Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed off his election day statement that rejected a two-state solution — or at least seemed to reject the idea. Netanyahu said on MSNBC that he "hadn't changed [his] policy. What changed was the reality." He went on to say, "I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change." Elections are not the time for blatant truth telling, but in this case it is not clear whether his prior commitment to a two-state solution or his election day statement is his real view. Therefore it is not clear how much weight the new statement carries.
The intent of the statement was clearly to put out the firestorm both in Israel and the United States. In Israel, his election day statement may have pleased the right wing, which shifted votes to him at the last minute, but it alienated the center. That cut off his maneuvering room in forming a new government. Netanyahu has reached out to the center in the past, and that option kept the right wing more manageable. He has had alternatives to them. The statement undermined a core policy in Israel that the center and left are deeply committed to. So his shift back was useful, and we suspect it will work. The centrist parties do not want to be left out of the bargaining.
It's in the United States that the impact is most interesting. Netanyahu, of course, alienated the U.S. administration by accepting an invitation to address Congress. The White House's response to the statement rejecting a two-state solution was that President Barack Obama did not immediately congratulate Netanyahu on his victory. Such congratulations to close allies usually come early. In this case it didn't arrive at all. Prior to his reversal, the United States made clear that it was reconsidering its policy of automatic diplomatic support for Israel in international bodies. Things like condemnations of Israeli practices in the West Bank or opposition to U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood draw U.S. opposition. The signal was that Israel should not count on that any longer. That would only be symbolic, but it would symbolize isolation.
The problem that Netanyahu had with his statement was that the two-state solution is not only an Obama position. It was George W. Bush's position, and Bill Clinton's. It goes back some 20 years. As much as there is a bipartisan position these days, the two-state solution is it. It is a critical position, because the alternative is either annexation and full citizenship for Gaza and the West Bank, which is not what Netanyahu had in mind, or continuation of the status quo, which is what he did.
The problem of course is that while the two-state solution is attractive, it is hard to see how it could work. Gaza and the West Bank are not connected, and neither is economically sustainable. Demilitarized, both would quickly become dependent on Israel for jobs and trade. They would be formally sovereign but practically dependents.
From the Israeli standpoint, the creation of a Palestinian state poses two problems. The first is that it would place much of the Israeli heartland — the Tel Aviv-Haifa-Jerusalem triangle — within potential artillery and rocket range. Behind this is the second problem, which is that the Palestinians are deeply divided, and there is no one who speaks with authority for all of them. Any agreement would leave some substantial minority not only in opposition but able to launch attacks.
The Palestinians have always said they want a two-state solution, but they have never really embraced it because the Palestinian state would be crippled economically and militarily, even without demilitarization. The Israelis have never really embraced the two-state solution, because their primary goal — an end to terrorism and resistance — could not be guaranteed by the agreement. They could wind up with a Palestinian state unable to enforce the accompanying peace agreement.
These are issues that are not spoken of in polite company, because it would mean that there is an insoluble problem — and it is a principle of the modern world that no problem is insoluble. There is always a way, and if there isn't, there is someone deliberately blocking the way. The Palestine mandate, out of which all of this was formed, is simply too small to harbor two nations with such a sordid shared past.
Sometimes it is said that the real solution is to send all Palestinians to Jordan and let that be the Palestinian state. Aside from the question of the morality of deportation, the Israelis who advocate this have not thought it through. If hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were transferred across the Jordan River, the Hashemite kingdom likely would fall. The Palestinian state would quickly come under the influence of some regional power, likely hostile to Israel. Because of Israel's relationship with Jordan, it has never had to defend the long line running from the Golan to Eilat. A Palestinian state allied with a regional Islamic power might change that.
Netanyahu's various statements are likely just political opportunism designed for political and diplomatic consumption. But lurking behind it is a hard truth: If it were possible to implement a two-state solution in the past 20 years, it would have happened. Implementation demands that both Israelis and Palestinians assume risks that neither can accept.