This is a brief excerpt from the just published text of a Joint Statement by the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States in response to Israel’s announcement of advancing and legalizing settlement units:
“We – the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Italy, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, and the Secretary of State of the United States – strongly oppose these unilateral actions which will … undermine efforts to achieve a negotiated two-state solution. … We reaffirm our commitment to helping Israelis and Palestinians fulfill the vision of an Israel fully integrated into the Middle East living alongside a sovereign, viable Palestinian state. We continue to closely monitor developments on the ground which impact the viability of the two-state solution and stability in the region at large.”
In light of the above text and the recent violence in the West Bank, let’s address first the meaning of two words, repeated twice in this announcement, namely “state,” and “viability” to see both why the “two-state” idea does not hold up to scrutiny, and what may be a viable alternative.
A "state" must have borders negotiated with neighboring states, and to set such borders each state must have one army. Palestinians, however they define themselves, have a number of armies: In Gaza, in Lebanon, within the failed state of Syria and a number of armed units with ever changing names in the West Bank. Neither the Palestinian Authority in the latter, nor the Lebanese government, nor the Syrian are disarming these units.
Any mentioning of the word “state,” “viability” and “borders" is thus moot for discussing solutions until authorities have one army under control within certain borders, establishing over time a track record that they can maintain domestic stability within them. This would allow each state to be held accountable and negotiate borders in good faith. As of now, Israel has no such partners: Syria is as mentioned a failed state, Lebanon failing, and the Palestinian Authority has limited authority within the West Bank, and none either in Gaza or controlling military units within what was once Syria and is still Lebanon.
A historical reminder is useful: David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister delivered the above message about what a “state” means when firing on Altalena in June 1948. He ordered the newly created Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to fire on the ship by that name, when factions of the Irgun, a para-military organization, were unwilling to put down the arms and be absorbed into the IDF. Following that painful episode in Israel's history - the idea of Jews shooting Jews a few years after 6 million perished still shocks - the factions of the Irgun put down the arms. The new state's monopoly on force has not been challenged since. Israel, now 75 years old, proved to be a viable, stable state able to protect its citizens against neighboring states, some of which – Iran most vocally so - are still announcing their goal of wiping it from the map.
The term “state” then does not apply to present configurations in the Middle East, and neither do the terms “viability” and “stability.” Whereas one can state that Jordan got stabilized after King Hussein defeated the Arafat-led PLO following the 1970-71 civil war, throwing Arafat and what remained of his army out of the country (to Lebanon, destabilizing it), Syria is more unstable and less viable than ever before. Millions of its citizens are refugees in neighboring states – and – in contrast to Jordan, its disintegration and civil wars have nothing to do with Israel or Palestinians.
The other Middle East mantra of using the 1967 borders for starting any negotiations about adding yet another “state” to the present, unstable order does not hold up to closer scrutiny either. Egypt ruled in Gaza until 1967, it subsequently closed its border, and has zero interest in ever extending its authority there. Jordan, which ruled in the West Bank until 1967 – has no interest in ruling over the West Bank. Syria – the failed state, with porous borders, cannot be party to any negotiation, whether about borders or anything else. Who do the 5 countries signing the document about “two-state” solution for the area perceive as negotiating partners about borders, and who can be held accountable for actions from their territories?
There is no point in defining “who is a Palestinian” now either: Those who’ve lived in and who were absorbed into Jordan for centuries or decades and have Jordanian citizenship? Those who live there but have no citizenship? Those living in territorially not-adjacent Gaza? Those having been subsidized in UNRWA-financed refugee camps around the Middle East – recalling that UNRWA is an institution that was supposed to be a two-year creation in 1948, but has since become a unique, massively expanded institution assisting “refugees” – with millions now called so, though 75 years ago they numbered 400,000? (Recall that Western Europe had institutions assisting some 60 million refugees after WWII. The institutions have long gone, the refugees having long been absorbed in countries around the world).
The push and timing of advocating the "two-state" solution in the Middle East is even less comprehensible noting that within Syria the fighting is along tribal and religious lines; in Lebanon, the same, with much of its Christian community by now in France and Canada; the Kurds having carved themselves out of Iraq, in principle, if not yet fully in practice.
Is there an alternative besides stating that some problems must be managed until opportunity knocks, or are the Abraham Accords the way to go? Historical events suggest the latter, although it would imply dismissing once and for all the wrong-headed post-WWI Wilsonian principle of “self-determination,” and of establishing ever more “nation-states” as solutions for peace and prosperity.
Support for Wilson’s superficial idea was a consequence of the times, the idea having been that “nationalism” would be an obstacle to the spread of another “ism” blowing at the time in Europe - “communism.” The Austrian Karl Renner, (1870-1950), who was foreign minister after World War I and also the first president of the new Austrian Republic (1945-1950), saw its flaws from the start as Europe’s ethnic populations were intermingled and growing at different rates then. He argued – too late - that Europe should first create an economic sphere that would cross national boundaries, and that there should be a central, supra-national government – anticipating features of the European Community (though this came to life gradually, and only two World Wars and many smaller conflicts later).
Renner suggested redrawing the before WWI Austro-Hungarian Empire's maps around counties homogeneous in language. According to him, this could have solved the nationalist problem in nine-tenths of the Austrian Empire: native language having stood then as proxy for ethnicity in the Empire. In places where people were too intermingled to be separated, special provisions and institutions were to guarantee rights and an impartial administration, bringing about increased tolerance.
When President Woodrow Wilson's administration committed to the idea of "self-determination" and “nation-states” it failed to consider the demographic realities on the ground. Nor was the issue addressed later when the idea found its way into the United Nation's 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law, which neither addresses the distinction between the right of self-determination and the right of secession, nor discusses what a viable state means.
What we do know is that adhering to this principle, its terms and institutions based on them did not solve fractured Europe’s problems. Only after WWII has Europe been adopting a Renner-like solution – with Ukraine wanting now to join the experiment.
In the Middle East, the Abraham Accords are the very first steps in a Renner-indicated economic sphere coming first - solution. Learning from Europe’s experience, speeding up the execution of more such accords would help while renouncing Wilsonian principles. Israel being a nation state has nothing to do with these principles: If not for winning all the wars against its neighbors, it would not exist. Principles and UN (earlier League of Nations) or Western powers’ guarantees have not prevented conflicts and assure liberty – remember Chamberlain. Military power – may.