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? An enlarged Jewish state in which Palestinians are less than equal? One with Arabs and Jews living together in a state that is no longer Jewish? Anyone have a better idea?
Days before an April 9 vote that positioned him for a fifth term, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that if re-elected he would extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, land Palestinians hope to make part of a future state. About 130 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial ones are home to some 400,000 Israelis in the West Bank, where an estimated 2.9 million Palestinians live. During the 2015 election campaign, Netanyahu had appeared to rule out a Palestinian state, 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 peace accords with Israel. In an August 2018 poll, just 43 percent of Palestinians and Israeli Jews supported the concept of a two-state solution. 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 settlements.
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. As an interim measure, Palestinians gained limited self-rule under an entity called the Palestinian Authority. 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.
In proposing to effectively annex parts of the West Bank, Netanyahu aligned himself with a policy of his Likud Party dating to late 2017. Supporters say Israelis have a right to remain permanently in the area, which they call by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria — the cradle of Jewish civilization. Critics say annexing the settlements would make it all but impossible for the Palestinians to have a viable state. If Israel ultimately took full control over more Palestinians in the West Bank, it would have to choose between offering them citizenship — diluting the country’s Jewish majority — or keeping them stateless, leading to accusations of apartheid. If it did offer them citizenship in a democratic binational state, 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. 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
- A Brookings Institution report rethinks the two-state solution.
- An article in Foreign Affairs argues that Israeli settlements are killing the two-state option.
- Related QuickTakes explain Israeli settlements, the battle over Jerusalem, Hamas, Palestinian refugees and the Golan Heights.
- 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.
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at email@example.com
First published May 7, 2015