Alan Elsner on the Need for a Two-State Solution in West Palm Beach

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Alan Elsner
on March 1, 2016

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Alan Elsner, the Special Advisor to the President of J Street, delivered these powerful opening remarks in support of a two-state solution at a debate at Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach, Florida on February 28, 2016. 

Thank you for this invitation and this opportunity to participate in this important conversation and dialogue.

I think all of us in this room are united by our love of Israel and our concern for its future. We all wish to see Israel thrive, prosper and achieve a good life for all of its citizens. We want to see Israel truly as a light unto the nations.

For the promise of Israel to be fully realized , sooner or later it has to find a way to reach peace with its neighbors. I contend that the only way to achieve this is through a two-state solution.

The idea is both natural and just. Two people live on the same territory. Neither one is going to disappear. Neither one will surrender to the other. Neither one will totally vanquish the other. To live as good neighbors, they must divide the land. This is difficult and painful but it must be done. And the good news is that if we were to draw a border based on the 1967 lines, that could include land swaps, around 80 percent of the Israelis who currently live in settlements in the West Bank could remain in their homes which would then be within Israel.

What are the alternatives? There are three:

  • The Hamas solution, under which Israel would be destroyed and replaced by an Islamic Caliphate. That would be everyone’s worst nightmare. Fortunately, thanks to Israel’s military strength and the courage and determination of its citizens and soldiers, that’s not going to happen. Israel must stay strong but it is by far the most powerful military power in the region — and beyond. And it has a second strike nuclear capability to deter any would-be attacks with unconventional weapons.
  • Then there is the Greater Israel solution, under which Israel annexes all or most of the West Bank and the Palestinians continue to have very limited local autonomy in city enclaves but the IDF controls what happens on the ground. This solution is favored by several parties inside the current Israeli government — including many ministers in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party. It’s what the settlement movement is working on every single day. But it remains an illusion, or more accurately a delusion. What will happen to the people — the 2.5 million Palestinians — if we annex the land? It’s obvious that Palestinians will never accept this so-called solution, neither will the international community. It is a recipe for Israeli isolation and constant and growing Palestinian terrorism and extremism. It’s also a situation where Israelis have full civil and democratic rights and Palestinians don’t. There are words to describe that situation but I don’t want to use them because they are too painful.
  • Last there is the illusion of a democratic unitary state. The one state nightmare. That’s another a recipe for the end of Israel as a Jewish homeland since it would no longer be have Jewish majority. We live in an age of nationalism –and in the worst cases of tribalism. The Middle East is disintegrating along ethnic and religious lines. Nationalism is even straining peaceful countries in Europe. If the Czechs and Slovaks and even the Scots and the English don’t want to live together, what makes us think that the Israelis and Palestinians would share a country peacefully and in harmony? And even if they could, I would not want that — because I am a Zionist and I believe in Jewish self-determination.

We need Israel as the one place in the world where we fully express our culture, our religion, our tradition, our language — and we need it as a safe haven for Jews around the world so that we’ll never again see a Holocaust. Palestinians similarly want to live in their own state too where they can determine their own future.

That’s why the two-state solution will remain the only formula acceptable to both sides and the world at large to end this conflict.

Kill the two-state solution and you kill the prospect of having peace. You condemn Israelis and Palestinians to conflict without end. That’s a very heavy responsibility to take on your shoulders.

We’re here to debate whether the two-state solution is still possible. But I want to reframe the debate slightly.

None of us is naïve. All of us can see the current situation. I think we would almost all agree that right now, today, there is no immediate prospect of a two-state solution.

Right now, today, there are no negotiations. To my personal regret, neither Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas seems likely to pursue a serious effort. I don’t like saying that — but I have to recognize that this is reality. We’re probably going to have to wait for new leaders and a new generation on both sides to move forward.

The question I want to pose is: what happens in the meantime? We often hear from some Israelis that the status quo is the best option. But I would argue that there is no status quo. Events on the ground don’t stand still. There is constant change. Is it change for the better or change for the worse? If there is no progress to a two-state solution, what are we going to get instead?

Is it true that time is on Israel’s side? Or is time working against us?

How do we balance the risks of moving forward with the risks of not moving forward?

We can’t debate the two-state solution in a vacuum. We can’t analyze its pros and cons as an academic or intellectual exercise – without also analyzing what might happen — what is happening right before our eyes — without a two-state solution.

I believe the horrific violence we’re seeing today is just a glimpse of the future that awaits if there is no two-state solution — and unfortunately it’s just going to get worse. Eventually, the people on both sides will reject that kind of reality and demand another way. I hope the two-state solution is still available as an option at that time.

We in the pro-Israel community have a tendency to approach these kinds of discussions as an exercise in casting blame. I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve been at where we have gone through out all of the key dates – 1947, 1967, 1973, 2000, 2008 – probably we’ll do that here tonight too — and in each case , we prove to our own satisfaction that we were right and they were wrong. I have to tell you that this is not a debate that interests me. It makes us feel good and worthy – but it doesn’t take us forward. I leave the past to the historians. I’m interesting in the future. I want to know what kind of Israel my family and my loved ones will have. I’m interested in what we can do to bring about peace – and avoid a future that is already taking shape and that is horrible – a future of conflict, bloodshed, extremism on both sides, intolerance, racism – and ultimately a future that will devour Israel’s democracy.

Those who wield power and exercise leadership must make a choice every day. Even when they refuse to explicitly choose a course of action, they are still making a choice — a choice of inaction. So what we face is not a choice between “yes two states” or “no two states.” It’s a choice between what might happen if the parties choose to move forward toward peace against what might happen if they choose not to move forward.

Yes, all efforts to get there so far have failed for various, complex reasons. But we cannot be prisoners of the past or allow our past failures to dictate our future actions.

Zionism was not built on fatalism and an expectation of failure. Our national anthem, “Hatikva” means “The Hope.” It was written by Naftali Herz Imber in 1877 – 20 years before the first Zionist Congress in Basel. When Imber penned those words, the idea of a Jewish state must have seemed far-fetched indeed. Imber himself died in 1909, 29 years before the birth of the State of Israel. He never lived to see the dream become reality, but his words continue to inspire us today.

Imber wrote:

“We have no yet lost hope
To be a free people in our Land
We should live by that motto.”

Alan Elsner is Special Advisor to the President at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @alanelsner