Jared Kushner is set to unveil his closely held Middle East peace initiative early next month in Bahrain, just after the end of Ramadan. Though some information leaked two weeks ago to an Israeli newspaper, people with connections to the Trump Administration have cautioned against reading too much into the reports. Shared sovereignty over Jerusalem? All existing settlements annexed by Israel? A Chinese-financed causeway linking Gaza and the West Bank? It might all be hearsay.
What is overwhelmingly likely is that the plan breaks with earlier American peace effort orthodoxies. As Politico recently noted, Kushner sees his lack of experience in the Middle East as an asset, “telling lawmakers he is free of preconceived notions that stymied previous attempts.” Whatever the specific proposals end up being, Kushner’s plan ends talk of a “two-state solution”—language that is virtually sacrosanct among those who have devoted their lives to cracking the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. “If you say ‘two-states’ it means one thing to the Israelis, it means one thing to the Palestinians, and we said, let’s just not say it,” Kushner told Robert Satloff on CSPAN recently.
Satloff subsequently made a strong case in our pages that offering up a comprehensive peace plan in an atmosphere where the two sides are so far apart means near-certain failure. Failure, Satloff argued, not only risks scuppering the longstanding Oslo process that still undergirds an unhappy-but-relatively-stable status quo, but also risks delegitimizing any of the plan’s good ideas going forward.
Like Kushner and unlike Satloff, I am no Middle East expert. And without the plan in hand, it’s pointless for me to speculate on specifics. But I imagine media coverage of the plan is likely to harp on Kushner’s break with precedent in not explicitly backing a two-state solution. Avoiding talk about a two-state solution may well be bad. But having just spent a week in Israel (on a trip sponsored by the excellent Philos Project), I can say one thing with some confidence: Kushner’s decision to sidestep this question accurately reflects a grim reality on the ground—that the two-state solution has a rapidly shrinking constituency, on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
That this is so should be obvious from just reading the news. After all, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just barely won re-election last month, his squeaker of a win had little to do with public unhappiness on how he had been approaching the Palestinian question, and his failure to subsequently form a government even less so. On that matter, at least, there is broad consensus in Israeli society today: The stance of the opposition Blue and White coalition on any putative peace deal was not all that different from what Likud has long been pushing. As for the Palestinians, they haven’t held an election in over a decade. Polls, however, clearly show that a solid majority has lost faith in a two-state solution in the course of the last two years.
So yes, not surprising. Still, it’s one thing to know something and another to experience it firsthand.
Among the Palestinians, we heard that younger people were increasingly supportive of a one-state solution. One analyst suggested that the prospect of a “true” democracy in a single state between the Jordan and the sea—a democracy, notably, where Palestinians would constitute an absolute majority—appealed both to young people’s idealism, as well as to their sense of social justice. Time is on their side, they believe. Maybe it’s better to abandon the peace process and heighten the contradictions by forcing Israel to directly govern them against their will.
Young people’s disdain for the existing peace process is not merely philosophical and strategic, a Palestinian pollster explained to us. It is linked to a deeply-felt disillusionment with the pervasive corruption of the Palestinian Authority in general, and Fatah in particular. Their rejectionism is born more of resignation than anger and despair, and Hamas’ radicalism does not necessarily present an appealing alternative. Nevertheless, the pollster cautioned, these numbers are not dispositive. If an election were to be called and Hamas were campaigning, sentiments could change.
The PA officials we met in Ramallah were the only people clinging to the two-state solution as the way forward. They were angry at the United States for preparing to break with two-stateism, and repeatedly invoked the international community and the EU as if they were talismans for warding off what was clearly coming. When we asked about corruption and young people’s disillusionment with it, they mostly dodged the questions. Their frustration with the impending peace proposal was palpable. “You are witnessing the destruction of all the Arab moderates!” one Palestinian official exclaimed at one point.
Moderates? Israelis don’t see any. Among the Israeli analysts we met, we kept hearing reservations about Bibi and worries about where his policies in the West Bank are leading. Many claimed to have voted against him last month, and some were quite anguished about the moral consequences of continuing Israel’s de facto dominion over a large Arab population in the West Bank. Nevertheless, none can imagine granting full sovereignty to a Palestinian state located west of the Jordan River. The failure at Camp David in 2000, followed by the second intifada and the rise of Hamas in Gaza in 2005, we were repeatedly told, had convinced most voters that they have no credible Palestinian partner to negotiate with.
The more optimistic among them still hold out hope for a “Sadat moment”—something akin to the breakthrough in 1977 when the Egyptian leader addressed the Knesset and recognized Israel’s right to exist. If only a Palestinian leader could do the same, Israeli opinion would change over night, they said. Others, however, dismissed the very notion of a Sadat moment as the product of magical thinking: “As if an incantation could make all these problems go away, just like that.”
The paradox is that Israel enjoys an overwhelming conventional military advantage over the Palestinians, and has managed to craft a system of surveillance and control that has successfully stymied the kinds of terrorist attacks that wracked the country in the early 2000s. Despite all that, its military advantage does not translate to a sense of security through deterrence. Palestinians’ perceived intransigence on Israel’s right to exist, coupled with their proven record of waging asymmetric warfare, means that absent a binding promise from a Palestinian leader who can credibly speak for the entire community, there is no alternative to the status quo.
But who is more guilty of magical thinking in this situation—the hopeful Israelis waiting for Sadat, or the resigned realists? The closer you look, the more confusing it gets.
We spent an evening with Jewish settlers in the West Bank who were downright serene about a future where Israel eventually annexes all the territories. Over Shabbat dinner in the settlement of Ofra, a father of six children waved away our questions about demography. Arab Israelis’ birthrates, only recently thought to present a fundamental threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish-majority state, have plummeted to barely below replacement levels, while the ultra-orthodox Haredi are still producing very large families. As for the Arabs in the West Bank, our host told us, there is no reason to assume they represent an absolute majority—there hasn’t been a census since 2007. And if they are in the majority today, there is no reason to assume that they will be forever. It’s true, he said, that there was no question of granting full citizenship rights to West Bank Arabs in an expanded Israel right away. But over time, gradually, he envisioned them becoming a constituent, smallish minority in Israel—as content as, and proportionately not much larger than, the total population of Israeli Arabs today.
Many other Israelis view this possible future with much less equanimity. They recognize that the status quo—which Israel’s electorate repeatedly votes for—is not static. No movement towards some kind of resolution with the Palestinians means Israel will inevitably get more and more involved in running the West Bank, with its Arab population—whatever the size—disenfranchised and increasingly restive. This, in turn, would call for more restrictions on movement, more surveillance, and perhaps more violent repression. If the Palestinian Authority collapsed or disbanded itself, responsibility for governance would fall squarely on the Israeli state’s shoulders. This would represent not only a moral catastrophe, but perhaps an insurmountable challenge. Disengagement and separation, therefore, are imperative. But how to get there?
The majority of Israelis feel trapped, consumed by the problem but unable to imagine a way out. Secular techies living in Tel Aviv pride themselves on not doing politics. Others have come up with ways of easing the friction of Israeli dominion in the territories—building special secure roads connecting the larger Arab cities in the West Bank, for example, thereby limiting the need for intrusive checkpoints. Full sovereignty, however, is no longer discussed. And not only is there no partner for peace right now, Israelis look at the declining legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and conclude it would be courting disaster to sign any kind of agreement that could easily be abrogated by a future Palestinian government. Israel’s geographic realities—pinched between the West Bank and the Mediterranean—are unforgiving.
The real magical thinking doesn’t have to do with the desperate Israeli hope for a Palestinian Sadat. It’s prevalent among solution-obsessed foreigners—at least those who optimistically believe that a two-state approach will necessarily lead to lasting peace. This belief is rooted in so-called democratic peace theory—the idea that democracies simply don’t go to war against each other. And this, in turn, is rooted in a questionable theory of political change. Call it the Middle Eastern version of Democratic Determinism: Yes, the Palestinian Authority is dysfunctional today, the thinking goes, but just add the responsibility inherent in full sovereignty and some democratic accountability, and you are well on your way to a kind of society that would never go to war with Israel.
Experience suggests the real world is a lot messier than theory, and the path to lasting peace is much bumpier and longer than the optimists care to admit. Let’s leave aside the contentious question as to why the Palestinian Authority is so debilitatingly corrupt today—whether its dysfunction can be explained away as the result of Israeli domination, or whether its causes arise from elsewhere. The sad truth is that whatever its cause, it’s clear that after several decades political dysfunction is a deeply ingrained fact of life in the PA-controlled territories. This matters not only because the PA’s legitimacy is being eroded today, but also because endemic corruption is likely to render future governments weak and unstable. A corrupt political culture has a nasty way of replicating itself, even in democratizing societies.
One need only look at all of the former Soviet republics to see how persistent these problems can be, even with the full weight of the Western international development apparatus brought to bear. Ukraine, one of the more successful of the lot, is still more accurately described as a competitive oligarchy than a true multi-party democracy. It has gone through two revolutions in the last fifteen years, and a third is still not out of the question. Even in former Warsaw Pact countries, where democratic norms have more fully established themselves, supposedly successful reforms turned out to be much more shallowly rooted in society than we are fond of admitting. Once entry into the European Union was achieved for most of these countries, barely submerged old habits bobbed to the surface once more.
None of this is to say that the Palestinians are somehow intrinsically not “ready” for democracy or full self-rule. Palestinian individuals are certainly capable of participating and flourishing in mature democracies when they emigrate to the West. Culture, however, is a sticky thing in aggregate, and is much more determinant than any individual’s beliefs and desires. And change takes time. Meaningful, lasting change requires much more than simple technocratic fixes, and sprinkling “democracy” into the mix doesn’t necessarily make things better. To thoroughly reform political culture, at least one generation needs to die off, and even then regressions and setbacks are common.
Israelis’ pessimism is thus not only rooted in a grim reading of the present, but also in a sober reading of the future. It’s important to remember, however, that this was not always the attitude. As one former leftwing Israeli told me, the 1990s were a decade that exuded a bewitching sense of limitless possibility. Europe was being transformed before the world’s eyes, and the Israeli peace movement drew its strength from these developments. It’s impossible to understand the Oslo breakthrough and the start of the modern peace process without considering the broader global context in which it occurred. But that moment has passed. History has returned with a vengeance. And a solid majority of Israelis are no longer willing to stake what they see as an existential question on unproven liberal theories of democratic political change.
The 1990s were a quintessentially American decade. America is an optimistic place, suffused with that same sense of limitless possibility that leaked out into the rest of the world after the collapse of communism. Americans don’t like to admire problems. They ignore the past and relentlessly focus on the future—on what can be done rather than on what is impossible. This attitude has led to some mis-assessments in foreign policy, but it is also undeniably the source of the country’s great dynamism and capacity for reinvention.
It’s not surprising, then, that the post-1990s sobering that has been spreading across the West has reached the United States last. Chastened by the twin state-building failures in Iraq and Afghanistan—two of those unhappy misjudgments of what was in fact possible—and faced with a cratering economy at home, President Obama began to introduce a dose of steely realism to America’s foreign policy during his two terms in office, albeit masked with hopeful language about the long-term progressive bent of history. He regretted getting involved in Libya, and saw Syria as an intractable disaster (arguably even before it became one). Secretary John Kerry tirelessly shuttled around the Middle East in search of a breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli peace process, but the White House invested precious little capital in it. For all his bombast, President Trump represents a deepening of this same trend, further shifting America’s approach to the world away from idealism while completely foregoing Obama’s flowery talk.
But the dream dies hard for many Americans, especially within the Washington DC foreign policy community. Obama’s crypto-realism caused bipartisan grousing in its time, and Trump’s unrepentant America Firsterism has amplified what was mere grumbling into a deafening roar. The coming fight over Kushner’s peace plan in the United States will mirror the other foreign policy fights that have emerged in the last two and a half years of the Trump presidency. Part of what deeply offends Trump’s opponents is his frontal assault on all the pieties of the 1990s—that he is an outspoken American chauvinist rather than an American exceptionalist. And while abandoning a two-state solution is not obviously an “America First” policy, it is definitely a repudiation of the kind of idealism that has characterized many Americans’ outlook—and their self-conception—for almost two decades after the Berlin Wall fell.
Should Trump lose the elections next year to someone like Joe Biden, we will likely see a return to exceptionalist rhetoric—and, probably, a revival of talk of the two-state solution. The question is whether the talk will be accompanied by any serious change in policy away from the relative circumspection that will have characterized the past 12 years. It’s hard to imagine that it will. Re-enchantment is not easy to achieve.