Oslo Is Dead, the Two-State Solution Isn’t

A two-state solution remains the only politically viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and, with the right Israeli and U.S. leaders, it can be achieved outside the Oslo framework.

Hassan Ayad sticks his hand through concrete blocks as he is congratulated by a friend on his recent engagement while the two Palestinian men stand on opposite sides of Israel's security wall in East Jerusalem on September 23, 2003.
Hassan Ayad sticks his hand through concrete blocks as he is congratulated by a friend on his recent engagement while the two Palestinian men stand on opposite sides of Israel's security wall in East Jerusalem on September 23, 2003. David Silverman/Getty Images

After years of dismissing the idea, many American progressives—especially Jewish progressives—seem to have reached the conclusion that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become impossible and are now having serious conversations about a one-state solution. The current flurry was sparked by Peter Beinart’s New York Times op-ed, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.”

However, these discussions are largely about justice for the Palestinians and about Jewish identity. They are not really serious conversations about new policy approaches for ending the conflict.

Support for the two-state solution never rested on the judgment that of all the ways to accommodate two peoples between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the division of their common homeland into two states would be the most ennobled vision. Rather, the two-state concept was embraced because it is the most, and perhaps the only, viable option for ending the conflict.

The two-state concept wasn’t embraced because it is the most noble solution, but because it is the only viable option for ending the conflict.

In arguing over whether or not the two-state solution is dead, there is a tendency to confuse the status of the two-state solution with that of the Oslo Peace Process. Oslo was a very specific sequenced process with timetables and interim institutions.  The heart of Oslo is its commitment to direct Israel-PLO negotiations, and its prohibition of unilateral steps to “change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” While Oslo specified key issues for those permanent status negotiations—borders, settlements, refugees, security arrangements, and Jerusalem—it did not commit to a two-state outcome.

Oslo’s current dead end has historical precedent. In 1947, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, following the failure of multiple diplomatic efforts, announced to Parliament, “it has become clear that there is no prospect of resolving this conflict by any settlement negotiated between the parties.” After declaring further negotiations pointless, he went on to say, “We have therefore reached the conclusion that the only course open to us is to submit the problem to the United Nations.”

The United Nations General Assembly responded by convening its first Special Session, and creating a special committee, UNSCOP, which developed a fully detailed proposal for the division of Palestine into two states, with a map, an international regime for Jerusalem, a plan for economic union, and a process of implementation. Months later, the General Assembly embodied this plan in the historic Partition Resolution.

The Partition Plan was accepted by the Zionist movement, but rejected by the Arab states and the Palestinians. In May of 1948, citing the Partition Resolution, the State of Israel was unilaterally declared. Immediately the new country found itself at war with five Arab states. In 1988, the PLO issued its own Declaration of Independence, also based on the Partition Resolution, which for the first time it accepted as legitimate—and as the basis for two states, one Arab and one Jewish.

Today, a new form of the 1947 U.N. process is possible. One such approach, discussed below, was put forward in 2012 by former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, former EU top diplomat Javier Solana, Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling, and myself. Rather than trying to develop an agreement through negotiations, it would re-establish UNSCOP, which would lay out a two-state plan with proposed solutions to all of the permanent status issues. Then the parties would be asked to negotiate mutually agreed improvements. This falls short of an imposed solution of the sort envisioned by the UN in 1947. Rather, it is a hybrid between Oslo and a new Partition Resolution.

Many observers, including EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, contend that substantial annexation would kill the two-state solution. This is questionable. While annexation does violate the core principle of Oslo, it does not foreclose the possibility of Israel relinquishing or trading annexed territory. After all, in 1981, Israel annexed East Jerusalem, yet Ehud Barak in the 2001 Taba negotiations and Ehud Olmert in 2008, agreed to transfer substantial parts of East Jerusalem to a future Palestinian state.  Similarly, Israel negotiated with Syria over the Golan Heights in 1994, despite having annexed the territory in 1981.

The most frequently cited factor in proclaiming the death of the two-state solution is the presence of about 640,000 Israelis living east of the Green Line—the 1949 Armistice line. Their presence is a major problem, but not an insurmountable one. Approximately one-third of them (210,000) live in East Jerusalem, and the PLO accepts that they will remain.

Various land swap proposals, including those the PLO has supported and those that Israel has supported on past occasions, have shown that 70-80 percent of the West Bank settlers can be accommodated by an exchange of territory. The remaining population of around 120,000 people represents fewer than 30,000 families. Many will respond to financial incentives to relocate either to Israel proper or to those settlements that will fall under Israeli sovereignty; others could remain as permanent residents living inside the State of Palestine.

While annexation does violate the core principle of Oslo, it does not foreclose the possibility of Israel relinquishing or trading annexed territory.

Much of the despair over achieving a two-state end-of-conflict agreement ignores or misunderstands the specifics of the history of the negotiations. There were only two short periods in which there was an Israeli prime minister who was serious about negotiating two states: Ehud Barak (from 1999-2001) and Ehud Olmert (from 2006-2009).

In both cases the negotiations were cut short because of internal Israeli political developments. Barak held productive negotiations at Taba in January 2001, six months after the failed Camp David talks, but they could not be pursued because in February he lost an election to Ariel Sharon. The Abbas-Olmert negotiations process ended because of Olmert’s criminal indictment. Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister again in 2009, ending any serious attempt to reach a two-state solution.

Before Netanyahu’s return to the helm, the gap between Israel and the PLO narrowed on most issues—including Jerusalem, borders, land swaps, and security. The one exception was refugees, and even here the Palestinian position moderated, but Olmert refused to agree to levels that had been acceptable to Israel at Taba. Today, there are new ideas on some of these issues, including refugees, that could close the gap. Some of these were discussed in high-level Track Two sessions in 2014.

Ultimately the two-state solution endures because there is no other viable option. The primary alternative being proposed now, a one-state solution, has zero possibility of ending the conflict because it has zero support in Israel, and has no prospect of gaining such support.

Its proponents make reference to the importance of a compelling vision, such as a democracy with true equality, and how with such a vision a mass movement might be built. But that mass movement, if it were to crystallize, would only emerge in the United States. It would be politically significant, but its chance of bringing any Israeli government to agree (even under U.S. pressure) to adding 5 million Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to the Israeli voter rolls is zero. It is as fanciful as the idea that in a referendum Israel will, someday, agree to the return of 7 million Palestinian refugees.

While a two-state solution is still possible if there is another Oslo-like attempt to achieve it, with a Biden-Gantz-Abbas line-up, the effort is most likely to fail. All parties need a different process—in particular, one that can rekindle a belief among Israelis that maybe it really is possible to end the conflict. To bring that about, there must be a fully detailed end-of-conflict proposal to which the Palestinian people, not just the PLO, says “Yes.”

Getting to this Palestinian “Yes” is more likely to emerge from a U.N. or Quartet-led process than from one led by the United States—and it is certainly more likely via the U.N. than through more “from the ground up” Israel-PLO direct negotiations.

One possibility is a variant of the Solana/Ben-Ami proposal. The U.N. Security Council (or the General Assembly, if the U.S. government will not agree) could draft a detailed peace agreement that is consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative, which offered Israel normalization contingent on its agreeing to a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967 lines, a capital in East Jerusalem and a just solution to the refugee issue.

Rather than aiming to close the gap between Israel and the PLO’s positions, diplomats could craft a peace plan most likely to win the strongest support of the two peoples. Then, with a PLO endorsement, even if moderately tweaked, the U.N. plan would be put to a Palestinian referendum. Responding to the 2006 Prisoners’ Document on National Reconciliation, Hamas pledged that even if it disagrees, it would abide by a Palestinian referendum. If such agreement is affirmed by the Palestinian people, then under U.N. auspices it could be presented to the Israelis, either in their own referendum or for six months of PLO-Israel negotiations, to see if a final draft can be agreed upon.

If Joe Biden becomes president, rather than pursuing the Oslo efforts of the Clinton and Obama administrations, he should do as Bevin did in 1947 and announce that there is little likelihood that further efforts based on the existing framework would yield a solution.

He could then balance Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by recognizing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. He could work to deepen Hamas’s commitment to abide by a Palestinian referendum. And most importantly, he could ask the U.N. Security Council to re-establish UNSCOP to propose a comprehensive solution.


Jerome M. Segal is the Founder of the Jewish Peace Lobby. His next book, Olive Branch: Palestinian Unilateral Peace-Making from Their 1988 Declaration of Independence into the New Post-Oslo Period will be published next year.