- - Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The collapse of President Obama’s efforts to force a “negotiated” settlement between Israel and the Palestinians should prompt a thorough rethinking of his administration’s entire Middle East strategy.

The chances of the initiative, which is predicated far more on ideology and illusion than on the region’s hard realities, were always essentially negligible. While Mr. Obama’s impending failure will cost us dearly because it fosters the perception of American impotence and incompetence, there are important lessons to be learned.

Although Mr. Obama will almost certainly not rethink his policies, it is entirely appropriate for others to recalibrate our objectives in the Israel-Palestinian dispute, so the next president will not make the same mistakes.

For more than two decades, U.S. policymakers have generally acceded to Palestinian insistence that a new state be created for them, stitching together the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. These territories have no particular history either of national identity or of economic interdependence. They are simply bits and pieces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire and the failed League of Nations’ post-World War I mandate system.

The only logic underlying the demand for a Palestinian state is the political imperative of Israel’s opponents to weaken and encircle the Jewish state, thereby minimizing its potential to establish secure and defensible borders. The cruelest irony is that by using the Palestinian people as the tip of the spear against Israel, their supposed advocates have caused the Palestinians extensive suffering. Their economic well-being, their potential for development and the prospect of living under a noncorrupt, representative government have been lost in the shuffle of challenging Israel’s very right to exist.

As long as Washington’s diplomatic objective is the “two-state solution” — Israel and “Palestine” — the fundamental contradiction between this aspiration and the reality on the ground will ensure it never comes into being. There simply cannot be “two states living side by side in peace and security” when one of the “states,” for the foreseeable future, cannot meet the basic, practical requirements for entering into and upholding international commitments, including, unfortunately, the glaring lack of its own legitimacy.

Instead of pursuing the misguided notion of “two states,” U.S. policymakers should instead ask what other solutions are possible that would provide Palestinians with personal dignity and security, economic growth and the prospect of living under a responsible, responsive government. Concededly, there is no perfect alternative, but the most attractive prospect is to attach the disparate Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to their neighboring contiguous Arab states, Jordan and Egypt, respectively. We might call this a “three-state solution.”

After the late 1940s collapse of the League of Nations’ Middle East mandates, Jordan successfully governed the West Bank until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Today, Israel, Jordan and Palestinians should draw new West Bank boundaries embodying Security Council Resolution 242’s “land for peace” formula. Jordan could, with relative ease, resume sovereignty over those portions of the West Bank not incorporated into Israel.

The contentious issue of Jerusalem’s status as the purported capital of “Palestine” would disappear, since Amman would obviously be the seat of government for an enlarged Jordan. Palestinians could be rapidly integrated into the Jordanian economy, and participate in its ongoing political development. Such a solution would enormously benefit the Palestinian people by providing political stability and the prospect of enhanced economic security. The existing Israel-Jordanian peace agreement would help ensure that Israel and an expanded Jordan could continue to live together peacefully.

Gaza is a harder problem, but incorporating it into Egypt is clearly a better solution than allowing it to remain the headquarters for Hamas and other terrorist groups. Merging Gaza with Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood was not an acceptable option, since Hamas, a Brotherhood subsidiary, would simply have acquired even greater capabilities for terrorist attacks against Israel, Arab states friendly to America, and beyond.

Cairo’s current (and likely future) military government may not be made up of Jeffersonian democrats, but it is a sterling alternative to Hamas, and will presumably not tolerate terrorism emanating from behind new Egyptian borders. Gaza’s economic integration with Egypt will be more difficult than the West Bank into Jordan, but no other alternative is feasible.

For many, ending the quest for the “two-state solution” will be like renouncing the search for the Golden Fleece. Moreover, Egypt and Jordan will be understandably reluctant to take control of the troubled territories, which therefore warrants significant international assistance for their efforts. Nonetheless, our experience over the past several decades proves conclusively that neither Palestinians nor Israel, nor (most importantly for us) the United States, can benefit from continuing to pursue an illusion.

The “three-state solution” will not be achieved easily, but it at least has the virtue of being realistic and workable. Those who truly have the best interests of the Palestinians at heart should consider it.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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