If history teaches anything, it teaches that America cannot impose solutions on peoples of very different cultural background without risking unforeseen, deeply unwelcome consequences.

Recent Congressional proposals seek to prohibit Israel’s use of American funds or military equipment to maintain control of the West Bank. 

Such proposals reflect a (by no means uncommon) belief that Israeli insensitivity to Palestinian aspirations is the main reason peace has never been achieved. If only Israel would commit to withdraw from the West Bank and adopt a more conciliatory approach, Palestinians would accept a two-state solution along the 1967 lines — and the conflict finally would end.

Those assumptions, I fear, have little historic justification. Since its creation in 1994, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has faced conflicting imperatives. On the one hand, it cannot remain in power without military support from Israel — including regular raids on Hamas cells in the West Bank — and financial support from the U.S., Europe and Arab states. The PA cannot ignore demands from those parties that it remain open to a two-state solution. 

Victor Lieberman
Victor Lieberman

On the other hand, Palestinian popular opinion has always been, and is now more than ever, opposed to the existence of a Jewish state. Eliminating Israel, polls show, remains the cherished objective for 70%-80% of Palestinians. The PA, therefore, cannot accept a two-state solution without risking a total loss of legitimacy or an uprising such as allowed Hamas to drive the PA from Gaza in 2007. 

What then does the PA do? It refuses to say yes to any proposal. It refuses to say no. Indeed, it refuses to say anything, however generous the settlement may appear to outsiders. That was what the PA did in 2000-2001, 2008 and 2014. On those occasions, in return for recognition, Israel offered to withdraw from territory equal to 96-100% of the West Bank, to divide Jerusalem, to accept a limited refugee return and to arrange generous compensation for the rest. 

Those offers met almost everything the PA President Mohammed Abbas says he wants. But Palestinian popular opinion demanded not only that those offers be rejected, but also that they be rejected with violence: bombs in Israeli cities in 1993-1996, the second intifada of 2000 to 2003, Hamas-initiated wars in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021; all such attacks issued from territory Israel had evacuated in an effort to reduce tensions. 

True, of course, Israel also had and has diehard opponents of compromise. Nevertheless, three Israeli prime ministers — Rabin, Barak and Olmert — were able to marshal pro-peace majorities for which there was no Palestinian counterpart.

Refusal to Accept a Jewish State

I would emphasize that refusal to accept a Jewish state has defined Palestinian politics for generations. It was the bedrock position of Haj Amin al-Husayni (the Palestinian leader from 1922-1948, who allied with Hitler), of the PLO’s charter and, today, of Hamas and its patrons, Iran and Hezbollah. Twenty-first-century rejection of peace offers awarding Arabs extensive or total control of the West Bank had precedents in 1937, 1939, 1947 and 1968. 

Virtually everything of which Palestinians complain — refugees, West Bank annexation, the security wall, settlements, the Gaza blockade — began as a defensive response to Palestinian-initiated or -supported violence,

If all past efforts at reconciliation have failed, by what logic are they likely to succeed now — when Hamas, with Iranian support, is more popular than ever? If elections were held today, polls agree, pro-Hamas candidates would trounce Mahmoud Abbas’ PA by at least four-to-one. Hamas leaders vow they will not only destroy Israel but will expel all Jews whose families arrived after 1914, i.e., 99%. 

Refusal to accept what Palestinians see as the Jews’ historic theft of their land is understandable. In effect, Palestinians had to pay the price for European antisemitism for which they bore no responsibility. Yet understandable though Palestinian grievances may be — and I can recite those grievances as well as any Palestinian — the fact remains that the demand for Israel’s destruction has been and remains incompatible with a two-state solution. 

But imagine for a moment that Congressional legislation effectively prohibited Israeli forces from operating in the West Bank. The PA would then face two grim alternatives. Most probably, as I just suggested, it would lose power to Hamas, either through an election or an uprising. Hamas, and quite possibly Iranian forces, then would be on the doorstep of major Israeli cities. That almost certainly would lead Israel to reoccupy the West Bank, triggering violence on a scale not seen in the last 55 years. 

Or, to retain power, PA authorities, like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, would mount a savage repression of their own people that also would make a mockery of American dreams of a peaceful, prosperous region. Either outcome would be far worse than a continuation of the status quo. 

Potential Outcomes 

Of course, no one can predict the future with certainty, but such outcomes are far more likely than a scenario in which one-sided American pressure on Israel yields a mutually agreed, live-happily-ever-after two-state solution. 

The rest of the world, we easily forget, is not like the U.S. The assumption that other peoples, in their heart of hearts, really want to be like Americans, that they instinctively favor Western political institutions, underlay the disastrous U.S. nation-building exercises in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In every case, American intervention, rather than promote peace and compromise, dramatically increased violence, extremism and suffering.

That the PA, not to mention Hamas, could embrace compromise and democratic norms is very unlikely. Both organizations, military dictatorships, refuse all free elections, routinely torture and/or execute political opponents, and forbid free speech or civil liberties. The most respected ranking of global democracy, the British-based Economist Democracy Index (with No. 1 the best, No. 167 the worst) ranks Israel No. 23, the U.S. No. 26 — and Palestine No. 109. 

What then is to be done? Rather than declare, “After 75 years our patience is finally exhausted, and we are going to settle this problem now once and for all”; rather than penalize Israel for an impasse rooted chiefly in Palestinian refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist; rather than ask Palestinians to tolerate something they have long regarded as intolerable, America should seek to modify the status quo gradually and quietly. 

Biden’s Approach

In fact, this is a rough description of President Joe Biden’s approach. Specifically, the U.S. should build upon the Abraham Accords, promote economic development in Palestinian territories, and do what it can to strengthen the PA in the hope that moderation somehow might ultimately prevail.

But blithely to wish away the past, to penalize the party that has been most in favor of compromise while rewarding the party most opposed, can only whet Hamas’ ambition and convert chronic low-level violence into yet another massive explosion. (Space precludes discussion, but any attempt to impose a one-state solution, which even Congressional advocates of sanctioning Israel deem unrealistic, would almost certainly hasten that explosion.) 

If history teaches anything, it teaches that America cannot impose solutions on peoples of very different cultural background without risking unforeseen, deeply unwelcome consequences. 

The Two-State Solution Act, though perhaps well-intentioned, promises to do precisely that. Some problems, history avers all too sadly, can be contained, but are not amenable to rapid solution. 

Victor Lieberman is the Raoul Wallenberg Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where he teaches a course, the most popular in the department, on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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