The international community is currently experiencing a major whirlwind. Starting with the British decision to leave the European Union, soon followed by the unexpected election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, the current liberal world order is in for a major shake-up. This also includes the Middle East.
This was clear when the newly elected President Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in the White House last week. The press conference may have seemed chaotic at times, but for others it was a breath of fresh air. Trump certainly managed to ruffle some feathers by publicly putting into question a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And while the European leadership was struck with aghast and almost hyperventilating, the Saudis called his approach “pragmatic and practical”.
If there is one thing that the international community has been sure of for decades – it is that a two-state solution is the answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But what is the question? Is the end game really a Palestinian state at any price? You would only have to ask the Syrian and Iraqi refugees who have streamed into Europe in the last few years if statehood has been the solution to all their problems. Both Syria and Iraq have been independent states since the days of the British Mandate for Palestine, but statehood has not protected their citizens from hardship and distress. Today both countries are in a state of implosion. The overall conditions within the wider Middle East clearly demonstrate that the region is not ripe for yet another Islamic state. This is not to forever exclude a two-state solution, but now is simply not the time. As long as the two competing factions, Hamas and Fatah, express so much hatred for each other, the prospect for the establishment of a common, united Palestinian state, peaceful even within itself, is slim.
Even if a new state could achieve some level of stability, it leaves us wondering what life would be like there for its citizens. Preliminary surveys among Arabs living in East Jerusalem have given some contradictory messages. While many express support a Palestinian state, an overwhelming majority of Arabs actually prefer to live in Israel rather than in a future Islamic Palestinian state. Do we really want to believe that we are solving the conflict by creating a new state, and then walk away when faced with a whole new set of problems? Maybe the two-state solution is the answer to the wrong question!
For years I have argued that we need to redefine the question before we try to present a solution. We need to ask: how can we promote human rights, individual freedoms and a better quality of life in the Arab world in general and for the Palestinian people in particular? A person jailed for posting a negative statement about the leader of Fatah on Facebook would not be so much in favour of an independent state as long as he does not have the most basic human rights such as freedom of expression.
How can the Arab world and the Palestinian people break free from the vicious cycle of social and economic regression and instead enjoy a share in the benefits offered by a dynamic start-up culture with so many technological innovations in its own backyard? The answer is not a new independent state at any price which is insular and at odds with its neighbours but rather a state seeking closer cooperation with the “Silicon Valley” of the Middle East, the State of Israel. So why promote separation and not cooperation? What better environment can there be for a bright future for Palestinian people than to coexist in peace next door to a start-up nation?
In today’s interdependent world, where trade and prosperity transcend national borders, it simply does not make sense to create new social barriers but rather to create opportunities to live together, be it through business, sports or cultural interchange. Where international politics has failed, business and enterprise can succeed. Perhaps it takes an experienced businessman in the White House to achieve it?
The newly elected President of the United States can be criticized for many things but he is certainly thinking “outside of the box”. Therefore, it is regrettable that his seemingly brash statements on the Middle East peace process have been dismissed as amateurish. We certainly know where the collective wisdom of the international community has brought us for the last 50 years. Precisely nowhere.
This is why the press conference of Netanyahu and Trump was a breath of fresh air. What if the obvious answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict right now is not a two-state solution, but something else? The only way to find the right answer is to ask the right question.
The international community may think that they have figured out all the right answers decades ago, but it may turn out that they still have not been asking the right questions.
Tomas Sandell is the founding director of European Coalition for Israel.