Let's face it: When Barack Obama said in Cairo that "the only resolution" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is two separate states, he was courageously insisting -- well, on what's become conventional wisdom.
But not the unanimous wisdom. The hardliners on each side aren't alone in questioning the two-state idea. On the street in Jerusalem, I've run into old friends, veterans of Israeli peace and human-rights activism who say we've passed the tipping point: There are too many settlements; Israeli withdrawal is impossible; negotiations on two states have repeatedly failed; the only solution is a single, shared Jewish-Palestinian state. I've heard Palestinian intellectuals, former supporters of a two-state solution, who say the same. Among writers outside the conflict zone, British Jewish historian Tony Judt may be best known for suggesting -- back in 2003 -- that as a nation-state, Israel is "an anachronism" and should be replaced by a binational state. Ironically, Obama himself may have given this idea a bit more traction among American progressives -- his election proving, perhaps, that multiculturalism within one polity can work, perhaps not just in America but elsewhere. So is he pursuing an obsolete strategy?
Actually, no. This time the conventional wisdom is correct.
Difficult as reaching a two-state agreement is, it is still a more practical solution than a single state. It has more political support on both sides. And in a very basic way, more psychological than philosophical, most Israeli Jews and most Palestinians are nationalists: Their personal identity is rooted in a national community for which they want political independence.
Let's imagine that tomorrow, Israel and the occupied territories are reconstituted as the Eastern Mediterranean Republic, with equal citizenship and rights for all, and elections are held. With the current population, the parliament will be split virtually evenly between Jews and Palestinians. One of the first issues that the parliament and judiciary will face is the settlements that Israel built -- in large part on land requisitioned by the Israeli military in the early years of the occupation, or on what Israel declared to be "state land" under its stunningly wide interpretation of Ottoman-era law, or simply on real estate privately owned by Palestinians. In all three cases, Palestinian claimants will demand return of their property, quite possibly meaning the eviction of those living on it. The problem of evacuating settlers won't vanish. Rather, it will divide the new state's politics on communal lines.
Likewise for refugees. Palestinian legislators will demand that Israel's Law of Return -- extending automatic citizenship to Jewish immigrants -- be extended to cover Palestinians returning to their homeland. Jewish politicians will oppose the move, which could quickly reduce their community to a threatened minority. Palestinians will demand the return of property lost in 1948 and perhaps the revival of destroyed villages.
Issues not at the center of today's diplomacy will also create communal fissures. Israel has a post-industrial Western economy; the West Bank and Gaza are poor and undeveloped. Financing development in majority-Palestinian areas -- and bringing Palestinians into Israel's social-welfare network -- would require higher taxes or fewer services for Jews. But the engine of the Israeli economy is high-tech, an entirely portable industry. Both individuals and companies can leave, crippling the new, shared economy.
In the best case, the outcome would be the continued existence of separate Jewish and Palestinian political parties. Even the more liberal-leaning parties of each community would be hard-pressed to bridge the divide to form stable coalitions. Today's Israeli politics, with its house-of-cards governments, would be nostalgically remembered for its stability. In the worst case, the political tensions would turn into violence. Rather than a solution, the transition to a single state would mark a new stage in the conflict. For a harsh example of the potential fluctuation between political stalemate and civil war, Palestinians and Israeli Jews need only look northward to Lebanon.
I don't claim that many Jews or Palestinians living between the river and the sea have thought through these consequences. Rather, their political preferences reflect the exhausted recognition that the other national group isn't going away. For Palestinians, this means that partition is the most likely way to reach independence. For Jews, dividing the land into two states is the only way to maintain a democracy with a Jewish majority.
In both Israel and the occupied territories, polling data suggests that a two-state solution remains the preferred outcome. A poll by Tel Aviv University's Tami Steinmetz Center in March of this year found that 51 percent of Israeli Jews favored a two-state outcome, compared to 28 percent for the status quo and 7 percent for a binational state. Among Israel's Palestinian citizens, two-thirds wanted a two-state solution -- even though they expect to continue living as members of a minority in Israel.
Despite fluctuations, the picture is similar among Palestinians in the occupied territories. The latest poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center reported 55 percent backing for two states and just 21 percent for a binational state. The support for a two-state solution has been on an upswing in recent months -- last October there was only a 44 percent plurality for the two-state option. JMCC analyst Ghassan Khatib told me the reasons for fluctuations are hard to identify. Sill, the recent rise in support for two states may indicate a stronger sense that it's achievable. That, in turn, could be the result of heavy media coverage of U.S. pressures on Israel to accept such an outcome, Khatib suggested.
Underlying those figures is a simple fact: In general, Palestinians want more than individual civil rights. They want political sovereignty as a nation -- a community sharing a language, a past, heroes, customs, a calendar, a connection to a landscape. In general, Jews in Israel seek the same thing, want it deeply, assume it to be essential. Each group wants to determine its future with as much independence as is possible in today's world. It is possible to criticize the idea of a nation as a fiction -- but if so, it continues to be one of the most powerful political fictions in the modern world, and not just among Jews and Palestinians.
It may be a mistake to refer to the creation of two states as a solution. Politics doesn't often offer solutions; it offers arrangements. Dividing the land into two nation-states is the least-worst arrangement available. It requires further, internal arrangements -- most important, to protect the rights of minorities, such as Arab citizens of Israel.
If the arrangement of two states hasn't been reached yet, despite all the efforts of recent years, it's because neither Jews nor Palestinians have yet come to terms with how much they'll need to give up to get there. On each side, even the most dedicated advocates of two states have their list of concessions that the other side must obviously make. A kind of political Zeno's Paradox has afflicted peace efforts: To get to peace, each side must first traverse half the distance to a compromise. Then it must traverse half the remaining distance, and then half of what is left. The distance between the opposing positions shrinks, but no one ever arrives.
If Obama wants to create an agreement, he will have to drag, wheedle, and push the two sides over the remaining inches to the goal. The conventional wisdom is right about the necessary outcome. Getting there will require an unconventional effort.