Two states are the only solution

On Monday, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted the first public event of The Elders – an international NGO founded by Nelson Mandela that brings together former high-level politicians and statesmen from around the world. Together, this group travels the globe in promoting human rights and democracy. Through their combined efforts and individual networks, The Elders regularly meet with current world leaders and consult with policymakers.

Their current trip to Washington DC is geared to support ongoing efforts in favor of a diplomatic solution in Syria and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s push for resumption of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. At Carnegie, three members of the elders, former US President Jimmy Carter, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, and former Algerian Foreign Minister and special envoy to the UN Lakhdar Brahimi spoke about their efforts and their expectations for the near and long-term future in an event titled “Can the two-state solution be saved?”.

The three former statesmen remain hopeful about both Israel/Palestine and the situation in Syria. Regarding direct negotiations, President Carter was quick to mention the internal constraints that both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas face. Each is confronted with domestic pressures not to negotiate. Netanyahu’s governing coalition includes right-of-center parties opposed to final-status agreements. Meanwhile, Abbas’ Fatah party faces pressure from Hamas, whose charter does not recognize Israel.  Each side has committed to putting any final peace treaty up to a national referendum.

Brahimi spoke of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria. He noted that nearly 6,000 new refugees flee Syria each day. He is hopeful that the Geneva II conference will regain momentum and urged all parties to abstain from further violence as a duty to Syria’s people, culture, and history.  Brahimi believes that the continued civil war is turning into an effort to destroy Syria’s past, present and future.

President Ahtisaari spoke of the linkages between the two conflicts and the role that the West can have vis-à-vis Iran. Ahtisaari encouraged greater cooperation between the P5 and Iran.  He believes that the new Iranian government under Rouhani provides an opportunity for a restart with Iran.

The Elders are an impressive group. Their personal experiences and flexibility as independent advisors unconnected to any government provides them with unique access and insight into current global challenges. Yet, even after a Q&A session it remains unclear how the three speakers feel about the future of the two-state solution.

It has become popular in some policy circles to lament the death of the two-state solution. Analysts argue that the hardening of positions in both Israeli and Palestinian society, the emergence of more extreme political parties, and disillusionment with the failed Oslo Accords have heralded the end of the two-state solution. They point to the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, unilateral efforts by the Palestinians in the United Nations, and continued violence as further proof that an end to this conflict is no longer possible.

Some have even argued that Secretary Kerry’s efforts represent the last opportunity for the two-state solution to succeed. But if these talks fail to achieve a final-status agreement, which given the current constraints on both sides seems most likely, what happens next?

A two-state solution, regardless of how unattainable it may seem at present remains the only viable long-term option for the Palestinians and the Israelis. While extremist elements on both sides may still cling to dreams of a Greater Israel or Greater Palestine, these opinions remain in the fringes. A one-state solution with Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians living under some sort of unified governing system is nothing more than a pipe-dream. Israeli leaders from both the left and the right have promised to secure Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, retaining its Jewish majority. Similarly, Palestinian leaders remain committed to establishing their own independent state for their own people, not one shared with Israelis.

Expressing urgency about ending this conflict is vital – that the Elders do with vigor.  But both sides need to understand that the status quo is untenable and that a solution must be found for the benefit of their own people.  Believing that the window for the two-state solution will soon close is foolish. There is simply no other choice.

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