Two-State Solution

A Dimming Dream for Israelis and Palestinians

By | Updated May 19, 2017 5:28 PM UTC

The notion that Israelis and Palestinians can share the Holy Land living in separate, independent nations has been a seductive goal for eight decades. The vision drove on-and-off peace talks for more than 20 years. The latest round foundered in 2014, giving way to a growing sentiment that the two-state solution is dead. But if not two states, then what? One with Arabs and Jews living together in a state that is no longer Jewish? An enlarged Jewish state in which Palestinians are less than equal? Anyone have a better idea?

The Situation

U.S. President Donald Trump has said he’d like to broker a peace agreement but that he’s not committed to the idea of a Palestinian state, a goal of American diplomacy for two decades. Rather, he says, he supports any deal the two sides can come to. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to rule out a Palestinian state during his 2015 re-election campaign, saying later he meant such an outcome was not achievable today. In the absence of progress toward independence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to abandon previously signed accords with Israel. In a January 2016 poll,  just 43 percent of Israeli Jews said it was possible for two states to coexist peacefully. In a December survey, two-thirds of Palestinians said such a solution was no longer viable. A wave of stabbings, shootings and hit-and-run attacks beginning in October 2015 has left more than 40 Israelis and more than 230 Palestinians, most of them assailants, dead. The last direct peace talks collapsed after Abbas’s Fatah party agreed to form a unity government with the militant Islamist group Hamas and Israel pledged to expand Jewish settlements on land Palestinians hope to make part of their future state.

Sources: The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, CIA, United Nations, The Geneva Initiative

The Background

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. A war immediately after that produced more than half a million Palestinian refugees. In a 1967 war, Israel captured, among other Arab territories, the Gaza Strip, West Bank and east Jerusalem, putting 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. Palestinians gained limited self-rule as an interim measure. The occupation, Israeli settlement building and sporadic violence continued, however, as the two sides repeatedly failed to resolve issues standing in the way of a promised final agreement that presumably would establish a Palestinian 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. Stumbling blocks in the negotiations included where to draw borders, how to share Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees. Israel acted alone in 2005, withdrawing its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. When Hamas subsequently took over Gaza, it became a launchpad for rockets into Israel. That has made many Israelis balk at the idea of ceding the West Bank to Palestinian control. Israel has constructed a barrier in the West Bank to restrict Palestinians from Jewish-populated areas.

The Argument

Alternatives to the two-state solution include a single, binational state in which democratic elections would determine who controls the government. While many Palestinians favor this approach, few Israelis do. 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. 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 there is no consensus within Israel for such a plan, which would deepen the country’s diplomatic isolation. 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

  • 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.
  • Bloomberg News reports on the computer game PeaceMaker, which challenges players to create a virtual end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

First published Feb. 27, 2015

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at