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The two-state solution and the Obama administration: elusive or illusive?

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By Martin Bunton


The likelihood of a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians has always been negligible in the absence of a determined outside mediator. Indeed, the recent resumption of direct negotiations that have been suspended for almost three years is due solely to the determined efforts of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry. So, why has the Obama administration chosen to dig in now? And so what?

The most hopeful reason for American intervention is that Obama and Kerry recognize that this seemingly intractable problem is actually quite close to being solved. Thanks to a series of initiatives elaborated upon over the last dozen years (beginning in 2001 with negotiations over parameters put forth by President Clinton), the four basic contours of a two-states solution have now been clearly drawn. First, the recognition of two secure states with viable and contiguous boundaries, based on the 1967 ‘Green Line’ but allowing Israel to keep some heavily populated Jewish settlements located near that border. Second, the sharing of Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine, with guaranteed access to all holy sites. Third, a mutually acceptable negotiation of the Palestinian refugee problem, based practically on both financial compensation and a ‘return’ to the new state of Palestine. And, fourth, the imposition of some limits on Palestinian military defenses, particularly in the Jordan valley. This basic outline is backed by an overwhelming regional and international consensus. Polls show that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians support a two-states solution. In many ways, it must seem to Obama and Kerry that peace is so near.

Secretary Kerry Greets Prime Minister Netanyahu in May 2013

And yet they know it is also so far. However well known and well rehearsed the contours of a two-states solution may be, what has long been missing are the will and capacity on the part of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to bring it about. Presumably, the American administration now sees a window of opportunity to bang heads together, though just how hard American mediators will lean on recalcitrant parties remains to be seen. On the Palestinian side, the government of Mahmoud Abbas is already desperately dependent on American aid packages and has few political alternatives. One may question whether Abbas has enough legitimacy or credibility to sign off on a final agreement. But at least for the moment he doesn’t confront much of an obstructionist threat from the Hamas opposition, severely weakened by the escalating turmoil in Egypt and Syria. As for Israelis, they are quite clearly shaken by the European Union’s firmer opposition to funding projects in the West Bank settlements. Many certainly fear the potential for further global isolation. In the circumstances, the US has multiple forms of leverage (financial, military or diplomatic) with which it can push Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to break with the pro-settlement policies of his right wing coalition and embrace his own 2009 Bar Ilan speech expressing support for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

On the American side, it is certainly important to note that the Obama administration now enjoys the relative freedom of a second-term presidency (unconcerned about the prospects of re-election) and so can choose to spend the necessary political capital to tackle the thorniest and most sensitive issues. Moreover, the temptation must be there – as it was for both Clinton and Bush – to try to redeem a weak presidential record and bolster one’s legacy with a high profile foreign policy achievement.

For what its worth, Obama has spoken eloquently of the widespread damage that the status quo inflicts. And he knows that time is running out on a two-states solution. As is evident to all observers, further entrenchment of Jewish settler infrastructure in the West Bank is killing the opportunity to construct a viable and contiguous Palestinian state. Meanwhile, changing demographics in the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River carry the danger of Israel, America’s closest ally in a strategic and troubled region, being seen by all as an apartheid-like state.

Whatever the underlying reasons that account for this recent resumption of talks, there are of course many more reasons to be skeptical about them leading to a just peace. So much will depend on how tenaciously the Americans push for what Obama himself has described as a matter of US national interest. We either find out soon that the Obama administration is indeed up to the challenge of bringing about the two-states solution to the 120 year old conflict. Or we likely later learn that Obama was the last re-elected American president to have had such an opportunity.

Professor Martin Bunton is Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada. His teaching and research focuses on the field of modern Middle Eastern history and history of the region in its global context. He is the author of several books, including The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction.

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Image credit: Secretary Kerry Greets Prime Minister Netanyahu. By the U.S. Department of State [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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