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.”

You can contact the author at

For previous columns by Bernd Debusmann, click here.


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To ZS: Your view is part of the reason that this conflict exists. You just said that Israelis are superior to Palestinians… Stop using an out of date relic as your ultimate authority on politics. You can keep praying while real people work on a real solution. Not everyone believes in Jesus Christ and they shouldn’t have to in order to have peace. Right Wing individuals like yourself are the reason why the U.S. has thrust itself too far into too many Middle East affairs it should have never touched. Do I believe in Jesus Christ and the overall message of the bible? Yes. Do I think it should be a guide to Middle East policy? Never.

Posted by SF | Report as abusive

In my humble opinion, certain preconditions, certain developments must take place prior to any negotiations for the implementation for a so called “Two state Solution”.
A). The Palestinians MUST IMMEDIATELY accept that in our age only solutions based on Democratic, Free principles are negotiable.
A1). The Palestinians MUST IMMEDIATELY proceed with the Democratisation of their two mail political factions. That can only be achieved when the two “groups” abandon their present names and rename them along the lines of a civilised, democratic multi-party political system, i.e, along democratic lines and principles, giving perhaps rise to the first true Islamic and Arabic Democratic political system. The Palestinians and the rest of the World, including the UN, cannot really expect Israel to accept another religious Islamic dictatorship, this time right next to their own State. When the Palestinian democratic Political multi-party (presently dominated by two factions, parties) then, pressure must be applied to Israel…..
B). Israel, only then can, and should, agree to some relinquishment of their settlements on the West Bank (excluding any discussions on the present status of Jerusalem), where upon, FREE Democratic Elections must take place amongst all Palestinians for the election of their Administration, their Government. The USA, Europe, Israel and the Arab countries MUST assist the fledgling Palestinian State with large capital for infrastructure and other social projects.

When the above can successfully implemented, the new Palestinian State can be the democratic shining light for all other Islamic and Arabic Nations. They can show, that even in Islamic countries, a multi-party, peaceful (democratic) political System is feasible and it can thrive socially and economically. For this to be achieved, all parties must show good will, rational and accept that a solution is only achievable if all concerned are prepared to negotiate, rationally, democratically and humanely.

Posted by Cassandros | Report as abusive

The Palestinians have one of the world’s highest birth rates. So perhaps one state is imminent biologically. Israel is a bully. Settlements continue in Hebron. It has enforced an economic blockade of Gaza. In defiance of the UN, it refuses to return Golan to Syria. If Netanyahou accedes to prime minister, he will use his 20 year old delay tactic “Iran will move in to occupy Golan when Israel leaves.” In short, there is no willingness to give and take. Israel has the power to keep on taking.

The paradox is that both Palestine and Israel are fighting for survival. Neither is instersted in “peace” but provocation. As such these are both their common bonds and fatal flaws. Intransigence has been Israel’s de facto modus operandi and mindset these past 60 years. A separate state will not not bring abaout the hoped-for ideal or enen idea of peace: animosities that have lingered more than 1000 years will not just disappear.

The US, for whatever its reasoning, fails to embrace the fact that freedom for all is inalienable. It is an universal right.

Posted by boredwell | Report as abusive

I don’t know who is giving the prize for the “Best comment” I would agree with the comment if the USA were not providing Israel every year with millions and millions of dollars. The largest recipient of foreign aid in the world. Unless Israel and the AIPAC see that the only solution is a just peace with the Palestinians (no settlements, jerusalen as capital of Palestine, and sharing water and other resources equitably) and massive economic aid to Palestine, the future of Israel looks dismal. The USA is declining economically & therefore Israel. Time is running out. J.Cervela

Posted by javier cervela | Report as abusive

How can peace be achievable when Israel occupies the West Bank and continues to build settlements on Palestinian land. It is racist that some in the world blame the Palestinians for being occupied. Somehow in this topsy world besides the United Nations, human right activists many in America and west believe Israel to be morally right in this occupation. I guess believe what you want but until Israel gives back the land, settlements and Palestinians the right to live how can there be peace. This is todays apartheid.

Posted by sunny | Report as abusive

If Israel goes to war, the world will soon follow.

Hope that the differences can be settled and the extremism is quelled.

Posted by turkish | Report as abusive

The REAL problem here is OVERPOPULATION.
As long as the poor continue to increase their numbers so fast, they will continue to live in squalour and be exploited, not just by greedy Israelites, but also by their own people.
Its is as reasonable to ask the Palestinians to give up violence as it is to ask the Israelies to give up stealing (building on the West Bank)
Perhaps the US should ask Israel to bail put their automakers!

Posted by gardiner | Report as abusive

I have always thought that Israel’s and Palestinians have more in common with each other than they do with their so called supporters.
The Palestinian cause has always been cynically used by Arabs nations, in the past Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq and today Syria, Iran and the Islamic extremists movements. They clearly have never cared about the Palestinians as Syria has always had its own nationalist goals which include Palestine/Israel (greater Syria) and Iran seems to be bent on its own Islamic and anti semitic goals.
As for Israel, its support from the west has always been conflicting with the wests desire for Arab oil (the war in Iraq) and the only times the peace process has clearly moved forward was when the Israel’s western allies, i.e.; America were not involved in the peace process, for example; the Oslo process.
The one state solution is an obvious solution but the extremists in Israel and amongst the Palestinians will have to be neutralized, which means Chamas, Hizballah, Iran on the Arab side and right wing extremists in Israel.

Posted by Barry Sheridan | Report as abusive

Mr. Debusmann,

Why would you say Obama has shown no fresh thinking about MidEast policy – how would you know? Did you have a discussion with him? Did you talk to his staff? Were you a part of meeting of some meeting with him? Or are you posturing and pontificating for your own self importance like most so-called columnist?

Your views are OBVIOUSLY pro-Israel whose arrogance throughout this situation is ridiculous. I am personally sick of our involvement with this ancient and tiresome squabble. I hope Obama focuses his attention in building relationships in the MidEast as a whole that don’t back us in diplomatic corner.

Posted by IndieFox | Report as abusive

To ZS: Wake up! If God wanted to say anything to us, he would choose a better means of communication instead of 3000 year old story book. Don’t you think if he wanted to say something to guide His/Her people/creatures he would just come out and say? Why would he use codes and abstraction in Bible & Quran if He/She is serious about getting His/Her message out? Those books have lost their usefulness if they indeed had any.

Posted by Al | Report as abusive

The U.S is the biggest problem in trying to settle this conflict one way or another. Their continued support for isreal by providing them with billions of dollars of economic aid,military weapons and information, and ignoring numerous U.N human rights accords is a clear sign that U.S is not capable of helping resolved the proble. we are the problem. Why does israel get more aid then any other country in the world, when we have the enitre continent of africa that needs help?? Obama has clearly stated that he supports israel no matter they do, when this president of “change” thinks the same way every other president has thought, what is he going to change??? israel prides itself on trying to be a peaceful nation yet, it cannot even solve the problem in its own back yard. the U.N, U.S, E.U all need to stay out of the israeli palesinian conflict. tell them they both need to come to the table one way or antoher and resolved this matter once and for all. its pathehtic that the world has to deal with their problem now for almost 4 decades. if they fail to do so, then both need to face economic sanctions and be shunned from the world. The U.S needs to stop meddling in everyone’s conflicts, because we just make it worse.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive

60 yars have passed and still some yearn to have back the geography of 1947.Prior to the state of Israel the jews had been scattered around the world for two thousand years, not for a day letting go of their identy.The holy people? Collective madness?

Posted by kh | Report as abusive

Its already too late for 2 state. Israel won’t move back to 67 borders. The only decent solution is 1 state with equal rights for all and an immediate end to apartheid.

Support the boycott and divestment movement of Israeli products and contact your representative and let them know you are tired of your tax money going to military aid to subsidize Israel’s illegal and immoral occupation. It is not our interest to subsidize apartheid anywhere…..even in Israel and the territories it occupies. Last year, with much little publicity, our govt promised Israel 30 Billion dollars over the next 10 years for military aid. This was a 20 25% (can’t remember precisely) increase over our previous military aid to Israel.

Lets have a foreign policy that puts the US’ interests first. Peace and fairness are in our interest…not 60 year old occupations on our dime.

Posted by mickle | Report as abusive

The one-state solution, where you don’t have two ethnic states with a historical rivalry sitting side-by-side, each armed to the teeth and possessed of a shopping list of territorial disputes, is probably far more viable in the long run than the two-state solution. More importantly, it’s much more in line with the modern notion of pluralistic, multiethnic societies with equal citizenship and equal participation in things like the police, the military, and so on.

If mainstream Israelis and Palestinians now want to go in this direction, they should be supported, not criticized. The two-state solution has nothing but a long history of failure and its merit, even if realized, is dubious – at best it creates a new Balkans in the Levant.

Posted by DG | Report as abusive

“Possible consequences of that belief include … a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence and the collapse of the Palestinian authority.”

So what if they do declare and the PA collapses? All that would do is provide abundant opportunity for martyrdom of Palestinians at the hand of Israeli arms. The Israeli’s posses the land now. There is no recourse available to the Palestinians to return to pre-war domains. An arbitrary declaration of independence simply gives the Israeli’s an excuse to push the Palestinians into permanent Diaspora and thence extinction. They will be the gypsies of the Arab world. It is laughable to believe the Palestinian can achieve any satisfactory end-state by violent means. Only through deep Palestinian concessions can the Palestinians hope for any favorable resolution. Israel need surrender only token offerings in the process. And a favorable resolution at this point will be a shadow of anything they might have had from past near chances. As has been said though, the Palestinian never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. I am confident the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people will be ultimately successful. The west will be indifferent to their fate.

Posted by Imri | Report as abusive

I cannot understand why the demographic concerns are seen as legitimate concerns by anyone in this country. The USA. To maintain as a matter of government policy that a state must remain ethnically?, religiously?, culturally?, Pure?. One does not have to be a practicing believer to be considered Jewish – or so I have heard.

Haven’t we seen the same arguments being used in the former Yugoslavia, in parts of Africa and elsewhere and the US has not approved of them. Where is the logic behind the exception?

I’m not at all certain how one determines the quality of ones Jewishness? It seems less a problem with Palestinians – it’s language mostly and a religious tradition. Rather too much of one perhaps? Or too fierce? But ferocity seems common to both sides.

Keeping a demographic plurality is very little different than gerrymandering, redlining, and so like what the Nazi’s seemed to want as well. Why do we fall for it? It wouldn’t be legal in this country for any state to try to restrict itself to one ethnic, religious or cultural majority. What kind of principle is it that Israel has been trying to preserve to the point of long-term occupation of the demographically inconvenient?

Posted by paul rosa | Report as abusive

Two things have been crystal clear since 1948: Israel has always been in a territorial expansion mode, never in a peace mode. And the United States has never been an honest broker in the Middle East. With a more than 60-year record pursuing these policies, it is impossible to arrive at an equitable solution for the Palestinians with the assistance of the United States, nor should they expect such a solution. Israel, however, now realizes the inevitability of a state with a Jewish minority, based simply on the rate of reproduction of the arab population inside Israel, and the decline in the number of Jewish immigrants to Israel. They will try to arrive at a solution that is acceptable to the Palestinians before time runs out on them, and hope that the United States will assist them. But we have inherited the whirlwind, and the Palestinians are no fools. They will wait and let nature take its course. Israel has lost its chance for permanence.

Posted by Richard Bentley | Report as abusive

Response to Michael Malley post “Have the arabs ever grown oranges? Guess they get theirs from Florida.”

Yes! the Arabs grow oranges from Syria, Lebanon all the way to Morocco. As a matter of fact they introduced oranges to the west. Israel is the very last to join in. The only reason you actually know that is because they want you to believe they make the land bloom and that they deserve to keep the land they stole from the Palestinians. They need you to buy those oranges as well. You see it never fails to bet on the sheer ignorance and stupidity of those living in the west. This is an important part of why there is a lack of progress in the peace process and Israel knows it and uses it very well.

Posted by Alan Hansen | Report as abusive


The main Arab-American problem is Iraq.

It will be so for the foreseeable future. It is a result of the maniacal obsession with Saddam by President Bush.

To appease the Arabs, the Arab lobby suggests to sacrifice Israel.

Like all supporters of terrorists,from the Left to the anti-Semites and the Arabs,their main pawns Zbig and Jimmy threaten the West with more terrorism and hatred toward the US and Western nations.

Their two main bogus arguments are: one state for the Jews and Arabs and the \”demographic threat.\”

The biggest opponents of the one-state solution are the Palestinian Arabs with the exception of one or two persons on the Left.

The \”demographic threat\” was completely obliterated when one million Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel.

However, the Arab lobby is going full speed in its almost daily attacks on Israel. Their goal is to undermine the US-Israeli relationship to appease the Arabs.


Posted by Isaac | Report as abusive

They (Israel) will always be a thorn in their brothers side. No matter what we think is fair or not fair, GOD said that they (Israel)are HIS people and made a covenant with Abraham that the land belongs to Israel. Who can dispute that?? The land belongs to GOD’s chosen people… Period.

Posted by James Robert Boy | Report as abusive