A three-state solution for Israel and Palestine?
22 Jan 2019|

The goal of two states for two nations, living side by side within secure borders, has been the foundation of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process since the 1993 Oslo Accords. But for all intents and purposes, it is dead and buried. And perhaps the most important reason is that the goal of two states no longer corresponds to the facts on the ground.

To be sure, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) still supports the two-state solution. It is not interested in any interim settlement that, as experience has shown, Israel’s right-wing coalitions could extend indefinitely, using the never-ending peace process as a political fig leaf for continued occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands.

But for the second key Palestinian player, Hamas, the goal of statehood is secondary to ensuring the predominance of Islam throughout the region. Its absolute unwillingness to sanction the existence of a Jewish state in the sacred land of Palestine rules out any convincing commitment to the two-state solution.

On this point, Hamas’s position aligns perfectly with that of Israel’s current far-right, religious-nationalist government, which cannot make the concessions that a two-state solution demands without betraying the core of its own fundamentalist ideology. Israel’s government can afford an interim settlement, but not a conclusive peace agreement. Likewise, Hamas has toyed with the idea of a long hudna (truce) that may eventually lead to peace with—but not recognition of—the ‘Zionist entity’.

Despite the overlapping positions of Israel and Hamas, it is the PLO—and, in particular, the Palestinian Authority (PA) government, led by President Mahmoud Abbas—with which Israel cooperates on security. That cooperation is Abbas’s last line of defence against a Hamas takeover. In fact, the wave of attacks that Hamas has carried out on Israeli targets in the West Bank in recent months has been aimed at further weakening the PLO’s rule there, by exposing its strategy of collaboration with the occupier.

While the PA depends largely on Israeli force to retain power in the West Bank, its position vis-à-vis Hamas is also strengthened by its international legitimacy, which ensures its control over donor funds from the rest of the world. Abbas, taking advantage of this position, has imposed severe financial sanctions on Gaza, which have exacerbated the already severe humanitarian consequences of Israel’s blockade.

Abbas seems to be calculating that an all-out war with Israel in the Gaza Strip would end Hamas’s rule there, forcing it to form a unified government with the PA. But Hamas would undoubtedly regard such a government as an opportunity to take over the entire national movement.

Even that outcome is highly unlikely, however. In reality, there’s little that could compel Hamas to surrender its independent military capabilities—which may well be formidable enough to defy the Israel Defense Forces—let alone its right to deploy them. Hamas’s leaders may hope to emulate the Lebanese model, whereby Hezbollah maintains a military force that could ultimately be enough to secure political authority.

They would also do everything in their power to avoid surrendering control over Gaza, which, under Hamas’s rule, functions as an independent Sunni Islamic state, with government institutions, public services and its own network of regional allies. Those allies—Hezbollah, Iran, Qatar and Turkey—all represent an alternative model of Islamic ‘democracy’ and oppose the regional status quo (and the pro-Western PA, which helps to uphold it).

That’s why, even as they vociferously defend the Palestinian cause, these powers either oppose or are lukewarm towards the two-state solution. An Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement along the lines drawn by the liberal West would accord Israel regional legitimacy and make it a key ally of the region’s entrenched conservative Arab regimes.

Although none of these powers are particularly friendly to Israel, their support for Hamas is to some extent in the interest of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—and Netanyahu knows it. For example, Israel allowed Qatar to keep the Gaza state functioning by paying Hamas civil servants’ salaries, thereby undercutting Abbas’s strategy of withholding them to force Hamas towards more conciliatory positions.

More broadly, while Netanyahu’s government has done all it could to weaken and humiliate the PA, it has respectfully negotiated with Hamas, through third parties, on prisoner exchanges and ceasefires. The reason is obvious: a Hamas-led Islamic-fundamentalist state offers Israel the ultimate pretext to shun peace negotiations.

Given these complex and conflicting dynamics, there are now three ‘states’ involved in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: Hamas in Gaza, the PA in the West Bank, and Israel. The walls and fences Israel has erected to separate itself from Gaza and much of the West Bank have helped to entrench this reality.

According to Israel, a national movement comprising ideologically irreconcilable groups would never be able to achieve liberation; the Palestinians would need to carry out their own ‘Altalena’. In 1948, the army of the new Israeli state, acting on the order of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, sank the Altalena, a ship loaded with weapons destined for the Irgun, a radical Jewish paramilitary group. The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, did not retaliate, ending the violent confrontation between the two sides.

But PLO founder Yasser Arafat dreaded the spectre of a divisive agreement with Israel that could usher in a conclusive Palestinian civil war, as does Abbas today. Of course, like Ben-Gurion, Abbas understands that an integrated military command implementing a single shared strategy is vital to creating a unified Palestinian state. But Israel, which has so effectively carried out a divide-and-rule strategy, has offered no clear path to a lasting peace.

Against this background, a Palestinian civil war would be tantamount to national suicide—and a dream come true for Israel’s right-wing government. Given this, the two-state solution cannot be revived. There are three sides to this story.