The crisis in Syria, has overwhelmed discussion of other Middle East issues in the past month, not the least of them being the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
Still, the passage of two decades with little or no progress in the peace process has not passed unnoticed. Analysts and former negotiators from all sides have tried to explain, in articles and think-tank gatherings, why, so long after the signing ceremony on the White House lawn, Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to reaching a peace accord than they were in the moments following Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat’s historic handshake.
“One of Oslo’s best legacies is that the majority of each population now favors a two-state solution, though each is convinced that the other does not share its convictions,” wrote David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a paper he published on Monday.
But as Secretary of State John Kerry attempts to revive long-dormant talks between the two sides, a surprising side show has also emerged — one that takes on not the question of Oslo’s failure, but the validity of its fundamental premise: the notion of dividing the land into two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestinian state.
Those critical of this premise got their biggest boost last Sunday when the New York Times Sunday Review gave its lead story over to a scathing opinion piece, by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick, who portrayed the major players’ clinging to a two-state solution as one of the main obstacles to finding other, more productive paths to peace.
“The pretense that negotiations under the slogan of ‘two states for two peoples’ could lead to such a solution must be abandoned,” Lustick wrote.
Calls have been voiced in the past to abandon the two-state solution and the peace process whose stated aim is to reach that outcome. But these were largely limited to the margins of the discussion. Scholars such as [Henry Siegman] who have publicly given up on the viability of a two state solution, have been sidelined in the discourse over the future of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
Does the article by Lustick — a longtime skeptic of the two-state solution — herald a breakthrough of his perspective into the mainstream?
Response to the article, in hundreds of comments posted online, seems to suggest otherwise. While a broad sense of pessimism still dominates any policy discussion about Secretary Kerry’s attempts to bring about a peace accord, there is no visible shift within mainstream discourse toward a one-state solution.
That sense of things seemed reinforced during a September 16 debate hosted by Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. The discussion featured author Peter Beinart, who argued in favor of the two-state solution, and Israeli academic Yehuda Shenhav who spoke about the demise of the two state solution and the need to discuss instead the concept of one state in which Jews and Palestinians enjoy equal rights and some form of shared sovereignty.
Here too, the stage and the speakers were as noteworthy as the substance of their discussion: an Ivy League university’s Israel studies center hosting a debate challenging the basic idea of separating Israelis and Palestinians into two states, held between two prominent intellectuals.
But the venue, as it turned out, also provided an illustration of the limits of the one-state solution’s penetration into the broader peace process discussion.
The event, though coming on the heels of the Times’ highlighting of the issue, was held in a small lecture hall that comfortably seated an audience estimated at no more than 100 people. This could suggest that the one state solution is still a topic primarily of interest to a fairly limited coterie concentrated on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and other, comparable districts elsewhere — not a debate ready for prime time.