Argument

America Has a Plan. And, No, It Isn't One That Israel Would Like.

New poll shows that if the two-state solution collapses, U.S. public favors democracy over Jewishness.

Middle East leaders are beating a path to the White House's door. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with President Barack Obama on March 3, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will arrive on March 17 to discuss the U.S. administration's diplomatic effort to reach a two-state solution.

Although Secretary of State John Kerry has said that "failure is not an option" in these talks, the reality is that both Israelis and Palestinians assume that there is only a slim chance of finding a conflict-ending solution. The president himself put the odds at less than 50 percent. With the Obama administration's goal to reach a negotiated settlement set for the end of April, we could be witnessing the death of the two-state solution. A key, but often unasked, question is whether the American public even cares.

A public opinion survey I commissioned, which was conducted by the polling firm GfK, found that U.S. popular support for a two-state solution is surprisingly tepid. What's more, if the option is taken off the table, Americans support the creation of a single democratic state -- in what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories -- in which Jews and Arabs are granted equal rights. The GfK survey consisted of 1,000 interviews conducted through an Internet panel and was weighted to ensure that the results were consistent with several demographic variables, such as age, education, and income.

The Obama administration's focus on mediating an end to the conflict has been predicated on two assumptions -- that a two-state solution is in the national security interest of the United States, and that the current diplomatic efforts may be the last chance to achieve it. Americans themselves, however, are more lukewarm on the possibility of Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side: fewer than four in 10 survey respondents preferred a two-state solution.

If the Obama administration is right that the window to reach a two-state solution is closing, the plurality of Americans who do support that option may start thinking about other ways to resolve the conflict. If efforts to negotiate creation of a separate Palestinian state fail, my poll shows that about two-thirds of those who had preferred the two-state solution would shift their support to a one-state solution, with equal citizenship for Jews and Arabs.

Even among respondents who said they wanted American diplomacy to "lean toward Israel," 52 percent said they would support one state with equal citizenship -- which could, of course, mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

For Israelis, a shift in U.S. public opinion toward a one-state solution -- which is not even an option on the negotiating table -- would be extremely problematic. That is to say, most Israelis prefer not to make the choice between Israel's Jewishness and its democracy but when forced to do so, they are divided: Roughly half of Israeli Jews say that they care about Jewishness and democracy equally, while a quarter favor one over the other. Palestinians may welcome support for equal citizenship in one state, but will not have the power to achieve it on their own without Israeli cooperation.

While Israelis are divided over whether to prioritize their state's Jewishness or democracy, Americans' preferences are less ambiguous. When asked which of the two options they favor for Israel, two-thirds of respondents chose democracy over Jewishness. Unequal citizenship is simply antithetical to being an American -- whether one is pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, or neutral.

So what does it all mean? It means that if the two-state solution fails, the conversation among the American public might shift to that of a one-state solution as the next-best thing. If American officials feel pressured to respond to this, it will likely create tension in U.S.-Israeli relations.

American public opinion, of course, is fluid. If Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail, both sides will engage in a war of narratives in an attempt to convince the American public that the other side is to blame for the collapse of the talks.

Israelis usually do far better than Arabs in these contests. Just look at what happened after the 2000 Camp David talks: Although President Bill Clinton promised the Palestinians they would not be blamed should negotiations fail, that was just what he did as soon as the summit ended. Regardless of what Obama or Kerry would do if these negotiations fail, many U.S. politicians can be counted on to quickly embrace the Israeli version of events.

But as soon as the dust settles, the end of the two-state solution will exert a powerful transformation on American attitudes. For U.S. officials, the effect would be paralyzing -- American leaders simply wouldn't know what to advocate if two states were not on the table. At the moment, it is not politically feasible to advocate for a one-state solution with equal citizenship, nor accept a permanent occupation or Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories without equal citizenship.

This dilemma may partially be driving Washington's current diplomatic push. And if the Obama administration's efforts fail, it is unlikely that American leaders would do anything but pretend that the two-state solution was still on the table. No American politician wants to choose between Israel's democracy and its Jewishness -- even if the polls show that the choice is clear to the American people.

Pretending neatly rationalizes paralysis, but it would not hide the naked truth for most people. If the peace talks fail, no number of assurances from the White House could stop the inevitable sense of resignation at home and abroad. The American people are clear about their views: Occupation and unequal citizenship are a losing cause.

RONEN ZVULUN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

How Far Will Putin Go?

Russia's leader is acting impulsively -- and full-scale war may be next.

What began as a localized crisis in Crimea has now become a de facto state of war between Russia and Ukraine. After pro-Russian forces seized control of the Crimean parliament and government last week, Russian troops began occupying strategic sites throughout the autonomous republic on Friday and Saturday. On March 1, President Vladimir Putin escalated the conflict by submitting the following appeal to the Russian parliament:

In connection with the extraordinary situation that has developed in Ukraine and the threat to citizens of the Russian Federation... I hereby appeal to the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to use the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country is normalised.

Needless to say, the Council of the Federation gave its approval immediately. The extraordinary aspect of this request is that it gives Putin carte blanche to deploy Russian troops, not just in Crimea, where "citizens of the Russian Federation" are supposedly under threat, but "on the territory of Ukraine" -- that is to say, anywhere "citizens" might be under threat. Insofar as actual or alleged Russian citizens can be found everywhere in Ukraine, Putin has now arrogated to himself the right to deploy Russian troops in, and in effect occupy, all of Ukraine. And since he will be the one to define when "the social and political situation in that country is normalised," that occupation could last as long as he likes -- possibly resulting in permanent annexation.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that pro-Russian forces have seized administrative buildings and called for Russian assistance in a variety of Ukraine's southern and eastern provinces: Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Mykolaiv, and Dnipropetrovsk. Whether they represent anyone beside themselves is unclear, but there is no doubt that pro-Russian sentiment does exist among many ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in these provinces. More often than not, locals want an expansion of their regional powers and more cultural-linguistic autonomy. These are the normal demands made by regions and minorities in most contemporary states. If Putin were not a factor, authorities in Kiev should be able to hammer out some deal that would satisfy the rebellious provinces.

If, however, Putin decides to intervene militarily in Ukraine's southeast, the tussle between Kiev and the provinces automatically will become a question of separation, dismemberment, and Russian aggression. Both Moscow and Kiev know that Russia's military is superior to Ukraine's. Russian armed forces number about 750,000 troops; Ukraine's about 150,000. Russia has been aggressively spending on its military in the last decade, while Ukraine has actually been cutting back. In any armed conflict, Russia would win. Ukraine's only hope would be to threaten to inflict enough casualties to affect Putin's calculation of costs and benefits. And the farther Russian troops march into Ukraine, the more popular resistance they will encounter -- and therefore the more civilian casualties they will inflict. Is Putin willing to start a war over all or most of Ukraine, or will he confine himself to annexing Crimea or, say, a few southeastern provinces?

The costs of a military incursion beyond Crimea would rise with the extent of the incursion. Annexing Crimea would outrage the Ukrainians and Central Europeans, but might, with some finessing, escape the ire of Brussels, Berlin, and Washington. Invading Ukraine's southeast would be a naked imperial land-grab that would probably usher in a new cold war and shut off Russia from the international community. Launching a full-scale war with numerous civilian casualties, massive human rights violations, and possible ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians from the southeast would transform Putin into a pariah and earn him the reputation of a war criminal. Russia, meanwhile, would be completely isolated and possibly subjected to increasing claims on its own territory, by non-Russians within the country and by large powers (such as China) on its borders.

If one considers Russia's interests, none of this -- the armed intervention in Crimea, the claimed right to intervene anywhere in Ukraine -- makes sense. Putin's arguments simply do not hold water. As objective observers will confirm, there is absolutely no threat to Russian citizens anywhere in Ukraine. There may have been a diminution of overall law and order following the collapse of Viktor Yanukovich's regime, but that affects all Ukrainian residents equally. Nor is the Kremlin's claim that putative "fascists" from Western Ukraine are about to descend on Crimea and the southeast even remotely true. By the same token, intervention, war, international isolation, and the like will not enhance Russians' living standards or their sense of well-being. There may be a temporary spurt of excitement at seeing the Russian tricolor hoisted in Donetsk, but that enthusiasm will quickly fade when Russians realize that these regions will impose an enormous economic liability. And, finally, there is no way that a truncated Ukraine's transformation into a hostile anti-Russian state and a permanent occupation by Russian troops of potentially rebellious provinces -- after all, there are also large numbers of pro-Western Ukrainians in the southeast -- could possibly serve Russia's interests.

There is only one reason Putin has embarked on what Russian democratic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov calls "folly": flexing his military muscle enhances Putin's authority as a strongman who will reestablish Russia's grandeur and brook no people-power in former Soviet states.

Putin's incursion suggests that he must fear Ukraine -- so much so that he is willing to risk Russia's prosperity and stability. Putin the rational Bismarckian geostrategist has clearly given way to Putin the irrational and impulsive leader -- possibly as a result of the triumph of the democratic revolution in Ukraine. This may be the only ray of light in an otherwise catastrophic picture. Bad leaders make bad mistakes and, when they do, their power often disintegrates. Unfortunately, thousands of Ukrainians and Russians may have to die before that happens.

MIKHAIL METZEL/AFP/Getty Images