The Two-State Solution is Dead. What Now?

On December 6th, the US House of Representatives voted 226 to 188 in favour of a measure calling for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. This measure echoes the common discourse of Western governments both domestically and on the international stage: when the annual United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian rights comes around, Western countries inevitably reiterate their support for a two-state solution.

Indeed, the two-state solution has been touted in the West as the only way to achieve enduring peace in Israel-Palestine. This solution would create a separate Palestinian state composed of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. According to its proponents, the two-state solution proposes a Palestinian state that would peacefully coexist next to and cooperate with the existing state of Israel, thereby ending the Palestinian-Israeli dispute and serving as a foundation for enduring peace in the Middle East. Both the Bush and Obama administrations advocated for the two-state solution and mediated several rounds of ultimately unsuccessful peace negotiations. The most recent of these collapsed in early 2014 during John Kerry’s tenure as Secretary of State. Despite consistent calls from the West for a two-state solution, a reality check of the situation on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza reveals an unpleasant reality: the two-state solution is well and truly dead, buried and decomposing.

Israeli settlement near Jerusalem. Photo by Xavier Malafosse on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0

Beyond ideological opposition to creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which exists in both Israeli and Palestinian political circles, the simple truth is that there is no viable remaining area under Palestinian control from which an Arab-majority state can be crafted. Almost 400 000 Israeli citizens live in settlements in the West Bank. Another 300 000 live in settlements in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state.

Since settlers refuse to live under the authority of a Palestinian state, peace proposals in the past have suggested applying Israeli sovereignty over settlements. Some propose a land swap by which Israel would receive control of the settlements and a Palestinian state would take control of Arab-majority towns currently in Israel. However, the logistics of this proposal alone are daunting. Beyond the diplomatic wrangling over redrawing borders that would have to take place, the logistics and long-term impact of transferring people from one nation to another will be troublesome. An example of this was the 2005 forced evacuation of 8000 Israeli settlers in Gaza, which saw violent protests and rioting as settlers resisted the evacuation order. The scale of a similar evacuation, even in a small part of the West Bank, would be significantly larger and even harder to plan and execute. Furthermore, having significant portions of both countries’ populations in exclaves in the other is not likely to prove popular and leads to other issues that may prove just as difficult to tackle, such as transportation, trade, and security.

It is clear where the problems with the two-state solution lie. In the past, both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have expressed their skepticism in its feasibility. Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered perhaps the most direct rejection of the idea when he pledged to annex the Jordan Valley, an area that encompasses a third of the West Bank and is home to over 65,000 Palestinians. This is not the first time that annexation of territory in the West Bank has been proposed by Israeli politicians. Several Israeli politicians, including the leader of the New Right party and Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennet, have proposed Israeli annexation of Area C of the West Bank, which includes over 60% of the West Bank and is estimated to be home to an estimated 300 000 Palestinians. Some have taken it a step further and proposed the annexation of the entire West Bank. To those who support the Palestinian cause, Israeli annexation of the West Bank is a doomsday scenario and represents the ultimate escalation of the occupation of the territories conquered by Israel in 1967.

However, Israelis have not been the only ones to propose bringing the Palestinian territories and Israel under one flag. The one-state solution, as it is commonly known, has been supported by prominent Palestinians in the past, including Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, who emerged as one of the strongest proponents of the one-state solution in 1999. Proponents of the concept envision a unitary state composed of at least the West Bank and the existing state of Israel, with the Gaza strip sometimes included as well.

This state would be secular and democratic for all its citizens. Arabs and Jews would have the same political and social rights. Approximately 20% of Israel’s population is Arab. Between Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Jewish and Arab populations are roughly the same. A one-state solution would likely see a state with no discernible religious majority. This is a key component of Said’s argument in favour of a one-state solution. Despite the political rhetoric in Israel over the years arguing the need for a Jewish homeland, the policy of constructing settlements in the West Bank has increasingly and perhaps paradoxically tied the destinies of the Jewish and Arab peoples of the two nations together.

There are several key components of the one-state solution. First, the enfranchisement of Palestinians would have to be guaranteed. Similarly, this scenario assumes no limitations on the ability of Palestinians to travel or conduct business, either in the West Bank or in Israel. These conditions could relieve much of the economic strain created by the occupation and allow Palestinians the freedom to travel both within the country and abroad. It could also open Palestinian businesses to both Israeli and international markets and could jump-start the Palestinian economy. With the demise of the two-state solution, a one-state solution also represents the only way to grant citizenship and full legal status to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

A futile process. Photo by Vince Musi / The White House in Wikimedia Commons , licensed under Public Domain

There are several barriers preventing this scenario from becoming a reality. An obvious first is getting Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to agree to such a proposal. Leaders on both sides would then need to sell the deal to their respective constituents, which will be no easy task. Many in Israel have stated their opposition to the proposal and polls have shown high levels of opposition among Palestinians towards a bi-national state. Furthermore, longstanding points of contention such as the right of return for refugees and compensation for confiscated land would have to be negotiated as well. The status of Gaza and the role of Hamas will also be major sticking points that could end negotiations before they truly begin.

However, there are increasing signs that Palestinians are warming to the idea of a one-state solution. Following Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Saeb Erakat, a senior Palestinian official, publicly rejected the two-state solution and advocated for the pursuit of a “one-state for everyone living within historic Palestine.” However, Israel is unlikely to come to terms with such a proposal without significant pressure from its Western allies.

With the increasingly clear impossibility of a two-state solution and the ongoing occupation, it is perhaps time for Israelis and Palestinians to consider a different approach to ending the conflict once and for all. Western governments must come to terms with the demise of the two-state solution and encourage both sides to consider new ways to achieve a lasting peace that ends the occupation of the Palestinians territories. For all the talk in the past of a Jewish and Arab state, the solution to one of the world’s most divisive conflicts may be found by creating one state rather than two.

Featured image by Garry Walsh on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY 2,0

Edited by Chris Ciafro