As President Barack Obama prepared to deliver a major foreign policy speech in Cairo and his administration pushes aggressively for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, neoconservatives and other foreign policy hawks back home were calling on him to scrap the two-state solution altogether and consider alternatives to Palestinian statehood.
The main alternative many right-wing supporters of Israel are pushing is the so-called "three-state solution" or "Jordanian option," in which the West Bank would be returned to Jordanian control and the Gaza Strip to Egyptian control.
Although calls for a "three-state solution" have cropped up periodically over the years and have been dismissed by most Middle East experts as unrealistic, in recent weeks the three-state approach has received an unusual amount of attention and support on the right.
Part of the reason that some hawks suddenly seem willing to reevaluate the Middle East peace process may lie in the Obama administration's strong push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some of the rightists who previously gave tacit support for the two-state solution because they believed it was a remote possibility now seem to fear it may actually become a reality.
The newfound appeal of the three-state approach was evident on June 3, when the Heritage Foundation —arguably Washington's most prominent conservative think tank —hosted a conference devoted to alternatives to the two-state solution.
The Heritage event, which was sponsored by right-wing U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, came only two weeks after right-of-cent er Israeli parties hosted a similar conference in Jerusalem.
The keynote speaker at the Heritage event was Sen. Sam Brownback, a prominent Kansas Republican who ran for president in 2008.
Brownback argued that the past 16 years have proven the futility of prioritizing Palestinian statehood. "It just doesn't work, and it's time to move on," he said.
He suggested that a better option would be for both the West Bank and Gaza Strip to "pursue confederation” with their “respective contiguous Arab neighbor[s]."
Brownback also argued that the United States should use its economic leverage over the Arab states to persuade them to absorb Palestinian refugees, thereby preventing them from "threaten[ing] Israel with the false concept of a 'right of return.'"
Other speakers echoed Brownback's call to consider the "Jordanian option."
Israeli Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, a leading "three-state" advocate who was also featured at the Jerusalem conference in May, claimed that "the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is too small to create two viable states." He suggested incorporating the West Bank into a "United States of Jordan," with political and military authority concentrated in Amman.
Alternately, Eiland suggested that Egypt could cede territory from the Sinai Desert that would be joined to the Gaza Strip. He argued this would increase Gaza’s viability, while compensating the Palestinians for West Bank territory that Israel would absorb.
The idea of Israel ceding control of the occupied territories to its Arab neighbors has been discussed for decades, ever since Israel seized the territories from Jordan and Egypt during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
But in recent years, as the cost of occupation has become increasingly unsustainable and Palestinian leadership has split between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, Israeli hawks and their U.S. allies have shown a newfound fondness for the idea.
During the Gaza war in January, prominent U.S. hawks endorsed the three-state approach, notably former U.N. ambassador John Bolton (who acknowledged that the idea "would be decidedly unpopular in Egypt and Jordan") and Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes, who addressed the Heritage event.
Dan Diker of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs differentiated the proposals made at the Heritage event from the traditional conception of the "Jordanian option," in which Jordan would reassume full sovereignty over the West Bank.
"If there was a Jordanian here, he would be terrified by this discussion, because he'd think ... [we're] discussing the alternative homeland solution, the nightmare to the Hashemite kingdom," Diker said, referring to widespread opposition in Jordan to efforts by some in Israel to create an “alternative homeland” for Palestinians on Jordanian territory.
"So I'd like to say for the record that we're not talking about the Jordanian option,” Diker added. “ We're talking about a new animal, and the animal is a combination of federal and con-federal cooperation” between Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Many experts view the three-state approach in any form as wildly unrealistic.
Marc Lynch of George Washington University called the approach a "zombie idea," since it "reappears like clockwork whenever there's an Israeli-Palestinian crisis," despite being deeply unpopular with Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians alike.
"The Jordan option, the Egypt-Gaza option, the 'three-state solution'— these are fantasies which have little to do with the real problems on the ground or feasible solutions to this intractable conflict," Lynch wrote in January on the website of Foreign Policy magazine.
Fantasy or not, the sudden flood of events and discussion suggests that variations on the three-state approach are becoming more, not less, popular on the U.S. right.
The Heritage event was the foremost U.S. forum in recent memory for three-state advocates. In addition to Brownback, notable speakers included former Central Intelligence Agency director R. James Woolsey, and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO).
The Jordanian option's newfound popularity comes as the Obama administration has signaled that it plans to make the two-state solution a top foreign policy priority.
While the George W. Bush administration endorsed two states, it proved unwilling to push Israel to make any concessions towards this goal.
Obama, by contrast, has already pushed Israel in blunt terms to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank—something the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which has totally rejected Palestinian state hood, is unwilling to do.
As a result, many observers see the United States and Israel heading for their most heated diplomatic spat in years, with the two-state solution the most urgent yet divisive issue.
Most hardline U.S. supporters of Israel have so far been reluctant to attack the idea of the two-state solution itself, arguing instead that Obama should put the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on the back burner and focus on stopping the Iranian nuclear program.
Nevertheless, the recent conferences in Washington and Jerusalem suggest that if Obama pushes harder for two states, hardliners will grow bolder in questioning the legitimacy of Palestinian statehood.
Daniel Luban writes for the Inter Press Service and PRA’s Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).