Opinion | Jeffrey D. Sachs

The Middle East: Contradictory promises that led to a century of conflict

Daniel Hertzberg for The Boston Globe

President Donald Trump’s statement last week that he would consider a one-state or a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine opens a new round of questions about how to achieve peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, and thereby to secure America’s interests as well in resolving this century-long crisis. There are indeed viable approaches for both a one-state or a two-state solution, but probably not in the way that Trump means. The right-wing Israeli version of a one-state solution, the one that Trump is most likely endorsing, is one that would undermine Israeli security, deny Palestinian rights, and undermine American interests.

There are really three options on the table, the same three options that have been on the table in a general sense for 100 years, since the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and in a more specific sense for 50 years, since the Six-Day War of 1967. One option has been the formal position of the United States for decades: that Israel should withdraw from the territories occupied in the 1967 war in return for peace with the Palestinians and Arab neighbors — the two-state solution. A second option is a binational state, something akin to Belgium’s division between Flanders (Dutch-speaking) and Wallonia (French-speaking), with Brussels as the national capital for both communities. In the binational case, the one-state solution would have two nationalities, Jews and Palestinians, with a demarcation between the two communities based partly on law and partly on geography, and with Jerusalem shared as a common capital somewhat analogous to the status of Brussels.


The third solution, favored by Israeli hardliners, is a Jewish one-state solution, in which Palestinians would live as second-class citizens within a Jewish-led state. Israel would annex the West Bank and Gaza; Jews would be free to settle anywhere in Greater Israel; Palestinians would be limited as to where they could move, work, and live; and the Palestinian right to vote would be restricted as well to ensure Jewish electoral majorities. This solution has been equated by its many critics in Israel and beyond with the South African apartheid model of Bantustans, in which indigenous African populations were restricted to certain “homelands” and without the right to vote in South African elections.

Some Jewish hardline nationalists have occasionally called for the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan and other Arab countries in order to reverse the demographic threat to a Jewish majority in a one-state solution including both Arabs and Jews. Today, Muslim and Christian Arabs constitute nearly half of the combined population of Israel and Palestine; by 2020, because of higher fertility rates, they will begin to constitute a majority of the combined population.


As in so many other parts of the Middle East, the roots of today’s crisis go back to perfidious dealings by the British Empire during World War I, and of course to more ancient conflicts as well. The lands that today are Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank were part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and were settled overwhelmingly by Arabs. Small numbers of religious Jews had lived in Jerusalem for centuries, and greater numbers of Jewish emigrants began to arrive at the end of the 19th century following the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia. The idea of a renewed Jewish homeland in the Jews’ biblical lands was revived at the end of the 19th century among the Jewish people by Theodor Herzl, the Vienna-based founder of modern Zionism.


During World War I, Britain planned for the postwar takeover of the Ottoman lands, including the lands of Israel and Palestine, which after the war would become known as Mandatory Palestine up to the time of Israel’s independence in 1948. British colonial strategists identified four main British interests vis-a-vis Palestine. The first was to secure the eastern flank of the Suez Canal, which was the British Empire’s major trade route to Asia and its lifeline to British India. The second was to secure an Eastern Mediterranean port for Middle East oil, notably for the oil anticipated to come from British-controlled Mosul (now in Iraq). The third was to divide the Mideast spoils with Britain’s main wartime ally, France. And the fourth aim was to dangle promises regarding Palestine to other parties in order to gain support for Britain’s war effort.

For the fourth purpose, winning the war, Britain promised the land of what would soon become Mandatory Palestine three times over in contradictory commitments. Britain’s first promise was the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty with France to divide the territory between Britain and France. Britain’s second promise, in the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, was to pledge the land to the Arabs in return for their revolt against the Turkish Ottoman overlords. The third promise, the Balfour Declaration, called for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The goal, according to historians, was in part to entice the United States to back the British war efforts, and even to entice the Bolshevik leadership (imagined by Britain to be pro-Jewish) to come onside as well.


Not surprisingly, these utterly contradictory commitments gave rise to the unending strife that has now lasted one full century. The world still reels from this remarkable episode of British imperial duplicity. In a similar way, the world still suffers from like-mannered machinations of the British and French regarding the post-Ottoman provinces of today’s Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.

From the moment that World War I ended, the Arabs demanded the fulfillment of the promised reward for their fight against the Turks. Meanwhile the Jews similarly demanded their homeland in Palestine. The famous Jewish quip that the new Jewish homeland was a “land without a people for a people without a land” was never remotely true. Nor was there ever Arab acquiescence in Britain’s diplomatic sleight of hand. The century-long contest between Jews and Arab Palestinians for political control and ownership over the land thus ensued.

During the Mandatory period (1923-1948), Britain faced unending difficulties in managing the bitterly conflicting claims of the Jews and Palestinians. Riots, intercommunal violence, and struggles over Jewish in-migration to Palestine bedeviled the British mandate. The Arabs bitterly, and largely successfully, resisted Jewish migration, even as Nazism threatened the Jews’ very survival in Europe. Jews perished in unimaginable numbers because the immigration route to Palestine was blocked by the British in the face of Arab resistance.


At the end of the second world war, the sentiments of the United Kingdom and United States were initially for a one-state solution. An Anglo (UK)-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946 called for increased Jewish immigration of the Holocaust survivors in the context of essentially a one-state solution: “[I]n order to dispose, once and for all, of the exclusive claims of Jews and Arabs to Palestine, we regard it as essential that a clear statement of principle should be made that Jew shall not dominate Arab and Arab shall not dominate Jew in Palestine.”

Two years later, in 1947, the newly constituted UN General Assembly voted a non-binding resolution recommending a two-state solution based on the partition of Palestine between Arabs and Jews, with Jerusalem becoming an international city. The Arab countries, and several others, heatedly rejected this recommendation and instead called for self-determination by the population of Palestine, which was predominantly Arab at the time. Britain unilaterally announced that it would end its mandate over Palestine in May 1948. In the lead-up to Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine, President Truman called for a temporary UN trusteeship until the issues of sovereignty could be peacefully resolved.

When Britain’s mandate ended, Israel immediately and unilaterally declared its independence and then was victorious in the ensuing war to defend its claim of independence. In the course of the 1948 war, many Arab families fled their homelands and countless others were violently pushed out of their homes through the use of Israeli terror and force. In this way arose the Palestinian refugees who until today claim the right of return to their homeland in Palestine.

The history therefore shows that the competing claims by the Palestinians and Jews have raged for a century, and that both the one-state and two-state solutions have been tabled at various times. Israel has established “facts on the ground,” as it were, to achieve control over most of the territory of mandatory Palestine, part of which is Israel of the 1967 borders and the rest which includes the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

Practical politicians on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and in the United States, have argued for several decades for a two-state solution, based largely on a return by Israel to the borders as they existed before the 1967 Six-Day War, with some agreed border adjustments in Jerusalem and other places. Yet that two-state prospect has failed so far, in no small part because the Israeli government actively encouraged the Jewish settlement in the West Bank, with the Jewish West Bank settlers now numbering around 400,000 and constituting a very powerful if not decisive force in Israeli politics.

Some analysts have recently argued that the settler position is now so entrenched that a two-state solution has become practically impossible. Others argue that a two-state solution is still possible, though just barely, and that the slim remaining prospects for a two-state solution will soon disappear as the Jewish population in the West Bank continues to grow. As a result, the one-state solution has garnered a renewed interest in both its variants: a binational solution and a Jewish-nationalist variant.

A binational one-state solution, similar to the Belgian model, could have practical appeal and viability. The Arab and Jewish communities would be self-governing regarding religion, local policing, family, and other intra-community law, and broadly speaking, in municipal affairs if one community or the other predominates. There would have to be constitutional agreements on national security, foreign policy, internal migration, and the endlessly knotty issue of the return of Palestinian refugees. None of this would be easy, but it could be possible. Nothing in the Holy Land has been easy for at least the past 2,500 years.

Hard-line Jews argue for a very different nationalist one-state solution, in which Palestinian political rights, and presumably the rights of Palestinians to move within the state, would be severely limited. Regarding this hardline approach, sensible Israelis and true friends of Israel should get a grip on reality. Most of the world would never accept such a solution, and it would prove deeply corrosive of Israel’s democratic norms and the moral code of the Jewish people, which would be deeply damaged by a hardline approach.

The Israeli government recently accused the UN Security Council of anti-Israeli virulence in the December 2016 UN Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, but the vote in fact reflects a widely shared global interpretation of international law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, barring settlements by an occupying power in territories occupied in war. The recent adoption by the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) of a hardline law allowing the expropriation of privately owned Palestinian lands not only triggered similar global opprobrium but even the revulsion of mainstream political parties and legal experts in Israel itself.

Many Israeli hardliners cite the Jewish belief in God’s covenant to the Jewish people promising the land of Israel to the Jews. Yet such claims are doubly problematic. One obvious difficulty is that conflicting claims by Jews and Arabs based on differing religious convictions easily result in irreconcilable positions that lead to tragedy, suffering, and stalemate rather than peace.

But there is another deep reason for worry within the perspective of Jewish belief itself. The Jewish Scriptures, it is argued by many devout Jews, do not demonstrate an unconditional Jewish hold on the lands promised by God to the Jewish people. The great prophetic texts of the Jewish people (for example, in the books of the prophets Hosea, Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah) describe how the iniquity of the Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the days of the First Temple of Jerusalem would eventually lead to their conquest by foreign powers. These great Jewish prophets underscored that the threat to the survival of the Jewish states of those days lay not in the military power of Assyria and Babylonia but in the decline of moral reverence by the Jewish people. The Jewish states, declared the prophets, would be lost due to internal iniquity, not external force.

Those prophetic teachings should resonate today for Israel’s closest friends, including the United States. Israel’s threats today are not only, or perhaps even mainly, external, for Israel is militarily strong; arguably the direst threat lies in the weakening of Israel’s resilience, unity, and morale if it turns away from the requirements of justice, including toward the Palestinian people. Israelis and Palestinians remain challenged by British actions a century ago: the promise of the same land to two peoples. If a hardline one-state solution is a moral and practical dead end, and if Israel won’t countenance a binational solution, the Israeli government should quickly reinvigorate the two-state solution before it’s too late.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.’’