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In defense of the two-state solution

Some are declaring the two-state paradigm for Israel and Palestine totally doomed. But it’s not — and it’s still worth fighting for.

A man in Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza, inspects his destroyed house next to buildings heavily damaged by Israeli airstrikes earlier this month.
Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Last week, Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire in a conflict that claimed nearly 250 lives. But the underlying status quo makes another round of fighting all but inevitable, and a fundamental solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems further away than ever.

Worse, the long-running American solution for the problem — a US-mediated peace process aimed at creating a “two-state solution,” with an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank existing alongside Israel — has proven to be a dismal failure.

Israel has become more and more entrenched in the West Bank, building new Jewish settlements that make it increasingly difficult to imagine a viable Palestinian state on that land. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership remains deeply divided: The militant group Hamas controls Gaza, while Fatah, a secular nationalist political party, nominally administers the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority (with Israel still ultimately in control).

This has led to a growing sense among analysts and experts that the two-state solution is no longer possible. Writing in the New York Times last week, the Arab Center’s Yousef Munayyer proclaimed “a growing global consensus” that “the two-state solution is dead. Israel has killed it.” Last year, influential Jewish American writer Peter Beinart declared that “the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades — a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews — has failed.”

But while pointing out the failings of the current approach is vital, its critics go too far. As far away as it may seem, the two-state solution is still the best possible option available for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s in large part because the alternatives are even less plausible.

Artist Etaf al-Najili paints the Dome of the Rock on a remaining wall section of a damaged building in Gaza City on May 24.
Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The most commonly proposed replacement is a “one-state solution,” which would merge Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip into a single democratic country with equal rights for Arabs and Jews. Under this scenario, Arab Muslims would outnumber Jews, thus ending Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Nor would Palestinians have a state purely to call their own, instead having to accommodate a large Jewish minority.

One state is even less likely to happen than a two-state solution. It would involve the most powerful player in the conflict, Israel, choosing to abandon its raison d’être. It’s far more likely to abandon West Bank settlements than to give up on Zionism wholesale.

This speaks to the deeper reason the two-state solution remains better than the leading alternative: It is the only realistic way of dealing with the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one between two distinct nations. Israelis and Palestinians have fundamentally different identities and different ideas about how they want to be governed; in one state, one of their political projects would necessarily be defeated. This would make future violence more likely, not less.

Reviving the goal of a two-state solution is vital. But to do that, it needs to be separated from the moribund peace process. Instead, the US should pursue a strategy that could be termed “deoccupation”: one that aims to weaken the Israeli occupation’s hold on Israeli minds and Palestinian lives while, ultimately, creating the conditions under which its dismantling may become possible.

Why a two-state solution seems impossible right now

The reason for the surge in one-state advocacy is fairly simple: Developments on the ground have created a kind of one-state reality, one that is slowly but surely eroding the conditions that make partition thinkable.

There are currently 650,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank. Many of these settlers live near the “Green Line,” Israel’s border prior to conquering the West Bank, in communities that would likely be ceded to Israel in any peace agreement. Many others reside in settlements across the West Bank, an archipelago built on occupied Palestinian land that cuts Palestinians off from each other by design.

These settlers are governed by Israeli law and protected by Israeli troops, and drive on separate Israeli roads. Palestinians, by contrast, live under a military occupation — given limited self-government under the aegis of the Palestinian Authority, but ultimately subject to the whims of the Israeli occupiers.

The growth of these settlements has made a two-state solution much harder to envision. The more settlements grow, the harder it will be to physically undo all of the infrastructure that has been put in place to separate them from Palestinians in the West Bank.

And the more settlers there are, the harder it will be politically for Israel to remove large numbers of them — a necessary condition for a two-state solution. When Israel evacuated settlers from Gaza in 2005, it was a brutal internal conflict that prompted a vicious right-wing backlash. There were only about 9,000 settlers in Gaza at the time.

Life in Gaza today is controlled by Israel in a more indirect way. While Hamas rules inside Gaza, Israel (in partnership with Egypt) tightly controls exit and entry. The stifling Israeli blockade, in theory designed to limit Hamas’s ability to arm itself, has destroyed ordinary Gazans’ ability to build a functional and healthy society. A 2018 UN report estimates that the combination of the blockade and three different wars did damage to Gaza’s economy worth roughly six times its GDP — leading to a poverty rate nearly four times what it would have been otherwise.

Israel’s approach to Gaza and the West Bank, together with its rule over heavily Arab East Jerusalem and its treatment of the Arab Israeli minority inside Israel, prompted two leading human rights groups — the Israeli organization B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch — to issue landmark reports this year declaring the current situation a form of “apartheid.”

In their view, there is one governing power applying different and unequal sets of laws to two different peoples, defined in ethnonational terms — a unified system of inequality and discrimination, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, that is becoming increasingly difficult to separate into two distinct states in practice.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the politics on both sides currently make a two-state solution nearly unthinkable.

Since the failure of the 1990s peace process, left-wing parties in Israel that championed the two-state solution have been in terminal decline, with voters blaming their vision of territorial compromise for the violence of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, and the rise of Hamas in Gaza.

The political right, which favors either the status quo or outright annexation of the West Bank, dominates the political scene. The settlement enterprise is primarily driven by the annexationist right, their ever-expanding enclaves planned to make an Israeli withdrawal more logistically difficult and politically costly. Israel’s rightward political drift, the growth of settlements, and waning public support for the two-state solution are all linked and mutually reinforcing — pushing Israel away from any kind of territorial compromise.

On the Palestinian side, the biggest problem is political division.

During the 1990s peace process, the Palestinians had a unified leadership. The Fatah party controlled both the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, giving its leader, Yasser Arafat, clear authority to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians as a whole. Then, Palestinian elections held in January 2006 delivered a split verdict, with Hamas winning a plurality of seats in the Palestinian parliament.

But Hamas and Fatah, now led by Mahmoud Abbas, couldn’t come to terms on how to share power — a disagreement partly fueled by an international community that rejected the idea of a Hamas-led government. Tensions between the two factions ultimately exploded into a brief civil war, which ended with Hamas in control of Gaza and Fatah in charge of the West bank.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in Gaza, greets supporters during a rally in Gaza City on May 24.
Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Since then, repeated efforts to reconcile the two sides have failed; Abbas, whose term as Palestinian Authority president was supposed to end in 2009, rules indefinitely without a popular mandate. Before the war this year, Abbas canceled parliamentary elections, fearing he’d lose — a decision that points both to his lack of legitimacy and fundamental unwillingness to compromise with Gaza’s rulers. Hamas, for its part, runs a repressive Islamist regime in Gaza and hopes to extend its laws to the West Bank.

As a result, the political unity that once gave Arafat the ability to negotiate with Israel authoritatively no longer exists. There is no political entity that could make a deal on behalf of the Palestinians and enforce it in all of what would become Palestine — and it’s not clear that one will emerge in the near future.

Under these circumstances, it’s easy to see why people are proposing a one-state alternative.

Israel would not be forced to evacuate the settlements or come to some kind of negotiated compromise with the Palestinians on borders. Instead, it could unilaterally grant equal citizenship to everyone living in the territory and open up elections to all — the first step toward a system that would, in theory, deliver a better future than the status quo perpetuated by endless final status negotiations.

A two-state solution is hard. A one-state solution is even harder.

While one state may sidestep the political barriers to two states, it has its own problems — barriers considerably more serious than those standing in the way of two.

The most prominent one-state advocates are, primarily, supporters of Palestine abroad — not Palestinians on the ground. The official position of Fatah remains support for two states, and Hamas accepts it as the starting point for an end to hostilities. Ayman Odeh and Mansour Abbas, the leaders of the major Arab factions in Israel’s Knesset, its parliament, are both two-staters.

A March 2021 poll found that, while support for one state has risen over time among the Palestinian public, it’s still very much a minority position — only one-third of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians support abandoning the pursuit of two states in favor of one.

“I don’t see one state as politically viable when there is currently no party or movement advocating for it inside Palestine,” says Khaled Elgindy, the director of the program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute.

Meanwhile, the nature of the Palestinian factions makes a two-state solution even less thinkable. Israelis see Hamas, with ample evidence, as a group bent on murdering Jewish civilians. Is their armed wing supposed to unify with the Israeli military into a new, jointly administered military? If not, how do you convince them to disarm? And what about the many other Islamist militant groups in Palestine, like Islamic Jihad?

Perhaps if the political reality on the Palestinian side changes radically, these questions might have answers. But in the short term, there is little prospect for Hamas and Fatah to get over their own differences and somehow unite behind one-state advocacy — let alone for Hamas to change so radically that Israelis would be willing to integrate it into their own government and society.

And the politics on the Israeli side poses an even bigger problem.

Israeli security forces prevent Palestinians from passing through an Israeli police checkpoint at the entrance of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem on May 22.
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Today, more Arabs than Jews live between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Any one-state solution would also include some version of the right of return, in which Palestinians displaced in 1948 and their descendants are permitted to move back to the new binational state. In a one-state arrangement, Arabs would outnumber Jews by a significant margin.

The result would be the end of Zionism, the vision of a specifically Jewish state that exists to protect Jews in a hostile world. The political structures of the Israeli state as they currently exist would have to be completely unraveled, replaced with some alternative that isn’t oriented around the state’s Jewish identity.

This is more than unacceptable to Israeli Jewish political leaders and citizens: It would, in their minds, amount to total defeat.

A 2020 poll found that a scant 10 percent of Jewish Israelis supported a one-state solution in which Palestinians and Jewish Israelis are equal citizens. And only 13 percent of Israel’s Arab citizens supported such an option. By contrast, 42 percent of Jewish Israelis and 59 percent of Arab Israelis supported two states — with much of the opposition among Jews stemming from a sense that two states were not currently achievable rather than a principled unwillingness to compromise.

The Israeli commitment to Zionism creates an insuperable political problem for a one-state solution. Israel holds the preponderance of the power in the current situation; getting to one state would require a nuclear-armed state with one of the world’s best-equipped militaries to unilaterally agree to dismantle itself.

“There’s no conceivable possibility that Israel would agree to disappear in favor of a Palestinian state with a Jewish minority, and there is no one on earth outside of some social media supporting the idea,” Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor and prominent pro-Palestinian intellectual, told me via email.

Compared to that, the barriers to a two-state solution seem more surmountable.

While evacuating settlements will be challenging for Israel, it has the capacity to do so. Daniel Seidemann, a leading expert on Jerusalem and the geography of the conflict, told me that Israel would have to withdraw and rehome about 185,000 settlers to make a two-state solution viable. This is a logistical challenge but hardly an impossibility: Seidemann points out that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Israel successfully absorbed roughly a million Jews seeking a new home in Israel.

The Beitar Illit Israeli settlement in the West Bank in 2017.
Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The politics of evacuating Israelis from settlements are much harder than integrating Jewish immigrants from abroad. And yet they are infinitely easier than those of asking Israel to commit what Jewish citizens see as national suicide. If forced to choose between withdrawal and destruction by some kind of pressure campaign, Israel would have both the power and the will to choose the former.

“Even if you demand one state, and even if you generate enough pressure on Israel, Israel will retreat to two states,” Yehuda Shaul, the founder of the Israeli anti-occupation activist group Breaking the Silence, tells me. “Once we end the occupation and retreat to the Green Line, no one will support your struggle anymore. It doesn’t matter what you demand; what matters is the geographic and demographic reality on the ground.”

Similarly, while the divisions between Hamas and Fatah run deep, it’s much easier to imagine them agreeing to share power under the current Palestinian political framework than some new one-state movement. Since the split, there have been repeated negotiations between the two sides and several interim agreements on power-sharing.

These agreements, of course, broke down. But part of the problem is that the Palestinians were working with limited international support. A 2018 report on Gaza and Palestinian division written by a group of leading experts in Washington — including Hady Amr, Biden’s current deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli and Palestinian affairs — argues that a more robust international effort to foster Palestinian unity could offer stronger incentives and security guarantees for all sides, increasing the chance that an agreement might stick.

“Getting agreement from Israel, Hamas, and the PA/PLO will still be extraordinarily difficult, but a campaign coordinated between all the external actors has the greatest likelihood of success,” the report argues.

Support for a one-state solution is born of a justified sense that the two-state paradigm is failing to deliver. But the argument that it is somehow more realistic than two states only works if one ignores the basic realities on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the conflict.

“Out of despair, people turn to magic,” as Shaul puts it.

Two states are worth fighting for

One-state advocates are not unaware of these barriers. They believe they can be overcome by the moral force of the one-state democratic vision: an ideal that could galvanize a political movement akin to the South African anti-apartheid struggle, changing the way that people on both sides of the conflict think about themselves and their historic enemies.

“A struggle for equality could elevate Palestinian leaders who possess the moral authority that Abbas and Hamas lack,” Beinart writes. “Progress often appears utopian before a movement for moral change gains traction.”

But there’s a moral core to the two-state vision as well: self-determination for two peoples, each of which have a history of victimization that leads them to desire a government for and by their own people. And that makes two states not only more feasible than one, but also in certain respects more desirable.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not just a fight for individual rights, though it is that. It’s a struggle for collective rights between two distinct groups of people. Depriving Israeli Jews of a Jewish state or Palestinians of a Palestinian state would represent a subordination of one group’s aspirations to someone else’s vision.

To overcome that, leaders and ordinary citizens on both sides would need to fundamentally change their national aspirations: Jews would need to reject Zionism and Palestinians reject Palestinian nationalism. That would involve not just changing political institutions, but changing the sorts of identities people have and care about. That is not impossible, but it is exceptionally difficult to imagine in this case.

“Abandoning the desire for self-determination, something that has been the very raison d’etre of Palestinian nationalism since the 1960s and something that has actually been achieved by Zionists, is a steep demand to make of both,” Nadav Shelef, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies national identity and ethnic struggle, wrote in a recent essay applying academic research on how nationalist sentiment declines to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Given the entrenched identities on both sides, it would likely be nearly impossible to create a truly “democratic” single state in which both communities feel authentically represented. Far more likely is a situation in which one national vision dominates the other, either by force of arms or force of numbers. In either case, one side will feel unrepresented by a one-state reality — which is a recipe for disaster.

“I don’t think there’s anyone that thinks that, right away, a one-state solution would lead to political equality between Jews and Arabs,” Shelef tells me in a phone interview. “In that context, you would expect a one-state solution would lead to violence.”

Children wave Palestinian flags at the site of a house that was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza on May 23.
NurPhoto/Getty Images

This analysis depends, crucially, on exclusive national identities on both sides running quite deep. Syracuse University professor Yael Zeira, an expert on nationalism, tells me that identities can be altered: that “physically separating ethnic groups in conflict is not necessarily required to achieve peace.”

But if anything, these national identities seem to be hardening, not softening.

For instance, during the recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, communal violence between Jews and Arabs erupted on the streets of demographically mixed cities within Israel. This fighting reflected the deepening mistrust between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, fed by anti-Arab sentiment among Jews and a justified sense among Arabs that the Jewish majority does not consider them full and equal citizens.

And yet, Arab Israelis, also known as Palestinian citizens of Israel, had been part of the Jewish state for decades — and, in recent years, had made significant strides toward integration in Israeli social and cultural life. If tensions between Israelis and Palestinians can cause major internal violence in this context, it’s hard to imagine that a one-state reality would be remotely stable.

“It’s like saying Israelis and Palestinians hate each other so much that they can’t get divorced — and that they’ll have to have a successful marriage instead,” Seidemann, the Jerusalem expert, told me.

To save the two-state solution, ditch the “peace process”

Even if the prospect of a two-state solution seems impossible right now, it’s not impossible to imagine eventually getting there — if the right steps are taken.

“We can ignite a process that will create the reality of two states,” Ami Ayalon, former commander in chief of the Israeli navy and now peace activist, told me. “Probably it will take 10 or 20 years to execute, but we can achieve [it].”

Recent reports from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — prominent think tanks that recently employed some of Biden’s top foreign policy officials — have outlined ways to shift American policy away from immediate negotiations and toward changing the reality on the ground.

The first step, these experts say, should be to abandon the US-led peace process as traditionally conceived. This doesn’t mean Washington shouldn’t still be involved; America is by far the most important international actor here, given its close relationship with Israel and traditional role leading Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the conflict in the Middle East after speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on May 20.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Rather, it just means the US focus needs to shift from trying to negotiate a final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians to trying to create the conditions under which one is possible — a strategy Seidemann suggests could be called “deoccupation.”

The goal of a deoccupation strategy is to halt and eventually reverse the processes that are pushing the two sides further away from two states, with the ultimate aim of returning to final status negotiations when conditions have changed. It involves three key aspects: 1) raising the costs of the status quo for Israel; 2) changing the political equation on both sides; and 3) rethinking what an acceptable two-state solution might look like.

1) Raise the costs of the status quo for Israel

“The United States needs to send a clear and consistent signal to Israel that the violation of norms and the undermining of U.S. policy goals will have consequences,” the Carnegie report argues. “Absent these messages and the policies to back them up, the trajectory of Israeli policy and politics will not change and the door on peaceful conflict resolution and a two-state outcome will further close.”

As a baseline, this requires openly rejecting the Trump administration’s “peace plan,” which gave Israelis everything and Palestinians nothing.

It also means using US leverage over Israel to push it back on a better path. This could involve ending the US practice of vetoing UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, and putting conditions on the $3.8 billion of military aid the US gives to Israel every year, requiring the Israeli government to do things like ease the blockade of Gaza and freeze settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

This kind of approach used to be unthinkable in Washington, given staunch pro-Israel sentiment on both sides. But a dramatic shift in attitudes on the Democratic side — both in public opinion and on Capitol Hill — has created an opportunity for the US to use its leverage over Israel in pursuit of peace.

There’s even a bill in the House right now, written by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), that aims to block the use of US-provided weapons in Israeli human rights abuses. It has the support of both prominent legislators like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and J Street, the pro-peace Israel lobby that regularly attracts leading Democrats to its annual gathering.

2) Foster the political conditions under which genuine negotiations are possible

This means both supporting the pro-peace camp in Israel and, more controversially, working to reconcile Hamas and Fatah to create a unified Palestinian leadership that could make authoritative promises.

Mechanisms for achieving that include increasing funding to pro-peace civil society groups, negotiating with Hamas through third parties like Egypt, and investing significant resources in repairing broken Palestinian political institutions.

This will mean the US having to abandon its longstanding skepticism about including Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group, in a Palestinian government — working not only to making such an outcome happen, but to create a world in which Israel could accept and even negotiate with its longtime enemy.

“The United States must encourage intra-Palestinian reconciliation by becoming more flexible about the composition of the government that the Palestinians form,” the CNAS report explains.

3) Rethink what an acceptable two-state solution could look like

Finally, the US and other international actors need to think more flexibly about the conditions that make two states so difficult — and what a solution to them might look like.

For example, a final agreement could allow some West Bank settlers to stay if they agree to Palestinian rule — an option once proposed by the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said as the only viable alternative to his preferred one-state solution.

Another option would be a confederal solution, a kind of 1.5-state arrangement in which Israel and Palestine are separate governments that maintain an EU-like open borders agreement. Israeli citizens could live in the West Bank, and many Palestinian refugees could return to their homes inside the Green Line — but they would vote in Israeli and Palestinian elections, respectively.

This sort of modified two-state solution is hardly easy. Much like the one-state solution, there are no meaningful factions on the ground lobbying for it. And leaving a large number of settlers in the West Bank has the potential to reignite violence even after an agreement. Erin Jenne, an expert on ethnic conflict at Central European University, told me that “stay behind” minorities are one of the key reasons why partitions have failed to solve conflicts in other cases (like India and Pakistan).

But the purpose of proposing ideas like confederation is not to present a silver bullet replacement for two states. It’s to broaden the scope of diplomatic discussions, ultimately changing the contours of negotiations in a way that actually makes a two-state approach more plausible.

Nazmy al-Dahdouh, 70, releases his birds above the ruins of his home, destroyed in recent Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, on May 23.
SOPA/LightRocket/Getty Images

“Confederation can help expand the range of possible options and negotiating tools available to the two sides — particularly at a time when physical realities have all but foreclosed the classic two-state model and political conditions do not yet allow for an egalitarian, one-state option,” Elgindy, the Middle East Institute scholar, wrote in a 2018 report for the Brookings Institution. “In order to salvage the possibility of a two-state solution we may first need to abandon it on some level.”

There is no guarantee that this three-pronged approach will succeed. But if implemented, it would represent a radical shift away from the current American approach — abandoning the conceit that the US-Israel alliance alone would give Israel the confidence it needed to sacrifice land for peace.

And the very fact that this new approach is available, and that it’s being proposed by leading experts with real clout in Washington, suggests that the world hasn’t exhausted every avenue for pursuing two states.

Thinking of the available options as a binary between the traditional approach and a one-state solution is a mistake. There are other, more realistic possibilities — ones that do not involve wishing away the fundamental facts of Israeli military dominance, strong Jewish attachment to Zionism, and the Palestinian quest for independent statehood.

No one should be too hopeful about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the best hope for avoiding a future of apartheid or violence isn’t trying to achieve the unachievable; it’s thinking of new ways to reach a solution that both sides have already said they can live with.

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