For as long as I can remember, the phrase “two-state solution” has been the foundation upon which all who would avoid the opprobrium of unreasonableness with respect to Middle Eastern politics wished to stand. In my letter today, I would like to revisit that phrase by reconsidering the fundamental political assumptions upon which it rests.
The “two-state solution” is an old idea with roots in the original Partition Plan of 1947, the U.N.-sponsored proposal to resolve the tension between the divergent national aspirations of the Jewish and Arab citizens of Mandatory Palestine by creating two states on the land that the League of Nations had awarded the British in 1923 when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled and its bits and pieces parceled out to the various victorious parties in the First World War. There was a long backstory leading up to that plan, one filled with long-forgotten personalities and undertakings of various kinds, but the bottom line was simply that the land of Mandatory Palestine was to be divided into three parts: a Jewish state in which Jews would constitute about 55% of the population, a larger Arab state in which Arabs would constitute 99% of the population, and a kind of international entity consisting of Jerusalem and some surrounding towns (including Bethlehem) in which Jews and Arab would be more or less evenly represented. The detail that the original British Mandate had included the 35,000 square miles of what then was called Transjordan (and which today is the Kingdom of Jordan), but that this land was specifically excluded from the plans for partition by the now long-forgotten Transjordan Memorandum of 1922, proposed by the British and ratified by the League of Nations and made irrelevant in any case once the British allowed the Hashemite family, originally from Saudi Arabia, to establish a kingdom east of the Jordan with themselves as its royal family in 1946—that detail remains to this day profound in the eyes of some and fully negligible to others. (Perhaps I should say that more clearly. To those who consider it an important detail, there already are two states, one Jewish and one Arab, on the ground of the original British Mandate: Israel and Jordan. To those who consider Jordan so long off the table as to be a mere red herring in the discussion, the other state in any two-state solution would have to be a third state called Palestine.)
In the end, none of this matters because nothing came of the plan. The Jews of Mandatory Palestine declared independence on May 14, 1948. That settled their future, at least politically, but created one of the most vexingly perplexing what-if’s of modern history: what the world would be like today if the Palestinian Arabs had kept faith with the Partition Plan and had declared their own independence in the spring of 1948. That would have resulted in the desired two states west of the Jordan River, precisely as the United Nations had proposed. But, of course, that is precisely what didn’t happen. In the course of the few days following the declaration of Israeli independence, thousands of Jordanian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian troops swarmed across the border to prevent the Jewish state from really coming into existence. And the rest is history—the War of Independence ended rather inconclusively in the first half of 1949 with a series of armistice agreements Israel signed with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, but without a clear resolution of the Palestinian Arab question. In a sense, the much-spoken-of “two-state solution” today is an attempt to recapture that missed opportunity of May 1948, that moment in history when the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine could have simply had their state by declaring their independence and then getting on with the work of self-governance.
Thinking about that alternate version of history is an intoxicating exercise in political fantasy. In my personal version, the two states would by now have long since settled the claims of each other’s citizens with respect to abandoned or lost property of real estate in the “other” state. Consequently, the world would have long ago come to accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state in the same way that no one today seriously asks whether Brazil or New Zealand should exist as nation-states even though their national cultures actually were imported from elsewhere by colonialist settlers who had no prior relationship of any sort to their new land or its native culture, let alone the intense cultural and historical one that has linked the Jewish people to the Land of Israel for millennia. Would the Six Day War have happened? Would any of the wars that Israel has had to fight with its hostile neighbors over the last sixty-odd years occurred? By now, Israel and Palestine would have been each other’s chief trading partners for more than half a century and a lively cross-cultural artistic milieu would have created a sense in the world that Isaac and Ishmael can and do co-exist in the world, if not as full brothers, then at least as the two sons of a common father and as friends.
Oh well. That didn’t happen. But could it still? That’s the real question to ask as we consider the worthiness of the two-state solution regarding the elusive nature of which so many in so many different quarters endlessly wring their hands. In other words, the only reason to push for a two-state solution would be if such a plan could yield results something along the lines of the fantasy outlined in the preceding paragraph.
There’s no question that Israel would benefit mightily from a free, independent, liberal democracy to its east, one with which Israel would share a clearly-defined set of common goals and regional aspirations and in which Jews who wished to live, say, in Hebron would be welcome to settle. I can’t see why anyone would argue against that thought…but addressing the corollary question of whether it is a mere pipedream or a reasonable goal towards which rational people might choose to work—that is the real question to consider.
The prospects are not encouraging. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 led directly to the establishment of a terror-state in that place under the malign governance of Hamas. On the West Bank, the Palestinian leadership has fostered a culture that rewards terrorism, valorizes the murderers of Israeli civilians, and promotes a particularly virulent version of vicious and violent anti-Semitism among the children who attend its schools. The chances that an independent Palestine sandwiched in between Israel and Jordan would be nothing at all like Gaza feel, to say the very least, slim. And for Israel to create the possibility for a second Gaza to emerge on the West Bank would be sheer folly.
And that brings me to a different question, one broader and more challenging. Are nations capable of change? Are people? We say all the time that change on the micro-level of the individual is possible, that people absolutely do have the ability to abandon negative behavior patterns, to jettison unwanted and unsavory attitudes, to self-alter in accordance with a specific image one wishes to attain and feels called up to try to attain. We say that and, for the most part, we mean it. But is change possible on the national level? An entire generation of Palestinian youth has been raised to loathe Israel and hate Jews. (That’s a strong statement, but one I believe to be fully justified. Click here for more.) Can national cultures be led forward to finer versions of themselves, versions that repudiate negative traits and stances that have been consciously and purposefully bred into the consciousness of a people over scores of years? That seems to be the relevant question to ask as the Obama administration ends and the Trump years dawn.
When I consider the changes in our own national culture that have taken place over the years since I was in high school, it feels astounding—and all the more so because these changes appear to have occurred naturally rather than as a response to outside stimuli attempting to force us to grow in a certain direction. Same-sex marriage was unimaginable when I was in high school, for one important example. But an African-American president would have seemed equally impossible to me back then, as would any of a dozen other things that now seem commonplace, or at least unremarkable, but which once would have seemed revolutionary to the point of being truly unimaginable. But how exactly to foster that change is a different question. Yet, for all it is difficult to answer easily or simply, it is the issue at the heart of the matter: a two-state solution in the Middle East will require the Palestinians to embrace a level of tolerance, liberality, and progressive broad-mindedness of which the Gaza example is the precise antithesis.
Still, being naïve and being hopeful are not the same thing…and so I choose the latter while attempting to avoid the former and will close by offering a bit of visual encouragement with respect to the future of the two-state solution.
At the end of the eighteenth century, just when our own nation was starting up, King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia commissioned Carl Gotthard Langhans, his Court Superintendent of Buildings, to create a massive monument to peace in the form of a decorative gateway leading into Berlin. The result was named the Peace Gate, but later became known as the Brandenburg Gate because it was built on the site of an earlier gate that marked the beginning of the road from Berlin to the town of Brandenburg an der Havel. It was and is one of the most well-known architectural monuments of Germany, possibly even the best known.
Here it is shortly after its construction, when Napoleon celebrated his defeat of the Prussians at the Battle of Jena in 1806, in an artistic rendering of that moment in history by the noted French painter of historical scenes, Charles Meynier:
So the Gate of Peace got off to a bit of a rocky start, but no one—and certainly neither Friedrich Wilhelm nor Napoleon—could have imagined the horrors of Nazism and the way the Gate of Peace would one day appear festooned with the ultimate symbol of human depravity and moral corruption:
But just as surely as neither Napoleon nor Friedrich Wilhelm could have imagined Hitler, so could surely Hitler and his Nazi savages have never imagined this photograph, taken just last week in the wake of the horrific murder of four young Israeli soldiers out for a sightseeing tour of Jerusalem:
To say that Germany, the nation that brought the world the ultimate in moral depravity, could respond to the murder of four young Jewish soldiers by turning the Brandenburg Gate into an immense Israeli flag…but that the Palestinians cannot turn their back on terrorism, on Islamicist fundamentalism, on anti-Semitism, and on a self-wrought culture of implacable hostility to Israel—to me that seems, to say the least, an unlikely proposition. It seems impossible to imagine Palestinian growth in that direction and on that level, I admit. But to say that the picture reproduced just above would have seemed “unlikely” to Jews in the Lodz ghetto—that seems ridiculous almost the point of obscenity.
If someone had asked my father when America was going to be ready for a black president, he would have said—regretfully but with certainty—never…and he only died in 1999, a mere nine years before he could have seen with his own eyes just how wrong he was. If someone had asked a “regular” German citizen in 1944 when Germany would be ready to turn its most famous architectural monument into a symbol of national grief over the deaths of four young Jews killed by extremists, he would surely have given the same answer. But he too would have been wrong. Will they one day say that of those among us who feel that there simply is no solution to the Palestinian question, that the Palestinian Arabs will simply never be able to renounce the parts of their national culture that make peaceful co-existence with Israel an impossibility or, at best, a pipe dream? Perhaps it’s the advent of a new year or maybe it’s just the way impending grandparenthood is already instilling a sense of uncharacteristic hopefulness in me, but I want to hope that that is exactly what they will say of those who feel that there is no solution in the Middle East, that no amount of negotiation or national growth could lead to reconciliation and peace. I can’t say that with certainty—I’m a rabbi, not a prophet—but it is my (secular) New Year’s prayer for us all.