Lots of smart people have been focusing on the Israeli elections and trying to make sense of their immediate implications for the peace process. I can’t improve on the analyses provided by Glenn Greenwald, Yossi Alpher, Bernard Avishai, or Uri Avnery, who explain why there is little reason to be optimistic and many reasons to be worried.
I want to focus on a different issue, which is likely to be more important in the long run.
It's this: What do we do if a "two-state solution" becomes impossible?
During the past 10 years, the "two-state solution" has been the mantra of most moderates involved in the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni say they want it, and so does Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The 2007 Arab League peace plan envisions two states living side by side, and George W. Bush and Condi Rice repeatedly said that a two-state solution was their goal too (although they did precious little to achieve it). Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton all say they are going to push hard for it now. I might add that the two-state solution is also my preferred option.
Interestingly, this moderate consensus in favor of two states is itself a fairly new development. The 1993 Oslo Accords do not talk explicitly about a Palestinian state, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the agreement, never endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in public. And when First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke about the need for a Palestinian state back in 1998, she was roundly criticized, and the White House promptly distanced itself from her remarks. In fact, Bill Clinton didn't endorse the idea of a Palestinian state until his last month in office. The mainstream "consensus" behind this solution is in fact a relatively recent creation.
Today, invoking the "two-state" mantra allows moderates to sound reasonable and true to the ideals of democracy and self-determination; but it doesn't force them to actually do anything to bring that goal about. Indeed, defending the two-state solution has become a recipe for inaction, a fig leaf that leaders can utter at press conferences while ignoring the expanding settlements and road networks on the West Bank that are rendering it impossible. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is a perfect illustration: He has lately become an eloquent voice in favor of two states, warning of the perils that Israel will face if the two-state option is not adopted. Yet his own government continued to expand the settlements and undermine Palestinian moderates, thereby putting the solution Olmert supposedly favors further away than ever, and maybe even making it unworkable.
There are two trends at play that threaten to undermine the two-state option. The first is the continued expansion of Israel settlements in the land that is supposed to be reserved for the Palestinians. There are now about 290,000 settlers living in the West Bank. There are another 185,000 settlers in East Jerusalem. Most of the settlers are subsidized directly or indirectly by the Israeli government. It is increasingly hard to imagine Israel evicting nearly half a million people (about 7 percent of its population) from their homes. Although in theory one can imagine a peace deal that keeps most of the settlers within Israel's final borders (with the new Palestinian state receiving land of equal value as compensation), at some point the settlers' efforts to "create facts" will make it practically impossible to establish a viable Palestinian state.
The second trend is the growing extremism on both sides. Time is running out on a two-state solution, and its main opponents -- the Likud Party and its allies in Israel, and Hamas among the Palestinians -- are becoming more popular. The rising popularity of Avigdor Lieberman's overtly racist Yisrael Beiteinu party is ample evidence of this trend. And it's not as though Kadima or Labor have been pushing hard to bring it about. According to Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times:
The result is that the next Israeli government, left to its own devices, is likely to opt for the status quo with the Palestinians - continued occupation of the West Bank, desultory peace talks, steadily expanding settlements and military force in response to Palestinian rockets or bombs. The long-term pursuit of a two-state solution will be brushed aside, with the argument that the Palestinians are too divided and dangerous to be negotiating partners."
One does not need to look far down the road to see the point where a two-state solution will no longer be a practical possibility. What will the United States do then? What will American policy be when it makes no sense to talk about a two-state solution, because Israel effectively controls all of what we used to call Mandate Palestine? What vision will President Obama and Secretary Clinton have for the Palestinians and for Israel when they can no longer invoke the two-state mantra?
There are only three alternative options at that point. First, Israel could drive most or all of the 2.5 million Palestinians out of the West Bank by force, thereby preserving "greater Israel" as a Jewish state through an overt act of ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians would surely resist, and it would be a crime against humanity, conducted in full view of a horrified world. No American government could support such a step, and no true friend of Israel could endorse that solution.
Second, Israel could retain control of the West Bank but allow the Palestinians limited autonomy in a set of disconnected enclaves, while it controlled access in and out, their water supplies, and the airspace above them. This appears to have been Ariel Sharon's strategy before he was incapacitated, and Bibi Netanyahu's proposal for "economic peace" without a Palestinian state seems to envision a similar outcome. In short, the Palestinians would not get a viable state of their own and would not enjoy full political rights. This is the solution that many people -- including Prime Minister Olmert -- compare to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is hard to imagine the United States supporting this outcome over the long term, and Olmert has said as much. Denying the Palestinians their own national aspirations is also not going to end the conflict.
Which brings me to the third option. The Israeli government could maintain its physical control over "greater Israel" and grant the Palestinians full democratic rights within this territory. This option has been proposed by a handful of Israeli Jews and a growing number of Palestinians. But there are formidable objections to this outcome: It would mean abandoning the Zionist dream of an independent Jewish state, and binational states of this sort do not have an encouraging track record, especially when the two parties have waged a bitter conflict across several generations. This is why I prefer the two-state alternative.
But if a two-state option is no longer feasible, it seems likely that the United States would come to favor this third choice. After all, supporting option 2 -- an apartheid state -- is contrary to the core American values of freedom and democracy and would make the United States look especially hypocritical whenever it tried to present itself as a model for the rest of the world. Openly endorsing apartheid would also demolish any hope we might have of improving our image in the Arab and Islamic world. Lord knows I have plenty of respect for the Israel lobby's ability to shape U.S. foreign policy, but even AIPAC and the other heavyweight institutions in the lobby would have great difficulty maintaining the "special relationship" if Israel was an apartheid state. By contrast, option 3 -- a binational state that provided full democratic rights for citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds -- is easy to reconcile with America's own “melting pot” traditions and liberal political values. American politicians would find it a hard option to argue against.
Bottom line: If the two-state solution dies, as seems increasingly likely, the United States is going to face a very awkward set of choices. That’s one reason why Obama and his team -- as well as Israel's friends in the United States -- should move beyond paying lip-service to the idea of creating a Palestinian state and actually do something about it. But it's hard to be optimistic that they will.
And while I'm at it, here's one more heretical thought. Shouldn't someone in the U.S. government start thinking about what our policy should be in the event that the two-state solution collapses? Starting to contemplate this possibility is risky, of course, because it might undermine our efforts to create two states if it became known that we were beginning to plan for an alternative future. But the fact is that we may face that future before too much longer. If so, then it might be a good idea if somebody began thinking about how to deal with it now, so that we don’t have to invent a new approach on the fly.