Can Obama avert an Arab-Israeli disaster?

By Bernd Debusmann
December 11, 2008

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Time is running out for Israel and the Palestinians. Barack Obama is probably the last American president to have the option of pursuing an accord leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the so-called two-state solution.

If that fails, another generation will be locked into bloodshed and strife. That is the bleak scenario painted by two senior American Middle East experts in a new book, Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President. It is the product of an 18-month joint study by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, two pillars of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The authors of the chapter on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Steven A. Cook and Shibley Telhami, see American involvement in peace diplomacy as indispensable and say last month’s presidential elections opened new opportunities. But they note that after years of unsuccessful negotiations, there is a
growing sense of disbelief in the possibility of a peaceful agreement.

“More troubling, an increasing number of Palestinian and Arab intellectuals are abandoning the idea of a two-state solution and are now advocating a one-state solution in which Jews and Arabs coexist in a binational state. In Israel some mainstream voices are now arguing that the two-state solution is

“Left on its current trajectory, the Arab-Israeli conflict is on the verge of moving into a potentially disastrous phase in which Israelis and Arabs broadly come to believe that the two-state solution is no longer viable,” the authors say.

Possible consequences of that belief include a third Palestinian intifada (uprising), a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence and the collapse of the Palestinian authority.

Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls Gaza and is growing in influence on the occupied West Bank, run by the rival Fatah, would be strengthened.

To prevent the dire consequences they foresee, the authors say the new U.S. administration must give high priority to peace diplomacy and change policies on key aspects. Pressing Israel to freeze building settlements in the West Bank is high on their list. So is getting Hamas into the negotiating fold as part of a unity government. (So far, the U.S. and the European Union brand Hamas a terrorist group that cannot be a negotiating partner).

So can Obama do what is necessary to end the impasse? Is the only alternative to a two-state solution renewed, large-scale bloodshed?


While Obama has been critical of the hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first seven years of the Bush administration, dismissing its efforts as “trips consisting of little more than photo-ops”, the president-elect has shown no sign that he might be willing to break with the decades-old policies that have earned the U.S. a reputation in the Arab world of backing Israel no matter what.

Would Obama, for example, use the threat of withholding U.S. financial aid to get Israel to stop building new settlements in the West Bank – where there already are 240,000 Israeli settlers – or dismantle existing ones? Not likely. Would he throw his weight behind calls for an end to Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza?

Would he, as the Brookings/Council on Foreign Relations report suggests, “recognize that Hamas’s power stems from genuine support among a significant segment of the Palestinian public..?” There’s nothing in his public statements that indicates he would and there are no pointers that he intends to depart from long-standing U.S. policies on the conflict.

That includes the two-state idea. What’s remarkable in the Brookings/CFR analysis is the concern it expresses that in the absence of a peace settlement, secular elites will turn their back on the notion of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and instead opt for one country (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza) in which Arabs and Jews are equal. For decades, the one-state idea was the preserve of a handful of far-left Israelis and Palestinian activists. The fact that it is now bubbling up into the mainstream shows that is gaining currency.

One of the most vocal proponents of the idea is Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-American activist and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. “All the talk of a two-state solution, all the diplomatic initiatives are divorced from the reality of what Israel is doing on the ground,” he says. “A Palestinian state requires the removal of settlements and that’s not likely to happen.”

Most Israelis reject the notion of one state for all, chiefly for reasons of demographics. Because of higher Palestinian birth rates, Israeli Jews will become a minority within the next two years if present trends continue. By December 2007, Israeli Jews made up just under 48% of the population in the area that would make up one state, Palestinians 46%.

Abunimah, a co-founder the The Electronic Intifada, a website critical of U.S. and Israeli policies, has something in common with the more moderate experts from Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations. “Solving the Arab-Israeli conflict requires a sledgehammer,” he says, “Not a scalpel.”

Echoing that sense of urgency, the Brookings report says: “The time for incremental agreements has passed.”

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For previous columns by Bernd Debusmann, click here.


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@Robert Vincent: Mr. Vincent, I mostly share your opinion. Nevertheless I hope you answer two questions I have, referring to your following statement:

“the original modern Israeli state, per the 1947 U.N. partition plan, did not result in the displacement of ANY Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinian Arabs only became refugees as a result of two wars started by their leaders, and/or by the leaders of neighboring Arab states, these being the 1948 and 1967 wars.”

1. How could have been realized the jewish homeland according to the UN partition plan, without dispelling the Arabs from the region which was ought to be Israel?

2. Isn’t it true that the Irgun and other military forces threatened Palastinian Arabs to leave their homes or they would get killed otherwise?

Thanks in advance for giving more details.

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