I am happy to report that today’s talk by Efraim Inbar at the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies went very well. It was attended by a healthy cross-section of the campus community as well as several Chicago locals. The talk itself was quite interesting, largely following the lines of his paper, “The Rise and Demise of the Two-State Paradigm,” and sparked a vigorous conversation among the participants.
Thankfully, my role as discussant also seemed to be well received. For everyone unable to attend, I am posting below my written response to Inbar’s article. As always, your thoughts, comments, and criticisms are welcome.
Review: “The Rise and Demise of the Two-State Paradigm” by Efraim Inbar
Efraim Inbar’s recent piece in Orbis, “The Rise and Demise of the Two-State Paradigm,” should turn heads. In it, he challenges conventional wisdom that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved through the partition of the territory currently controlled by Israel into two states, one for each national movement. While this paradigm enjoys significant popularity in contemporary academic and policy circles, he argues that advancing this agenda is unlikely to lead to a stable or peaceful outcome in the near future. In particular, he highlights the failure of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to monopolize the use of force or to build stable state institutions since the 1993 Oslo Accords as well as persistent ideological gaps between the competing national movements on core issues such as Jerusalem, refugees, and borders. These factors, he believes, render a “historic compromise” resulting in two states for two peoples unattainable at this time. A more productive approach, he argues, is to move past the two-state paradigm to one that embraces regional cooperation with Egyptian and Jordanian control of Palestinian areas. Until these states are willing to accept such responsibility, he believes conflict management is the best approach: containing violence, limiting suffering, and making limited concessions to the PA to increase status quo stability.
Although Inbar is likely correct that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain intractable into the foreseeable future, his argument and policy recommendations are undercut by three notable shortcomings. First, he posits that the failures of the PA are a product of the inability of Palestinians as an “ethnic group” to engage in state building, implying that Palestinians are culturally incapable of producing leaders or institutions that could contribute to peace or stability in the region. Such conclusions hardly follow from the evidence presented and trivialize an otherwise cogent institutionalist argument against imposition of a two-state solution. Next, stressing the incommensurability of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism, Inbar advises a regional approach whereby Palestinian institutions and national aspirations would eventually be absorbed by neighboring Arab states. Not only does this largely ignore a long history of Jordanian and Egyptian rejection of this approach, but it paradoxically assumes that the Palestinian national agenda would evaporate in the face of external Arab administration where it has not under Israeli occupation. Finally, in laying responsibility for a lack of common ground entirely on the doorstep of Palestinian nationalism and terrorism, he fails to consider Israelis’ own inability to reach consensus regarding an acceptable territorial compromise. This is particularly problematic for Inbar’s recommendation of conflict management for even if Palestinian state incapacity or nationalist intransigence were overcome with time, a resolution would be far from guaranteed.
That the PA has failed to act as a credible negotiating partner or a capable state-builder is well supported by the facts of the conflict. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the PA has proven itself to be a corrupt, inefficient, and politically fractured body that has failed to contain terrorism or establish democratic governance. Arguably it has been the loss of popular legitimacy stemming from these issues that most contributed to the political rise of Hamas and its assumption of control of Gaza. Yet these developments hardly support Inbar’s contention that “not every ethnic group has state building capacities” (275). These are patterns familiar across the developing world. Indeed, Inbar’s account has much more in common with neopatrimonial explanations of persistent state weakness and failure than it does with cultural ones. This would be a more effective frame of analysis, allowing Inbar to increase the validity of his argument by pointing to relevant external examples of policy successes and failures and to avoid claims that his conclusions derive from ethnocentric assumptions over thoughtful observation.
Similar tropes are repeated in his argument that “[h]istory shows that only Arabs can rule over Arabs by Arab methods,” explaining why both international and Israeli efforts to govern Palestinians are bound to fail (279). Here he proposes that the most sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the eventual absorption of Palestinian territories by more stable neighboring Arab states. If “Arab methods” are those currently employed by the PA, it is unclear why this would be the preferred alternative. That Egyptian and Jordanian governance in Gaza and the West Bank respectively is posited as preferable to that of the PA points to specific institutional failings, not ethnic ones. This is not merely a semantic quibble. Once the ethnic argument can be dismissed, it is apparent that state building led by the Palestinian National movement may in fact be possible given the proper reforms, guidance, or leadership. While Inbar might be correct that partition is unwise given the PA’s persistent contemporary failures, it would be reckless to discard this strategy on these grounds alone.
It is here where discussion of nationalist ideologies and the possibility of intercommunal compromise become critical. If the PA’s incapacity to engage in effective state-building portents inevitable state failure, Inbar argues, it is the inability of the Palestinian national movement to accept compromise on core issues of Jerusalem, refugees, and borders which will ensure that the rise of a Palestinian state will only perpetuate the conflict (272). This argument is not without merit. Continued rocket attacks from Gaza, widespread evidence of incitement and anti-Semitic indoctrination in the Palestinian educational system, official denials of Jewish history in the land, insistence on the “right of return” for all Palestinian refugees, the unwillingness of the PA to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the rise and spread of Islamist ideologies which reject the very existence of Israel all contribute to the perception among Israelis that they have no Palestinian partner in peace. Most poignantly, Inbar notes that even a return to the 1967 borders would only give Palestinians twenty-two percent of what they consider to be their homeland. Would this be acceptable to the Palestinian national movement or if would it simply plant the seeds of an irredentist state (273)? Here, his suggestion of a “regional approach” makes considerably more sense, at least from the standpoint of Israeli security. By supplanting failed state institutions and a revisionist national ideology with administration of Palestinian territories by reasonably strong Arab states with (arguably) no further claims on Israel, a stable regional status quo might be achieved.
This is Inbar’s strongest argument against the creation of an independent Palestinian state (or a bi-national one) and for a regional approach. Yet, like his prior point, it is underpinned by questionable assumptions regarding the uncompromising nature of Palestinian nationalism. With the political rise of Hamas and the substantial weakening and loss of popularity by the PA under Mahmoud Abbas, resolution of the conflict has never seemed more distant. Yet Inbar’s own historical survey of Palestinian claims to statehood reveals that Palestinian leaders have not always rejected compromise with Zionism. During the 1980s, he argues that local elites introduced greater realism to the Palestinian national agenda. Drawing on their role as “insiders” familiar with the Israeli state, they were instrumental in shifting the PLO’s agenda toward the adoption of a two-state formula (269). While this moderation arguably dissolved under Yassir Arafat post-Oslo, Inbar offers no convincing explanation of why such political pragmatism could not reemerge. Even if Palestinian society, “under the spell of a nationalist and Islamist ethos,” is unable to make fundamental compromises with Israel, Inbar must explain why the weakening of the PA and international isolation of Hamas, mirroring the threatened position of radical Palestinian nationalist movements in the 1980s, is unlikely to lead to internal change (274).
Such optimism is likely unwarranted, yet the alternatives may be little better. In proposing a regional approach to resolve the conflict, Inbar suggests that widespread Palestinian dissatisfaction with the PA and Hamas, as well as their wish for calm and stability, could facilitate a transition to Egyptian and Jordanian governance (281). Yet if Palestinian nationalism is incapable of compromise with Israel, it is unclear why it should be easily abandoned when faced with incorporation into neighboring Arab states. This is possible, he argues, in part because, “Palestinian national identity is relatively young and fluid, and accepting a different national identity is possible” (281). But if this is so, why is it impossible that Palestinian national identity could become more conciliatory toward Israel? To accept this dichotomy, one must also believe that Palestinian national aspirations are readily compatible with those of its Arab neighbors. Historical experience proves otherwise. Continued refusal by the Egyptian and Jordanian governments to rule over Palestinian populations in Gaza and the West Bank since 1967 coupled with a history of fractious conflict with Palestinian guerilla groups and terrorist organizations within their own borders suggest that the regional approach is unlikely to be welcomed by Israel’s neighbors in the near future.
Equally problematic is Inbar’s almost exclusive focus on Palestinian failures as credible peace partners, only superficially considering the sources of Israeli resistance to a final settlement. Hesitance by Israel to grant concessions to the Palestinians is characterized as fundamentally tied to security concerns and entirely reactive in nature; welcoming of negotiation when the PLO extended its hand at Oslo, withdrawn following Arafat’s rejection of the “Clinton Parameters” of 2000, opposed with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, and turning to unilateralism when it was perceived that no partner could be found in the PA (271-2). Nowhere does Inbar give the substantive impression that Israelis have their own reservations regarding partition aside from Palestinian violence. Security prerogatives are clearly visible drivers of Israeli territorial policy with the construction of the West Bank separation barrier, the imposition of roadblocks and checkpoints throughout Palestinian inhabited areas, and enormous government investment in anti-missile technology in the form of the “Iron Dome.”
Yet, it is the acrimonious internal debate regarding the appropriate territorial boundaries of Israel which dominates contemporary Israeli politics. Intense internal contestation regarding the legitimacy of settlements in the West Bank, construction and development of Jewish-owned properties in East Jerusalem, and stewardship over Jewish religious sites from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron make clear that Israelis, no less than Palestinians, have failed to reach consensus over the territorial parameters of a two-state settlement. Although exacerbated by the impression among Israelis that they have no Palestinian negotiating partner, these issues are salient independent of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Analysis of the history of Zionism and the internal politics of the State of Israel reveal a constant tension between territorial pragmatism and cultural idealism. From the debates between Labor, Revisionist, and Religious Zionists in the early 1900s over the territorial, cultural, and political character of an eventual Jewish state, to the rise of the settlement movement and Herut (now Likud) in the late 1960s and 1970s, to contemporary political mobilization of religious and secular parties and social movements opposed to further territorial concessions, agreement has never been reached over the legitimate scope of Israeli territorial sovereignty. The absence of even a superficial consideration of these dynamics in Inbar’s argument is striking. Should a competent and conciliatory leadership ever arise within the PA committed to meaningfully negotiation with Israel to achieve a two-state solution, it is not clear that Israelis would be able agree on what to bring to the table.
It is in no small part because of this uncertainty that Inbar’s remedial solution, “conflict management,” is so problematic. While he rightly acknowledges that “not every protracted conflict has an immediately available solution,” minimizing the costs of armed conflict, limiting suffering, and granted limited concessions to the PA alone is unlikely to lead to propitious conditions for conflict resolution (282). Over the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, intentional ambiguity, “deciding not to decide,” has encouraged rather than limited violence and lawlessness by both sides. While Inbar explains how this has played out in Palestinian politics in detail, notably absent is an account of how Israeli settlement movements like Gush Emunim and successor organizations have thrived in times of territorial political uncertainty. When the Israeli government took no official stance on Jewish return to the West Bank post-1967 in hopes of increasing bargaining leverage vis-à-vis Arab states, it was Gush Emunim that stepped in to establish new communities, develop early infrastructure, and lay the groundwork for the modern settlement enterprise. When Israel turned to unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank in 2005 in an effort to lessen tensions with a restive Palestinian population, the settlement movement established new outposts in the territories that remained under Israeli control whose future remained undecided. Following the Israeli government’s declaration of a temporary settlement freeze in late 2009, it has been the same ideologically motivated actors who have openly resisted its enforcement. In all instances, the state’s actions have been largely ad hoc and strategically short-sighted. Where the state has failed to show initiative, either in terms of blocking or limiting territorial expansion, non-governmental organizations and social movements have been more than happy to fill the void.
In each instance, Israel has engaged in the very forms of conflict management Inbar recommends on the belief that it lacked a credible negotiating partner. Yet far from perpetuating the status quo and limiting conflict, this strategy has allowed other, less accountable actors to change the facts on the ground and create new territorial realities to which the state has been forced to adapt. These developments have only amplified the atmosphere of uncertainty that pervades the region and enraged the Palestinian population, severely constricting the possibility that “better alternatives” for conflict resolution might actually emerge (282). Inbar may well be correct that, at present, the PA is incapable of engaging in effective state-building, and the Palestinian national movement is unable to engage in meaningful compromise with Zionism. Yet conflict management lacking any conception of an end goal or final settlement is not conducive resolution of the conflict, now or into the foreseeable future.
Absent any meaningful possibility that Palestinians would accept stewardship or control by neighboring Arab states or that Palestinian nationalism will soon fade away, the two-state paradigm remains the most realistic way forward. Even so, prematurely forcing the creation of an independent Palestinian state at a time when its presumptive polity is politically and socially fractured, institutionally dysfunctional, and united only in its hatred of Israel would be reckless and irresponsible to say the least. Yet conflict management lacking any comprehensive strategic vision for the future is self-defeating in the long-run. Israel cannot realistically be held responsible for reforming Palestinian political institutions, improving Palestinian rule of law, or eliminating popular anti-Semitism, but it can begin preparing itself for the day that compromise will be attainable. This will require that Israeli society engage in meaningful internal debate to determine the legitimate scope of its territorial sovereignty. Just as Israel demands from the Palestinians, any negotiation with a future Palestinian political entity will require domestic consensus as to what the state is willing to give up for peace. “Muddling through” will only perpetuate the conflict.