The Two State Solution: Point-Counterpoint

The Death of the Two-State Solution

Listen to any discussion or public statement about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and you’ll almost always hear the same talking point – all sides are tirelessly working, through negotiations, towards a two-state solution. Palestinian leadership (in some form) has officially been pursuing a negotiated two-state solution since 1988. Support for such a plan has been the position of the U.S. for as long as most can remember, and any world leader giving a speech about the region will find a way to mention the glorified two-state solution and emphasize its importance. The two-state solution is the crown jewel of diplomatic answers in the Middle East.

Yet we find ourselves today further from a two-state solution than any other point in history for many reasons. The movement of ultra-Orthodox settlers in the West Bank has largely accomplished its goal of creating ‘facts on the ground’ – it’s increasingly difficult to look at a map of the West Bank and draw a coherent Palestinian state. Current Israeli construction in the E1 is said by many to split the West Bank in half, hindering access to major Palestinian cities and threatening the very idea of a contiguous state. Unchecked settlement is also making compromise over Jerusalem less and less plausible every year – rapid construction is encircling East Jerusalem and closing off the only proposed Palestinian capital from the rest of the West Bank. Any peace deal would require removing a number of settlements, which would be a political and logistic nightmare for any Israeli leader crazy enough to try – the relatively small Gaza disengagement provides a stern warning.

The problems extend beyond the settlers. Palestinian leadership is terribly fragmented, leaving no group with the authority needed to make compromises for peace – Hamas has a stronger democratic mandate, while the PLO still commands the recognition of the international community. Different governments opposed to one another rule in Gaza and the West Bank. Terrorist attacks are often aimed to exhaust the Israeli will to continue the fight, yet the prevalence of violence on the streets and in the media is only driving public sentiment towards the far right and making peace all the more unlikely.

Nevertheless, the status quo does Israel no favors. Beyond the obvious violence inflicted upon its citizens and the regional hostility, Israel’s so-called ‘demographic problem’ looms large. Subsidized by government money and exempt from national service, the ultra-Orthodox sects of Israel are among the fastest growing populations today. Such religious groups generally view all of the West Bank as Israeli by ancient right, and strongly oppose any two-state solution.

The ultra-Orthodox population’s growth rate is rivaled only by the Israeli Arabs, whose population boom prompts even more questions. In a November 2012 poll, 82% of Israeli Arabs said they had little to no faith in the government and about half did not plan to vote (interestingly enough, less than 20% of Israeli Arabs selected the Palestinian issue as their primary concern). A 2012 poll reported in Haaretz found that 49% of Israeli Jews believe that they should be treated better than Arabs by the government. One third want Arabs banned from voting in parliamentary elections. Opinions within the ultra-Orthodox are even stronger, with 70% supporting a ban on Arab voting rights and 95% supporting discrimination against Arabs in the workplace. The ongoing conflict and Israel’s demographics are combining to tear apart the fabric of the country at its seams.

The two-state solution is in the final stages of a slow death – but why should we care? Many of the parties involved in the conflict have their own mantras and iconic phrases (for many Palestinians, the right of return; for many Israelis, the idea of a ‘homeland’ in ancient Israel). But in a chaotic mess of disputes and disagreement, the two-state solution has for so many years been the sole point of agreement for everyone involved. It has been the basis of every serious round of peace negotiations since the birth of Israel. The two-state solution has long been the most plausible path to peace, and it now appears further away than ever before. The conflict drags on as Palestinians in the West Bank live under military occupation and Arabs in Israel live in a country that no longer appears to want them, as Israeli towns are hit with mortars and rockets while people live in fear of suicide bombs on the bus. It’s only becoming harder to imagine a world where Israel willingly accepts the Palestinian population as members of its democratic citizenry. Everyone knows the only way out, but no one seems too bothered watching as the door doesn’t slam, but drifts tightly shut.


On the Hope for a Two-State Solution

In his December 2012 article entitled The Full Israeli Experience, Thomas Friedman argues that Israeli society is split on the peace process into two distinct camps. The “Ideological Hawks,” led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, go out of their way to emphasize Israel’s precarious situation -- and use that as an excuse to disengage from the peace process. The “Yitzhak Rabin school,” on the other hand, recognizes that the status quo is not in the best interest of Israelis or Palestinians -- and that Israeli leaders should never stop pushing for peace.

Indeed, Netanyahu and his followers can point to certain moments in history that support their claim that "Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." In 1947, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 sought to create a Jewish state and a Palestinian state living side-by-side. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War was the Arab world’s response to Jewish national self-determination within its historic homeland. Again, less than two decades later, war shook the Middle East. In response to Israel’s victory in the 1967 Arab-Israel War (also called the Six Day War), the Arab world convened in Sudan to draft the Khartoum Resolution, which became famous for the “Three No’s”: “no peace, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” More recently, the 1990s peace process led by President Clinton failed in large part due to Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, who refused to take a hard-line approach to Palestinian terrorism that undermined the path to peace that was laid out in the Oslo Accords.

Much of the Arab-Israeli conflict history supports the traditional claim that the Arab world has and always will be reluctant to make peace with Israel; yet, those who make that claim often ignore the fundamental changes that have occurred within the Arab world and Palestinian society over the last several years. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative laid out a comprehensive peace plan that would end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts based on the paradigm of two states for two peoples. This past November, the Arab world again endorsed the idea of two states at the United Nations General Assembly, where every Arab country voted to recognize Palestine along 1967 borders.

As Israeli President Shimon Peres argues, there is finally a partner for peace in Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were close to reaching a comprehensive peace deal in 2009. When Netanyahu succeeded Olmert as Prime Minister, negotiations stopped. Netanyahu’s vision of a Palestinian state seems to be an archipelago of Palestinian population centers within a sea of Israel, which does not constitute a viable state. Netanyahu also failed to include the two-state solution in his party platform. Abbas wants to continue negotiations where they left off with Olmert, but Netanyahu refuses -- a primary reason for the lack of progress towards peace over the last few years.

It’s understandable that both sides feel a lack of trust with one another, which undermines negotiations. How can Palestinians trust Israelis when they see Israelis as occupiers who oppress innocent Palestinians? How can Israelis trust Palestinians when their family and friends have been killed in Palestinian terrorist attacks?

Skeptics of Israeli-Palestinian peace often use the past to hinder progress towards a brighter, more peaceful future. That attitude prevents achieving a lasting peace that ensures Israeli security and its character as a Jewish democracy. I place myself in the Rabin camp; instead of using the past as an excuse for inaction, I ask myself what I can do today to make tomorrow better for both parties involved.

There are those on both sides who argue that the two-state solution is dead, and that a one-state plan should be accepted, but I would argue that the two-state solution is in fact the only solution to the conflict; everything else is just an arrangement. Israelis and Palestinians need separation, and the only way to achieve this is through the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. Experts on the Middle East almost unanimously agree on the concept of two states for two peoples. More importantly, all polling shows that the vast majority of the two publics agree on the two states for two peoples paradigm. Israelis and Palestinians will never agree on their narratives of history, but they can agree on a solution to the decade-long conflict that has taken so many lives.

Instead of making petty excuses and engaging in political grandstanding, I urge American, Israeli, Arab, and Palestinian leaders to draw an important lesson from the history of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts -- that maintaining the status quo is in no party’s best interest. Peace is possible, and pushing for it must always be at the top of the agenda.

--Asher Mayerson