PRINCETON – Imagine a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine in which Palestinians would have the right of return; Israelis could settle wherever they could purchase land in the West Bank; and Jerusalem need not be divided. This is not a fanciful vision, but a creative and eminently sensible reinvention of twenty-first century statehood. And US President Barack Obama’s just-completed visit to Israel provides an opportunity to explore genuinely new thinking.
Ever since Bill Clinton nearly succeeded in brokering a comprehensive settlement in 2000, the mantra among supporters of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been that, while a solution exists, Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are willing to reach it do not. The solution is a version of the deal that Clinton sought: two sovereign states based on the 1967 borders, with negotiated land swaps to reflect existing settlement patterns. The agreement would include a land corridor connecting Gaza and the West Bank; a divided Jerusalem with guaranteed access for all to religious sites; Palestinians’ renunciation of the right of return; Israel’s willingness to dismantle settlements outside the agreed borders; and recognition of both states across the Middle East.
But suppose that the reason that no Palestinians and Israelis willing to conclude such a deal have emerged is that the solution itself is domestically unsupportable on both sides. Suppose that as long as a version of this deal is the only game in town, the creeping physical expansion of the Israeli state and the demographic expansion of Israeli Arabs will continue to erode its foundation. For all the dire warnings that the window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing (or has already closed), it is the solution itself that is the problem.
In 2008, a Princeton University graduate student in philosophy named Russell Nieli gave a talk at the Princeton Center for Jewish Life that was so well received that he later expanded it into an article for the US-based magazine Tikkun, founded by Rabbi Michael Lerner. The article, “Toward a Permanent Palestinian/Israeli Peace – the Case for Two-State Condominialism,” was published with the express aim of stimulating “productive thinking among a younger generation of Jews and Arabs not bound by the restricted vision and failed policies of the past.”