For the U.S., Israel and Palestine: What's Plan B?

If the Obama administration’s view of the Israeli--Palestinian conflict could be summed up in a sentence, it is this: The status quo is unsustainable. 

 “The status quo is unsustainable for all sides. It promises only more violence and unrealized aspirations,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual Washington policy conference in March 2010.

“The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel must too act boldly to advance a lasting peace,” President Barack Obama said in his May 2011 speech at the State Department, laying out his vision of the U.S. role in the Middle East after the Arab Awakening.

“Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the Munich Security Conference in February. “It’s illusionary. There’s a momentary prosperity, there’s a momentary peace.”

Although the Obama administration may have coined the phrase, the sentiment is not new. Every president since Jimmy Carter has, in some fashion, recognized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates costs for the United States in the region and that the U.S. has an interest in resolving it. In the words of General David Petraeus, the conflict “foments anti-American sentiment … limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region], and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.”

Since the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords, the historic set of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization aimed at securing a peace treaty between the two sides, a strong international consensus has formed behind a two-state solution to the Israeli--Palestinian conflict. Yet even in the face of this consensus, the status quo persists, year after year, defying the efforts of the world’s most powerful country to change it. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations all put considerable effort into reaching a deal that would end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Obama made achieving this goal a priority of his presidency, appointing a special envoy in his first week as president in 2009, and yet now, five years later, Secretary Kerry is working overtime just to keep the parties at the table (a task made even more complicated by the recently announced Fatah-Hamas reconciliation), never mind hammering out a final agreement.

One of the ironies is that, as a concept, the two-state solution is more broadly accepted than ever, even as achieving it seems more remote. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adoption of the two-state solution in his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech may have been so heavily qualified as to make it almost meaningless, but the fact remains that he recognized the need for making the speech. 

Even though polls of both Israelis and Palestinians over the past decade have consistently shown majority support for a two-state solution, rejectionist factions—hard-line Israeli settlers, Palestinian extremists—have managed to wrest control of the process at key moments and play a spoiler role. Still, the two-state solution remains the most favorable one: Plan A. Its broad outlines have long been understood, and even many of its most difficult details have been hashed out in exercises like the Geneva Accord, in which a group of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators signed a model final agreement, and in negotiations between President Mahmoud Abbas and then–Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as journalist Bernard Avishai reported in 2011. Still, it’s only responsible to consider a Plan B in the event that Plan A remains elusive.

In a recent interview, Obama nodded toward some of the costs that would accrue to Israel in the absence of a two-state deal. The Palestinians have made clear that if talks break down, they will escalate their campaign to gain membership in various international organizations, a move strongly supported by the Palestinian public. President Abbas took a step in this direction in early April, responding to Israel’s reneging on its commitment to release prisoners by signing documents joining 15 international conventions. These efforts could create an enormous headache for Israel, forcing it to play a game of diplomatic whack-a-mole as it tries to head off challenges in various international venues, and it could become increasingly costly for the U.S. to provide diplomatic cover. “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous, sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach,” the president said, “then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.” 

But beyond these warnings of consequences, which have also been echoed by Secretary Kerry, there has been little discussion of what the U.S. policy response might be to the loss of faith in a two-state solution. How would the U.S. contend with the heightened international criticism and isolation that would likely be directed at Israel when its control of the West Bank became formalized? With growing calls for divestment and boycott of settlement products in Europe, how would the U.S. respond to its European partners’ developing a more independent approach, as they have been hinting at doing for years?

For understandable reasons, it’s difficult to get currently serving officials to respond to questions like these. “Talking about Plan B kills Plan A,” is how one Israeli official put it. That may be true for those closest to the negotiations. But for others, it’s worth thinking about.


Any attempt to understand Israel’s reticence to draw down its presence in the West Bank must reckon with the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that erupted after the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit, which saw numerous terrorist attacks inside Israel. Confronted with a violent campaign, and with President Bill Clinton’s blaming Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the summit’s failure, many Israelis decided that the Palestinians were not interested in peace. Although a solid majority of Israelis continue to support the two-state solution, they remain cautious about steps, such as withdrawing troops from the West Bank, that, even if necessary to achieve such a solution, could result in a return of attacks.

Addressing those security requirements has been a primary focus of U.S. efforts. One of the most successful American initiatives in Palestine has been the work to stand up a Palestinian security force capable of acting against terrorist groups in the West Bank. Established by the Bush administration in 2005, the Office of the U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC) has two goals: First, to build a key institution of an eventual Palestinian state, a competent security force. Second, to prove to the Israelis that they could withdraw from the territories with an expectation that calm would be maintained. 

Lieutenant General Keith Dayton served as U.S. security coordinator from 2005 to 2010 and was hailed by Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans as doing a tremendous job. But he warned that a lack of meaningful diplomatic progress would eventually cause the cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis to collapse. “There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you’re creating a state when you’re not,” he said in 2009.

In Ramallah in 2011, I spoke with Jerry Burke, a retired Massachusetts state police major who had trained officers in Iraq and Afghanistan and was working with the USSC in the West Bank. “The longer [the occupation] goes on, the less chance there is of a Palestinian state,” he said. “Most Palestinians will tell you the two-state solution will never happen.”

Burke doesn’t see an outbreak of organized violence as likely: “The second intifada wasn’t that long ago. They don’t want to go back.” Palestinian security forces are dedicated and work hard, he said, but “most of them don’t think they’ll ever see a Palestinian state.” Asked to guess at likely outcomes, he says, “I’d say we’re headed toward an American Indian model, with Palestinians on reservations” amid a sea of settlements and Israeli security zones.

“There is no irreversible moment for a two-state solution, except such developments like Israel annexing the occupied territories, which I don’t see coming,” says Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist and editor of +972 Magazine, a left-leaning Israeli Web magazine. “[But] at a certain point a viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital won’t be a very plausible option anymore, because you will have to either evacuate so many people or build such a complicated system of bypassing roads, tunnels, and bridges, that the solution itself becomes a problem.”

But what are the solutions? A number have been offered, but they’re all problematic in different ways.

Some people, most prominently the Palestinian American activist Ali Abunimah, have called for a single democratic state of all its citizens, a vision that is slowly but steadily gaining allies. In 2011, former Knesset speaker and Peace Now activist Avraham Burg declared the two-state paradigm finished—“So enough of the illusions,” he wrote in Haaretz, “there are no longer two states between the Jordan River and the sea”—and called on the Israeli left to cease giving cover to the right by pretending that outcome was any longer in the offing.

For a number of conservatives in Israel, an acceptable alternative would be to withdraw unilaterally from parts of the West Bank and annex the parts it intends to keep. While this option has been discussed for years, it recently acquired urgency when Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, raised the idea in a February interview with The Times of Israel: “If we declare our borders, that creates a de-facto situation of two nation states recognized by the UN. … We would be one of dozens of pairs of countries in the world that have a border dispute.”

Right-wing Israeli journalist Caroline Glick has an even more extreme plan. Glick recently published The Israeli Solution, in which she calls for the country to annex all of the West Bank and offer the Palestinians living there a “path to citizenship” (a path, one imagines, that would be quite arduous). In response to concerns that Israeli Palestinians would eventually outnumber Israeli Jews in such an arrangement, Glick insists that, without Gaza, this new Israel would still safely retain a two-thirds Jewish majority.

Some alternatives are baroque. In a 2008 piece for Tikkun, scholar Russell Nieli proposed an arrangement that he called “Two-State Condominialism”: a two-state confederation in which Palestinian Israelis “would be required to transfer their citizenship, national identity, and national voting rights—but not their residence—to the new Palestinian state.” These Palestinians “would retain their permanent right to live in Israel and they would also retain their current benefits under the Jewish welfare state, but it would be required that they become citizens of—and permanent voting members of—the Palestinian state, not Israel.” 

A much more pessimistic proposal was offered by Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh in his 2011 book-length essay, What Is a Palestinian State Worth? Reflecting on the failure to create a state, Nusseibeh asked the reader to consider what a state is for in the first place—securing the rights of those within it. To this end, Nusseibeh proposed “that Israel officially annex the occupied territories, and that Palestinians in the enlarged Israel agree that the state remain Jewish in return for being granted all the civil, though not the political, rights of citizenship.” In other words, Palestinians accept second-class status, rather than continuing to fight an apparently unwinnable battle against the Israeli occupation.

Recognizing his own proposal as “so objectionable that it might well generate its own annulment, either by making all parties see the need to find a tenable alternative or, if indeed adopted, by serving as a natural step toward a single democratic state,” Nusseibeh nevertheless insisted that such a plan would provide Palestinians with “a far better life than they have had in more than forty years under occupation or would have under another projected scenario: Israeli hegemony over scattered, ‘autonomous’ Palestinian enclaves.” Even though offered as a “thought experiment,” such a proposal coming from a longtime supporter of two states like Nusseibeh is a sign of the Palestinian intelligentsia’s exhaustion with endless rounds of negotiations.

That exhaustion is shared broadly among the younger generation. Two Palestinians at opposite ends of the establishment spectrum—the first an activist leader in the West Bank, the second a young Palestinian official close to the negotiations over the past several years—illustrate a fundamental shift in views. The activist is done with two states, with Oslo, and with the Palestinian government created under its auspices. “I don’t want a Palestinian Authority representing me that hasn’t had elections since 2006,” she told me. “It’s time to get people out of thinking about land and into thinking about rights. I’m tired of arguing about land. I want my rights.” The Palestinian official confessed to me that, after years of being at negotiations, “I never thought I’d say this, but I care less about a state than I do about being treated with dignity. Give me an Israeli passport, but don’t humiliate me at checkpoints.”

These sentiments were echoed in a recent New York Times article on growing frustration with the two-state solution among younger Palestinians, including the son of President Abbas. “If you don’t want to give me independence, at least give me civil rights,” Tareq Abbas told the Times. “That’s an easier way, peaceful way. I don’t want to throw anything, I don’t want to hate anybody, I don’t want to shoot anybody. I want to be under the law.”

Still, no one has articulated a plausible process for how that could happen. “There’s no exact model, but there’s no exact situation like Israel-Palestine anywhere else in the world,” says Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, a Washington-based nonprofit that does educational and humanitarian work on behalf of the Palestinians. “I think there are lessons that can be borrowed from the outcomes in different places that can help us move in a different direction in Israel-Palestine, but we have to always remember that it is a unique situation, and so unique solutions have to be thought about.”

Given the massive investment in diplomatic efforts over the past decades, it’s difficult to imagine that U.S. policy can be redirected toward a solution beyond two states. But American policy is going to have to confront openness to other answers on the part of Israelis and Palestinians. The logic of the Oslo process that created the Palestinian Authority was that it was a transitional period leading to the creation of a Palestinian state, in which the Palestinian people would enjoy sovereignty and self--determination. Because the occupation was nearing its end, the thinking went, it was better to focus on the ultimate goal and not get distracted arguing about the daily challenges that Palestinians face. After almost 47 years of occupation, that thinking may need to change. 

“We may be entering a ‘nonsolution’ era,’” says Palestinian official Husam Zomlot. “It doesn’t mean renewed conflict, but it means we need to ditch the idea that our peoples’ daily needs must wait for a solution.” Finding a solution remains paramount, Zomlot stresses, “but in a scenario of a nonsolution, then what? The people of Gaza should remain under siege? The people of the West Bank should continue to see their land being robbed by the day? We cannot afford any longer to continue behaving as if everything has to wait until a solution is struck.”

Noam Sheizaf believes it is time to change the terms from a struggle for statehood to a struggle for human rights. “When one addresses the occupation as a human-rights issue, and I believe this to be its true essence, attitudes change, even dramatically,” he says. The existing reality in the West Bank, Sheizaf says, is “two different legal systems in the same territory, access to resources based on ethnicity, the lack of due process which is an inherent part of the occupation. All of these are so foreign to the American ethos.” Heightening the focus on that reality, he argues, rather than on a diplomatic process that has proved incapable of changing it, could be more constructive. 

If the current negotiations effort by the U.S. fails, it’s unlikely that any measure of trust between the sides will be preserved for the next president to have another go at the issue. In such a scenario, the U.S. will find itself in a situation in which it remains deeply implicated but seems to have even less ability to influence the course of events. The time is now to start talking about Plan B, if only to give greater urgency to Plan A.

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