US Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, stick to their firm belief that a two-state solution is the only way to end the long-running Middle East conflict involving Israel and Palestine They are mistaken.
Since the end of the Cold War the major conflicts have been linked to the question whether to support "states" or "nations (tribes)" as basis of stable political arrangements. The idea of "creating states" being the best solution for restoring stability in
various parts of the world comes from US's unique - exceptional - history.
Two centuries ago, the founders created - accidentally - a "state" that shaped over time a new and unique "tribe", which grew into a "nation". By contrast, Western European states emerged from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War, with its various tribes shaping the states, each drawing on its customs and traditions - a pattern characterizes many other parts of the world to these days.
The assumption that there is something inherent in "human nature" that with few laws and imposed institutions can replicate easily the American experience, and create "states" that could quickly shape tribes - has no foundation.
Yugoslavia's breaking up offered a good warning in this respect - and served as a lesson for not trying to create states. Its recent history shows that tribes held together by force do not "instinctively" emulate the American model of society once such force, in this case based on communist ideology, is defeated. Instead of a tolerant state shaping a nation, tribal and religious lines shaped the ethnically more pure mini-states. The Balkan sequence of events is now unfolding in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
What the US concluded is that with 7 billion people roaming the Earth, it cannot continue to be the world's main policeman (Europe has become marginal: it could not cope even with the Balkan fire). It also appears to have concluded that the policy of assisting various discontent groups against dictatorships, drawing "red lines" and assume that once deposed, "human nature" with some nudging would lead to stable, tolerant societies has failed too.
Recommending the "creation of state" as a stable solution appeared then as a possible inference, drawn from the US's unique experience. Unfortunately this policy now suffers from a fatal flow, namely of neglecting the necessary condition for creating a stable state: insuring to have one army in the newly created state. There is no point of talking of creating new states if disarmament of military groups is not enforced. Unless this is done, the road to another failed state is guaranteed. The lessons of experience are sharp on this matter too and derived from events in the Middle East.
David Ben-Gurion's, Israel's first prime minister, ordered the newly created Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to fire on the ship named Altalena in June 1948. He did so when fractions of the Irgun, a para-military organization, were unwilling to put down their arms and be absorbed into the IDF. Following this painful episode - Jews shooting Jews a few years after 6 million perished still shocks - Irgun put down their arms. The new state's monopoly on force has not been challenged since.
This lesson did not sink in, as one can infer from states starting to tolerate military groups within their borders, often with Western backings. At one time Jordan tolerated Arafat's military (until the king's army pushed them out, the king claiming 1,000 to 2,000 Palestinians killed, whereas Arafat claimed ten times that number). The mistake was repeated in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria - and that's just the Middle East.
If having one army is the precondition for establishing a "state", what does it mean to push now for a "two-state" solution for Israel and Palestinians? Palestinians have many armies, and no leader in sight is willing and able to do what Ben-Gurion did. What type of a second Palestinian "state" does Kerry and supporters of this view (Hillary Clinton included) have in mind - since Jordan with 60% Palestinian population is already one?
The difficulty of promoting a "state" is compounded by the fact that there are so many Palestinian groups. Jordan's Palestinian population is one that the "two-state" discussion does not even mention: they already live in a "state". Another Palestinian group includes the about 1.4 million Arabs within Israel's 1967 borders who have Israeli citizenship and already live in a "state" too. Palestinians living in the West Bank (not in the refugee camps) are represented in the present negotiations, though until just few weeks ago without having the Gazans on board.
Then there is the about 1.4 million "refugee group" in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, sustained by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA). This group differs from the other three. When the United Nations voted for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, they also voted for a two-year welfare plan for Palestinian refugees. The institution still exists - 70 years later.
This is the only institution ever created that defines descendants 70 years later as "refugees" too. This is why we do not hear about the 50 million European refugees after World War II, long absorbed around the world, but we hear constantly about the roughly 400,000 to 700,000 Palestinians refugees of 1948, whose numbers mushroomed to today's 5 million - though there are at most 50,000 who are alive from the 1948 refugees.
UNRWA, combined with the legal obstacles Arab countries imposed on the 1948 refugees, created this Palestinian "welfare group". Their situation is tragic, but can an additional new territorial entity in the Middle East solve their problem?
The answer is "no".
The best option appears to be for the US and the rest of the world to strengthen the few Arab states in the area, assist disarming military groups within their border and then hope for features of the US model of society to be gradually adopted. With assistance, though not heavy policing, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt could be candidates.
To achieve this though, the US must restore confidence in its unique model of society - of "states shaping a nation" - that, many grave mistakes notwithstanding, stumbled on institutions that brought about tolerance and prosperity. These institutions - not human nature - let people "experiment with everything, unless explicitly prohibited", while most of the world is still mired with institutions that "prohibit everything - unless they explicitly sanction it".
The failure to see how to promote states that could eventually adapt these unique features underlies the main policy blunders the US has committed since the end of the Cold War - in the Middle East in particular.
Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management. This article draws on his books History - the Human Gamble (1983), Betting on Ideas: Wars, Invention, Inflation (1985), and Force of Finance (2002).