Late last autumn and to great fanfare, Representative Andy Levin (D-MI-9) proposed the Two-State Solution Act, which would make it U.S. policy to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and would, according to Levin, lay out the steps necessary to achieve it.
As a piece of legislation, the bill went nowhere. Only a dozen or so Democrats expressed support for it. This stands in marked contrast to a resolution introduced in the last Congress by Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA-47). That resolution, which expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, had 192 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
But the goal was never to pass a bill, but rather to move the Overton window of the mainstream liberal foreign policy consensus on Israel. For this reason alone, Levin’s bill and the organizational effort behind it merit scrutiny.
On his webpage, the congressman writes, “We can no longer claim credibly to support a two-state solution without taking steps to bring one about.” The question that isn’t asked is whether this bill contains any such steps. The deeper question lurking in the background, which the bill does attempt to answer but which it answers wrongly, is why such a solution hasn’t been affected yet.
Though both congressional initiatives have “two-state” featured prominently in the title, Levin’s bill is radically different from the earlier Lowenthal resolution. The former codifies the emergent orthodoxy among foreign-policy liberals over the past two decades into legislative language. This orthodoxy has less to do with any constructive ideas about conflict resolution and more to do with a morality tale about Israel that might be useful for domestic politics but is often quite disconnected from reality. For establishment liberals in Democratic Party circles, this new orthodoxy both distinguishes them from the Republicans and functions as a rear-guard action against the loud anti-Israel minority on their left flank.
The Levin bill’s small number of sponsors might make it seem like a fringe effort, but that is far from the case. The bill is not an appeal to the so-called “Squad,” but rather a bid to refashion the consensus arrayed against the Squad when it comes to liberal Democratic policy toward Israel.
And because there is no realistic chance of anything like this bill passing now and binding a Democratic administration, its language is actually much more free and unguarded in expressing the new mainstream liberal orthodoxy on Israel, pushed by leading figures in the foreign-policy establishment and by the tough-love-for-Israel lobby group J Street. The bill’s text and subtext are a guide for where liberal Democrats might go in a future Democratic administration—or how the Democratic leadership might challenge either a future Republican administration or an ascendant anti-Israel minority from the fringes of their own party.
What Went Wrong
The text embodies two pillars of thought of liberal Israel agonistes: a wholly inaccurate story of what went wrong in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and a determination to selectively prejudge some of the “final status” issues that might otherwise have to be negotiated by the parties.
The spirit of the bill is best expressed in its “Findings” section. Of eleven findings, the first three are anodyne statements about the importance of two states, and the remaining eight are direct criticisms of Israel. None criticize the Palestinians in any way. If the bill’s author believes the Palestinians might have contributed in any way to the current impasse, he didn’t see fit to share it.
Instead, the bill promotes a simplistic view of why there is no peace. The what-went-wrong story can be summarized in one word: settlements.
The common claim is that the growth of settlements in the West Bank has made a two-state solution impossible. The problem with this claim isn’t that settlements aren’t deeply problematic; they certainly are.
The problem is that at no point in any of the three rounds of final-status talks (2000–2001, 2007–2008, 2013–2014) did any settlement block a deal. We are frequently told that settlements make dividing the land into two states impossible, but maps were on the table doing just that in all three rounds of talks, and all three times the Palestinian side rejected them. In the first two rounds, the Israeli side very explicitly accepted sweeping settlement evacuations as part of a proposed deal. Lest anyone think this impossible, it is worth remembering that Israel has already evacuated settlements in Sinai and in Gaza.
The heuristic employed to reach this determination is simple. It consists of two steps. First, identifying the single most counterproductive, unpopular, unhelpful action Israel has taken in its conflict with the Palestinians: settlement construction. Second, since the attribution of any agency whatsoever to Palestinians is forbidden, the worst thing Israel does is almost definitionally the reason for the absence of peace.
The Levin bill fits perfectly into this discourse. It wants a cure—several cures, in fact—to a misdiagnosed illness. Three times in the last twenty-five years Israelis and Palestinians have sat down to iron out terms of a two-state solution, and three times the Palestinians have rejected any deal that would involve a full reconciliation of Israel. But Levin’s bill offers no “medicine” for that affliction, just a legal finding against the existence of settlements (something which runs counter to the Oslo Accords, which recognize Israeli rule over the settlements in the interim phase and leave their final status to be negotiated by the two sides), bolstered by a strict labeling regime against products made there.
There is nothing in the bill to address Palestinian rejection of previous peace plans. In fact, there is no mention of this at all. It does not come up as part of the background; it is not the findings. Quite unlike the attention given to settlements, the bill’s text contains absolutely nothing that would indicate its backers think previous Palestinian rejections of peace have any explanatory value at all. The bill offers no suggestions for how to overcome Palestinian rejectionism, because this rejectionism is nowhere acknowledged as having happened.
The same goes for Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians, which had a catastrophic effect on the peace process when it first exploded during the Oslo years (especially 1994–1997). Its effect was even starker following the collapse of the peace process (especially 2000–2004). That these two waves of suicidal terror might actually explain, if only partially, why a two-state solution didn’t come to fruition twenty years ago is not addressed in Levin’s bill. Nor is the fact that such terror was only ended by offensive Israeli military action of exactly the kind that this bill’s proposed export controls would render impossible.
The Oslo process in the 1990s gave the Palestinians their first-ever measure of self-government—their first trappings of sovereignty, which they recklessly forsook in the late 1940s, when so many other national liberation movements did begin to govern territories vacated by old imperial powers. For the first time ever, the Palestinians had passports, postage stamps, armed police forces, diplomatic missions, trade agreements, an international airport, and free and fair elections for their own government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
This self-government was poised to become a fully sovereign state within less than a decade. But at just that moment, the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat rejected a peace accord with Israel and launched a violent campaign of suicidal terror. It is both astonishing and deeply revealing that even twenty years later, with that decision’s disastrous consequences apparent to all who wish to see them, there are still so few voices within Palestinian society or in the broader community of pro-Palestinian activists and intellectuals who will acknowledge this mistake or seek to correct it.
And there is nothing in the Levin bill that acknowledges it or seeks to correct it.
Incentivizing Further Conflict
The second pillar complements the first. Even if one accepts the determination that Israeli misdeeds caused the peace process to fail, one still must account for why each time it is the Palestinian side that rejects proposed terms for ending the conflict. To this end, parameters are set forth that always offer much better terms for the Palestinians than those they turned down in previous peace talks, without ever giving any adequate explanation for why that should be the case.
The Oslo Accords spell out several final-status issues that need to be ironed out by the two sides. These include statehood, borders, refugees, security, settlements, and Jerusalem. The accords call on both sides not to take any action that might prejudge these issues, and commit the accords’ sponsors to take no such action, either.
Drawing on what has become the standard think tank and NGO playbook, Levin’s bill selectively prejudges some final-status issues and is either silent on the rest or leaves them up to future negotiations. But there is nothing accidental about the choice of issues or the positions taken. The issues prejudged are always those where the consensus runs against Israel, and never the ones where international opinion is more understanding of the Israeli position (such as security and refugees).