WASHINGTON, Jun 3, 2009 (IPS) - As U.S. President Barack Obama prepares 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 are calling on him to scrap the two-state solution altogether and consider alternatives to Palestinian statehood.
The most prominent alternative they 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 for this sudden willingness to reevaluate the Middle East peace process may lie in the Obama administration's strong push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a result of this push, those who could previously offer token support for the two-state solution while remaining confident that it was a remote possibility are now faced with the threat that it may actually become a reality.
The newfound appeal of the three-state approach was evident on Wednesday, 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-centre Israeli parties hosted a similar conference in Jerusalem.
The keynote speaker at Wednesday's event was Senator Sam Brownback, a prominent Kansas Republican who ran for president in 2008.
Brownback argued that the past 16 years have proven the futility of prioritising 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 the West Bank and Gaza Strip to each "pursue confederation with its respective contiguous Arab neighbour".
Brownback also argued that the U.S. 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 form the Sinai Desert that would be joined to the Gaza Strip. This would increase the viability of Gaza, he claimed, while also compensating the Palestinians for territory in the West Bank that Israel would incorporate in order to maintain control of its settlements.
The idea of Israel ceding control of the occupied territories to its Arab neighbours has been discussed for decades, ever since Israel seized the territories from Jordan and Egypt during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
But Israeli hawks and their neoconservative allies in the U.S. have shown a newfound fondness for the idea in recent years, as the costs of occupation have come to seem increasingly untenable and Palestinian leadership has split between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
During the Gaza war in January, the three-state approach was endorsed by prominent U.S. hawks such as 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 also spoke at the Heritage event.
Dan Diker of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs sought to differentiate the proposals being made at Wednesday's 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.
"So I'd like to say for the record that we're not talking about the Jordanian option. We're talking about a new animal, and the animal is a combination of federal and con-federal cooperation between the Hashemite kingdom, the Palestinian authority, and Israel."
Still, 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 most prominent U.S. forum for the idea's supporters in recent memory. In addition to Brownback, notable speakers included former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director R. James Woolsey, and Representative Doug Lamborn, a Republican congressman from Colorado, was also in attendance.
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 pointedly refused to endorse Palestinian statement, is unwilling to do.
As a result, the U.S. and Israel appear to many observers to be headed for their most heated diplomatic spat in years, and the two-state solution has become a pressing and divisive issue.
Most hardline supporters of Israel in the U.S. 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 programme.
Nevertheless, the recent conferences in Washington and Jerusalem suggest that as the U.S. pushes harder for two states, hardliners are growing bolder in questioning the very desirability of Palestinian statehood.
On the other side of the political spectrum, there has been growing talk of a "one-state solution" in the form of a binational state in which Jews and Arabs would enjoy equal political rights.
The one-state solution, which was pointedly ignored in the recent Washington and Jerusalem conferences on alternatives to the two-state solution, was recently the subject of its own conference, held in Boston in March.
Obama's clash with Netanyahu over settlements has set the stage for his speech in Cairo on Thursday, in which the president plans to set forth his vision for a new relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world.
By all accounts, the president views resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a central step in improving this relationship, he has suggested that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front would aid the U.S. in dealing with Iran.