European Council on Foreign Relations




Welcoming the Two-State Stress Test

By Yossi Alpher - 17 December 2013

Drawing on my own experience running an Israeli strategic think-tank, I am generally cautious in approaching the idea of quantitative analysis in conflict resolution. Yet I like this project. Its value will undoubtedly grow with the passage of time, as a graph of two-state feasibility takes shape. But it is already extremely useful. And the timing is excellent, with the United States almost daily ratcheting up the pressure on the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to get serious. I'm fairly certain the other five expert advisers share my sense that the process of devising the TSST was very useful in refining our own views on the vicissitudes of the conflict and its solution.
The authors of the TSST faced daunting challenges in determining the categories upon which the final verdict on the health of the two-state solution would be based. I don't envy them and won't second-guess them. But I do wish to highlight two particularly complex and absolutely critical final status issues that are extremely difficult to come to grips with, hence are always left for last by negotiators, and in the current instance are liable to get lost within broader TSST categories. These are the pre-1967 "narrative" issues of the holy places and the right of return. I believe these are by far the ultimate deal-breakers in any talks aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Looking initially at the holy places or sacred sites — first and foremost the Holy Basin in Jerusalem — one should not assume that a discussion of East Jerusalem subsumes this topic. The two sides can agree on the borders of a Palestinian capital — they certainly came close at Camp David in 2000 and in 2008 as part of the Annapolis peace process — yet remain far apart on the complex question of jurisdiction in the Holy Basin. A Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem is a post-1967 issue, akin to the categories of borders and sovereignty. But "who owns the Temple Mount" is a pre-1967 narrative issue. That Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly asserts "there never was a temple on the Temple Mount" underlines the saliency of this issue as a separate topic—one regarding which the parties remain far apart.
A second "lost" pre-1967 narrative issue is the right of return. I believe this should be a separate topic from the question of return or resettlement and/or reparations for 1948 refugees. Yet in discussing a final status there is an understandable tendency to conflate the two issues, arguing that some sort of Israeli statement of empathy would be sufficient to put to rest the narrative aspect. I don't agree. I believe the parties can agree in theory on the disposition of refugees, including conceivably return to Israel by a small number in an act defined as "family reunification", but that the PLO will still hold out for a concrete Israeli declaration that addresses in depth the plight of all five million recognised refugees—a statement that I fear would be understood by Palestinians as acknowledgement that Israel was "born in sin" and that could lay the foundation for future claims and conflict.
Taken together these two issues, or more precisely Israel's understanding that the Palestinian position regarding them seeks to delegitimise Israel by denying its historical, religious and legal roots, are responsible for the emergence of Israel's "Jewish state" demand—yet another pre-1967 narrative category. Little or no progress has been made on any of these issues in official negotiations. So intractable are they that, in an ideal negotiating setup, they should be postponed until a Palestinian state is established based on agreement regarding borders, sovereignty, a capital and security, at which point resolving them will become a less central issue. Yet in the current negotiating setup, all three parties—Israel, the PLO and the US—are at least declaratively committed to resolving all final status issues simultaneously.
This dilemma in effect brings us full circle back to two characteristics of the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles—which is still the basis for negotiations—that render it all the more difficult to reach a positive outcome. First, the DOP mixes the post- and pre-1967 issues and lists them together on the final status menu: borders with holy places, security alongside the right of return. Second, for 20 years now the parties have accepted that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" (even though the DOP does not say so), meaning that the more solvable issues will always be held hostage to the more intractable ones.
To be sure, these are procedural problems, not given to conceptualisation and quantification in the TSST. But they should not be ignored in assessing the chances for success of the two-state negotiating process.


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