With a new U.S. president preparing to take office and Israeli elections on the horizon, an overflow crowd gathered here on Monday at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association for a panel on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The panel had a hopeful title—"Models of Coexistence: A Universe of Possible Solutions in Israel/Palestine"—but the speakers' outlook was grim. The window of opportunity for creating a two-state solution is closing quickly, the panelists suggested. Eight years from now, they said, the West Bank is likely to be so extensively laced with Israeli roads and settlements that it will be nearly impossible to create a viable and contiguous Palestinian state in that area.
Two States or One?
"A two-state solution is the worst possible answer, except for all the others," said Glenn E. Robinson, an associate professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. "Since the popular sentiment in the region seems to be so strongly against marriage," he said, "divorce is probably best."
Mr. Robinson said that the eventual solution will probably follow the outlines of the Geneva Accord, a peace proposal developed by former Israeli and Palestinian diplomats in 2003. He said he expects to see a great deal of activity on this front from the Obama administration next year. "But I worry about the number of old Clinton hands who seem to be coming on board," he added. "These are people who failed during the 1990s."
None of the other panelists, however, shared Mr. Robinson's immediate hopes for a two-state solution. "Palestinian refugees are the core moral issue of the conflict, and a two-state solution isn't likely to resolve that issue," said Nadim N. Rouhana, a professor of conflict analysis at George Mason University.
But while Mr. Rouhana distrusts a two-state solution, he also has doubts about proposals to bring Jews and Palestinians together in a single binational state—an idea that has proven attractive to certain scholars and activists during the last decade.
Neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders have ever invested much thought in how to live together successfully in a single country, Mr. Rouhana said. The main strands of the Zionist movement have always imagined a nation with an overwhelmingly Jewish population, Mr. Rouhana said, and Israeli scholars have rarely studied the politics of multiethnic states. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have either fantasized about driving Jews from the region or placed their hopes in a two-state solution.
"There is no history of thinking about ‘we' here," Mr. Rouhana said. "The most basic problem, in my mind, is whether Israelis and Palestinians have been thinking adequately about coexistence."
Scattered Areas of Coexistence
Joel S. Beinin, a professor of history at Stanford University and the American University in Cairo, said that the Palestinians are likely to remain essentially stateless for the foreseeable future. "I take no pleasure in saying that," he said. "At a certain point, conditions will change, and there will be new opportunities."
In the meantime, Mr. Beinin said, scholars should pay attention to the models of coexistence that are developing on a small scale in certain pockets of Israel and the Palestinian territories. He cited especially the West Bank village of Bil'in, where local leaders have invited Israeli and international activists to join them in weekly demonstrations against a security barrier that has encroached on the village's agricultural land.
Mr. Beinin said that the Bil'in protests are consciously nonviolent, and that the local movement's strategies reflect "a cosmopolitan, democratic model of coexistence, which in my mind provides the only viable future for Israel and Palestine."
He conceded that such movements are small and isolated, and said there is no guarantee that they will have any long-term effect. Nonetheless, he said, they deserve more attention from scholars.
While Mr. Beinin predicted near-term stasis in the region, Beshara B. Doumani, an associate professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, said that he could imagine stark changes during the next several years. The conditions might be ripe for rapid negotiations and improvements, he said—but he added that he also feared a "doomsday scenario" in which the conflict descends into mass violence and ethnic cleansing.
Mr. Doumani said that Palestinian activists will need to go through a difficult period of reorganization. "We need to try to learn to be local and transnational at the same time," he said. "It's hard to stitch together a conversation between Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon, in villages in the West Bank, and in Washington, D.C."
The panel was organized by Sandy Tolan, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (Bloomsbury, 2006).