Why Plans for a Two-State Solution in the Middle East Have Failed

PWPA President Morton A. Kaplan

From the early United Nations plans for a two-state solution in the Middle East to the present, plans for a two-state solution have come up against immovable obstacles. The original UN plan for Israel would have led to a state that was indefensible in a hostile environment. The plan for a Palestinian state failed to comprehend that the Palestinians, unlike the Jews, had not created an apparatus for self-government. The architects of the plan also failed to allow for the Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism that would impel the Arab states to war and long-term hostility.In addition to the fact that plans for two-state solutions and peace were not adapted to the actual conditions of the case, concerns for solutions were often subordinated to other considerations such as those of the Cold War. Now that the Cold War is over, one might hope that attention to the actual contours of the case might improve the otherwise very slim chances for peaceful solutions. These, however, are further hindered by academic theses that misrepresent events.

Messrs. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who are at the center of the most recent controversy, are acting in a manner that makes more difficult these efforts. They claim that America’s Middle Eastern policy is in conflict with America’s national interests because the Jewish lobby, with help from Christian evangelicals, has shaped it to Israel’s interests. For this reason, they say, the United States has failed to push Israel to a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians.

Every anti-American web site around the world can now cite two American professors at two great American universities to the effect that Israel, through the powerful Jewish lobby, is directing American policy against the interests of Middle Eastern countries. Leaders in Arab and Muslim countries will come under additional pressure to prove that they are not carrying out the policies of Israel. Thus, their willingness and ability to cooperate with the United States in policies that serve all our interests, including those of peace, will be diminished. Whatever differences most of us may have in deciding what the national interest is, that surely is not in the national interest.

Based upon my first-hand experience, I find no merit in the claim by M&K that the Jewish lobby has prevented the United States from moving toward acceptance of a Palestinian state. They have vastly exaggerated the ability of the Jewish lobby to influence American policy. They, like some neo-conservatives, also have exaggerated the ability of the United States to control events in the area. They have collected facts and pseudo-facts to fit a thesis that bears only the most peripheral relationship to events in the real world.

Early Impediments

Beginning in 1974 I was heavily invested in attempting to produce a Palestinian state in negotiations with the PLO. For a very long time, I believed that the impediment to this result lay in the subordination by Henry Kissinger of such an effort to his determination to drive the Soviets out of the Middle East. Although this belief had a factual foundation, the reader will see by the end of this article why I now am ready to concede that my policy preference faced impediments inherent to the situation that might have defeated it even apart from Kissinger’s national security policy.

The vision of some early Zionist leaders for a bi-national state necessarily foundered on two features of the post-World War II world. The Holocaust created a need for a Jewish state that could protect the interests of the Jewish people. There was no place for it, or for the Jews who had been persecuted in both Christian and Muslim countries, except in the ancestral homeland of Palestine, which still contained a large population of Jews. Israel would be a necessary redoubt for persecuted Jews.

Antisemitism in Arab nations also foreclosed for Israelis the possibility of a binational state. Although most educated and cultured Arabs and Muslims are not antisemitic, antisemitism is rife among the broad masses and motivates some leaders. If this were not so, school books would not call for killing Jews and a Muslim religious leader would not have been allowed to call for killing Jews on official West Bank radio. Consider the angry utterance of Prime Minister al-Maliki of Iraq who, referring to Sunni suicide bombers, defamed them in the strongest terms a Muslim can use as “Sons of pigs, sons of Jews.” Adolf Eichmann, in his trial, admitted that Haj Amin El Husseini, the leader of the Palestinian Arabs, who had been Hitler’s honored guest during World War II, praised Hitler for killing so many Jews.

My own relations with Arabs and Muslims were blessedly free of prejudice. While I was a graduate student at Columbia University under the GI bill, I did not detect any antisemitism in the Egyptian students with whom I had very friendly relations even though we strongly disagreed about the 1948 war.

In 1949 Abdullah El Erian, one of those students, who later was to serve as a judge on the World Court, told me that he had been urgently called back to Cairo by the Foreign Minister. He had been making the decisions for the Yemeni delegation to the United Nations. Because they knew nothing about the world, he needed someone to keep them out of trouble. I was the only one he knew who was sufficiently knowledgeable and trustworthy. So he asked me as a friend to do this for him. I accepted this task even though I was offered no remuneration.

The next day I went to the Yemeni headquarters to introduce myself to Seif al-Islam Abdulrahman Abdul Samad Abu Taleb, the head of the legation. I told him I would do nothing that would undermine the security of Israel. He said, “It does not matter. You are a friend.”

Among other things I did for them, I discharged their incompetent law firm and got them a brand new one that then was named Skadden Arps Slate and Lyon. R. Davies of the Independent Oil Company wanted an oil concession. Because I did not trust Davies and did not know enough about oil to monitor him, I drafted a letter, supposedly from the Imam, turning him down. If they had oil, the search for it could wait for better conditions.

When the foreign minister ordered the delegation to bring the bombing from Aden to the Security Council, I read carefully the exchanges between the Governor General of Aden and the subbranch of the Yemeni foreign office in Cairo. I discovered that the Egyptians were handling these matters so well that they very likely would conclude successfully. However, an attempt to condemn Britain would endanger these negotiations. So I stalled things for months until an agreement was reached that so pleased the Foreign Minister that Yemen, which then had no foreign embassies, opened legations in London and Washington.

My Efforts for a Two-State Solution
In March 1974 I gave a lecture in Jerusalem in which I proposed negotiations with the PLO leading to a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Prime Minister Golda Meir was the discussant. Her objection, incorrect under international law, was that my proposal could not work because the only legal boundary was the indefensible UN boundary. I interrupted her discussion to correct her and was supported by the audience. (In 1980 Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, who had written a book on international law, told me that he agreed with me.)

I later met with Arik Sharon at his farm for a five-hour one-on-one discussion. It was not easy to arrange an extended discussion. Sharon knew that I favored negotiations with the PLO that would lead to a Palestinian state on the West Bank. He also knew that I was critical of some Israeli policies that impacted on Israeli Arabs. He needed to know that I was not a soft-headed academic. Therefore, I was interviewed by a colonel who was a close associate.

Even the positive report from his envoy did not entirely convince Sharon. Our first hour was spent in verbal conflict.

Finally, after a response to a question he put to me, a big grin appeared on Sharon’s face and he threw his hands up in the universal sign of agreement. From that point on, I had a candid conversation with the real Arik Sharon.

Sharon was furious with Kissinger who had ordered (that is the term Sharon used) him not to complain publicly about Egyptian violations of the first-stage disengagement. (Where was the all-powerful Jewish lobby?). He told me he did not think the Arab states would ever make peace.

Sharon told me that his goal was the security of Israel, not a greater Israel. Israel could afford to give up the Sinai and the Golan heights. The Palestinians already had a state in Jordan (which had been an integral part of the League mandate until Britain divided it as a gift to their tribal allies who had been defeated by the Saudis). However, he was open to an offer of the West Bank as part of an overall peace settlement if it would be consistent with Israel’s ability to produce a blocking force on the Jordan River.

Sharon said that he knew that some day the Arab states might defeat Israel in a war. That would be the end of Israel. Until that day, as long as he was in a position to do so, he would help to maintain the security of Israel as a Jewish state that could rescue Jews from anywhere in the world if they were persecuted.

By the time of my interview with Sharon I had actually coopted a significant portion of the Israeli establishment to my position on attempting to negotiate a PLO-run West Bank state. I allied myself with Cherif Bassiouni, an American professor with close connections to Sadat. We put together a plan for peace, which my Center published. I actually had an emissary from Prime Minister Rabin on my doorstep at 7 A. M. who asked me not to put it out. I, of course, did publish it. (My relations with Rabin were, and remained, good; but I was not able to convince him that peace with the PLO was negotiable.)

But by then things had gone bad. Why? In this period I had made a trip to Moscow. In order to convey a message, Evgeny Primakov, the leading Soviet expert on the Middle East, came to a lecture on international theory that I was giving. He told me privately that his government found my Middle East plan acceptable but only if the United States did not attempt to freeze the Soviets out of the Middle East.

But this is exactly what Kissinger was trying to do for reasons that he thought were compelling. As best as I can guess at Kissinger’s game plan, it was to produce peace between Israel and Egypt without pressing Sadat so hard that it would threaten Kissinger’s effort to push the Soviets out. It was a goal he likely thought he knew the steps to. Pressing for comprehensive peace would introduce large uncertainties and would put additional pressures on Sadat that the Soviets could exploit before disengagement could be completed. I preferred to place my bets on the other course. But then Kissinger, not I or the Jewish lobby, was in charge of American policy.

Because the effort to separate Egypt from the Soviets forced Israel to give up most of its bargaining cards before any movement to peace with the Palestinians could take place, most of the establishment figures I had won over were no longer in alignment with me. They thought they had so little left to give up that the Arab states would never pressure the Palestinians to make peace. One can agree with Kissinger’s gambit, or disagree as I did, but Kissinger was not coerced by the Jewish lobby to place Israeli over American interests.

Complexities of American and Israeli Policy

The two most important Israeli goals are survival and peace. Except for the 1948 war, Washington in the end has supported Israeli survival. However, even Truman’s support for UN membership for Israel was more than matched by the Soviet support for arms sales from Czechoslovakia. These sales permitted building an Israeli force capable of winning the war. At that point an American ability to coopt Israel became attractive.

During considerable portions of the cold war Israel was a great strategic asset for the United States. That and an interest in dampening Arab plans for another adventure explain the support for Israeli military superiority in the military and political leaderships of the United States. Add to this the popularity of Israel and one will understand why some activities of the Jewish lobby were “slam dunks.”  When the Jewish lobby prevails, it almost invariably does so because the relevant elites, unlike M&W, see this as in the national interest of the United States.

However, other American interests have always undercut Israel’s search for peace. The so-called powerful Jewish lobby has never had the power to change this.

During the 1948 war, the Israelis were undermined by oil interests in Washington. If it had been up to Washington, Israel never would have been able to buy enough arms supplies to survive. After victory, Israel was forced to give up most of the gains of war without achieving conditions of peace.

Israel, France, and Britain attacked Egypt in 1956. France and Britain lacked adequate grounds for the attack. But Israel knew, as I later learned during a visit to Egypt in 1959, that Nasser intended to destroy Israel. This looked like an opportunity to salvage with aid from Britain and France what had been lost in 1948. Whether or not one agrees with what Eisenhower did, he destroyed this opportunity.

1967 is even more revealing. By shutting the Strait of Tiran and mobilizing on the Israeli border, Nasser was creating a clear threat. Because Jordan was not a threat—indeed Israel helped to protect Jordan against Iraq—Israel informed Jordan that it would not move against Jordan if Jordan did not join the war.

Jordan chose a dominant win-win strategy. If Jordan did not join the war and Israel lost, it would be isolated. If Jordan joined the war and Israel won, Israel still would defend it against Iraq. In addition, Jordan could get rid of the West Bank albatross, which threatened its internal security. (Jordan had already expelled the PLO apparatus from Jordan.)

At the start of the Yom Kippur War the Israeli forces were in deep trouble. The issue was whether American supplies would be sent rapidly to Israel. State opposed resupply. The Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs lobbied for resupply, as a general on the JCS told me in a very long phone conversation as the arguments were being carried to the White House. The Chiefs won and the Jewish lobby played no role in this fight between two major departments of the American government.

If M&W had discovered the prior phone call, it most likely would have been listed as evidence of the influence of the Jewish lobby. If the JCS position had not yet been taken, I would have argued for it for the reasons that motivated the JCS. But I played no role at all in the taking of the position.

This policy of forcing an Israeli retreat was repeated again in 1973. Indeed, Israeli general Yariv who had arranged an armistice with the encircled Egyptian army in the Sinai was ordered to retract it by Kissinger who told Yariv that only Kissinger could make that deal, which he then proceeded to do. Kissinger in one respect did improve on previous American postures. He was able to start a process leading to peace between Israel and Egypt. His heavy hand with Yariv probably played a part in this.

Israel, the West Bank, and a Palestinian State

Israel did not take the West Bank because it, or the Jewish lobby, wanted it but because Jordan left and did not wish to return. Israel, which preferred Jordanian rule over the West Bank, had no choice, even apart from the desire of religious groups for territorial expansion, because the Jordanian legion would no longer be present to control violent Palestinian elements.

However, the Israeli taking of the West Bank did not of itself create the current conflict. Nor was American pressure necessary to create a Palestinian state. If the PLO had made private overtures for a two-state solution to a Labor government in 1967, or in 1973, it is likely, although not certain, that this result could have been negotiated. Arafat, for whatever reason, good or bad, was either not willing or not able to entertain such an initiative, even in secret and through intermediaries.

In 1980 and 1981 I tried to get peace negotiations going. I twice visited PLO headquarters in West Beirut. I do not want to dramatize the dangers of this mission because reporters in Iraq today face much greater danger. However, I was almost 60 years old and had no escort. Twice the Druse driver who took me to West Beirut warned me against going to PLO headquarters. He could take me only within a quarter mile of my destination because the cab would be shot up if he went any farther. I would have to pass Black September headquarters. My purpose was known and they might decide to kill me, he said.

I did get on well with Mahmoud Labady, the official in charge of the Beirut PLO unit, but my purpose was to attempt to set up private meetings, not to discuss terms. Toward the end of my second trip, he told me that there was a reason he did not arrange a meeting with Arafat. “You will not like anything he will say to you.”

When I tried to convince Shimon Peres to meet with Issam Sartawi, a heart surgeon who was head of the PLO office in Paris, he resisted the effort at first because he did not believe that anything useful would emerge from it. Finally, after two years they did arrange a meeting in Spain at a socialist conference. The next day Sartawi was assassinated by the Abu Nidal group. The word on the street was that Arafat had withdrawn protection from him. Although I do not know with certainty that was the case, apparently no reprisals were taken, thus indirectly confirming the word on the street.

I do not criticize Arafat for failing to accept the Oslo terms. In his place, I would have asked for modifications, even within the framework of a two-state solution. Whether Israeli security needs, which the Oslo terms did address, could be reconciled with an effective, as opposed to a dismembered Palestinian state, a subject addressed below, is open to question.

If, on the other hand, a two-state solution was unacceptable to Arafat, rejection, and the intifada, made sense from his perspective. There is, thus, reason to doubt that Arafat ever was willing to accept a two-state solution. If that is correct, as I now think it may have been, I was wrong in 1974. The negotiations I was trying to set up would not have succeeded even had Kissinger adopted my policy line. Nonetheless I believe that my initiative might have worked in a period in which Hamas was irrelevant had Arafat been able or willing to test it.

Why American Pressure Would Have Failed

M&W are joined by Jimmy Carter in demonizing the Jewish lobby. Unlike my co-author, Cherif Bassiouni, I have never claimed that our plan deserved any credit for the Camp David agreements. Indeed I opposed them. Confronted by a determined Begin, Carter collapsed. Although possessing billions that Begin and Shamir needed, Carter let them bargain for terms that led to a legitimization of extensive settlement activities despite knowing that this would make more difficult the search for peace.

Jimmy Carter is a good human being. But he also is a weak human being. The very tough Arik Sharon knew that he could not use the Jewish lobby against Kissinger. Begin did not rely on the Jewish lobby. He got the measure of Carter as soon as he began negotiating with him.

Kissinger most likely could have prevented Begin from legitimizing his later West Bank moves had he been in charge at the time, even had the full weight of the Jewish lobby been directed against him. However, not even Kissinger could have moved Begin toward an acceptance of a West Bank state. Begin and Shamir believed on the basis of intelligence information that the PLO would never accept the existence of Israel and they were determined to increase the defensive space of Israel. Furthermore, many of their supporters were expansionists on religious grounds and they themselves were committed to a greater Israel.

An attempt to force Begin to peace negotiations with the Palestinians would have been entirely counterproductive, even apart from the unlikelihood that a two-state solution could have been forced upon Arafat. Even if the Jewish lobby kept out of the debate, the Congressional elements that forced Carter to retreat from his Korean troop drawdown proposal would have stymied him for reasons related to the Cold War. And Begin would have rejected such pressure even if the Congress had supported Carter.

The situation was much more complex than the simplistic M&W analysis allows. Despite its extensive footnoting, their understanding of the factors relevant to these matters is as naive as that of the intellectuals in the Bush administration who supported the drive to war with Iraq.

For instance, during my discussion with the Crown Prince of Jordan I noticed his shoulders stiffening when I discussed meetings I wanted to set up for peace discussions. When I told him that I would not invite Jordan unless the PLO had agreed to participate, he immediately relaxed. He did not want Jordan to be involved in any responsibility for decisions with respect to the West Bank.

I did make a tour of the West Bank. One episode is particularly relevant to this account. I visited a Palestinian mayor who had a reputation as a firebrand. He and his cohorts dutifully spilled out their anti-Israel venom. But when I got his wife alone, she pleaded with me to leave him out of my plans for peace because he would be assassinated.

The Obstacles That Confront Current Efforts for Two-State Solutions

Israel cannot, and will not, allow a unified West Bank state that cannot, and will not, control violence against Israel from within it. To date the PLO, although under more honest leadership than in the past, shows neither the capability nor skill level to control violence against Israel.

In principle, I can support Secretary Rice’s call for a conference to work out peace terms. In principle she is right to call for a discussion of concrete terms, for there can be no agreement in the absence of concrete terms. In practice, Israel may be right to resist a discussion of concrete terms, even apart from the difficulty of attaining sufficient consensus within the government.

The Northern Ireland case which some use as an analogy is a bad one. British force, with the support of the Irish Republic, is dominant in Northern Ireland. Britain can keep the radicals under control. The PLO almost surely will not be willing to agree to terms that do not include the withdrawal of Israeli forces from “occupied territory.” The Western powers will almost surely support this.

Until and unless means can be found for controlling the radicals within Palestinian territory, the asymmetrical requirements of Israel and a Palestinian state cannot be reconciled.

There is no good way to deal with this problem, only bad ways. The least bad way, I would suggest, is that prior to the conference the leaders of Israel and of the Palestinian Authority make an announcement of the following kind. They are going into negotiations that cannot succeed if the following terms are not met. The Palestinians must be able to rule a coherent area in which they control their economic and political destiny. In such an entity only the government can control the means of violence. Israel must have trustworthy reasons to believe that Palestinian territory will not be used by external organizations or states hostile to Israel or by armed groups acting against Israel.

There is one proposal which I advance hesitantly that might square the circle. Any agreement that is reached will be opposed violently in both Israel and the West Bank. Israel is capable of controlling its extremists, although they will succeed in some terroristic acts. The Palestinian state will not have a similarly capable infrastructure. The proposal which I offer hesitantly is a strong joint Israeli and Palestinian police force that would act jointly against violent radicals in both countries and that would remove arms concentrations that are held by non-governmental groups. Arrests should lead to incarcerations that can be reduced only by joint agreement. There are many good arguments against such a proposal but it may be the best of a bad lot.

If such an agreement is reached, it must be supported in a vote by a significant majority before it can go into effect. Otherwise, it will not have sufficient legitimacy to work. If it is approved, Hamas should be offered an opportunity to subscribe providing that a vote in the Gaza Strip gives it substantial approval.

External security, apart from an Iranian nuclear bomb, is susceptible to solution. Obviously the territory of the Palestinian state must be demilitarized lest Israel become indefensible. However, this could be done within the framework of an alliance with Jordan and Israel in which they take responsibility for defense.

That Israel faces enemies against which it must defend itself should not be doubted. When the president of Iran visited the United Nations in September 2007, he accepted an invitation from a religious group. When one participant asked him if he would agree not to attack Israel if the United States and Israel agreed not to attack Iran, he refused to answer the question. That seems very much like an answer from a state that probably intends to go nuclear. As the so-called Iranian moderate, former president Rafsanjani—who along with the Supreme Leader is reputed to have ordered the murderous attacks on Jewish organizations in Argentina in 1994—once said, even one nuclear bomb would eliminate Israel.

Internal Israeli security is a very difficult matter. The 10-year armistice which Hamas proposes, if experience is any guide, would be used with support from Syria and a very willing Iran to build forces to create chaos within Israel. When M. Barghouti of the PLO and a moderate Hamas leader released a letter from jail calling for a two-state solution and the end of actions “outside of occupied territory,” they were forced by the Palestinian reaction to withdraw it, even though they had called for the return of the refugees, a condition that Israel obviously cannot afford to accept.

Refugees are products of wars, particularly losing wars. India and Pakistan are home to tens of millions of refugees. Germany lost its Eastern districts and had to absorb between 10 and 15 million refugees. Five Arab states and the Palestinians lost the 1948 war that they started in an effort to destroy Israel. More than a million Jews fled from Arab countries to a nation that did integrate them.

No decent person would fail to agonize over the desperate plight of the 1948 refugees and the miserable conditions in Gaza and the West Bank. However, for the most part, they are the product of the long-term refusal of the Arab states to consider peace with Israel, of their refusal to integrate the refugees, and of the Palestinians’ determination to engage in terroristic attacks. Had this not been the case there would long ago have been a Palestinian state in control of its destiny.

The simple truth is that, unlike M&W, I know that there is no simple way to know what the national interest is. We come to discussions of it with different values, different knowledge of the state of the world, different judgments with respect to the highly indeterminate consequences of alternative policies
In my opinion, M&W are fundamentally wrong in their conception of the American national interest. If M&W think that it is in the American interest to desert its loyal and democratic ally, I suggest that the moral loss would far outweigh any potential gain.

Moreover, such a desertion would not produce a Palestinian state. Israel has struggled too hard to provide a homeland for Jews to make the mistake Czechoslovakia made under British and French pressure in 1938 when it surrendered the defensible Sudetenland because the inhabitants were German. If Israel goes down, it will go down fighting. It will not give in to American pressure that does not take these needs into account. And it should not do so. Only an agreement that is consistent with its security requirements will be acceptable.

Although one would hope that it do so wisely, the America that I love sees a mission in defending the best values in American history. Furthermore, I think our enemies in Muslim countries would see a retreat as a sign of weakness that would encourage further attacks. The policy line that M&W advocate likely would result also in the abandonment of the best forces within Arab and Muslim culture to the extremists who represent the worst forces.

Finally, a brief personal note. Much of my activity is driven by my own understanding of what it means to be a Jew. In my mind, a Jew believes in justice for all people. Because I am also an American, my knowledge of the evil of slavery and discrimination led me in 1980 and 1981 to secure the cooperation of important leaders of the ruling South African party in meetings I set up that were designed to get rid of the abomination of apartheid. I tried to provide a similar forum for Israelis and Palestinians. The PLO rejected this overture.

Because I am a Jew, I wanted a Jewish state to be concerned with justice to all those over whom it held dominion. I was concerned with the West Bank for two reasons. One was based upon the needs of the Palestinians. The other was concerned with the corrupting effects of occupation upon Israel.

In principle I support the idea of a secular state. But historical circumstances created a need for a Jewish state. Although this impacts unfavorably on Arab and Moslem elements within Israel, the very idea of an Arab League shows the impact of Arab nationalism upon Arab nations. Jews, Christians, and non-Arabs are not equal within them. One hopes that this will not last to the end of time and that eventually the very idea of an Arab, a Jewish, or a Muslim nation will vanish from international perspectives.

But that time has not come. Until such a time, peace requires mutual respect. It requires the control of elements that would use force and pressure, as would the Iranian ayatollahs or Hamas or Hezbollah, to destroy the Jewish state. This is what contemporary, although not ultimate, justice requires.

At times the American Jewish community has been too supportive of the policies of particular Israeli governments. Wiser elements within the Jewish community understand this. The Arab and Muslim communities within the United States should be wary of divisive ideologies, such as the M&W thesis, which mimic, even if unwittingly, the Czarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This can only inflame relationships between the two communities and diminish whatever slight chances for a favorable outcome still exist.

Enlightened members of both communities should work together, and with reasonable elements in the Middle East, to attempt to avoid what I despairingly foresee as a huge tragedy.


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