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Israeli elections require a shift in thinking about the two-state solution

Israeli elections require a shift in thinking about the two-state solution
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The two-state solution is in its death throes. The Israeli general elections on Sept. 17, while undeniably a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE and his Likud party, still produced a parliament dominated by the right. The Israeli left is now a pitiful shadow of its former self while the right is vocal and more extreme than ever. Annexation of the West Bank, in part or in whole, is no longer an abstract fantasy of marginal daydreamers. Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s former justice minister and leader of the far-right Yamina bloc, insists on annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and even Netanyahu promised annexation if re-elected.

Formal annexation might not materialize soon. Even if Netanyahu manages to put together a governing coalition to remain Israel’s prime minister, his promise is seen by many as typical Bibi: a bold campaign statement made to attract voters but quickly forgotten after the ballots are cast. Yet the identity of the prime minister matters less than the ongoing fundamental shift in public discourse about attitudes towards annexations in Israel and in the Trump administration. Annexations are coming in one form or another. And both de jure annexation or the continuation of the creeping de facto one will produce the same outcome: the final collapse of the two-state solution and a country that is either democratic or Jewish, but not both.

The implications for the U.S. would be immense. An annexation likely would spark a wave of violence and popular mobilization in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Mass protests would engulf neighboring countries, endangering the already embattled Egyptian government, a critical U.S. ally. Annexation also would seriously harm the rapidly warming relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is a crucial component of the American strategy to counter Iran’s geopolitical and nuclear ambitions. Finally, an Israeli annexation would increase anti-American sentiments throughout the Muslim world.

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While many Israelis seem to have given up on the two-state future, what can those still committed to a Jewish and democratic Israel do? Some have simply given up and quietly accepted the inevitability of annexation. Others lament the abandonment of liberal values or acknowledge that doomsayers finally may have been proven right. Kvetching is not a strategy; however, a simple yet powerful argument — no annexation without representation — might save the two-state vision.

Proponents of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have always promoted a bright yet distant future: the Israeli state living peacefully alongside a Palestinian one. But the reality is less convincing in a region where fears about individual survival outweigh the promise of prosperity down the line. The time has come to radically shift from distant futures to today’s realities. The annexation debate allows supporters of the two-state solution to make such a pivot.

The two-state vision can be resuscitated if its American supporters, ranging from Democrats in Congress to AIPAC, change their approach to the Israel’s far-right’s annexation plans. If Israelis really want to annex parts of, or the entire, West Bank, nothing can stop them. Repeating time and again that annexations are a violation of international law would change neither the policy nor Israeli attitudes towards it. Instead, the argument should focus on the individuals affected by such policies. The argument needs to be not a broad but meaningless statement that Israel should not annex but that if it does, Palestinians living on annexed lands deserve immediate and full citizenship. No annexation without representation.

When Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, it did so without granting citizenship to Arabs living there. This should not happen again. And if Israel does annex this territory while disenfranchising people, it must know that it will have crossed a red line and encounter powerful and unified opposition in Congress and among American Jewish organizations committed to the country’s democracy. Laying the rhetorical groundwork for this red line is where the American supporters of the two-state solution should focus.

This simple but powerful demand inevitably will force Israeli society to decide what its biggest fears are and to finally consider the future instead of concentrating only on the present. Israeli far-right parties are fully committed to annexation even if this requires extending citizenship to Palestinians. Or so they say. Likud is different, however. The majority of the party’s supporters, while not peaceniks, vote Likud because of Netanyahu’s track record of macroeconomic growth, stability, and relative security; they are less interested in territorial expansion. 

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If faced with the prospect of sharing power and resources with a large number of new Arab co-citizens, many Israelis will quickly reconsider their acceptance of any, even limited, annexations. Faced with the reality of a state in which Jews quickly would become outnumbered and outvoted, even Likud voters might decide that a one-state solution in the near future is more frightening than the two-state one in the present.

This new approach is challenging because it requires a fundamental shift in how we think and talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also risky because there is the possibility that Israelis will choose a large Israel over a Jewish and democratic one. But even this would be preferable to the status quo of creeping annexation or annexation without citizenship. 

All previous attempts to advance the two-state solution have failed. It is time to try something radically different before it is too late.

Eugene Finkel is an associate professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Born in Ukraine, he grew up in Israel. His research focuses on how institutions and individuals respond to extreme situations such as violence, state collapse and rapid change. He is the author of “Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust” (Princeton University Press, 2017).