As a long-time Middle East correspondent, I often speak to various interest groups in synagogues, mosques, churches, and elsewhere. Years ago, I liked to tell a tale of how difficult it was to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Three people — a Catholic Northern Irishman, a Black South African, and a Palestinian (or an Israeli, depending on the group) — were given a chance to visit heaven and ask God one question.
The Catholic Irishman went first. He said that his people had been at war with the Protestants for most of a century, and there was no end in sight. “Will my people ever find peace?” he asked.
“Yes, my son,” said God, “but not in your lifetime.”
“Thank you, Father,” said the Irishman, somewhat encouraged about the future.
The Black South African then said: “Holy Father, we have been under the yoke of white settlers for more than a century. Will we ever be free?”
“Yes, my child,” said God, “but not in your lifetime.”
The South African, too, left with the good news that her people’s day would eventually come.
Then the Palestinian spoke: “Heavenly Father, we have struggled against Israelis for decades, at a great cost in lives to both sides. Will there ever be peace in the Middle East?”
Yes, my son,” said God, “but not in my lifetime.”
As the years went by, peace came to Northern Ireland and apartheid ended in South Africa, but God was right: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes on. Even recent positive developments — such as Israel’s much-heralded signing of normalization agreements in September with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — do not end it. If the agreements are carried out, the UAE and Bahrain will become the third and fourth Arab states to sign treaties with Israel (following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994).
Peace with the UAE was low-hanging fruit for Israel: Jerusalem needed only to agree to “suspend” its plan to annex large portions of the Palestinian West Bank and the two countries could announce a deal. Indeed, the two have long worked together and traded in matters of technology and medical research, and many Israelis expect that the normalization of relations with Abu Dhabi will result in large-scale tourism and the sale of military equipment to the Gulf state.
Israel, it is believed, has long supplied the UAE with intelligence on neighbouring Iran. In 2010, when Israel’s clandestine espionage service, Mossad, wanted to assassinate a senior member of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, it sent the hit team to the Emirate of Dubai to intercept and kill the man. Though local police officials didn’t appreciate this move, the national government did little about it. Contrast this inaction with the retaliation taken by the United Kingdom and Australia, whose passports had been forged by Israel so the assassins could gain entry to Dubai. One Israeli diplomat was expelled by each of the two countries, and stern rebukes were sent to Jerusalem.
The Arab signatories of past treaties have long insisted they support the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — so too do the UAE and Bahrain. But the proposal, first envisioned by the United Nations in 1947, to divide the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River has come to naught. Israel continues to spread out across large parts of the river’s West Bank, which it occupied in the 1967 Six‑Day War and calls the Biblical areas of Judea and Samaria. It has been forty-one years since Egypt signed its treaty with Israel and twenty-six years since Jordan did. Still there’s no two-state solution.
Even the announcement in July of a temporary halt to the annexation of the Jordan Valley makes very little difference; Israel already exerts effective sovereignty throughout the West Bank and has done so for fifty-three years. The vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians have never known a time when this was not the case. It is a point Michael Dan drives home in The Two-State Dilemma.
Dan — a retired Toronto neurosurgeon and philanthropist — has concluded that the two-state solution, long considered the ultimate answer to this conflict, is no solution at all. In fact, it’s a dilemma: a situation where parties must choose between two or more undesirable alternatives.
There is not enough room for two states between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, Dan insists, and Israel, acting in the name of Zionism, has effectively engaged in “colonization” of what land there is. He pulls no punches and, no doubt, will alienate many in his own Jewish community by saying that Zionism, the political movement to secure a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine, is “a nineteenth-century socio-political ideology” that has run its course. “What then, should we call today’s reality in historic Palestine if after more than a century of effort, the Zionist project is barely able to achieve a Jewish majority in that geographic space? Does it even make any sense to talk about political Zionism, or should we switch the conversation to post-Zionism?”
Indeed, Dan argues that “Zionism is guilty of ethnic cleansing, theft of land, intentional destruction of ‘native’”— or Palestinian —“settlements . . . , intentional destruction or appropriation of native culture, and systemic and structural impoverishment of the native population.” He likens such behaviour to “what Canada did to Indigenous nations.”
With his book, Dan joins the ranks of Jews who have dissed the two-state option. In a controversial essay in July, for example, Peter Beinart, the former editor of the New Republic and now editor-at-large with Jewish Currents, pronounced the two-state solution dead and urged people “to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality.” This would result in one binational state in which both a Jewish homeland and a Palestinian homeland would be safeguarded. “Today, two states and one equal state are both unrealistic,” Beinart wrote. “The right question is not which vision is more fanciful at this moment, but which can generate a movement powerful enough to bring fundamental change.”
Fanciful it may be, but if the two-state solution deteriorates without a viable alternative, the region risks large-scale terrorism and ethnic cleansing.
There have been some tantalizing moments when a two-state solution did seem near. It came closest, perhaps, between 1993 and 1995, known as the Oslo period (for the city in which Israelis and Palestinians first met secretly to forge a preliminary agreement). After the Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the paperwork at the White House, on September 13, 1993, a majority of Israelis were giddy with anticipation.
Soon after the signing, Israeli border officials excitedly greeted me as I crossed one day from Jordan to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. I was returning from Damascus and Beirut, I explained, and several gathered around. “What’s it like in Damascus?” they wanted to know. “Has Beirut recovered from the civil war?” Like many at the time, they imagined going to these cities for a weekend, because they were so close. What no one foresaw, though, was that Baruch Goldstein, a physician and Israeli settler, would attack a prominent Hebron mosque in 1994. The shooting killed twenty-nine Muslims at prayer, left dozens wounded, and triggered a wave of suicide bombings by Hamas in retaliation. Nor did anyone expect the actions of Yigal Amir, an Israeli law student and right-wing activist. Inspired by Goldstein and indoctrinated by the same radical settler rabbis, he assassinated Rabin in November 1995. The attacks by just two Jewish ultra-nationalists scuttled any hope of fulfilling the promise of Oslo.
March 27, 2002, could have been the new dawn of a two-state agreement. On that day, in Beirut, members of the Arab League voted unanimously to support a peace initiative presented by Saudi Arabia. It called for recognition of Israel and normalization of relations by all Arab states, provided Israel agreed to the creation of a Palestinian state along the borders that existed before the 1967 war, reinstating the frontier between Israel and the Jordanian-occupied West Bank and Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip. It was a remarkable offer that should have been snapped up by the Israeli government, but on that very evening, a Hamas suicide bomber entered a Passover Seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya. The blast he set off killed twenty-nine Jews in religious celebration and wounded 140 others.
Rather than welcoming the Arab peace initiative, the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, quickly ordered troops in tanks to move in and take control of the Palestinian government enclave in Ramallah. They destroyed most of the buildings, except for the office of the president; Arafat would remain a prisoner there until 2004, when, critically ill, he was transported to Paris and died.
Dan leans toward Israel and Palestine forming a single cooperative state of some sort, and he sells it as a logical outcome of game theory, a kind of speculative psychology in which you try to anticipate the reaction of another party to certain circumstances and form your own move according to what you expect the other to do. It’s a mix of logic and math — kind of like chess, except that moves in chess are made sequentially. In game theory the moves are made simultaneously.
A classic example of game theory is known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Two guys are arrested for robbing a jewellery store and making their getaway in a stolen car. The police realize they don’t have enough evidence to convict them on the robbery, only the car theft. So they separate the two men and offer each a deal: If one confesses and testifies against the other, he can go free and the other guy will receive a three-year sentence. But if one decides to stay mum, and the other implicates him, the first guy will serve three years and the other guy will go free. If both squeal, both will serve two years in prison. And if both stay mum, they will both serve one year in prison for the car theft.
What’s a crook to do, not knowing what the other guy will do? As observers, we can analyze the options and calculate the best, mutually agreeable option to take: in the case of the prisoner’s dilemma, both should stay mum.
Replace the thieves with Palestinians and Israelis, and let them consider whether it’s better to cooperate with the other side, on many matters of concern to both, or not. Dan acknowledges that game theory isn’t a prescription for resolving the conflict. Rather, it “might help us to think about it in original and counter-intuitive ways.” He’s not trying to “propose solutions to the conflict,” he insists. Rather, he wants to “draw our attention to non‑solutions,” such as an apartheid state or two states. The nub for both sides of the conflict is this: “What kind of a one-state solution would I be prepared to accept?”
The Two-State Dilemma is enticing and, at times, captivating. But there are a few errors of fact that should trouble readers. Before the Israeli state was established, the Jewish terror group Lehi was commanded not by the future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin but by Avraham Stern and another future prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. Begin was leader of the Irgun, another pre-state paramilitary organization. And it was the Irgun, not Lehi, that brought the contentious arms-carrying cargo ship Altalena to Israel in 1948, in defiance of the new Jewish government. As well, Operation Pillar of Defense, part of the ongoing Israeli war on Hamas in Gaza, took place in November 2012, not 2013. Finally, and most disturbing, Dan writes that Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, “managed to pass a bag of his semen to his wife during a regular prison visit” when the very source that he cites, Politico.eu, states that Amir only “tried to pass” a bag of semen to her. Particularly when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is critical to get the facts straight.
Is a binational state really an option? The best case for it that I ever heard was made by a senior member of Hamas, of all people. Ahmed Yousef, a deputy foreign minister and adviser to the Palestinian prime minister in Gaza, spoke frankly when I asked him if Israel had a right to live in historic Palestine. “I do believe this land, this is the land of all Abrahamic faiths, the land of all prophets,” he told me in my 2011 Globe and Mail documentary, Inside Hamas. Muslim, Christian, and Jew all have a right to live in the region, he said. And if these people would come together, what a combination they’d make. “We are all well-educated people. If we work together we can dominate the whole region. . . . We can be a good model for the whole world.”
Earlier this year, I read the Irish writer Colum McCann’s Apeirogon, a compelling novel based on the true story of two men who did work together, one Israeli and one Palestinian; each lost a daughter to the conflict and decided to use his grief as a weapon against hate. They travel the region and the world, telling their stories in hopes of gaining converts to peace. But the conflict, like the book’s geometric title, has infinite sides, and since each faction of extremists believes it will ultimately win on its own, it’s hard to imagine them ever agreeing to cooperate. On the other hand, it’s not hard to imagine the bloodshed that will come if they don’t.