Navigate to News section

Obama’s Israel Ambassador: The Two-State Solution Remains the Best Option, But We Need to Plan in Case It Fails

American interests will be worse off without two states. But it’s time to consider how we might make the best of that bad situation.

Daniel Shapiro
August 29, 2017
Daniel Bar-On/AFP/Getty Images
US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro addresses an awards ceremony at the B'nai B'rith World Center in Jerusalem on October 31, 2011.Daniel Bar-On/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Bar-On/AFP/Getty Images
US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro addresses an awards ceremony at the B'nai B'rith World Center in Jerusalem on October 31, 2011.Daniel Bar-On/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, as President Trump’s Middle East team was preparing to arrive in Israel for another round of preliminary talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert offered a rather startling defense of the Administration’s refusal to endorse a two-state solution. She said that to do so would be a sign of “bias.”

She’s right, of course. It would indeed show bias toward the only outcome that can truly serve the interests of the United States—as recognized by three previous administrations—not to mention Israelis, Palestinians, and the Middle East as a whole.

But her remark reinforced a thought I’ve been chewing on since early 2013: maybe it’s time that the United States consider options other than a two-state solution.

Wait. Don’t get the wrong idea. Let me put my cards on the table.

I’ve been supporting the goal of Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security since 1988. It hit me early in the days of the first Intifada that there was no other solution, which made me something of an early adopter of that position among advocates for Israel.

I’ve spent 20 years in government service, in two administrations and on Capitol Hill, working toward this goal, advocating, advancing, and protecting efforts to achieve it.

Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts were the single most prominent aspect of my assignments in the Obama Administration at the National Security Council and as U.S. Ambassador to Israel. I can attest to the commitment that President Obama, Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry, and Special Envoys George Mitchell and Martin Indyk demonstrated to helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve the dream of two states. We were not successful, but I will always be proud to have joined them in this noble cause.

And to this moment, nothing has changed my mind, or my analysis, about which outcome to this seemingly endless conflict is best for the United States, for securing Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, for Palestinians’ legitimate goals of self-determination in a state of their own, and for opening up relations between Israel and the Arab world.

But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. I certainly no longer think it’s inevitable the way that I and many others did for years after the Oslo Accords. And an honest assessment would conclude that the odds are small and shrinking by the year.

The reasons a two-state solution is becoming unlikely are important, but less relevant to the question I am asking. I can stipulate to several of them, in no particular order:

 Right-wing Israeli governments dominated by ministers who openly oppose two states and work to undermine the prospects. It has reached the point that Prime Minister Netanyahu feels he must dance around the declaration of his June 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech that he supports the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state, even as he tells US officials privately that he has not changed his position.

 Weak and passive Palestinian Authority leadership that glorifies violence, misleads Palestinians about “returning” to pre-1967 Israel, and fails to convince Israelis that it is seeking a permanent end to the conflict—problems likely to grow worse as the struggle to succeed PA president Abbas unfolds.

 The expansion of West Bank settlements that make the drawing of a viable border and the separation of the two populations immensely complex.

 The presence of rejectionist terrorist organizations like Hamas, who are sworn to Israel’s destruction, and are perfectly clear on their willingness to use territory Israel vacates to attack it, as they have done repeatedly from Gaza.

 The chaos and instability of the region in this decade, which has empowered radicals, weakened moderate regimes, and led Israelis to wonder if now is the moment to take such risks.

 The timidity of Arab states, who hold back on acting in their own interest to cement a strategic partnership with Israel out of fear of the reaction of their publics, which sympathize with the Palestinians and have been poisoned by decades of hateful propaganda about Israel and Jews.

So it’s tough for a confirmed two-stater to remain optimistic. But I believe it should remain U.S. policy. I’m glad the administrations I served in pursued it. And I support Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt’s effort to relaunch negotiations and pursue practical steps toward that goal (assuming that is what they are talking about, since, like Nauert, they avoid specificity in their public statements).

But even as we continue to work toward this goal, the sad fact is that the odds are diminishing. There is some tipping point beyond which the facts on the ground will make a two-state solution all but unachievable, and—importantly—it will be impossible to pretend otherwise. I hope that moment is still ahead of us. But that’s the thing about tipping points: sometimes you don’t know you’re past them until you’re well past them.

When I think about how close we are to that tipping point, my brain divides, and I have two very different reactions:

The Jewish, Zionist, pro-Israel side of my brain is deeply worried, almost panicked, about what could be put at risk—the miracle of Jewish statehood in Eretz Israel, the vision of Herzl and the founders, a homeland in which Jews can govern themselves in a sovereign, Jewish, democratic, state. Instead, there will be perpetual conflict and domination of a hostile soon-to-be majority population, placing Israel’s security and its Jewish and democratic character at risk. I fear that the Israel that emerges from these circumstances will experience even deeper estrangement from the American Jewish community.

But the U.S. foreign policy practitioner side of my brain responds differently—more practically, less emotionally. A two-state solution is still the best outcome for U.S. interests, yes. But in foreign policy, we deal with sub-optimal outcomes all the time. Look at our struggle to define a strategy not to lose in Afghanistan. Or the endless bloodletting, and now Russian domination and Iranian gains, in Syria. Think of the messy post-war outcomes in places like Bosnia and Sudan. An army of critics will always opine on where the current administration, or the previous one, failed to fulfill its foreign policy goals. But a realist would have to recognize that we are fated to try and make the best of troubled relationships and unachieved (or partially achieved) objectives, in countries as diverse as Egypt, Hungary, Iraq, Mexico, Ukraine, North Korea, and Nigeria. And where we can’t achieve what we believe to be the best outcome, we still have a responsibility to figure out how to preserve U.S. interests, support our allies, and manage as best we can. The same would be true for Israelis and Palestinians.

So the question is worth asking: what are the alternatives to a negotiated two-state solution? (Spoiler alert: every one of them is worse.)

I am currently studying them, from the most plausible to some that are quite unlikely. I have met advocates for a long-term maintenance of the status quo, which some might call muddling through with a combination of occupation and autonomy. That status quo is not static, of course, and one could expect more settlement growth and periodic bursts of violence.

Others propose a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from large portions of the West Bank, not unlike the disengagement from Gaza. But would areas the IDF leaves become sites for launching Palestinian terror or rocket attacks inside the Israeli heartland?

There are different flavors of annexation of the West Bank being discussed in the current Israeli coalition: one “only” of Area C (the approximately 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control), while maintaining Palestinian autonomy in Areas A and B; others envision annexation of the entire West Bank, either with full citizenship rights for Palestinians, or without citizenship but with some form of autonomy. Needless to say, all of these versions would pose grave challenges to Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state.

There are more exotic ideas, like a federation, in which there are two states, Israel and Palestine, in overlapping, shared territory. Or ideas that have sprung zombie-like from the history books, like a “Jordan option”—one in which Jordan reasserts sovereignty over a portion of the West Bank, and another in which the Hashemite monarchy falls and is replaced by a country called Palestine due to the large population of Palestinian origin that lives there.

Sub-optimal is a generous description of each of these options. But we may end up in one of them. Is there a least bad option? And does the United States have influence to help steer toward that one as the fallback? In any scenario, how will we preserve and secure U.S. interests?

To the best of my knowledge, no one has done a full study, as a kind of policy planning exercise, on how the United States can best preserve its interests in these scenarios. I raised this idea, the need to do the intellectual work to prepare for such outcomes, in internal administration discussions in early 2013. Having seen the collapse of peace talks in the first Obama Administration, my expectations were firmly in check about another try. Secretary Kerry ultimately launched his initiative, and we tried our best to make it succeed. But I found it impossible, while serving in government, working on a four-year timetable, and pursuing a policy of two states, to simultaneously ask these 15-20 year horizon questions which could undermine the current policy. So I determined that these questions must be researched on the outside.

I am nowhere near firm conclusions. But I have some initial thoughts. If we cannot achieve a two-state solution, by no means do I suggest we should throw the baby out with the bath water. The United States abandoning Israel should not be on the menu. U.S. interests will still include a strong security partnership, an Israel that can defend itself by itself, joint efforts against terrorists and malign actors like Iran, extensive intelligence cooperation, and our burgeoning, hi-tech economic partnership. The United States has many similar relationships with non-democratic countries. We will also still have moral commitments to Israel, in light of Jewish history and our decades-long alliance. And we will need to manage our other relationships in the region where, despite many of our Arab partners’ strategic alignment with Israel versus Iran and Sunni extremists, the Palestinian issue remains resonant, and opportunities to expand relations with Israel will remain constrained.

In all circumstances, I expect a close U.S.-Israel partnership for many decades to come. I will advocate for it. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will have to acknowledge something else. If Israel moves toward one of the scenarios in which Palestinians continue to lack the self-determination they legitimately seek, whatever the causes, and as U.S. demographics continue their current evolution (the Trump era notwithstanding), it will affect our relationship at the level of what we call our common values. When a significant number of Americans, most of the rest of the world, and not a small number of Israelis conclude that Israel is not the democracy it once was, our relationship will be … different. It will be different in ways I can’t fully envision or describe. If Israel demonstrates commitment, effort, and intention, to achieve or at least preserve the viability of a two-state solution, it will be relevant in holding back some of that change. If Palestinians maintain a rejectionist pose toward recognizing Israel’s legitimacy and continue to use or justify terrorist violence, they will also take a good share of the blame and spare the U.S.-Israel relationship some of the consequence. But not all of it.

I’m quite serious that we have hard work ahead of us—as a Jewish community, as advocates for Israel, and as U.S. foreign policy thinkers—to consider how we will make the best of a non-two-state future. We shouldn’t try to avoid it. But I’ll be honest: I also hope discussion of the unpalatable alternatives will reinforce the importance of steering back to serious attempts to salvage the two-state solution. A lot will depend on the leadership that emerges—Israeli, Palestinian, and American. If we have learned anything from other long-running conflicts that have been resolved, including in the Israeli-Arab arena, we know that when the right leaders appear, what once seemed impossible can suddenly become possible.

Such leadership might even back us up to recover a tipping point that we had passed. But if that does not happen, we have no excuse not to be ready.

Daniel B. Shapiro is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and previously as Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council, during the Obama Administration.