Israel–Palestine: vale the two‑state solution, where to now?
16 Jun 2018|

As millions around the globe contemplated New Year resolutions on 31 December 2017, Israel’s ruling Likud party came up with one of its own. Its Central Committee overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution seeking to extend Israel’s legal jurisdiction to its settlements in the West Bank, home to some 400,000 Israelis.

Noting the 50th anniversary of the ‘liberation’ of the West Bank, the resolution called on Likud’s elected officials ‘to allow free construction and to apply the laws of Israel and its sovereignty to all liberated areas of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria’.

Like New Year resolutions elsewhere, Likud’s was non‑binding. That, and its timing, possibly explains why it attracted little media attention. But it may prove an important marker in the burial of the two‑state solution. Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations, commented that the resolution had ‘significant consequences’ as ‘a prelude to annexation’.

In the government halls that matter most in Israeli and Palestinian affairs—Jerusalem and Washington—the resolution captured the spirit of the time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is at his most credible when he denies any possibility of a Palestinian state. His Education Minister Naftali Bennett, one of two Jewish Home party representatives in the current Knesset, lauded Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory as a tremendous opportunity for Israel, signalling ‘the era of the Palestinian state is over’.

The two‑state solution, Bennett told a gathering of Jewish students in New York in March 2018, was a terrible idea and ‘we’re done with that’. Citing the example of Israel’s annexation in 1981 of the Golan Heights, he spoke of the benefits of international amnesia. ‘It’s never pleasant two weeks after, but after two months it fades away, and 20 years later and 40 years later it’s still ours.’

Early in his presidency, President Trump gestured towards an open mind, commenting, ‘I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like.’ The idea that ‘both’ parties could possibly agree on what they like was fanciful. In any event, Trump’s subsequent actions made clear that the US wasn’t interested in using its clout to help the parties find a way through the maze of claim, counterclaim and mutual acrimony.

Trump and those around him have made the US a partisan player as never before. His former adviser on Israeli affairs, and now ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an unabashed supporter of ‘Israeli annexation’ of the West Bank, has been president of a fundraising organisation for the West Bank settlement of Beit El, and reportedly backed Netanyahu’s ludicrous claim that opposition to settlements amounts to ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Writing in The Atlantic in May 2018, Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi described Israelis and Palestinians as caught in a cycle of denial. ‘The Palestinian national movement denies Israel’s legitimacy, and Israel in turn denies the Palestinians’ national sovereignty.’ The latter ‘sovereignty’ is greatly weakened by the schism between the feeble Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas in Gaza.

For Israel, it is the gift that keeps on giving. Of the parties most closely entwined in the conflict, the PA has the strongest interest in a two‑state solution and the least capacity to do anything about it. It governs fully in less than a quarter of the West Bank, which, under the Oslo Agreements of the early 1990s, remains divided into Areas A, B and C. The PA has full control of Area A, about 18% of the whole territory. Israel has full control of Area C, about 60%. Area B, the remainder, is divided between Palestinian civil control and shared security control.

The terminal problem for two‑staters is what to build the state with. Israeli settlement has so sliced and diced the West Bank that it’s hard to imagine how the geographic shards might meaningfully be gathered together. US Ambassador Friedman has argued that settlements occupy only 2% of the West Bank. If true, that would make settlements easier to remove. But it completely overlooks the settlements’ administrative reach. Israeli Human Rights Organisation B’Tselem calculated in late 2017 that the settlements and their governing ‘regional councils’ directly controlled 63% of Area C and 40% of the West Bank overall.

Besides the West Bank’s geographic fragmentation, there’s the open sore of the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas. In its revised charter, Hamas hinted for the first time in 2017 that it might accept ‘a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967’. That amounts to a two‑state solution, if not one that Israel would accept.

The charter also described armed resistance as the ‘strategic choice for protecting the principles and the rights of the Palestinian people’. This points backwards. Israel has long declared that it won’t negotiate if under fire; Palestinians retort that Israel won’t negotiate unless it’s under fire.

A week after the Likud Central Committee’s New Year resolution, Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, now at Princeton University, wrote that Israelis and Palestinians were careening towards a one‑state reality, which ‘carries extremely dangerous risks’.

These risks hark back to Israel’s decades‑old ‘trilemma’ of deciding what it wants to be: Jewish, an occupier or a democracy. It can’t be all three. The two‑state solution was premised on the idea of ending the occupation, thereby preserving both Israel’s Jewish identity and its democratic ways.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned in mid‑2017 that if Israel kept control of the area from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan, ‘it would become inevitably—that’s the key word, inevitably—either non-Jewish or non-democratic’. If Palestinians in an annexed West Bank were given full rights, Israel would quickly become ‘a binational state with an Arab majority and civil war’. Israel’s current path he described as a ‘slippery slope toward apartheid’.

Demography has long been a pressure point in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat once claimed ‘the womb of the Arab woman’ as his ‘strongest weapon’. But population figures—totals and growth rates—are sharply contested (see, for example, Israel’s Impending Demographic Reality and Demographics and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict).

According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, in 2017 there were 8.3 million people in Israel, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, of which 74.7% were Jewish. The West Bank’s population was 2.75 million, which included 391,000 Israeli settlers. Gaza’s population was 1.8 million. Rounded, this produces a total Jewish population of 6.59 million and a non-Jewish, primarily Muslim Palestinian, population of 6.25 million, a 51:49 split. Take Gaza out and the split firms in Israel’s favour 60:40. While Israel has always had a significant non‑Jewish minority, the larger this minority, the weaker the country’s sense of identity and the more complicated its internal politics.

One ‘solution’ to the demographic dilemma involves the claim that ‘Jordan is Palestine’, given its high proportion of citizens of Palestinian descent. ‘Relocate’ Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan, so the argument runs, and they’ll have their state and Israel will have demographic and identity comfort.

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also from the Jewish Home party, last February outlined her plan for Israeli law to apply in Area C of the West Bank while Areas A and B would ‘be part of a confederation, with Jordan and Gaza’. She rightly acknowledged that this might seem ‘a bizarre option to the international community, but … in three years from now the international community will understand this is the right solution’.

To many of us, the ‘right’ solution has long been two states for two peoples, reached through their own negotiations, supported and encouraged by others. That hasn’t happened, and there’s no reason to believe it will.

Sputtering efforts at negotiations over the past 20 years or so kept the ‘peace process’ on life support. They also made it increasingly clear that the two‑state solution is dead, overwhelmed by the weight of the past, as well as by myopia, ignorance, inhumanity, indifference, deceit, fanaticism and miscalculation.

It’s a long charge sheet. The solution won’t be rescued by a change of political leadership in Jerusalem or Washington, though we might see more subtle funeral directors. Despite the recent flare-ups on the Israeli–Gaza border, a new Palestinian uprising doesn’t seem imminent. A new round of stalemate does.

This may well blur the issues that governments around the globe, including the 140 or so that officially recognise a non‑existent ‘State of Palestine’, will eventually be forced to consider. Those issues comprise (at least) the prospect of Israeli annexations and forced relocations; a Palestinian statelet in the West Bank; and an Islamist de facto state in Gaza that offers its citizens little more than rhetoric.

That may sound not much different to present‑day reality. But governments to date have been able to chant the two‑state mantra to avoid having to think anew. To continue in that vein will peddle false hope at best and, at worst, amount to calculated deceit.