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The end of the two-state solution?

July 20, 2006

One of the most depressing things about the current Israel-Hizbollah war is the way it has rolled back the years by perhaps half a century and rendered the two-state solution quite possibly unviable.

For fifty years the Israelis and Palestinians have been working themselves towards a position — reached in many quarters (on both sides) reluctantly — that the ultimate solution to the problem of Israel and Palestine was just that: Israel, and Palestine: two separate states, each existing in its own space, occupied by its own people, not loving one other, but each at least grudgingly accepting the other. Over time, it was hoped, the mutual hostility would ease and some semblance of a workable modus vivendi could be established, with even the potential for genuine amity emerging after perhaps a generation or two.

This optimism now appears to be shot. From the Israeli side, no-one can doubt that Hizbollah profited by Israel’s unwilling withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 to amass a huge arsenal of munitions whose purpose was ultimately to attack Israel. The only question was when and to what effect. Israel got the answer last Wednesday week.

Similarly, a year ago, Israel withdrew from Gaza, with much pain and political and ideological discomfort. Palestinian militants, emboldened by their recent election as the legitimate government of Palestine, and institutionally committed to the destruction of Israel by means of terror, promptly turned it into a giant launching pad for Qassam missiles from which to attack Israel.

Make no mistake: I support the two-state solution, and I imagine so does every sensible inhabitant of the Middle East and the wider world.

Yet the voices are growing stronger in Israel that argue disengagement was a mistake, that Israel should never have withdrawn from southern Lebanon, nor from Gaza. They argue that when the Palestinians gain control of or are allowed autonomy in territory adjacent to Israel — and their own homeland must be such — they will inevitably turn it into a base from which to launch unending attacks on Israel with the purpose of destroying it.

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to see how Israel can afford, in the years to come, to abandon the West Bank to the Palestinians as it has Gaza, and invite ceaseless attacks of the kind it has experienced from the tiny overcrowded coastal strip between it and Egypt, and from ‘liberated’ south Lebanon.

Of course that sounds as though Israel has the whip hand and determines what goes on its in own neighbourhood. The brutal fact is that it does. No Arab state can stand against a determined Israel in military terms. It does not need, for the purposes of its own survival, to make concessions. It can live with a state of war, behind its security wall, as it has done for decades. It is largely indifferent to political pressure and international obloquy: it is used to them. Yet through all this, Israel remains, with Singapore, as the best example of successful nation-building the world has witnessed in the course of the 20th century, amidst the multitude of attempts that have failed.

(Israel’s Achilles’ Heel — well-recognised by Hamas and Hizbollah, both of whom have recently and very successfully exploited it, with horrendous consequences — is its tenderness for its own soldiers when captured. In practical terms you could quarrel with that position as soft-hearted, but it remains a tactical imperative for the IDF and the government, and compels its strategic objectives.)

In the broader and longer term, it is the Palestinians who will most surely lose. So far, with virtually the sole assistance and support of the US, Israel has weathered the worst that can be done against it: many wars, two Intifadas , international opprobrium and hostile forums like the UN. The question is — or rather, was: if Israel can survive and thrive despite and even without the Palestinians, how will Palestine survive and thrive without the Israelis? That was always going to be the challenge for the solution of the two states: to ensure they would not simply turn their backs on each other. Given their history, that would have been all too easy.

That question, though, may now be no more than academic. The Hizbollah attacks have probably killed the prospects for a ‘two-state solution’ stone, cold dead — and it was the only one offering any real hope of eventual reconciliation between these two ancient enemies. Perhaps, in the strategic scheme of things, Hizbollah (which has never subscribed to that solution) has got exactly what it wanted.

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