Will the two-state solution survive to 2013 and outlast this blog? The year which is about to end was ostensibly a good one, particularly in light of the resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians thanks to John Kerry’s efforts. In fact, the two-state solution as we knew it (the one based on the birth of a territorially contiguous Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, living peacefully alongside Israel) is increasingly less likely to be implemented any time soon.
It is not just about facts on the ground, which have brought many bad items of news and few good ones in 2013. It is also about the two political and public debates in Israel and Palestine. These may come dramatically into play in the next prisoner release, due to take place in late December―more on this in a minute.
At the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), we have conducted a Two State Stress Test (TSST), taking the fever of the two-state outcome based on seven different categories: territorial issues; Jerusalem; international diplomacy; security; refugees; Palestinian debate; Israeli debate. Four of them (territories, Jerusalem, security and refugees) are the widely recognized pillars of any negotiation since the mid-1990s. We also factored in the role of international actors such as the U.S., the E.U. and the Arab-Islamic world because, 20 years after Oslo, it would have been a bit Pollyannaish to neglect the role that external players can play in bridging the inherent asymmetry between occupier and occupied. We also took into account the trends within the two political systems and public opinions: positions within the leadership along with opinion polls on the two-state solution and on its single components such as the refugee issue.
The score for each category was an assessment based on several indicators: for instance, “Territory” included indicators on settlements, freedom of movement, access to Area C and the separation barrier. The score ranged from zero to five, where five indicated the maximum strain on the two-state solution. All of the categories scored three (which implies a strain that can be reversed only by expending considerable political capital) with three notable exceptions on international diplomacy, territories and the Israeli debate.
Diplomacy scored a two and is currently the only category that sustains the two-state solution, albeit moderately. This in light of two factors: renewed, top-level American involvement and new European actions which aim at altering the cost/benefit calculations of the occupation within Israeli politics and public. The latter was one of the surprises of the year which is about to end: this summer’s guidelines on settlements impacted negotiations over Israel’s participation in Horizon 2020, an E.U. scheme which funds research and where Israel would be the only non-European country to join. More than one actor from within the Israeli right refused to apply to this scheme the distinction between Israel proper and the settlements that was the centerpiece of this summer’s guidelines. Surprisingly, the negotiations ended without the E.U. blinking: the Israeli government agreed to compensate, out of its pockets, settlements that would suffer damage under the E.U. guidelines. This negotiation was part of a debate among Israelis, the first of this kind in years, on the costs and lost opportunities of the occupation. This should not go unnoticed in Washington, especially among those pressuring the US government to take a bolder approach to peace negotiations. Interestingly, more of the same might be in the pipeline in Brussels, although one should also read the latest Foreign Affairs Council conclusions to understand how far goes the culture of “carrots” to the parties (and particularly to Israel) among European policymakers.
An opposite picture comes from the TSST category about the Israeli debate, which scores four, indicating a severe strain. Among the general public, generic support for the two-state solution is still very high, with 62 percent in favor, up a few points since 2012. Nevertheless, only 28.8 percent think that this can be achieved through negotiations and only 10 percent ranked this issue as a priority. When polled on specific aspects of the two-state solution, Israelis show little support for them: for instance, 55 percent think the Palestinians should drop altogether their request that Israel recognize their right of return. Moreover, for the first time, a senior government Minister, namely Naftali Bennett, openly called for the end of the two-state process and for partial annexation of the West Bank.
Current talks are taking place in this environment, with the release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel as a built-in time bomb. Past prisoner releases have been followed by announcements of new waves of settlement construction by the Netanyahu government. In East Jerusalem, new Israeli building has spiked particularly between August (first prisoner release) and late October, when the second stage of the prisoner release took place. In the West Bank, estimates by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics leaked on the pro-Netanyahu daily Israeli HaYom, show that in July 2013, the number of settlers had grown by more than 20,000 as compared to December 2012, including more than 7,000 people moving from Israel proper to the occupied territories. The Ministry of Defense alone has approved tenders for the building of 2,487 housing units between March and November 2013, which came on top of the 6,200 units approved between November 2012 and March 2013.
The year has not ended yet and a new prisoner release is supposed to take place either in late December or in early January, potentially leading to a new wave of tenders for settlements. It is hard to say whether the Palestinian leadership could stay in the talks after that, given that 50.5 percent of the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza think the PLO should have not joined in the first place. Five of the largest E.U. members (U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Spain) have already warned Netanyahu that they would blame Israel for the collapse of talks, should he announce a new wave of settlements on the occasion of the new prisoner release. Ultimately, whether this would save both the talks and the end goal of the two-state solution is hard to say. For the moment, however, it is worth paying attention to the interaction between three elements of the Two State Stress Test: the strain posed by territorial issues and constraints coming from the Israeli debate on the one hand, the support coming from external actors on the other hand.