The Balfour Declaration of the British government in 1917 called for the establishment of a "Jewish national home" within Palestine, which implied the idea of two states. When the United Nations passed its resolution in 1947, it called explicitly for the establishment of two states (with a special status for Jerusalem). The partition was supported at the time by both the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as by the social movements everywhere that followed their lead. The Oslo accords of 1993 called for two states. And today Condoleezza Rice insists that a final agreement on two states is an urgent matter that she hopes to see implemented at a conference to be convened in Annapolis, Maryland (at an as yet indefinite date, presumably in November of this year).
What was the historic reaction of the Zionist movement (and the state of Israel) on the one hand and of successive representatives of the Arab Palestinians on the other hand to the idea of a permanent partition - that is, two states? In practice, neither side ever liked the idea. Among the Zionists/Israelis, there were originally three different positions, none of them favorable to partition. There were the so-called Revisionists (and their successor groups such as the Likud today) who called outright for an exclusively Jewish state (indeed, originally including Jordan). For many of their advocates, this included the need to expel non-Jews from the land. There was at the other end of the spectrum a small group of intellectuals (such as Judah Magnes and Martin Buber) who called for the establishment of a unitary Arab-Jewish binational state, a position that died out after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. And then there were the mainstream Zionists who became the mainstream political leaders in Israel. They accepted the idea of partition as a necessary reality, while seeking to foster a creeping expansion of the frontiers of the Jewish state, hoping one day to occupy most or all of the country. This was essentially the position of such major figures as David Ben-Gurion, and later of Ariel Sharon.
The only Zionist/Israeli groups that ever called for two states as a permanent and definitive solution were movements such as Peace Now, which emerged after 1967, which proposed to exchange "land for peace." These groups were never able to win a clear majority in Israeli elections, and today their position is more than ever a minority one.
On the Arab/Palestinian side, the resistance to the idea of two states has always been great. At first there were no advocates whatsoever of the idea. This is why, when the United Nations decided on partition in 1947, there were no takers on the Arab/Palestinian side. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was created in 1964 as an organization specifically opposed to the idea. The PLO did slowly change its position in the 1980s and, as part of the Oslo accords of 1993, formally accepted the idea of two states. For many Israelis, nonetheless, this change of position was merely tactical and not genuine - a sort of mirror image of the Ben Gurion-Sharon pragmatic acceptance of partition as the realism of the present, while always hoping to move from there to a later one-state solution. Today, however, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is a loud and strong proponent of a two-state solution. And the Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are clearly ready to endorse this position. On the other hand, today, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel seems at best a very lukewarm proponent of actually creating a Palestinian state.
So, what are the prospects of arriving at an accord? Not very strong, as is acknowledged in the statement of eight heavyweight U.S. public figures who have just published in The New York Review of Books what might be termed a last call for a two-state solution. They entitle this statement somewhat ominously "Failure Risks Devastating Consequences." Who signed this statement? The first name is Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor and is a key advisor of Barack Obama. There are three other Democratic notables: Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group; Thomas Pickering, Bill Clinton’s Under-Secretary of State; and Theodore Sorenson, special counsel to John F. Kennedy. The Republican side is equally eminent: Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to both Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush (who is often considered to be the unofficial voice of the first President Bush); Carla Hills, U.S. Trade Representative for George H.W. Bush; former Senator Nancy Kassenbaum-Baker; and Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
This very distinguished group share one feature in common: They have had nothing to do with the current administration of George W. Bush. Their letter was sent to President Bush and to Condoleezza Rice. They offer a detailed proposal - the one that everyone knows is the only plausible two-state solution: two states based on the 1967 frontiers, two capitals in Jerusalem with special arrangements for the holy places, and "a solution to the refugee problem that is consistent with the two-state solution, addresses the Palestinian refugees’ deep sense of injustice, as well as provides them with meaningful financial compensation and resettlement assistance." They also call for including both Syria and Hamas in the settlement negotiations, and an immediate freeze on Israeli settlements. This was the proposal almost adopted at the Taba meetings in December 2000 in the last days of the Clinton administration. But almost is not good enough. This proposal is one that is no doubt acceptable to Abbas, and even quite possibly to Hamas. But it is one that has long been publicly and strongly excluded by Olmert’s government.
Why the tone of desperation? Because the authors know that it is unlikely that the proposal will be accepted either by the Israeli government or by George W. Bush. The Israeli Knesset has clearly been dragging its feet on any agreement, and there are no signs it is ready to shift position. Nor is there any sign that the Bush administration is ready to think about really twisting their arm to do so. Quite the contrary.
Why then do the eight signatories bother to make this last call? Because the twentieth-century international consensus on the two-state solution is fading away. Sympathy for Israel, once so strong, is declining even in quarters once strongly sympathetic to the Israeli position, and with this there are coming increased calls for a unitary state. Given the present state of mutual fear and antagonism, the Israelis will never accept a one-state outcome. They would no doubt rather continue the cycle of unending violence. What Brzezinski and the other seven are implicitly warning is that failure of the Israelis (and of the U.S. government) to accept this proposal right now would have the devastating consequence of a much-escalated civil war that could go on for another thirty years, with a very uncertain outcome for the very survival of the state of Israel. It is a gloomy picture for one and all.