Turning the Tables on Two StatesBiden Should Leverage Trump Era Israeli-Palestinian Paradox
By Avraham SpraragenPublished August 20, 2021
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been at a paradoxical standstill for years. In April 2019, Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Riyad Mansour reminded the Security Council that his “leadership’s acceptance of a State of Palestine on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, was a historic and painful compromise.” Mansour also pointed out the irony of how the enduring global concurrence on the two-state solution, a longtime U.S. request, has now become a Palestinian Authority (PA) demand. In a quintessentially Trumpian turn of events, the consensus two-state framework was embraced by the PA and eschewed by the U.S. under President Trump. From the inception of the peace process at the 1991 Madrid Conference, accepting the idea of partition—including the recognition of Israel and UN resolution 242 (S/RES/242)—was the U.S. precondition for official dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). During the four years of the Trump administration, the opposite was true: the traditional “land for peace” formulation as the basis of a negotiated resolution was a PA precondition for entering into U.S.-mediated peace talks.
The history of the two-state proposal stems from the 1937 Peel Partition Plan, with the 1947 UN Partition Plan being its primary source of legitimacy, and negotiations over partition commenced post-Madrid. Every negotiation thereafter has operated within the framework of S/RES/242. The interim agreements on Palestinian autonomy produced by the Madrid and ensuing Oslo processes were the precursors to the permanent status two-state negotiations at Camp David, Taba and beyond that culminated in the formal U.S. adoption of a two-state policy as part of the 2003 Roadmap. Furthermore, negotiated partition has not only been the longstanding policy of the U.S., but that of the UN and European Union. This international consensus of at least the last two decades originated with the 1980 Venice Declaration, and was later underpinned by countries worldwide that made their recognition of the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence conditional upon partition. Trump era U.S. backpedaling on and simultaneous PA buttressing of two states reflects the extent to which, according to former PA negotiator Khaled Elgindy, “the whole discourse on Israel-Palestine has shifted.”
Internal PLO deliberation on a national strategy of separation began in response to changing regional trends spurred by the 1973 October War, resulting in the formal adoption of a two-state policy by then-Chairman Yasser Arafat, whose proclamation of the State of Palestine in November 1988 made reference to the UN Partition Plan. The following month, Arafat clarified this veiled Palestinian commitment by accepting S/RES/242. Veteran Palestinian diplomats have since remained invested in a two-state outcome, particularly during the era of “Peace to Prosperity,” wherein the Trump administration systematically violated international norms previously upheld by presidents Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama. Indeed, the late Saeb Erekat, Hanan Ashrawi, and Husam Zomlot of the PA all reaffirmed that “in the face of Trumpism,” Palestine supports a 1967-based permanent status agreement.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration abandoned this sensible posture towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from its fanciful economic workshop in Bahrain to its release of the failed Vision for Peace. Despite having paid lip service to an equitable two-state solution in the past, recently ousted Israeli PM Netanyahu endorsed the Trump peace plan, thereby lending false credence to the illusory concept of two states minus any semblance of true Palestinian sovereignty. Rather than deploying the powerful weapons in the arsenal of diplomacy to bridge the divides on two states, the Trump administration’s immoderation pushed Israelis and Palestinians further apart.
Paradoxically, the stalwart PA commitment to a two-state solution has laid the rhetorical groundwork for reconciliation by undermining both the Israeli government claim of Palestinian rejectionism and the struggle of some Palestinians for a “Free Palestine from the River to the Sea.” The Biden administration can now leverage this groundwork to begin the process of bringing the parties back together. Crucially, President Biden already restored the American position on two states, approximately consistent with the moderate stance espoused by the PA today. This end to Trump era vacillation on two states will not alone yield a permanent status agreement. However, a termination of U.S. intemperance does improve the chances that Israelis and Palestinians agree, at minimum, to re-engage in diplomacy on the path toward reconciliation. Reversing the Trump policy of “one state, two states, whatever,” as the previous American president incautiously put it, is an important first step in the avoidance of perpetual conflict irresolution. President Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken and deputy Hady Amr should continue to build upon Palestinian Authority sobriety and turn a longtime U.S. request and current PA demand into the foundation for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The ouster of Netanyahu this summer helps pave the way for such a renewal, and the violence between Israel and Hamas in May highlights its urgency.