At the present time, the prospects for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are bleak. Israelis and Palestinians and their respective supporters around the world dispute how we got to this point, but there is no disputing that the current situation is marked by a deep lack of trust on both sides and an unwillingness to consider the sort of compromises necessary to reach a permanent status agreement. The Trump administration’s unilateral actions to recognize Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and downgrade its relationship with the Palestinians make the pathway to a resolution of the conflict even more difficult.
This current deadlock has left many supporters of peace dismayed about the future and searching for alternatives to the two-state concept that has formed the basis of most previous efforts to resolve the conflict. However, despite the failures of the past, the logic of two states remains valid. No other approach can accommodate the fundamental interests of both sides and produce a mutually agreed end to the conflict. There are other possible outcomes, including the indefinite continuation of the status quo, but no other outcome provides a resolution of the conflict that most people on both sides could find acceptable.
The fact remains that, in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there are now roughly 13 million people, approximately half of them Jews and half of them Arabs. Neither group is leaving and neither group is content to be ruled by the other. So in the long run, both Israelis and Palestinians need an agreed solution that accommodates the interests of both sides if they are to avoid a future of perpetual conflict and strife. For there to be peace, two states for two peoples should remain the objective for the future, even if it cannot be implemented at present.
The Case for Two States
The Israel-Palestinian conflict is like no other, and the complexity of the problem has bedeviled negotiators for decades. Fundamentally, the conflict is about two groups each claiming the same land as their homeland. Each side is attached to this place for national and religious reasons, and each side makes valid historical claims to support its case. While some extremists on both sides try to denigrate the claims of the other, that is truly a pointless exercise when both sides believe so strongly in the validity of their case.
Resolving the conflict requires reconciling the national aspirations of both sides for their own national homeland. Israel represents the achievement of this objective for the Jewish people, and its legitimacy needs to be recognized as part of a resolution of the conflict. Likewise, the national aspirations of the Palestinian people can only be addressed through the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Throughout the history of this conflict, negotiators have returned to the notion of dividing the land as the basis for a resolution of the conflict. From the Peel Commission in 1936, to the United Nations Partition Plan in 1947, the “land for peace” formula of UN Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967, the Clinton Parameters of 2000, the Annapolis talks in 2007- 08, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts in 2014-16, the idea of dividing the land in some way between Jews and Arabs has been the key organizing concept.
With Jews and Arabs now roughly equal in population in the area west of the Jordan River, and neither group willing to leave voluntarily, the only durable way to reconcile their conflicting claims is to allow each group enough space to achieve its national aspirations in a homeland of its own. While neither side can be fully satisfied with an outcome that divides the land, there is enough room
to accommodate the essential interests of both. However, as history has demonstrated, it will not be easy to accomplish this objective. The years of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank since 1967 have reduced the physical space for a territorial compromise. Security considerations will require unique arrangements, given the geography and the history of terrorism and violence. The proximity of the holy sites of three different religions in Jerusalem poses a special challenge. And a resolution of the refugee issue will require great sensitivity. Yet all of this must be accomplished if the two sides are to end the conflict.
The establishment of a Palestinian state thus remains the crux of the issue. This has been the primary goal of the Palestinian national movement for roughly a century, and Palestinians are not about to abandon it, especially after they have gained international support for a two-state solution and the endorsement of the UN Security Council. In this regard, the recent moves by the Trump administration in backing away from a two-state approach and downgrading the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians are especially counterproductive. Pressuring the Palestinians to negotiate by cutting off assistance and closing diplomatic missions is not going to succeed and may in fact produce a backlash that could further destabilize the West Bank. Any attempt to negotiate over the heads of the Palestinians with Arab states will also prove futile, as it did in the past. The only way to resolve the conflict is to accept the baseline requirement that the national aspirations of both sides must be accommodated through two states for two people.
What About the Alternatives?
The current impasse blocking progress toward a two-state solution has given rise to much debate about possible alternatives. One state, an alternative Palestinian homeland, Palestinian autonomy or a federal arrangement are just a few of the ideas that have been put forward. Each of these provides an alternative pathway, yet none of them has the prospect of gaining sufficient support on both sides to be implemented as a mutually agreed, conflict-ending solution.
To date the “one-state solution” has received the most attention, and the idea has adherents on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. However, there is no agreed-upon understanding of the concept, and this underscores the problem with the approach. For Palestinian supporters, the one-state solution is based on the idea that there should be one democratic state with equal rights and responsibilities for all of its citizens, Arabs and Jews. This idea is incompatible with the notion of Israel as a nation state with a Jewish character, and thus it is unacceptable to most Israeli Jews.
On the Israeli side, most of those who support a one-state solution have a very different understanding of the concept. They foresee a single state run by Jews, with Palestinians having a lesser status. This “Greater Israel” concept is effectively a form of apartheid and is unacceptable to most Palestinians. It is impossible to reconcile these two radically different understandings of the one-state concept, and thus it cannot form the basis for an agreed end to the conflict.
Some on the Israeli right also speak about an alternative Palestinian homeland, pointing to Gaza or Jordan as places where Palestinians can achieve their national aspirations, leaving the West Bank to be incorporated into Israel in some way. However, this option has never gained any support on the Palestinian side, let alone in Jordan. The roughly 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank would certainly not see any advantage to them in this approach. Without Palestinian support, this alternative stands no chance of success.
Autonomy for Palestinians is an old idea that continues to generate support among some Israelis. Current Israeli leaders refer to this idea as “a state minus” or “autonomy plus.” The current status quo (in the West Bank) is a version of autonomy, with the Palestinian Authority (PA) responsible for most governmental functions but with the Israeli government as the ultimate authority that can impose its will as it wishes. However, the current arrangement was meant to be an interim one, not a permanent solution. The PA is highly unpopular among Palestinians, not just because of its failures in implementing good government, but also because it does not satisfy Palestinian aspirations for sovereignty and independence. The instability that persists in the West Bank reflects this lack of support among Palestinians for autonomy. As with the other alternatives, autonomy in whatever form cannot form the basis of an agreed solution to the conflict.
A final idea that has gained some attention recently is that of a federation or confederation of two or more component parts. Responsibilities would be divided between a central government and the component parts in a way that would allow some functions to be carried out jointly and others separately. This approach could, in theory, allow the two sides to cooperate on security or other issues under a federal structure yet permit the different component parts to satisfy separate Palestinian and Israeli national aspirations. While some elements of this approach might be usefully incorporated into a two state model, it is hard to see a federal model succeeding on its own. In other examples of successful federal or confederal states around the world (the United States, Germany or Canada, for example), there is a strong national identity that binds the component parts together. That doesn’t exist in the Israeli-Palestinian context, so a strict federal approach would probably not work in this case.
What Is the Pathway to a Solution?
While two states for two peoples remains the only feasible solution, achieving it will not be easy. Negotiators will have to learn from the failures of the past to improve chances for success in the future. One lesson negotiators can learn from the past is that resolving all of the permanent status issues at once may be a bridge too far. In the previous negotiating efforts, the parties abided by the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” This principle was designed to allow trade-offs between issues and give the parties the flexibility to discuss various possible compromises without committing themselves prematurely. However, the history of previous negotiations suggests that the issues are too complex and sensitive to be resolved in a single package. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” turned out to mean “nothing is ever agreed.”
The Trump administration seems to be making the same mistake by talking about “the ultimate deal” as a comprehensive package, incorporating not only all Israeli-Palestinian issues but even other regional issues as well. In the future, the parties would be wise to adopt a step-by-step approach to negotiations, tackling one or two issues at a time, making progress, and then moving on to the next issue. This will not be easy, either, as neither side will want to sign on to a partial agreement that leaves out a vital interest. The Palestinians in particular will be loath to agree to anything that looks like another interim agreement or a continuation of the occupation. These concerns are real, but if the parties are to make progress, they will have to find a way to take incremental steps. They could begin by agreeing to steps on the ground that would expand areas of Palestinian jurisdiction and lessen the impact of the Israeli occupation on the daily lives of Palestinians. As they make progress, the two sides could move on to address permanent status issues one by one, starting with territory and security.
A second lesson is that the parties need to agree on their objective at the outset. One of the flaws of both the Madrid and Oslo negotiations was that their ground rules never established a clear objective for permanent status, only a process to get there. This was corrected later when both parties and the international community adopted two states as the ultimate goal and enshrined that principle in a UN Security Council resolution. Since then, however, the commitment of the Israeli and American governments to a two-state solution has been called into question. This needs to be clarified before negotiations can begin again. There is not much point in starting a new process if the two parties are seeking different objectives. That would be a recipe for renewed failure.
Finally, the parties will need to be creative and explore new ideas. Simply restarting the negotiations and picking up the discussion where it left off several years ago is not likely to produce better results. The parties should be open to exploring new ideas, for example on sovereignty, in order to bridge the gaps on territorial issues and Jerusalem. They should be willing to look at ways to share sovereignty in different ways in different places, allowing each side to achieve its national aspiration alongside the other in a shared space. Some aspects of the federal approach discussed above might be useful in this regard.
None of this will be easy, and there should be no illusions that a two-state solution will satisfy everyone if it is implemented. Rejectionists on both sides will oppose any compromise and seek to roll back any progress. But the alternatives to two states — including the absence of a solution — are all much worse. The people on both sides of this conflict deserve a better future.