A modest proposal to resolve the Israel-Palestine impasse

In 1947, the United Nations called for the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into “Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem.” Resolution 181 divided the Mandate into predominantly Arab areas and predominantly Jewish areas. The Jews accepted the partition resolution, but the Arabs did not. When the Jews proclaimed the State of Israel after the British withdrew in 1948, the neighbouring Arab states invaded and were defeated. In the process, Israel redrew and enlarged its borders beyond what had been designated by the UN. At the same time, Egypt and Jordan occupied the adjacent, “predominantly Arab areas”; they did not, however, create an independent Arab state.

In a 1967 war, Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. The UN called for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” (UN Security Council Resolution 242), though no date for withdrawal was specified.

After another war in 1973, the UN called for “the implementation of Security Council Resolution 242.” It also resolved that “immediately and concurrently with the cease-fire, negotiations start between the parties concerned under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East” (Security Council Resolution 338). Despite some dispute con-cerning the timing and extent of Israeli withdrawal, these three UN resolutions, culminating in Resolution 338, outlined a widely accepted framework for the pursuit of “a just and durable peace”:

  • two states;
  • the pre-1967 borders (perhaps with minor modifications); and
  • negotiations.

The immediate causes of the 1967 war are, like just about everything concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict, contentious. But the international community has been more or less unanimous in its agreement that, under international law, Israel does not get to keep the territories it occupied.

The “green line” separating pre-1967 Israel from the occupied territories has disappeared from many Israeli maps, and more than 400,000 Israeli citizens have estab-lished homes in the occupied territories. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and the Golan in 1981. The Sinai, following a bilateral peace treaty, was returned to Egypt in 1979. As for the West Bank and Gaza, they have not been annexed but remain in Israel’s possession, 37 years after the 1967 war.

Suggestions about how to resolve this impasse fall into three main categories, which I shall call the extremist, the idealist and the accommodationist.

Nationalist and religious extremists insist on a single state in Israel and the territories, composed of – or at least con-trolled by – Jews or Arabs, depending on who is doing the insisting.

Idealists also support a single state, but they imagine Jews and Arabs living democratically and harmoniously together. The idealist position gets little attention, but it does exist, and even has an organization: the Association for One Demo-cratic State in Palestine/Israel (www.one-democratic-state.org).

Accommodationists want two states, one Palestinian, one Jewish, as envisioned by the United Nations. Major Palestinian organizations and recent Israeli governments have publicly accepted the two-state solution. The international community has, notwithstanding opposition from a few Arab countries, lined up overwhelmingly behind the two-state solution as outlined in UN resolutions 242 and 338. Given the enormous support for this solution, it seems odd that it has not yet been reached.

There have been, in fact, periods of great optimism. But such optimism now seems no more than a component of a larger pattern of recurring failure. Moreover, the price of failure is growing. The highest price has been paid by the Israelis and Palestinians, but politicized Islam has increased the geopolitical importance of the dispute. So long as the Palestine-Israel conflict remains, it provides endless propaganda to Islamic extremists. The international community cannot sit patiently while the Israeli-Palestinian impasse remains a tinder box for explosions around the world.

It is time for the international community to admit that the guidelines of UN resolutions 242 and 338 – two states, the pre-1967 borders, negotiations – have failed.

Unfortunately, there is no serious alternative to the two-state solution. The one-state solution would entail a human catastrophe, no matter who ended up in control of the state that remained. The idealist version is unworkable for the foreseeable future. And even if the pre-1967 borders may no longer be appropriate, there is no indication that revised borders will be any more acceptable to Palestinian and Israeli political leaders. The recent Geneva Accord, for example, the product of unofficial negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, reached detailed compromises on borders and other contentious issues, but was categorically dismissed by the Israeli government and extremist Palestinian groups.

Which brings us to the method envisioned by Resolutions 242 and 338: negotiations. It is clear that negotiations aimed at creating two states in Israel-Palestine have failed and are failing, and there is no reason to imagine future success.

The reason for this failure should by now be obvious: negotiations between Israel and Palestine are fatally vul-nerable to sabotage by opponents of the two-state solution.

The pattern of failure is boring in its predictability. As negotiations begin to look productive – usually under a Labour-led government in Israel – Palestinian terrorists opposed to the two-state solution attack Israeli civilians. In response, Israel announces that there will be no  negotiations until the violence ends – a condition that no Palestinian leader-ship can meet. Israel may also, and often does, respond with violent reprisals and by closing its borders to Palestinian migrant workers. The international community urges restraint on Israel’s part, a Palestinian crackdown on terrorists, and the resumption of nego-tiations. (Of late, Israel has been building its “security fence,” something new for the international community to decry.) Eventually, relative calm is restored and nego-tiations resume. The cycle of hope and failure continues, and the longer it does, the more cynical or numb parti-cipants and onlookers become.

It is time to move beyond useless calls for negotiations. But to what?

In a recent column, Thomas L. Friedman calls Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip “an urgent necessity” (New York Times, January 18, 2004). Friedman devotes most of his column to explaining why such a withdrawal is in Israel’s best interests. His arguments are lucid and compelling, but there is no reason to think that he will convince Israel’s leaders when so many others have failed.

Ideally, he writes, “this withdrawal should be negotiated along the Clinton plan. But if necessary, it should be done unilaterally. This can’t happen too soon, and the U.S. should be forcing it” (my emphasis).

What does he mean, “forcing”? No doubt he is choosing his words carefully; he must intend something other than “advising” or “urging” or “strongly encouraging” – but he doesn’t elaborate, nor does he give any time limit for negotiations. Let us make the question explicit: Should the U.S. force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? Friedman supported the recent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. I did not, and I would rephrase the question: Should the international community use force to compel the two-state solution?

The answer, I am convinced, is yes. On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. On that same day, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 660, calling “upon Iraq and Kuwait to begin immediately intensive negotiations for the resolution of their differences.” More resolutions, threats, sanctions and ultimatums followed. But five months after the invasion of Kuwait, an international force led by the United States ejected Iraq from Kuwaiti territory. No one asked Iraq under what conditions it would return Kuwaiti territory, or how much territory Iraq was prepared to give up. No one consulted Kuwait on how much territory it should get. And while quite a few individuals and some countries suggested that Iraq be given more time to comply – or that war must be avoided at all costs – the inter-national community said, through the United Nations and with leadership from the U.S., “Get out now.”

Let us agree that there are differences between Israel and Palestine in 1967 and Iraq and Kuwait in 1990. Israel was not solely culpable in 1967, as was Iraq in 1990; Palestinians were not blameless. Still, it has been 37 years. It is time to say to Palestinians and Israelis, “You’ve had long enough to work this out among yourselves. We’re taking over now.”

It is time to establish an international commission to determine how many and which Israeli settlers will have to leave the territories, how many and which Palestinians will be allowed to return to family homes in Jaffa, Haifa and Jeru-salem (and what, if any, compensation others will receive), what to do with Jerusalem and, of course, where the inter-national border will go. The international commission might well begin with the Geneva Accord’s detailed compromise. And of course, while the international commis-sion is meeting and planning, Palestinians and Israelis will be free to nego-tiate their own solution. But in the absence of a bilateral solution, and after a short deadline, an inter-national force should invade, force compliance with the commission’s determinations, and leave troops behind to maintain compliance and ensure the security of both sides.

We should not be naive. The possibility of an international armed force entering the Middle East to confront Israeli soldiers and perhaps civilians – to put it bluntly, the prospect of a largely gentile army battling Jews, 60 years after the Holocaust – is the stuff of night-mares. But to refuse to act for that reason would be worse: it would mean accepting that the international community may fight and kill Arabs or Serbs, but not Jews.

What are the chances that the United Nations will authorize the use of force in the Israel-Palestine dispute? Currently, of course, the United States would veto any such proposal. The point, however, is to move the argument forward. You can force people to the table but you can’t make them negotiate in good faith. As a first step, we who seek a solution to the Middle East impasse must stop calling for futile negotiations. We must debate, and begin the process of gathering support for, the use of force.

The hope, of course, is that such force will be unnecessary – that the mere threat of force will lead to serious and fruitful negotiations. But negotiations are not working. Their continuing failure breeds cynicism and despair, and the impasse puts the world at risk. It is time for the international community, through the United Nations, to act. If it refuses, it may be time for the United States to lead a second – and, I would argue, more justified – “coalition of the willing” into the Middle East.