Almost lost in the terrible events in Boston is the Obama administration’s dire warning last week that the window for diplomatic success in the Middle East is closing — not on Iran’s quest for nuclear capability; not on the Syrian war; not on sectarian violence in Iraq; not on the spread of al-Qaeda in North Africa; not on the devolution of the Pakistani government or rising discontent in Jordan or the rapid downward spiral of Egyptian finances and civil liberties. No, the diplomatic problem that engages the administration — as it has prior administrations — is the Israeli-Palestinian “two state solution.”
President Obama dragged out the old “window of opportunity” saw in a meeting with U.N. President Ban Ki Moon. And Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that the U.S. has about two years to achieve a “two-state solution” between Israelis and Palestinians before the opportunity is lost.
I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting. I think we have some period of time in the year to year-and-a-half to two years or it’s over… I’ve been struck in my travels, incidentally, by how many people, everywhere, raise this subject and want us to move forward on a peace effort. They’re all worried about the timing here. So there’s an urgency to this in my mind and I intend, on behalf of the president’s instructions, to honor that urgency and see what we can do to move forward.
We’ve heard that urgency before. In May 2000, Ambassador Dennis Ross told an AIPAC audience in Washington:
What’s needed now is earnestness and a profoundly serious approach because we have a hundred years of conflict to resolve and it’s no easy matter… there is an historic moment now and to lose it will impose a very heavy responsibility on everybody. Now, we all have a heavy responsibility to try to seize this moment and ensure that in fact we do forge an agreement that ends the conflict, at least between Israelis and Palestinians. And that is possible.
So what happened? Not much, apparently, because precisely eight years later, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to AIPAC and said:
The expansion of violent extremism in the Middle East makes the creation of a peaceful, effective Palestinian state more urgent, not less… The present opportunity is not perfect by any means, but it is better than any other in several years, and we need to seize it. We need to take this chance to advance the historic and long-held aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians. Israelis have waited too long for the security they desire and deserve. And Palestinians have waited too long, amid daily humiliations, for the dignity of an independent state.
If the United States is so certain that a “two-state solution” is possible, and so certain that the “window” for its success is limited, why aren’t we successful? Certainly it isn’t lack of desire, time or money spent, or earnest belief in our own rightness and our own capabilities.
The failure is in understanding that the priorities of the Palestinians and the Israelis are not the same, and that neither shares ours. The Americans want to find a way to reduce violence in the Middle East, which both Democratic and Republican administrations have said is exacerbated by the lack of a Palestinian State. Their priority, then, is to find the path to that state with Israel’s agreement.
Israel’s priorities, on the other hand, are:
- “Secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force,” the promise of UN Resolution 242. These may or may not coincide with the pre-1967 Green Line.
- The guarantee of “End of conflict; end of claims,” meaning any agreement with the Palestinians will be the last claim made on Israeli territory, political legitimacy or finances.
- The Capital of Israel in Jerusalem.
Palestinian priorities are:
- Independence in whatever territory is first available, but reserving the right to add territory later; thus, without “end of conflict; end of claims.”
- The return of the original 1948/49 refugees and their descendants to places in Israel from which they or their parents/grandparents came; the “right of return.” Refugees won’t be citizens of the new Palestinian State.
- Jerusalem as the Capital of Palestine.
Beneath the priorities lies a fundamental divergence: the Israelis are determined that at the end of the negotiation, the Jewish homeland will be accepted by the neighbors as a legitimate, permanent country in the region. The Palestinians believe that the 1948 independence of Israel was a mistake that needs to be erased. Israelis see independence as the restoration of their sovereignty after a 1,900-year lapse. The Palestinians see it as a spasm of Western guilt over the Holocaust.
Secretary Kerry is no more likely than Secretary Rice or Ambassador Ross to bridge those gaps. Rather than spending America’s diplomatic time and muscle on the “two state solution,” Mr. Kerry should firmly shut the “window of opportunity” and turn his attention to problems more urgent and perhaps more inclined to resolution.