The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian century of conflict is back on the agenda in recent months because of converging controversies and developments. First, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been flirting with annexation of part of the West Bank, which Israel’s peace partners and adversaries warned could spell the end to a workable Palestinian state there.
At the same time a proposed “one state” solution by writer Peter Beinart and others has led to renewed controversy in pro-Israel circles in the United States.
Then on Aug. 13, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and the United States put out a joint statement that would halt Israel’s annexation plans and lead towards bilateral relations between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem. But the agreement does not solve the question of what happens to the oft-discussed two-state solution.
The recent developments expose the fallacy of the Manichean binary of either two states or one, which ignores the reality on the ground. There will never be two states or one, but rather a solution that looks more like 1.5 states, which means an Israeli state and a Palestinian autonomous area with aspects of statehood.
The two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been the mythical final status unicorn that peacemakers have been searching for over the last three decades. Since the First Intifada and the Oslo Accords of the 1990s there have been numerous “interim” periods of negotiations, road maps and meetings, all of which failed to lead to a Palestinian state. At the same time Israel’s continued construction of settlements in areas where the Palestinian state is supposed to arise have made disentangling Israel and the Palestinians increasingly unlikely.
The reason the two-state solution is unlikely is because over the last decade and a half, when things were supposed to trend towards this “final status,” they trended away from it. The Palestinians received a self-governing autonomous area in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. This was controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) until elections in 2005 divided the area into Hamas-run Gaza and the PA-run West Bank which is largely controlled by the Palestinian faction Fatah.
Meanwhile Israel continued building more settlements, roads and infrastructure in the West Bank, growing the Jewish population there to some 450,000 in 200 communities and an additional 300,000 in Israeli-annexed Jerusalem. Considering the trauma and difficulty Israel faced withdrawing just 7,000 people from Gaza during the disengagement in 2005 and the subsequent rocket fire and three wars in the Gaza Strip, Israel won’t take that path again.
What makes it most unlikely is also time. The “Oslo” period of the West Bank being controlled by an autonomous Palestinian PA, with its own security forces and all the trappings of a pseudo-state, has now lasted longer than either the British Mandate of Palestine or the Jordanian and Egyptian control of the West Bank and Gaza. That means most Palestinians under the age of 40, which is the vast majority of the population, have only known the Palestinian Authority self-governance era.
I spent five years teaching at Al-Quds University in the West Bank. My students were mostly the Oslo generation of Palestinians. They were kids during the First Intifada and came of age during the Second Intifada. They saw dreams of statehood reduced, but they have no connection to Israel, unlike their parents’ generation, who lived under direct Israeli rule from 1967 to 1993. I learned from them that neither a one-state solution, nor a full two-state solution was likely to happen. It seemed to be a reality that many on the ground accepted as well, without wanting to admit that a full-fledged Palestinian state wouldn’t come into being anytime soon.
This matters when people discuss the idea of a one-state solution. The one-state concept is based on the theory that since Palestinians won’t likely get a state, they should demand equal rights inside an Israeli state. This is based on a reading of history taken from the 1990s when many looked to South Africa as a successful model of conflict resolution. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned in 2014 that if there were not two states, then Israel would become an apartheid state.
The logic of Kerry’s argument, which is held by many Israel critics, is that the only solution to an apartheid state is sanctions on Israel that would result in pressure on Israel. This hoped-for solution of the critics is that sanctions would result in Israel replicating the 1990s end of apartheid and transition to full democracy, which is a one-state solution. This is the logic that underpins much of the one-state thinking, and it is a logic derived primarily from rose-colored visions of past success stories rather than the reality in Israel and the West Bank today.
The problem with the one-state argument is that in areas where Israel does govern Palestinians and offers them rights to vote, the results do not end in the supposed post-apartheid harmony. In Jerusalem, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians can vote in municipal elections and only around 2 percent vote. Under the myth of one state, Israel would annex everything in the West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza—and then what? There is no evidence Palestinians and Israelis want to share a government. The idea of re-integrating Hamas-run Gaza into Israel is farcical and would involve violence and civil conflict.
For all these reasons the only real solution, which already exists on the ground, is a 1.5-state solution. This means that Palestinians continue to enjoy many of the trappings of a state, including the bilateral relations the Palestinian Authority already enjoys with 137 countries. The Palestinians have more international relations with their non-state than Kosovo does, and Kosovo’s independence was created by forcefully ousting the Serbian government with NATO and European Union backing.
We have to understand the pursuit of a two-state solution as part of a 1990s post-Cold War era when conflicts were being solved globally through negotiations under the new liberal world order that was largely led by the United States and the West. From East Timor to Bosnia, from the Baltic states to peace in Northern Ireland, there was a wave of democratic peace-making. Even with difficulty South Sudan became independent and Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in the early 2000s.
That era of emerging independent states has now ended. A Kurdistan independence referendum was not recognized globally and demands for Catalan independence and Scottish independence have gone nowhere. Self-declared states such as Somaliland, Northern Cyprus South Ossetia, the Donetsk People’s Republic and other quasi-states have not received broad international support. Some of them are recognized only by Russia, in the case of a series of statelets that emerged with the end of the Cold War on Russia’s borderlands, while others were carved out of existing states by ethnic or tribal conflict or the breakdown of states like Somalia. Others, such the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, have many trappings of a state but are only autonomous regions. Yet, they exist and tend to control their own borders and have small armies and flags.
A two-state or one-state solution cannot be imposed on the Israelis and Palestinians. The era of peaceful democratic transitions to new states has largely ended with the current rise in authoritarian regimes globally and America’s global retreat from “endless wars” and humanitarian interventions. In addition any peace plan that envisions the Palestinian Authority becoming a full-fledged state in the areas that it controls in the West Bank, a kind of Swiss cheese of enclaves, ignores reality. You can’t run a state when it isn’t contiguous. That’s why East and West Pakistan broke apart and it is likely why Hamas runs Gaza and Fatah runs Ramallah.
A better discussion to be had with Israelis and Palestinians is how to work the current problem within the parameters that exist. No annexation by Israel and no full statehood for the Palestinians. This leaves a solution that is in-between. Those who talk about “peace” and “peace process” don’t like complex solutions. They want the South African or Northern Ireland model. They don’t like the Bosnia or Kurdistan Regional Government models, where you have states that either lack recognition or are merely autonomous but behave like states.
The Kurdistan region of Iraq, for instance, has more powers that are state-like than Ramallah. It has two airports, borders that it largely controls, oil it exports, a flag and large army. The Palestinians are blockaded and divided. Bosnia is independent but still divided.
Most conflicts around the world today stem from border disputes that began with the end of the colonial era or the end of the Cold War. Similarly with Israel and the Palestinians, the inability to get to a final status is a result of the conflict in 1948 when Israel became independent, and the 1990s when the Oslo Accords were put into motion.
While international law likes neat and clean borders, reality on the ground across the world is not so simple. It is not helpful to try to shoehorn Israelis and Palestinians into one state that they don’t want to live in together, nor to try to forcibly pry them apart and cause new conflicts in the process. Agreeing on an autonomous quasi-state or “1.5-state solution” formula is better. That’s largely what exists already. It is also a compromise that may gain tacit acceptance among Israel’s potential new peace partners in the Gulf.
Providing Palestinians more freedom of movement or control over their own borders and affairs could be a good step towards a more workable and peaceful solution that isn’t perfect for either side, but is preferable to the conflicts that would result from demanding a final state of one or two states.