It is easy to think that those of us who favor a two-state solution are utopian dreamers. The mantle of realism seems to rest naturally on those who insist on standing tough against a Palestinian state. But this simple dichotomy has never been accurate, and the realist case for a renewed effort to achieve a stable peace between Israel and the Palestinians is getting stronger every day. Seeking peace may well lead to failure, but the alternative could easily be worse.
The Israeli security strategy of maintaining military dominance, making peace with Arab governments, relying on unquestioning American military and diplomatic support, and weakening Abbas and dividing the West Bank Palestinians from the Gazans while supporting settlement expansion in the West Bank was never likely to be sustainable and is now falling apart.
It is far from clear that Israel can protect its citizens indefinitely by relying on military superiority. Although it is very unlikely that an enemy could seize and hold Israeli territory, it seems quite possible that changes in technology – cheaper rockets, drones, etc. – will allow Palestinians and their sympathizers to make ordinary life in Israel impossible. The Israelis are right to worry that Hezbollah may open a northern front in the war because Hezbollah is much better armed than Hamas.
Israelis also need to ask themselves whether they can count on unwavering military and financial support from the United States. I am not predicting or trying to justify a cut in support, just pointing out that the future is uncertain and there are plausible reasons to think that American support might waver. What will happen if the United States gets dragged into a war against Hezbollah or Iran? Will Americans be willing to devote more resources to Israeli security if budgets are tight at home, dependence on gulf oil declines, and attention is focused on military competition with China? Perhaps there will be a shift in public opinion – greater sympathy for the Palestinians among Democrats, greater isolationism among Republicans.
Finally, it is true that Israel has been able to gain recognition from some Arab governments. This is not surprising; Arab elites have reasons to want good relations with Israel, which is, after all, a regional military and economic power. But the outraged response to the hospital bombing in Gaza is a useful reminder that even authoritarian governments are responsive to their citizens, and that the “peace” offered by Arab regimes is inherently fragile. Furthermore, in the future Israel may face active challenges from hostile regimes in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. To assume otherwise is just wishful thinking.
I completely agree that an effort to achieve a stable, negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians will run a significant risk of failure – both temporary setbacks and total collapse leading to war and casualties on all sides. This is why it is critical to remember that the path we are currently on is far from safe and may not be sustainable.
It might seem that this is obvious and doesn’t even need to be stated, but consider this from Bret Stephens at the New York Times:
I have seen some criticism that the hidden purpose of the trip is for Biden to hug Israel close so that he can stay its hand, or at least slow it. I doubt it, since he could hardly have been clearer in his “60 Minutes” interview that Hamas would have to be eliminated entirely, even as there needed to be a path to a Palestinian state. That path is a long one, but Biden gets the big thing right — the former is the basic precondition for the latter. No Israeli leader can ever allow a Palestinian state to exist if a group like Hamas has even the whisper of a chance of gaining power.
This is absurdity, not realism. If we are unwilling to consider making peace if there is even a whisper of a chance of failure, we will never try to make peace, even if trying to make peace is the best of our imperfect options.
The Israelis will likely have to be pushed to accept a viable Palestinian state, since this will mean conflict with West Bank settlers and others committed to the status quo. A critical question is therefore whether the Biden administration, and President Biden himself, are willing to push for peace. As I have said before, it seems to me that Biden is generally cautious and conflict averse. But he can also be bold when he sets his mind on something. It seems likely that the current conflict will create an opportunity to push for peace; I hope Biden is ready to grasp it.