x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Kerry's deadline may signal end of road for two-state solution

The challenge by US secretary of state that 'two states for two peoples' will not be an option in two years signals a turning point in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah

A Palestinian protester runs away from a tear gas canister fired by Israeli security forces during clashes in the village of Kfar Qaddum, near Nablus in the West Bank on Friday. Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP
A Palestinian protester runs away from a tear gas canister fired by Israeli security forces during clashes in the village of Kfar Qaddum, near Nablus in the West Bank on Friday. Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP

RAMALLAH // In recent years, eulogies over the death of the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have become almost as numerous, and predictable, as Israel's construction of new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem or the West Bank.

Like the mythical phoenix, however, the two-state solution keeps rising from the ashes, borne aloft by the hopes of those who see it as the only way two stubborn peoples can reconcile their claims to the same piece of land.

This month, however, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, challenged the notion that the two-state solution would always be an option if only political inertia and cowardice, or geopolitical fantasies, were overcome.

On April 17, Mr Kerry told members of the US congress that the two-state solution had "a year to year-and-a-half to two years, or it's over".

Seldom in the 75-year-old history of "two states for two peoples" has so senior and powerful an official held a mirror up to this proposal for ending the Palestinian-Israeli struggle and suggested its champions were fantasists if they believed, like a mantra, it would remain an option forever.

In Israel, Mr Kerry's remarks were seen as a warning over Israeli settlements, though he did not explicitly mention them, the analysts say.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, they were interpreted a sign of flagging US confidence in the political acumen of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

"This is a very significant development that, to me, signals the era of soft denial in Washington is over," said Daniel Seidemann, the founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, an Israeli organisation that deals with issues in the city related to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He has repeatedly warned that the two-state solution was being undermined by Israeli settlement construction in Jerusalem, which Palestinians have claimed as the capital of a future state.

"The line used to be one of let's kick this can down the road," said Mr Seidemann. "And now there's this statement that there may be no more can and no more road to kick one down."

Mr Kerry has visited the region several times in recent weeks, meeting Israeli and Palestinian officials in an effort to coax them back to talks, using the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 as a starting point.

The last round of talks, sponsored by the US president, Barack Obama, collapsed in late 2010 because Israel refused to stop building settlements.

While the two-state solution has been officially endorsed by the Palestinians, Israel and the United States, it remains only an idea.

Impeding its realisation are the harsh realities of a still-simmering conflict. Israel continues to expand settlements on land claimed for a Palestinian state.

The Palestinians are divided between the rival leaderships of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the PA in the West bank, which is controlled by the Fatah faction.

European officials have warned for years of a window closing on the two-state solution, but US officials had refrained from such pronouncements.

The change of tone in Washington appeared to be a recognition of what is required to get any movement on the peace process from the Israeli government, said Yigal Kipnis, a history professor at the University of Haifa.

"This time limit is a tool of pressure being used by the Americans," he said. "(The Israeli prime minister Benjamin) Netanyahu won't move forward on the situation without US pressure."

Mr Obama does not support the Palestinian demand that Israel stop constructing settlements before talks resume. This has not inspired Palestinian confidence in Mr Kerry's attempt to broker fresh talks.

"The so-called peace process is a lot more process than peace," said Mazin Qumsiyeh, a political commentator and political activist who teaches biology at Bethlehem University.

Lacking credible alternatives to negotiations with Israel, Palestinian leaders in Ramallah are running short on credibility, he said, adding: "PA officials are in a quandary - they don't know what to do."

Waning US confidence in a two-state solution could have harsh financial consequences for the PA, which relies heavily on foreign aid. Washington alone gives it more than US$500 million (Dh1.8billion) in annual donations.

If the US lost faith in creating a Palestinian state, pressure would mount in Washington, as well as Europe and Arab countries, to stop aiding the PA, said Sami Ajrami, a journalist for the official Palestinian news agency Wafa, who lives in the Gaza strip.

"When PA officials heard Kerry's comments, I'm sure there was a thought that their jobs were no longer as secure," he said. "The PA was supposed to be the vehicle to Palestinian statehood, but if there's no possibility for a state, then what's the purpose of this vehicle?"

Some believe Mr Kerry's declaration could strengthen European Union calls to place more pressure on Israel over its settlements.

It also runs the risk of reinforcing a general Palestinian belief that the two-state project has failed, said Abdul Sattar Kassem, a professor of political science at Nablus' An Najah University.

That would further erode the PA's credibility and risk a new bout of fighting, he said.

"It's a turning point," Mr Kassem added.

hnaylor@thenational.ae