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The tragic history of the two-state solution

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently ignited a diplomatic conflagration after he suggested that Israel might one day find itself to be an apartheid state.

It was my belief before this unfortunate comment that Kerry was a friend of Israel, and it remains my belief that he is a friend of Israel. This belief is not shared by people to my right.

Based on my incoming email, there are some who believe that Kerry is a latent -- or active -- anti-Semite. More reasonable people have suggested that Kerry has at least given Israelis, and friends of Israel, cause to doubt the sincerity of his publicly expressed pro-Israel sympathies. “I really don’t think friends of Israel should use the A word,” one friend of mine wrote by email.

Do not fear: Kerry will not use the “A word” again, unless, of course, Israel gives him a particularly good reason to do so. A broader question remains, however.

As another friend asked, “How should a liberal friend of Israel think about this current impasse, when it seems that the government in Jerusalem isn’t interested in pursuing a two-state solution?”

It is difficult to blame Kerry for expressing frustration with the Israelis (or with the Palestinians) over the current standoff. I endorse his belief that the status quo is unsustainable for Israel and a continued disaster for Palestinians.

But over time I’ve noticed that Kerry and President Barack Obama often neglect to mention a true, and relevant, fact about the pursuit of peace in the Middle East: The Israelis pursued a two-state solution even before there was an Israel.

The Palestinians, and their Arab advocates, have rejected each previous attempt to bring about such a solution. This does not absolve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government of its responsibility to stop settling its citizens on the West Bank. But it does suggest something about ultimate culpability.

In the United States, as the former Pakistani diplomat Husain Haqqani has noted, the expression “that’s history” means “that’s irrelevant.”

But there is history here, and it should be recognized, not only because it informs current reality, but also because it dispels the idea that Israel has forever stood in the way of Palestinian independence.

The first time the two-state solution was proposed was in 1937. The British Peel Commission, appointed to study the root causes of Arab riots in Palestine that began the year before, recommended partitioning Palestine into two main parts -- a very large Arab part and a much smaller Jewish part.

The Jews squabbled, but ultimately came to the conclusion that the Peel recommendations be accepted as the basis for further negotiations. No matter: The Arab leadership in Palestine rejected the commission’s findings out-of-hand.

Ten years later, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states. In this proposal, the Arab state would have been slightly smaller than the Jewish state.

The Jews accepted partition. The Arabs rejected it and launched a war against Israel upon its declaration of independence in 1948. The Arabs lost the war they initiated.

For the next 19 years, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank -- the territories that are today meant to comprise a Palestinian state -- were occupied by Egypt and Jordan.

These two Arab states had the opportunity over almost two decades to establish an independent Palestinian state but didn't. In May and June of 1967, the Arab states threatened a war of annihilation against the Jewish state.

Israel struck preemptively against Egypt and Syria. Jordan then attacked Israel from the West Bank. The Arabs lost this war as well, and the Israelis occupied both the West Bank and Gaza.

In the first days after the war, many Israelis were under the mistaken impression that the Arabs would sue for peace, gaining back the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for a cessation of hostilities.

But the Arab League, meeting in Khartoum, Sudan, in late August 1967, declared that there would be no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel.

A decade later, the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, initiated a separate peace with Israel and received for it the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had also occupied in 1967.

In 1993, Israel decided to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization. This peace track culminated in the 2000 Camp David negotiations, at which the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, offered the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, all of Gaza and much of the West Bank.

Arafat left Camp David without making a counteroffer. The Camp David offer (and later Barak offers) are shrouded in controversy, but U.S. President Bill Clinton, who presided over the talks, blamed Arafat for their collapse.

In 2005, Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli prime minister, unilaterally withdrew all Israeli soldiers and settlers from Gaza. This did not lead to bilateral negotiations, but instead to an outbreak of attacks from Gaza on Israel.

Three years later, Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, proposed an Israeli withdrawal from 93 percent of the West Bank (and additional land swaps with the Palestinians). The Palestinians rejected this offer as well.

The Palestinians, and their appointed (or unappointed) Arab representatives, have passed up numerous opportunities over an almost 80-year period to divide Palestine among its two native peoples, Arabs and Jews.

The Israelis have done stupid and shortsighted things over the decades, but they have repeatedly sought territorial accommodation as well.

It would be useful for American diplomats, and others, to acknowledge this history when they speak about current Israeli recalcitrance. It would also be smart to take into account this history when offering predictions about the future of the two-state solution.

Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs.

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