A former United Nations Mideast coordinator laid blame for the dimming prospects of the two-state solution on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying the option of a single, binational democracy was a “delusion.”
Robert Serry told an audience of 125 at Princeton University on Dec. 7 that the two words “peace process” have become emblematic for failure.
“Publics on both sides are becoming very skeptical, and also the international community,” said Sperry, a Dutch diplomat who served seven years as UN special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.
On the other hand, he said, “a one-state outcome might be an even bigger delusion.” In the next decade or two, Palestinians are projected to become a majority of the population in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. This, he said, would undermine the Zionist objectives of a Jewish and democratic state.
“I’m afraid that will not happen in a one-state solution,” he said.
In his talk, cohosted by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, Serry opened by exploring the obstacles to a two-state solution on both sides.
On the Palestinian side, he pointed first to the deep division between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, which grew out of the PA’s failure to negotiate a two-state solution.
“The failure led to the rise of Hamas in Gaza, which is an Islamist movement and today is unwilling to recognize Israel,” said Serry, who also served as the UN secretary-general’s personal representative to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the PA from 2007 to 2015.
Before the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2014, Israel “tried to do everything it could to undermine Palestinian unity.” The Israeli Right hoped to isolate Gaza, because a future state spanning Israel and the West Bank would have Jews in the majority.
“We cannot have a three-state solution,” Serry said. At the same time, “you cannot leave Gaza the way it is; Gaza has become an unlivable place.”
On the Israeli side, he blamed the growth of the religious settler movement as well as the political movement led by Naftali Bennett, an Israeli cabinet member who is opposed to the two-state solution and claims all of “Eretz Yisrael.”
“According to the Geneva Conventions, you are not supposed to bring your own people into territory you have occupied,” Serry said. He said the international community is asking why, if Israel wants a two-state solution, it is “building a house in another state.”
Serry also warned about the increasingly religious nature of the conflict. “Because of the failure of secular movements — [of] PLO, Fatah, and of Arab nationalism if you think more regionally — we see that Islamist movements are rising and secular space is shrinking,” he said.
Given the failures of the three most recent sessions of negotiations, Serry said the United States should lay out robust parameters for future negotiations, endorsed by the international community via UN resolutions. “It is important that these two steps are combined,” Serry said. “The U.S. has to play a leading role but can no longer do it alone.”
The international community should also “define consequences for bad behavior,” Serry said. “On the Israeli side, something needs to happen on settlements; on the Palestinian side, it is about violence and disunity.”
In a question-and-answer session, Serry said he did not believe that boycotts like those proposed by the BDS movement are a good idea. When he tried to arrange a peace concert with performers from both sides in “the Palestinian part of Jerusalem,” as he had done earlier in Gaza, he said, “people who believed in the BDS campaign made it impossible for me.”
“If even these kinds of things are no longer possible, that is a bad thing,” he said. “Civil society can play a role in increasing the costs of bad behavior on both sides but not in a way that precludes such activities.”
Serry ended by suggesting that, rather than full separation, Israelis and Palestinians might consider a two-state solution with two minorities, including Jewish settlers living in a Palestinian state. “For religious reasons, it will be difficult for them to leave,” he said. “If they are willing to become law-abiding citizens of a Palestinian state, why not?”
Ultimately, he said, the only solution is a “fundamental reappraisal of the two-state solution.”
“What can be done to avoid mutual unhappiness?” he asked. “Doing nothing or staying the course or repeating what they have been trying to do is not possible.”