The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine--A Tale of Two Narratives

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9780670025053: The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine--A Tale of Two Narratives

“A thoughtful autopsy of the failed two-state paradigm . . . Evenhanded, diplomatic, mutually respectful, and enormously useful.”
Kirkus, starred review

Disputes over settlements, the right of return, the rise of Hamas, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and other intractable issues have repeatedly derailed peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

Now, in a book that is sure to spark controversy, renowned peacemaker Padraig O’Malley argues that the moment for a two-state solution has passed. After examining each issue and speaking with Palestinians and Israelis as well as negotiators directly involved in past summits, O’Malley concludes that even if such an agreement could be reached, it would be nearly impossible to implement given the staggering costs, Palestine’s political disunity and the viability of its economy, rapidly changing demographics, Israel’s continuing political shift to the right, global warming’s effect on the water supply, and more.

In this revelatory, hard-hitting book, O’Malley approaches the key issues pragmatically, without ideological bias, to show that we must find new frameworks for reconciliation if there is to be lasting peace between Palestine and Israel.

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About the Author:

PADRAIG O’MALLEY is the Moakley Chair for Peace and Reconciliation at the McCormack Graduate School of Global and Policy Studies, University of Massachusetts. He has dedicated his career to studying and helping to resolve conflicts in Northern Ireland, South Africa, and beyond. He is the author of Shades of Difference and Biting at the Grave, one of The New York Times’s ten best books of 1990. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:



Within forty-eight hours of taking the oath of office in January 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Senator George Mitchell as his Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. Obama’s Joint Chiefs were already telling him the anti-Americanism among Muslims that U.S. soldiers encountered in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and elsewhere in the region posed a danger to their mission and lives. While much of this sentiment could be attributed to post-9/11 sensitivities, Muslims’ perception of America’s lack of evenhandedness during the long Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their perception that the United States always sides with Israel no matter the circumstances served as ongoing sources of resentment. Settling the conflict in the Middle East could no longer be left to the protagonists. Now American national-security interests superseded their parochial concerns. For decades the two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, had fought one calamitous engagement after another, dithered from one fruitless negotiation to another, always managing to end up further from peace than ever. A resolution of this conflict was required.

Obama agreed with the Joint Chiefs’ assessment. Finding a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became one of the new administration’s foreign-policy priorities. Getting Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiation table, with the United States “running interference” and prepared to play “tough love” if necessary, could lead the two sides to agree to some kind of two-state solution—perhaps one that neither side was entirely satisfied with but one that met their needs, if not necessarily sufficiently meeting their interests. Perhaps the new borders for the two states would be even more complicated than gerrymandered congressional districts and the mapmaking creatively accommodating. But no matter: A two-state resolution was the only feasible option. All of the “experts” agreed—and on this alluring subject there are hundreds, if not thousands, of experts.

“It’s not rocket science,” said Robert Malley, then director of the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group (ICG), now a senior director of Obama’s National Security Council. “And a lot of people who have looked at this have reached the conclusion that the parties won’t reach there on their own. If the U.S. wants it done, it will have to do it.”1

Wanting it done, yes; putting its own proposals on the table, a very different matter.

Special Envoy Mitchell hit the road, shuttling throughout the Middle East, with numerous stops in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to visit Israel’s newly elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; in Ramallah to visit Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and president, too, of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); and in the capitals of Arab countries in the region.

“The most relevant question to the two sides,” Mitchell told me in 2012, “is how they cannot see that their interests would best be served by getting into a serious negotiation in which they could reach an agreement that would then allow them to achieve what they say they want to achieve. That the longer it goes without that kind of negotiation and without that kind of agreement, the less likely they are going to be able to achieve it.”2

>> <<

Act I opened in Cairo.

On June 4, 2009, at Cairo University, President Obama delivered a speech that reverberated throughout the Muslim world.3 He promised “a new beginning” to undo the damage to the relationship between the United States and its Muslim counterparts, which had deteriorated badly following 9/11. Addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he reiterated that the United States did not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements and cautioned that further construction should stop.

Days later, during a speech at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu reluctantly embraced a two-state solution for the first time, albeit postulating a Palestinian state in terms that fell well short of what hitherto had been discussed in negotiations.4 Netanyahu’s coalition was one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s sixty-year history, and his policies on the Palestinian issue were dictated by the need to hold his coalition together. Any proposal that would further arouse the ire of parties in the Likud, the party he headed, or any to the right of it, of which there were several in his governing coalition, would almost certainly be rejected out of hand if it threatened their time-worn shibboleths.

The Israelis were deeply insulted that Obama did not follow up his Cairo speech with a trip to Israel and furious that he would admonish Israel on settlements before an Arab audience. Israel interprets anything less than overt displays of unwavering support on the part of every American administration as signaling some kind of policy shift, now signified, it believed, by Obama’s calls for halting settlements. Meanwhile, the PLO seized upon Obama’s repeated insistence on a halt to settlement construction and made it a condition for resuming talks. After much cajoling—and some pressure from his allies in Europe—Netanyahu offered a ten-month freeze, which would not include construction already in the works or in East Jerusalem. He made the formal announcement in Tel Aviv on November 25, 2009.5 Weeks earlier, during a visit to Israel, U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton had praised Israel for making “unprecedented” concessions on West Bank settlement construction and urged both sides to renew stalled peace talks.6 The Palestinians insisted that the freeze had to include East Jerusalem.7 Haggling over the issue ate into the ten-month moratorium.

In May 2011, Netanyahu visited the White House, following a March 2010 visit that had gone badly.8 By all accounts the May meeting wasn’t much better,9 further acerbating the already strained relations between the two men going back to Obama’s Cairo speech. In the joint press debriefing that followed, Obama was unequivocal: Settlements had to stop. In response, Netanyahu ignored the issue and focused on their discussion of the threat Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium posed.

In September, the freeze lapsed with the Israelis and Palestinians still hunkered down in their bunkers. The Palestinians were adamant: no freeze on settlements, no talks. The Israelis met obstinacy with obstinacy: no preconditions, no talks.

The curtains closed on act 1.

>> <<

Meanwhile, events across North Africa, hitherto unimaginable but with far-ranging and unforeseeable repercussions, moved to the fore. Spontaneous mass demonstrations of “people power,” beginning in Tunisia in December 2010, toppled long-entrenched dictators.10 Demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from all walks of life demanded the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt with an iron fist for thirty years, were a riveting spectacle and ushered in the Arab Spring. The Middle East was being remade.

When Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, ordered his troops to kill unarmed Sunni Muslim demonstrators in March 2011, what had begun as a peaceful protest escalated into a revolt by Sunni Muslims against the ruling minority Alawites, a Shia offshoot.11 The scale and brutality of Assad’s attempts to quell the revolt led to massive opposition to his regime; the revolt drew increasingly large numbers of the population to its side. Assad’s response: “Kill my citizens.” Although the ranks of rebel groups swelled, they lacked the weapons to withstand Assad’s savagery. Their appeals for arms from the West were met with silence, with the usual excuses of weapons falling into the “wrong” hands, but jihadists from across the Muslim world heard the call and made their way to Syria to wage jihad and help the rebels.12 When Assad’s regime appeared on the verge of collapse, Hezbollah, the Shia “resistance” movement from southern Lebanon, sent its elite units to fight on his behalf; they stopped the hemorrhaging and Iran, of course, remained the regime’s staunchest ally, ensuring Assad had the weapons he needed and on occasion sending units of its elite Revolutionary Guard to give additional weight to his counteroffensive. The Israeli air force struck Syrian convoys whenever it believed they were being used to transport sophisticated missiles to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

The war, in its fourth year in 2015, still threatens to drag neighboring countries into the conflict or lead to internal instability, always regime threatening—Jordan stretched to cope with more than 627,000 refugees; 1.2 million refugees fled to Lebanon (which means that one of every four of Lebanon’s population is a refugee, unbalancing the country’s tenuous confessional equilibrium); close to 1.7 million fled to Turkey; and roughly a quarter of a million into Kurdistan. None of the countries is being given the financial humanitarian aid required to accommodate such huge deluges. The war in Syria has already and will continue to reconfigure the geopolitics of the Middle East, a proxy war between the Sunni Saudis and Shia Iran for regional hegemony, with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, itching to reassert Egypt’s once-preeminent status in the region, and Turkey maneuvering to establish its own political space. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which now calls itself simply the Islamic State, cut an arc across much of Anbar Province in Iraq and northern Syria, intent on establishing a Caliphate in the region, sweeping all in its path with a brutality that defied understanding.13

For Palestinians, the Arab Spring provided a dollop of much-needed hope: They had no doubt that once democratically elected Islamists had secured their governments they would take up the Palestinian cause. They are still waiting as the Arab Spring countries flounder, submerged in chaotic transitions.14 Israel reacted warily to the unfolding drama but with disbelief that Obama could call for the deposing of Mubarak, a U.S. ally but an ally, too, for Israel because he ensured the Camp David Accords (1978) were rigidly adhered to. Obama, Israel concluded, was very definitely not a reliable friend, although he provided it with more military aid than any of his predecessors.*

Speaking at the State Department, Obama briefly revisited the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in May 2011 when he called for a two-state settlement along the lines of the 1967 borders.15 His speech elicited little response from jaded publics in both communities who had become immune to repetition. Besides, it was overshadowed by the regional turmoil. That same month, Senator Mitchell, who had persevered in his increasingly futile mission of employing his impeccable diplomatic skills to push and prod for the leverage that might break the deadlock, called it a day after twenty-eight months.*

>> <<

Act 2.

Once Obama was reelected to a second term, he instructed John Kerry, his new secretary of state, to take up the cudgels. After six trips to Israel and the West Bank between March and July 201316 and with an indefatigable resourcefulness that earned him the admiration of Israelis and Palestinians alike, he coaxed the two sides to agree to talks for nine months. Talks resumed on July 28 in Washington DC. The naysayers had a field day. The news was met with skepticism and scoffing between intermittent yawns. The best of the pundits and the cream of Middle East experts were left flat-footed and flabbergasted that Kerry had actually gotten the two sides to the table. So much for punditry and its predilections. Few of the “experts” expected much to come of the talks; most expected them to collapse at some point; none saw them as paving the way to a two-state solution. And on this score they were right.

In an extensive interview with David Remnick in the New Yorker in January 2014 on whether an agreement could be reached between Israel and Palestine, Obama, toughened by the vicissitudes of five years in office that had quenched much of his idealism and tempered his pragmatism, expressed what would be difficult to interpret as other than an assessment loosely laced with pessimism. Obama told Remnick that each of his three major foreign policy issues—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian nuclear issue, and the civil war in Syria—had a “less than fifty-fifty” chance of success. “[I]n all three circumstances,” he said, “we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us. . . . the region is going through rapid change and inexorable change. Some of it is demographics; some of it is technology; some of it is economics. And the old order, the old equilibrium, is no longer tenable. The question then becomes, What’s next?”As it turned out, Ukraine was, and then ISIS.17

>> <<

In an op-ed in the New York Times on September 14, 2013, the scholar Ian Lustick, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a longtime advocate of two states, drew attention to the fact that for more than thirty years all sides had been “wedded to the notion that there must be two states, one Palestinian and one Israeli,” while also for three decades “experts and politicians have warned of ‘a point of no return.’” John Kerry, he said, was merely “the latest in a long line of well-meaning American diplomats wedded to an idea whose time is now past.”

What irked him most, perhaps, was that the “true believers” in a two-state solution couldn’t see beyond the position they so dearly clung to. They had no alternatives to propose, were not open to rethinking their basic assumptions, and as a result were “forced to defend a notion whose success they can no longer sincerely portray as plausible or even possible.”18

Critics descended on Lustick like locusts. His peers severely rebuked him, questioning his logic and bemoaning his loss of “faith.”

But what if Lustick is right? What if a two-state solution is now more remote than ever? And what if repeated attempts to negotiate one are actually damaging, rather than enhancing, the peace process?

The obstacles to implementing a sustainable and enduring two-state-solution agreement have exponentially multiplied over the past twenty-five years. The idea that a settlement will emerge from the labyrinth of intricacies, conceits, disparagements, unfathomable misunderstandings, endemic fears, and competing claims layered with hate is becoming ever more remote. Negotiating a two-state solution requires a degree of trust on both sides that even the miraculous cannot conjure. And even if an agreement between them were reached, it would not necessarily be sufficient to secure a lasting peace. What’s more, the tectonic plates of history are always shifting and over time different sets of dynamics—demographics, the detritus of the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria, the developing global war on ISIS and other transformative changes in the region—will change the contours of the conflict. The protagonists themselves may have less of a say in what the eventual ou...

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