The world is far too familiar with the seemingly intractable problem: Jews and Palestinians who live in the same small stretch of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and, despite decades of trying to divide the land into two independent states, seem incapable of agreeing on how to do it. Some progressive activists, pundits and political scientists are so frustrated by that failure that they now offer an alternative: Stop trying to divide what can’t be divided and start figuring out how to live together as one big, happy family in one binational state.
It’s easy to see why this idea has some superficial attraction, especially for American liberals who have become used to lauding the development in our own nation of an increasingly multiethnic, multicultural society. If we all manage to get along here in the United States, surely Israelis and Palestinians could get along just fine in some imaginary singular state — call it “Israelistine.”
Political scientists even have their own word for such an arrangement — “consociationalism.” It borrows heavily from the positive experience of solving the conflict in Northern Ireland. They imagine Israelis and Palestinians abandoning their deep-rooted yearning to control their own destinies in favor of an arrangement in which each would respect the other side’s identity and ethos, including linguistic diversity, culture and religion.
Unfortunately, this concept has no connection to reality in today’s Middle East.
The idealistic roots of this longing for coexistence run deep in Western history and find expression, for instance, in Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” and its ringing call for all men to become brothers. Of course, Schiller’s poem was penned just before the French Revolution, the Terror and the Napoleonic Wars.
But a quick review of political trends around the world shows that we’re living a very different reality. The former Yugoslavia split into seven nations amid a frenzy of bloodshed and ethnic cleansing; French- and Flemish-speaking Belgians are barely on speaking terms; Catalans are joining hands in a human chain 250 miles long to demand a split from Spain; Czechs and Slovaks agreed to go their separate ways. Even the Scots will get to vote soon on whether to leave the United Kingdom.
And then there is the Middle East, where the fabric of multinational coexistence, enforced for centuries by the Ottomans and more recently by military strongmen, is violently unraveling before our eyes.
Lebanon is divided among Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Druze and barely hanging together. Iraq remains tormented by bloody terrorist attacks. Egypt’s Coptic minority is a frequent target of attacks, and Syria has disintegrated into all-out civil war.
A two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians offers the two sides a way to avoid such a fate. It’s the only way to give them both what they want: national self-determination. That is why both sides keep returning to the negotiating table.
Seeking a two-state solution is not idealism — it’s intensely practical. It simply recognizes that these peoples both crave independent states in which they can find full expression of their national identities.
For Jews, it’s a matter of having one place in the world where they are not the minority. It’s a haven, yes, but more than that, it’s a place where the national language is Hebrew, where Jewish festivals are celebrated as state holidays, where the Jewish Sabbath is observed and where a national identity for the Jewish people can be forged.
For Palestinians, it’s a matter of moving beyond decades of exile, of being strangers and often refugees in other people’s lands, of taking control of a territory of their own and forging their own future free of interference from others.
We ought to be intensely thankful that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians agree on the solution to the problem and have vowed to bring it about peacefully. When all around them they see chaos and inhumanity, when an entire region has fallen into an abyss of barbarism, their negotiations, rebooted in the last few months, offer a different paradigm much closer to the example of the Czechs and Slovaks than to the Serbs and Bosnians.
Make no mistake: Getting there is going to be tough. The parties need all the help and support they can get from the United States and the rest of the international community. They need imaginative mediation and patient diplomacy backed by firm U.S. leadership. They may well require the resolve of an American president willing to step in at the right moment with a plan that both sides can accept.
What nobody needs are delusional visions of one-state fantasists whose remedies have no connection with the real world. We live in an era of nation states and, unfortunately, also in an era of ethnic wars. We seem to be becoming more tribal and more sectarian, not less. We may feel that this is not a good thing, but it is reality.
The two-state solution offers a way to avoid more war and more conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. As long as it remains viable, we should all be working as hard as we can to make it a reality.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president of J Street, a U.S. lobbying group that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.