What Mideast's `Two-State Solution' Hasn't Solved: QuickTake Q&A


U.S. President Donald Trump has said he’d like to broker a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, calling it the "ultimate deal." His son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, is leading an effort to restart stalled negotiations. That’s been complicated by Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement that the U.S. recognizes Israeli sovereignty in the disputed city of Jerusalem. Though Trump said the U.S. would still support a two-state solution to the conflict, the chief Palestinian negotiator told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the president’s move had killed that option.

1. What’s the two-state solution?

It’s the notion that Israelis and Palestinians can share the Holy Land, living in separate, independent nations. A seductive goal for eight decades, the two-state solution has driven on-and-off peace talks for more than 20 years, with the last round foundering in 2014. The two-state solution dates to the 1937 Peel Commission, which recommended partition of what was then British Mandatory Palestine to stop Arab-Jewish violence. The United Nations embraced a different partition plan in 1947, but the Arabs rejected both, leading to Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.

2. How close have Palestinians come to having their own state?

Most countries already recognize Palestine as a state, but in the absence of an agreement with Israel, it lacks the requirements of one -- notably, control over its territory. Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence led to a war that ended with the fledgling state controlling the area designated for it by the 1947 UN plan, and then some. In a subsequent war in 1967, Israel captured, among other Arab territories, the Gaza Strip (which had been administered by Egypt) and the West Bank and east Jerusalem (which had been administered by Jordan). That put residents under military occupation, which bred Palestinian nationalism. After a Palestinian uprising that began in 1987 claimed more than 1,000 Palestinian and 200 Israeli lives, secret negotiations produced the 1993 Oslo accords, which opened a diplomatic pathway to establishment of a Palestinian state. But outbreaks of violence and failure to resolve the most difficult issues scuttled progress toward a promised final agreement.

3. What are the diplomatic stumbling blocks?

They include where to draw borders, what to do about Israeli settlers in the West Bank, the status of Palestinian refugees, and how to share Jerusalem, where both Palestinians and Jews live. Many Israelis balk at the idea of ceding the West Bank to Palestinian control, citing the lesson from 2005, when Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, and the militant Islamist group Hamas took over and turned it into a launchpad for rockets into Israel. Israel has constructed a barrier in the West Bank to restrict Palestinians from Jewish-populated areas.

4. How does Trump’s move fit in?

By calling the city Israel’s capital and beginning a process of relocating the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv, Trump broke a diplomatic tradition under which no major power recognized Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. The practice is rooted in the UN vote to divide Palestine, which put neither the Arab nor the Jewish side in control of Jerusalem because the city is sacred to followers of all three major monotheistic religions. At the time, the UN set Jerusalem aside as an international zone to be administered by a UN council of trustees. Since then, the major powers and the UN have adopted the position that it’s up to the Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate the city’s status. Israel’s government says all of Jerusalem belongs to Israel forever. Palestinians insist the city must be their capital.

5. So Trump is siding with Israel?

That’s certainly how Palestinians, other Arab leaders and many U.S. allies elsewhere see it. In making his announcement, the president said the U.S. was not taking a position on "the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem." At the same time, the U.S. move lent credibility to Israel’s claim to Jerusalem without doing the same for the Palestinians.

6. How will this affect peace prospects?

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, which is charged with administering limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza under various agreements with Israel, and Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, both said Trump’s action disqualifies the U.S. as a broker for future peace talks. That doesn’t mean they won’t work with the U.S. in the future, but trust is likely to be an issue. Erakat also said that the time had come to focus on a "one-state" solution.

7. What does that mean?

Many Palestinians favor turning Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip into a single, binational state in which democratic elections would determine who controls the government. This old idea has become more popular as years have gone by without a final peace settlement, giving rise to a growing sentiment that the two-state solution is dead. Few Israelis favor the one-state approach. Jews would outnumber Arabs in such a state today, but perhaps not for long, given the likely return of Palestinian refugees and the higher Arab birth rate. For Jews to be a minority would defeat the purpose of creating the world’s only Jewish state.

8. Are there other ideas?

Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home political party, proposes that Israel annex the parts of the West Bank where most Jewish settlers live and offer the Palestinians there Israeli citizenship, with the rest getting expanded but still limited self-rule. Yet this plan would deepen Israel’s diplomatic isolation and there is no consensus within Israel for it. No one particularly champions perpetuation of the status quo. In the absence of progress toward two states or a sound alternative, however, that looks to be the most likely outcome for the foreseeable future.

The Reference Shelf

  • QuickTake explainers on the Jerusalem controversy, Israel settlements and Hamas.
  • A Bloomberg View column wonders what motivated Trump to act now on Jerusalem.
  • Editor David Remnick explores evolving Israeli attitudes toward two states in The New Yorker.
  • Scholars consider another way in “The Failure of the Two-State Solution: The Prospects of One State in the Israel-Palestine Conflict,” edited by Hani Faris.
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