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The Biden administration insists a 2-state solution remains a real possibility

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We turn to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. The Biden administration says the only path to peace is an old idea that was never realized - a two-state solution - an Israel and a Palestine side by side. On a visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said his administration will link any future normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia to a path to Palestinian statehood.

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JAKE SULLIVAN: I know that, in this moment, where there's so much anger and pain and so much uncertainty, it's hard to imagine. But it really is the only path that provides peace and security for all. And what is more, it is not impractical. It can be done.

FADEL: But can it be done? That's the big question when ultranationalists in the Israeli government are advocating for the, quote, "voluntary resettlement" of Palestinians to somewhere outside Gaza, when people are being killed every day in Gaza, when hostages are still being held by Hamas, and when anger is soaring among Arab populations toward Israel and the U.S. for its backing of Israel in this war. To discuss this, we're joined by Brian Katulis. He's a senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN KATULIS: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So let's start with what Sullivan said - a two-state solution is something possible not in years, but in the near term. Is that realistic?

KATULIS: I think so. Sullivan and the Biden team are singing this song called the two-state solution. It's an oldie, as you mentioned.

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FADEL: Yeah.

KATULIS: It's been around for years. But here's the main problem - is that the key parties to the conflict, the Israelis and Palestinians, aren't singing that same tune. The Israeli government - the current one - can't even name that tune. You have cabinet ministers who explicitly reject a Palestinian state, and the current prime minister, Netanyahu, has opposed it, indeed, in word for years. And you've got an Israeli public that is just traumatized by the attacks and by the ongoing conflict, and the Palestinians themselves aren't ready or unified.

So they're singing this song, but it's solo. And then the Arab partners have different expectations and clearly do want a two-state solution, but it's not their priority right now. They want to see this conflict end because they'll be expected to underwrite the reconstruction of Gaza and support diplomatically a two-state solution. But they don't see the current Israeli government actually backing that.

FADEL: So what is a reasonable path forward? What would that look like?

KATULIS: I think the first step would be to actually devote more resources from the United States and others to build the capacity amongst the Palestinians. We used to do this in the 1990s. There was a very robust engagement. And then, after peace efforts failed in 2015 under the Obama administration, the U.S. essentially unilaterally disengaged and then, under the Trump administration, pulled back from supporting the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, right? We disengaged. And the Biden team came into office in 2021 and really didn't make the Middle East, let alone the Palestinian question, a priority.

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So the biggest weakest link here is actually developing the capacity of the Palestinians to do the sorts of things that one would expect of them in a two-state solution. We're not doing it, the Israelis clearly have been doing things that undermine that capacity and the Arab governments that would support this don't see that pathway. The most immediate thing that needs to happen is some sort of sustainable, lasting cease-fire, but that seems really difficult to achieve because of the circumstances on the ground right now.

FADEL: So then are we just looking at constant conflict ahead? I mean, the realities on the ground don't offer themselves up to a two-state solution. As you said, the actors engaged in this aren't ready or aren't willing to do this. They're expanding Israeli illegal settlements on land in the West Bank that would be part of any future solution. So what happens now if this isn't the solution, as many don't see it as the solution?

KATULIS: Well, I think it's a solution in the long run. What happens now needs to - we need to see some steps that incentivize the parties to go towards that, and that's why I was focusing first on the Palestinians. I think, clearly, there needs to be some form of change in the Israeli government leadership. If you have a government right now that opposes a two-state solution, which we do, then, you know, you need to see some sort of political change that needs to come from within.

And the other thing I think needs to happen is the U.S. needs to engage more on the region rather than pull back or restrain itself, as some people have argued, and including the Biden administration, which had prioritized China, the Ukraine war, for obvious reasons. But this is going to require an investment of resources. And here's the key other factor - is that there are opponents to this two-state solution that will literally fight to the death against that notion of peace. They exist in Tehran. They exist in parts of Gaza. And they're inside of Israel's political system as well. So this is a war that America is part of every day. And if it really needs to - if it wants to see that two-state solution, it actually shouldn't just talk about it as if it's at a university seminar.

FADEL: In the few seconds we have left, is the U.S. seen as a fair broker here, especially among Palestinians, of a future peace?

KATULIS: I think, for years, the U.S. has backed Israel's right to defend itself against security threats. And I think that shapes perceptions across the region, and it leads to some question marks. But still, nonetheless, there are no other no other partners - China, Russia. Even the Europeans don't have the relationships that the United States does.

FADEL: Brian Katulis is a senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute here in Washington, D.C. Thank you for your time.

KATULIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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