World losing patience but won’t retreat from 2-state deal, ex-US envoy says

The international community of governments is unlikely to ever drop its near-universal support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but opinion on the street may shift toward backing a single Jewish-Palestinian state as the world grows tired of the moribund peace process, Washington’s former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said this week.

Speaking at panel discussion on the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War Sunday, Shapiro also warned that the Jewish state could miss a historic opportunity to normalize relations with the Arab world if it failed to make progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state. In case of a regime change in Iran, moderate Arab states might no longer feel the need to strategically align with Israel and will be less likely to offer normalized relations, he cautioned.

Shapiro told the conference, co-organized by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Institute for National Security Studies, that support for a two-state solution wouldn’t fade even if the current stalemate lasted decades longer.

“The international community is so accustomed to the pursuit of the goal of two states that that is going to remain the overarching principle,” Shapiro said at. “And that’s going to be true even though more and more doubts are creeping into the international community’s discussions about whether a two-state solution is, or will ever be, possible.”

During a panel discussion over the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which assumed that the status quo was likely to continue for decades, Shapiro said most of the international community was too heavily invested in the two-state paradigm, with countless policy declarations, UN resolutions and a “vast body of literature” endorsing it as the only viable option to reach peace. “There are so many statements that are difficult to walk back from,” he said.

Since Donald Trump won the US presidential election in late 2016, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stopped publicly supporting the two-state solution as a desired outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Trump administration has likewise never endorsed the idea of Palestinian statehood, marking a sharp break from previous administrations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, in Tel Aviv last year. (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy/Flash90)

While European governments will remain committed to the two-state solution for the foreseeable future, public opinion on the Continent may shift to supporting a single state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians, mimicking a growing trend on the Palestinian street, Shapiro said.

Failing to obtain a sovereign state of their own, the Palestinians might embrace the idea of turning the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan into “a state for all its citizens.” That would mean the end of the Jewish state, but “that idea will gain some adherence in Europe,” Shapiro estimated.

The Obama administration made great efforts to dissuade some European countries from unilaterally recognizing Palestine, he added, and only Sweden has thus far recognized the “State of Palestine.” But if the peace process continues to stall, others on the Continent could follow suit, Shapiro predicted.

“That could quickly trigger a domino effect, and you could have more and more European states deciding that the path they choose for their own politics, their own public opinion, is recognition of a Palestinian state that does not yet exist on the ground,” he said.

“The alienation that Europeans are feeling, at least in the last couple of weeks, from the Trump administration could see that trend accelerate faster, and it may be much harder, at least for the current administration, to effectively discourage such a move,” Shapiro said. “Because it could be very popular to both defy Trump and to side with the Palestinians in Europe.”

US president Donald Trump delivers his final speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem before his departure, on May 23, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Washington is unlikely to embrace a one-state solution or to prematurely recognize a Palestinian state, there could be an increase in domestic pressure to leverage the US’s position to advance the peace process, Shapiro said. Calls for the US to cease or make conditional military aid to Israel and for harsher criticism of Israel’s settlement enterprise are likely to grow louder, he predicted.

“It will be very hard to imagine a critical mass coalescing around one of these areas, so it will be a very diffuse discussion that will include some continuing alienation from parts of the Jewish community,” he said, adding that Americans will be forced to confront whether Israel is still a Jewish and democratic state. “More and more Americans of many political backgrounds will find that a question making them more uncomfortable.”

Israelis dancing at a Purim party in the Israeli Embassy in Tehran in the late 1970s. (screenshot from 'Before the Revolution,' courtesy Journeyman Pictures)

Shapiro, who served as US envoy to Israel between July 2011 and January 2017 and today is a visiting fellow at the INSS, said he was skeptical about the Gulf states’ willingness to formalize their clandestine security cooperation with Israel given the lack of progress on the Palestinian front.

“The Arab world was quite clear about what they are looking for, and that’s in the Arab Peace Initiative,” he said, referring to a plan that promises Israel full relations with the entire Arab and Islamic world after a successful conclusion of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu consistently argues that many Arab states view Israel as an “indispensable ally” and might pressure Ramallah into the concessions needed for a peace deal. “This change in the Arab world is new. And I believe it’s the best hope for peace, not only between Israel and the countries in the region, but ultimately between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said Sunday at a conference in West Africa.

But while some Israelis argue that various Sunni Arab states could make peace with Israel even in the absence of a peace treaty with the Palestinians — like Egypt and Jordan have done — such a scenario was “unlikely given how long Palestinian statehood has been on the table as the eventual goal,” according to Shapiro.

“I see it as very difficult for the Arab states to lower their price for beginning a real, open normalization process with Israel,” he said. “Israel potentially misses a major opportunity to upgrade those relationships with the Arab states and to turn some of that cooperation into a public feature and really advance a normalization process if we’re stuck in an extended status quo.”

He also said that even the secret security cooperation between Israel and the Arab world could dissipate if the Sunni Arab rivalry with Iran is resolved.

“If there’s a change of regime in Iran,” he speculated, “it does raise the question whether the Gulf states will even feel they still need to maintain that security cooperation with Israel.”

Some Israeli strategists suggest that in a post-Islamic Republic era Israel could re-establish the strategic alignment it had with Iran during the days of the Shah, before the 1979 revolution. That might actually cause the Arab states to distance themselves again from Israel, Shapiro posited.

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