I didn't know what to make of the frustratingly ambiguous op-ed by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in Tuesday's New York Times, published under the title "The Two-State Solution Doesn't Solve Anything." (Today's Letters column contains an interesting set of reactions). I've discussed it with a number of friends and colleagues since then, and I'm still not sure what Agha and Malley were trying to tell us. Nonetheless, here are a few tentative reactions.
First, as Helena Cobban notes on her own blog, the headline the Times editors attached to the piece is actually quite misleading. Agha and Malley did not say that a two-state solution would not solve "anything"; their much-less controversial point is that a two-state solution would not solve everything. In particular, a territorial agreement establishing two states would not by itself resolve the conflicting views that Israelis and Palestinians have about the origins of the conflict. Israelis focus on the Arab rejection of the 1947 UN partition plan and demand Arab recognition of Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state in Palestine; Arabs focus on the dispossession and dislocation of Palestinians in 1948 and after, a process that continues up to today. Agha and Malley worry that these conflicting narratives about the origins of the conflict will remain in place even if clear borders were agreed upon and the Palestinians got a state of their own. In their words, "two states may not be a true resolution if the roots of this clash are ignored." Maybe so, but that's a far cry from the headline that the Times chose to use.
Second, the timing of this piece isn't helpful -- especially given that misleading headline -- because it can only serve to slow progress towards the admittedly imperfect-but-still-best option of "two states for two peoples." In fact, it's worse than that, because momentum is presently in the other direction. The status quo isn't fixed, and a two-state solution gets a little bit harder to achieve with each passing day. That's why the Obama administration has been trying to achieve a settlement freeze while simultaneously trying to restart meaningful negotiations; they understand that continuing to expand the settlements just makes it harder to reach a deal (which is precisely what the people doing the expanding seem to want).
Third, I was struck by one unambiguous statement in the article -- namely, their claim that Hamas has gone beyond "hinting" that it might acquiesce in Israel's de facto existence and resign itself to establishing a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. In their words, "this sentiment has now grown from hint to certitude." Given that Malley has reportedly met with Hamas leaders in the context of his work with the International Crisis Group, that is a remarkable assertion, and I wish they had spelled it out the evidence for it in more depth.
Fourth, to me, the most significant lines in the entire essay were the last two, where they write "the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel." Again, they didn't explain what they meant by this, so it's hard to know what they were trying to say. The implication, however, is that Israel still has to decide what kind of state it is going to be. Will it be a modern secular democracy with a certain Jewish character, but where non-Jews are fully equal citizens both de jure and de facto? If so, then two states will work, and the two conflicting narratives about the past could gradually cease to matter very much. In the most optimistic scenario, the whole sorry history of the Zionist-Arab conflict might eventually be regarded as a painful historical episode but not part of anyone's future agenda, much as Alsace-Lorraine eventually ceased to be an issue between France and Germany. Or will Israel continue to pursue the dream of Greater Israel, increasingly fueled by ethno-religious claims and the growing political power of religious extremists? If so, then it will become an apartheid state and will eventually face a Palestinian struggle for democratic rights. Again: what sort of state will it become? Needless to say, these different visions will have far-reaching implications for relations between Israel and its neighbors, the rest of the world, and between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. Again, I wish Agha and Malley had been less coy in raising this important set of issues.
Finally, by far the most frustrating part of the essay was the complete absence of any prescriptions: what do Agha and Malley think that Israel, the Palestinians, the United States, or the international community should DO at the present juncture? And that brings me back to a question I've raised before: if the two-state solution fails, what then?
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.