Two decades after its launch, the Middle East Peace Process is at a dead-end. But is the two-state solution dead? Not necessarily. It’s all a function of the balance of power.
Israelis and Palestinians long ago lost hope in the peace process and its sponsors are quickly catching up. Major differences remain over most key issues. Merely getting the parties into the same room has become difficult. International mediators go through the motions without energy or enthusiasm. Calls for a one-state solution—in very different forms—are gaining traction among both Jews and Arabs. But to declare that the window for a two-state solution has closed—indeed, even to ask the question—misconstrues what has doomed efforts to get there.
The fundamental obstacle is not a collective misreading of how many states are required; the oddly shaped peg that is Israel/Palestine could be pounded no more easily into a differently shaped hole. The blame should instead be placed on the regional and global balance of power: Israel is too strong; the Palestinians are too weak; the U.S. backs Israel when it matters; and the Europeans are feckless. Everything else is secondary.
A lop-sided power structure gives everyone the wrong incentives. First and foremost, Israel has the disincentive of advantage. It has a growing economy; a strong military; and issues it sees as more pressing than the peace process. Israelis generally see change as a risky venture—particularly given the unrest in the Arab world—and their leaders share the sentiment, since they will pay a heavy price for any controversial move. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has defused international pressure on the Palestinian front and built a coalition of unprecedented strength – not that his predecessors on the left have been any more successful in negotiating an agreement.
Palestinians by contrast have the disincentive of disadvantage: they are weak and divided, with neither a strategy for achieving their national aspirations nor a leadership to design one. Ramallah has much to lose from an errant step; its attempts the break the deadlock have demonstrated nothing so much as confusion and fear. In the current reality, Palestinians cannot hope to achieve a settlement that meets their bottom line, which is why for many, sticking to their historic principles—even at the price of continued occupation—is preferable to a bad deal. As for the U.S. and Europe, they have their own incentives to maintain the charade of negotiations rather than to declare failure.
For any agreement to be achieved and endure, the calculations of both sides need to shift: more people would need to believe that an agreement could work to their advantage.
This is particularly true of the Israeli Right, which thinks about peacemaking differently than the emaciated Israeli Left and for whom recognition of Jewish claims, regional security arrangements, and continued connections to the West Bank are paramount.
But it also is true on the Palestinian side. Any putative deal would need to overcome skepticism among key neglected constituencies who believe that they have more to lose than to gain from any conceivable deal. The Palestinian diaspora, Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and various Islamists—who together comprise the vast majority of Palestinians—have been excluded from a process that they see primarily as one which circumscribes their rights and to enshrines their inferior status. For peace to stick, they must be enfranchised.
At the same time, those who feel that the status quo works in their favor—or that it is the best they can imagine—need to be convinced to reevaluate. This means, most concretely, that Palestinians need unity and a strategy that could raise the costs of the occupation. The global community too has an important role here; a solution has little chance so long as the U.S. monopolizes mediation and reduces the Quartet to a forum for laundering its own policies.
Without addressing the balance of power and pervasive disincentives, any proposed solution will only consolidate the status quo. Indeed, both one and three states already exist between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, though they are less policy alternatives than dystopias. Gaza and West Bank are already going the way of Pakistan and Bangladesh, with Gaza oriented toward Egypt and the West Bank toward Jordan, hinting at what a “three-state solution” might look like. Neither territory, however, is any less Palestinian for it, nor are its residents any more likely to endorse the existing balkanization of their national patrimony.
Meanwhile, Israel and the West Bank are turning into a single de facto state. The Jewish settlement project is expanding; the Green Line is fading; and the Jewish national majority ever more assertively is defending its privileges. Some fear that a two-state solution risks perpetuating Palestinian inequality, but the consecration of a one-state “solution” guarantees it, likely for at least as long as anyone reading this will live. Israel’s Jews fear little more than the loss of their entitlements as a national majority.
The two-state solution is neither sacred nor morally superior. Its implementation, in and of itself, will not remedy the unequal apportioning of resources from which Palestinians suffer. It is, however, arguably the most plausible vessel for ending the occupation, if only because it holds the potential to fulfill the core needs of the parties as they perceive them.
But two states will not come about without a decisive shift in approach. The real obstacles are not technical. The problem is not the number of settlers in the West Bank or the growing gap between Ramallah and Gaza. Acts of political will can be reversed, settlers can be relocated and government ministries can be reintegrated. But that will be impossible so long as the elemental realities that perpetuate the conflict are obfuscated—and political debate is overtaken by polemics about how many states can dance on the head of a pin.