When Secretary of State John Kerry revisits Israel and the West Bank this week, he’s unlikely to talk about what really needs discussing: What will Israel and the Palestinians do once the two-state solution dies?
No one wants to discuss such a grim prospect, let alone admit that the peace process is over. Such an admission would have earthshaking repercussions not only for the Palestinians and Israelis, but for Washington and the entire Mideast. So the pretense continues that peace talks can be revived.
President Obama, on his recent trip to Jerusalem, spoke movingly of why a two-state solution was essential. “Given the demographics west of the Jordan River,” he said, “the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.”
He meant that keeping the West Bank, all of East Jerusalem, and effective control of Gaza guarantees that Israeli Jews will soon be outnumbered by Palestinian Arabs in Greater Israel, a point made by many former Israeli leaders. Kerry also warned, during January confirmation hearings, that it will be “disastrous” if the door to a two-state solution shuts.
Yet, despite claims by all sides that the door is open, barely, it is closing fast.
In part, that’s because of the situation in the region. The rise of Islamist parties and the instability throughout the Mideast make Israelis rightly nervous about a new Arab state on their border, even one that is demilitarized. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is far more focused on Iran’s nuclear program than on the Palestinian issue.
The prospects for talks are also undercut by the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, and its split between the West Bank’s President Mahmoud Abbas, a possible dealmaker, and Gaza’s radical Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel.
Yet despite these obstacles — and they are huge — I believe the door to talks might have been kept open, permitting some progress while waiting to see if the dust settles in the region.
That wait-and-see option is vanishing, however, for this reason: Israeli settlements on the West Bank are expanding to the point where they will rule out a viable Palestinian state.
One of the most influential ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet is Naftali Bennett, whose Habayit Hayehudi party opposes a Palestinian state and seeks to annex much of the West Bank. Netanyahu has given Bennett’s party control of the key posts that control settlement-building and confiscation of Palestinian land. He wants to build even faster.
During his first term, Obama tried, and failed, to persuade Netanyahu to impose a genuine freeze on settlement-building, in order to keep the playing field level during negotiations. On his recent trip, the president backpedaled. He adopted the Israeli argument that the settlement problem will be solved once the two sides agree on boundaries for a Palestinian state, because settlements beyond those boundaries will be dismantled.
Anyone who buys that argument is in denial about what’s already happening on the West Bank. The settlements themselves are defining any future boundaries of Palestinian self-rule. They crisscross the West Bank, and cut it off from Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. They divide Palestinian-controlled areas into disconnected cantons, ruling out a viable state.