Editorial: The two-state solution was nearly given up for dead. But it’s still the best option
As his administration dispatched an envoy to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials, President Biden expressed hope Wednesday that the latest conflict between Israel and Islamic militants in Gaza will end sooner rather than later. But even if the violence subsides, it’s a reminder that the lack of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will continue to cost lives and destabilize the region. The Biden administration must commit itself to pursuing such an agreement.
The current crisis, in which Israel has launched airstrikes in retaliation for rocket attacks from Gaza, stemmed from confrontations in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators. Palestinians have complained that Israel was interfering with Muslims’ freedom to worship in the city. Another cause of the conflict is Israel’s plans to evict Palestinian residents of an East Jerusalem neighborhood.
Yet these specific grievances reflect the abiding problem of Israeli control over East Jerusalem, which it captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and the frustration of Palestinians’ aspirations for an independent state. It’s not surprising that there also have been clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki reaffirmed Biden’s support for a “two-state solution” in which Israel would peacefully coexist with a Palestinian state. The question is how much time and prestige the president is willing to invest in a peace process that has dragged on for decades without resolution.
The depressing truth is that hopes for a resolution of this conflict have been repeatedly dashed.
Expectations soared in 1993 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White House in celebration of an agreement on limited Palestinian self-government that many thought would lead eventually to a Palestinian state. But Rabin was assassinated in 1995, and an Israeli-Palestinian summit meeting convened by President Clinton at Camp David in 2000 ended without a deal; Clinton would later blame Arafat for that failure.
Progress toward a peace agreement has been hampered by divisions among the Palestinians, with Hamas seizing control of Gaza in 2007. Meanwhile, the proliferation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank seemed to threaten the existence of a viable Palestinian state.
After his election in 2016, Donald Trump referred to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement as “the ultimate deal.” But Trump placed greater priority on the establishment of normal relations between Israel and other nations, including the United Arab Emirates. He also alienated Palestinians by moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The elusiveness of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has moved some commentators to urge the Biden administration to focus for now on ensuring that Palestinians are treated fairly.
In a recent report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, experts suggested that the administration adopt a “rights-first” approach, one that would “prioritize protecting the rights and human security of Palestinians and Israelis over maintaining a peace process and attempting short-term fixes.”
The Biden administration has been willing to speak up for and assist Palestinians. A State Department spokesman said that the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about the proposed evictions in Jerusalem, noting that many of the families have lived in their homes for generations. Reversing a Trump administration policy, the administration also will provide $150 million in humanitarian assistance for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency that serves Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
On Wednesday, even as he defended Israel’s right to defend itself, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken lamented the loss of Palestinian life and said that “Israel has an extra burden in trying to do everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties.”
But, important as fair treatment for Palestinians is, ultimately there must be a political resolution of the competing political claims of Israelis and Palestinians. The two-state solution remains the best path to peace, and the fact that diplomacy has failed in the past doesn’t mean that it should be abandoned.
The challenges are enormous, but there are promising ideas about how even the most seemingly intractable issues — such as the status of Jerusalem — might be addressed.
Some will advise Biden that a major new initiative on Israeli-Palestinian peace is unlikely to succeed and will distract the administration from dealing with other foreign policy challenges, including an assertive China. But the current violence is a reminder that leaving the status quo in place in the Middle East is dangerous.
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