Think Again: The Two-State Solution

Everyone knows an independent Palestine, side by side with Israel, is unworkable right now. But it's even more hopeless than they think.


"The Answer to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Is a Two-State Solution."

“The Answer to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Is a Two-State Solution.”

In an ideal world, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

In the 18 years since the signing on the White House lawn of the Oslo Accords, which laid the groundwork for a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the idea of a two-state solution has gained wide acceptance. According to a joint Israeli-Palestinian poll from March 2010, 57 percent of Palestinians support it; among Israelis the percentage is even higher — 71 percent. In both Europe and the United States, it’s seen as the natural end point of this six-decade conflict. As U.S. President Barack Obama said in May, the “United States believes that negotiations should result in two states — with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine.” Nonetheless, we have reached the point where the ideas of two independent states and a negotiated resolution to the conflict reside on life support.

The short explanation for this conundrum is that for much of the past 18 years, the momentum of obstructionism has been far more powerful than the momentum of progress. This has been consistently true since the earliest days of the Oslo process, as the forces that oppose peace have demonstrated a deadly effectiveness at thwarting it. From Baruch Goldstein‘s horrific massacre of Palestinians at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994 to the subsequent Palestinian suicide bombing attacks of 1994-1995 and the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin; from the targeted killing of Hamas leaders to the terrible violence of the Second Intifada against Israeli citizens, bloodshed has been a constant tool utilized by both sides to erode trust and strengthen the forces of irredentism.

Beyond the use of violence, the lack of political will on both sides has been most catastrophic. As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami recounts in Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, even the architects of the Oslo peace process — Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin — initially rejected the idea of a Palestinian state, believing that some middle ground between statehood and the status quo was possible. Even as the path to statehood seemed clear, the country’s leading doves were unwilling to reconcile themselves either publicly or privately with such a potentiality. In addition, the growth of Israeli settlements, in violation of the spirit if not the letter of Oslo, and the unwillingness of the Israeli government to halt them, have become an almost insurmountable barrier to a workable two-state solution.

On the other side, Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority, never publicly accepted the idea of peaceful reconciliation with Israel. He refused to countenance painful concessions on Jerusalem and the right of return, continued to view political violence as a tool for wrangling concessions out of Israel, and offered far too many public hints that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza was only the first step in a two-stage process of Palestinian liberation. The continued acceptance of violence as a viable means for achieving political goals, particularly by Hamas, has not surprisingly undermined Israeli enthusiasm for territorial concessions.

Finally, each public has demonstrated an unwillingness to fully recognize and integrate the attitudes and fears of the other. Israelis are either blissfully unaware of, or not bothered by, the humiliation that is the hallmark of Israeli occupation. Hours spent at checkpoints, searches by Israeli soldiers, and transit roads that restrict movement and turn what should be quick trips into daylong excursions are just a few examples of the minor degradations that are a daily part of Palestinian life. At the end of Ramadan, last month, I attended a nonviolent demonstration at an Israeli checkpoint at Qalandia, where Palestinians were seeking to pass so that they could worship at the al-Aqsa mosque. As it was, such access was restricted to men over 50 and women over 40. For many Israelis, such indignities could be happening on the other side of the globe.

Conversely, Palestinians have limited sympathy or appreciation for the trauma created in Israel by living in a state of constant siege and fear of terrorist attacks. Add all these various factors together and the result is that while most Israelis and Palestinians believe a two-state solution is in the best interests of both peoples, the region is likely further away from that reality than at any point since Oslo. The Palestinian Authority’s preparations to go to the United Nations and seek recognition as an independent state is compelling evidence that at least one side in the dispute sees no hope for a negotiated resolution.


“Israel Is a Beacon of Democracy in the Middle East.”

Perhaps, but not forever. While supporters of Israel commonly tout the Jewish state as the only true democracy in the Middle East, the trend lines are moving in the wrong direction. With emerging pro-democracy movements across the region, not to mention democracies in Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey, it’s getting harder to argue that Israel resides in an exclusive club. Recent developments in the Israeli Knesset portend a more ominous future. Lawmakers recently passed legislation that would threaten civil lawsuits against any Israeli who endorses boycott and divestiture campaigns against Israel. Other laws are being considered that would set up McCarthy-style committees to investigate left-leaning groups or even cancel Arabic as an official Israeli language, despite the fact that around 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs. There have been growing calls for Jews not to rent apartments to Arabs; and according to peace activists with whom I spoke, harassment of human rights groups and NGOs is on the rise. Arab citizens of Israel already face serious discrimination on issues such as land ownership, employment, and resource allocation — problems that are only increasing.

But do Israelis value democracy more than they do security? Israeli public opinion expert Dahlia Scheindlin told me in an email exchange, “There’s a standard question (in Israeli public opinion polling) that asks (roughly): ‘Sometimes security needs may conflict with democratic principles (or rule of law). When that happens which should come first — security or democracy needs?’ The response is always quite overwhelmingly in favor of security.” Indeed, a June 2010 study done by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, said Scheindlin, suggested that nearly three-quarters of Israeli youth (between the ages of 15 and 25), when given the option, chose security over democracy. According to the final version of the report, “With regard to Israel’s future as a democratic and pluralistic society, the attitudes described [in the report] represent a major challenge to those social and political agents who are committed to the values and goals of the founding fathers of the State of Israel.” Scheindlin suggested that these results could probably be replicated in a host of Western countries, but in few places is the choice as stark as in Israel.

Continuing the status quo or military occupation in the West Bank has the strong likelihood of leading to an undemocratic future for Israel (a view endorsed by even right-wing Israelis). If demographic rates continue, the Jewish state may reach a point in the not-too-distant future when Israel and the occupied territories will feature a minority of Jews — and a majority of Arabs without full political rights. It’s bad enough that Arabs living in Israel and the territories do not have such full economic, social, or legal rights today but if these second-class citizens become a full majority of the population between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River it will be hard to escape the conclusion that Israel is on the road to becoming an apartheid state.


“Israel Dismantled Settlements in Sinai and Gaza; It Can Do So in the West Bank Too.”

Don’t bet on it. Beyond the obvious explanation that the biblical connection for Jews to the lands of Judea and Samaria, as many Israelis refer to the West Bank, is stronger than those to Gaza and Sinai, the larger problem is that the settlements have become so enmeshed with Palestinian communities that disentangling them is practically impossible.

There are today more than 300,000 settlers in the West Bank. This doesn’t even include the 190,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War. This figure is nearly triple the West Bank settler population when Oslo was signed. Although it is true that most of these settlements are in and around the 1967 borders, the reality on the ground is extraordinarily more complicated. For example, approximately 30 percent of the settler population resides outside the separation barrier, many in some of the most radicalized settler communities like Itamar and Kiryat Arba.

In the unlikely event that Israel and the Palestinians did agree to a two-state solution and were to use the separation fence as a final border, there would still be more than 70,000 settlers and dozens of settlements on Palestinian land. These settlers would either have to accept living in a Palestinian state, which is unlikely, or have to be evacuated by the Israeli government. Not only would settlers almost certainly resist such a move, but already today settlers have set up dozens of illegal outposts in the West Bank and the Israeli government has made no effort to dislodge them. According to Hagit Ofran, director of Settlement Watch for Peace Now, while Israel has removed the stray trailer or small shacks of settler youth, it has never evicted a single “real outpost” or taken down “infrastructure and removed families” from the larger outposts that are in clear violation of Israeli law.

Removing tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of Israeli citizens from the settlements would require the sort of political will from the Israeli government that it has never shown toward the powerful settler movement. And the fear that taking on the settler movement could lead to civil war or political violence hangs over Israelis’ heads. While hawkish Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was able to unilaterally evict around 9,000 settlers from Gaza in 2005, this move was met by widespread protests from the settler community. It could be a harbinger of things to come if a similar eviction were attempted in the West Bank.

Considering that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has, according to a recent report by Peace Now, doubled construction in West Bank settlements since last year’s building moratorium expired, it’s hard to imagine that the world is likely to witness a fit of courage from Israeli leaders regarding settlements anytime soon (or that the current Israeli government has any inclination to evict settlers at all).

What makes the settlement question even more difficult is that to prevent contact between Israelis and Palestinians — and thus potential violence — Israel has constructed a host of checkpoints, security fences, and transit roads that crisscross the West Bank and significantly inhibit the movement and daily life of Palestinians. South of Ramallah, for instance, the Palestinian villages of al-Jib, Bir Nabala, and Beit Hanina al-Balad are literally surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements and the separation barrier; in Hebron, 30,000 Palestinians have their mobility and economic activity severely restricted by the Israeli army’s need to protect fewer than 1,000 settlers. These types of situations are replicated across the territories and are bolstered by provocative actions and even violence from the settlers that rarely are punished as strongly as Palestinian violence. As Israel continues to build more settlements, expand the barrier fence, and enforce the geographical divisions between Israelis and Palestinians, undoing these realities on the ground and the entanglement of both populations will become virtually impossible. Indeed, it likely already has.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

“Israeli Security Concerns About a Palestinian State Are Ill-Founded.”

Only if you ignore psychology. On the one hand, Israel has the most powerful military in the Middle East; it possesses scores of nuclear weapons and it has the backing of the world’s sole superpower, the United States. A few terrorist attacks, however deadly, won’t change those facts. So on one level, the existential dangers of returning land to the Palestinians is overstated. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean Israeli fears aren’t real or legitimate.

Many ordinary Israelis will tell you that the Palestinian response to Israeli concessions has been one of unremitting violence. After the signing of the Oslo Accords, Hamas (which opposed the accords) responded with suicide attacks that over the next several years killed more than 160 Israelis, wounded hundreds of others, and terrorized the population. After the so-called Camp David II negotiations among Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Yasir Arafat, and brokered by U.S. President Bill Clinton, in which Israel made historic concessions to the Palestinians, the response was even more violence. In 2002 alone, 220 Israelis were killed in suicide attacks.

Israeli society shifted in response. At the height of the Second Intifada, from 2001 to 2003, life in Israel had become virtually intolerable. Citizens lived in a constant state of fear. The Israeli government responded with a series of steps that nominally improved security, including the military offensive against Hamas’s and Fatah’s military brigades, the construction of the separation barrier walling off Palestinians, and Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. (Yet rocket attacks and terrorism from Gaza continued). Still, Israelis were able to return to some sense of normalcy in their daily lives.

As a result, many Israelis believe the status quo, no matter how untenable, is preferable to the alternative. The risk that turning the West Bank over to the Palestinians will result in an unrequited Hamas state, allied with Iran, bent on taking back all Palestinian land (the latter view is held by a majority of Israelis) is one that many Israelis are not prepared to take.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“The Palestinian Authority Has the Legitimacy to Negotiate a Peace Deal.”

Perhaps, but it’s a quickly diminishing attribute. Israeli leaders often say they lack a partner for peace. This is true, but for reasons that might not be immediately clear. In the 18 years since Arafat’s PLO returned from exile in Tunisia to run the Palestinian Authority (PA), its credibility — not just among Israelis, but also Palestinians — has declined. The reasons are many, from endemic corruption and cronyism to human rights abuses by the PA police, to a lack of faith in PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Yet it’s the PA’s cooperation with Israel that has perhaps had the greatest effect on the erosion in confidence among individual Palestinians.

Consider Al Jazeera’s publication in January of the so-called Palestine Papers, which revealed the specifics of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The most politically damaging impact of the leaks was not necessarily that the PA had conceded the annexation of key Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem while receiving nothing in return. Rather, the worst part was the revelation that the PA had basically been coordinating on security issues with Israel during the 2008-2009 Gaza war to undermine Hamas, its main political rival. In addition, under the precepts of Oslo one of the key responsibilities of the PA police in the West Bank is to protect Israelis from terrorist infiltration. So it’s not surprising that Palestinians ask: What have you done for us? All this has contributed to the view that the PA is a handmaiden of the Israeli occupation.

The PA’s loss of authority among its own people has no doubt contributed to its decision to declare a Palestinian state and seek recognition at the United Nations later this month. But this strategy carries existential risks for Abbas’s government. If there is no progress on the peace process or Palestinians move no closer to an independent state after whatever happens at Turtle Bay, the possibility of a third intifada is a distinct possibility. If violence increases, this would likely strengthen the hand of Hamas and weaken the PA further. In addition, there is also the distinct possibility that even pursuing unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations could to a GOP-led U.S. Congress cutting off funding to the PA, a move that would not only devastate the Palestinian economy, but could lead to the dissolution of the PA altogether. This has not exactly left the Palestinian Authority in a position of negotiating from strength.

Omar Rashidi/PPO via Getty Images

“A One-State Solution Is the Alternative.”

We may be about to find out. At this point only the most optimistic — or perhaps deluded — observers can imagine a near-term scenario under which Israelis and Palestinians sit down and negotiate a final two-state settlement to their conflict. The upcoming U.N. vote might have an impact on diplomatic relations between the two sides — and may further isolate Israel internationally — but it won’t necessarily do much to change the realities on the ground. The result is that, largely by the force of inertia, Israelis and Palestinians are moving closer to a one-state solution.

Some Palestinians and Israelis talk about a binational confederation in which each group has the same political rights. But this is highly unlikely to occur because it would almost certainly mean the end of Zionism and the dream of a Jewish state. On the other side of the spectrum, Israel could simply annex large swaths of the West Bank and leave the Palestinian Authority in a stateless limbo — but at risk of significant international opprobrium. Then there is the most likely option: the maintenance of the status quo and a Zionist, Jewish state in which Israeli soldiers continue a military occupation of millions of Arabs with no political rights, but perhaps certain economic and social rights.

As the two-state option slowly fades into oblivion, both sides will have to seriously contemplate an Israeli-Palestinian arrangement that looks very similar to this. Indeed, as Daniel Levy, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation noted, emphasizing this uncomfortable reality might be the most useful role the United States can play right now — namely, beginning a conversation with Israelis that makes clear that unless there is significant movement toward a Palestinian state and, soon, a one-state military occupation, an increasing international isolation is Israel’s long-term future. Any other scenario, unfortunately, is increasingly difficult to envisage.

Warrick Page/Getty Images

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.

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