of the State of Israel. The United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 divided British-ruled Mandatory Palestine into two separate entities: one Jewish, one Arab.
The plan recognized that the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea must be shared, a principle at the core of current efforts to achieve, through bilateral negotiations, a permanent peace based on two states for two peoples.
Even though many Zionists had originally sought Jewish sovereignty over the entire land, David Ben-Gurion wisely acceded to the compromise, recognizing the chance to fulfill the Zionist vision of a Jewish state in the land of Israel.
Tragically for the Palestinian people, their leaders and the Arab world at large objected to the very idea of a Jewish state within any borders, and opted for war against the Jews to abort partition. The Arab defeat doomed the Palestinian half of the two-state plan. Two Arab states went further to snuff out that vision, as Egypt occupied Gaza and Jordan annexed the West Bank.
Israel’s dramatic victory in June 1967 against Arab countries intent on destroying it left Israel in control of Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. While there were those who vocally urged maintaining control over all of the land for historical, religious and security reasons, the Israeli mainstream never relished ruling over another people. Israeli governments — Labor and Likud — have sought partners to negotiate peace agreements that would entail territorial compromise.
Israel concluded such a deal with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in 1979, restoring the Sinai to Egyptian sovereignty. Another historic peace treaty was reached with Jordan’s King Hussein in 1994, but Jordan had relinquished any claim to the West Bank and declared that the future of East Jerusalem, including the holy Muslim sites in the Old City, would be up to the Palestinians.
The 1993 Oslo Accords, a product of direct bilateral negotiations, were signed with the noble intention of eventually creating a Palestinian entity that would live in peace with Israel. But, as with the United Nations’ two-state plan, implementation required visionary, courageous, determined leaders on both sides. Regrettably, Palestinian leadership has consistently fallen short, but Israelis who still hold on to the pipedream of a greater Israel have also made the search for peace more difficult.
While Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by an Israeli extremist surely set up an obstacle to the peace process, Yasser Arafat’s decision to revert to terrorism, his refusal to recognize the Jewish people’s link to any part of the land, and his failure to nurture a culture of peace among his own people had a far more serious long-term impact.
Still, the elusive goal of two states, never completely abandoned, remains the best option for permanent peace. Four consecutive prime ministers of Israel — Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu — have openly committed themselves to it. In his historic 2009 Bar-Ilan University address, Netanyahu declared, “In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor’s security and existence.”
As Netanyahu says frequently, the alternative to territorial compromise, a binational state, would be the death knell of Zionism and of Israel, since incorporating so many Arabs into the Israeli polity would destroy the country’s Jewish character.
True, each of Israel’s generous offers for peace — at Camp David in 2000, Taba in 2001, and Jerusalem in 2008 — were spurned by the Palestinian leadership. The Hamas coup in Gaza in 2007 and P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’s resistance to resuming talks since he walked away from them three years ago are additional challenges to Israel’s efforts — and Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative —to get the peace process back on track.
Yet there is no viable alternative to direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and the longer they are put off the more world public opinion views Israel, erroneously, as the obstacle to peace. When the Palestinians do return to the table, the Israeli government will work out the details with them: secure borders, appropriate land swaps to ensure that the main settlement blocs are in Israel, a demilitarized Palestinian state, and an end to the conflict. Given the risks Israel faces, consideration for what happens the day after any peace agreement is signed will be critical to its successful implementation.
Achieving peace is a strategic objective for Israel. American Jews should support the Israeli government’s determined efforts to reach a two-state solution. That will require genuine, committed partners, and finding them — especially now with chaos spreading in neighboring Arab countries — may be difficult. But abandoning hope would be the greatest tragedy.
(Kenneth Bandler is director of media relations for the American Jewish Committee.)