The Three-State Option

By John R. Bolton
Monday, January 5, 2009

War in the Gaza Strip demonstrates yet again that the current governance paradigm for the Palestinian people has failed. Terrorists financed and supplied by Iran control Gaza; the Palestinian Authority is broken, probably irretrievably; and economic development is stalled in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians are suffering the consequences of regional power struggles played out through them as surrogates.

Israel isn't a happy place, either. It endures opprobrium from the world's High-Minded for defending itself from terrorism yet still finds itself subjected to terrorist attacks from Hamas and terrorists based in Syria and Lebanon. Israel's domestic politics are increasingly muddled, and its way forward obscure.

Neighboring countries also suffer. Egypt has walled off its boundary with Gaza; Lebanon remains under threat of a Hezbollah coup enabled by Iran; Syria slides further under Iranian hegemony; and Jordan is trapped in the general gridlock. Other Arab countries search for solutions, but their attention is increasingly diverted by the growing threat from Iran and the downturn in global oil prices.

Given this landscape, we should ask why we still advocate the "two-state solution," with Israel and "Palestine" living side by side in peace, as the mantra goes. We are obviously not progressing, and are probably going backward. We continue poring over the Middle East "road map" because that is all we have, faute de mieux, as they say in Foggy Bottom.

The logic to this position is long past its expiration date. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine a new approach that the key players would receive enthusiastically. If the way out were obvious, after all, it would already have been suggested. So consider the following, unpopular and difficult to implement though it may be:

Let's start by recognizing that trying to create a Palestinian Authority from the old PLO has failed and that any two-state solution based on the PA is stillborn. Hamas has killed the idea, and even the Holy Land is good for only one resurrection. Instead, we should look to a "three-state" approach, where Gaza is returned to Egyptian control and the West Bank in some configuration reverts to Jordanian sovereignty. Among many anomalies, today's conflict lies within the boundaries of three states nominally at peace. Having the two Arab states re-extend their prior political authority is an authentic way to extend the zone of peace and, more important, build on governments that are providing peace and stability in their own countries. "International observers" or the like cannot come close to what is necessary; we need real states with real security forces.

This idea would be decidedly unpopular in Egypt and Jordan, which have long sought to wash their hands of the Palestinian problem. Accordingly, they should not have to reassume this responsibility alone. They should receive financial and political support from the Arab League and the West, as they both have for years from the United States. Israel should accept political and administrative roles by Jordan and Egypt, unless it intends to perform such roles itself (which it manifestly does not).

Egypt no more wants responsibility for dealing with Hamas than Israel does. Cairo fears that Hamas extremism, and its affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood, will increase the risk of extremism in Egypt. Strong ties exist between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and extremism in Egypt is growing, so already the real issue is finding the best way to control the threat simultaneously in Egypt and Gaza. Keeping Gaza politically separate from Egypt may be optically satisfying to some, but doing so simply increases threats to Egyptian stability, the loss of which would be catastrophic for the broader region. Just ask the mullahs in Tehran.

Without a larger Egyptian role, Gaza will not, and perhaps cannot, achieve the minimal stability necessary for economic development. Moreover, connecting Gaza to a real economy, rather than a fictional "Palestinian economy," is the quickest concrete way to improve the lives of Gaza's ordinary citizens. The West Bank link to Jordan, for now at least, is less urgent; the matter cannot be put aside indefinitely, partly because, ironically, long-term Israeli security concerns there are more complex than in Gaza.

For Palestinians, admitting the obvious failure of the PA, and the consequences of their selection of Hamas, means accepting reality, however unpleasant. But it is precisely Palestinians who would most benefit from stability. The PA -- weakened, corrupt and discredited -- is not a state by any realistic assessment, nor will it become one accepted by Israel as long as Hamas or terrorism generally remains a major political force among Palestinians.

Objections to this idea will be manifold, and implementation difficult. One place to avoid problems is dispensing with intricate discussions over the exact legal status of Gaza and the West Bank. These territories contain more legal theories than land. "Retrocession" to Egypt and Jordan may or may not become permanent, but one need not advocate that to get started in the interim.

The Palestinian and Israeli peoples deserve a little glasnost and perestroika from the outside world. Either we do better, conceptually and operationally, or Iran will be happy to fill the vacuum.

The writer, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006.

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