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5 March 2024

What’s stopping a two-state solution?

The difficulties come not so much with the talk of “two states”, but of a “solution”.

By Lawrence Freedman

The foreign ministers of the G20 group, made up of the world’s largest economies, including China and Russia, agree on very little these days. But when they met on 22 February there was, as the Brazilian host put it, “virtual unanimity in the two-state solution as the only solution to the [Arab-Palestinian] conflict”. On this, the US secretary of state Antony Blinken reported a “commonality”, while on behalf of the EU, Josep Borrell spoke of the strength of the consensus.

“Everybody here, everybody, I haven’t heard anyone against it. There was a strong request for a two-state solution. There is not going to be peace… not going to be sustainable security for Israel unless the Palestinians have a clear political prospect to build their own state.”

The Israeli government dislikes the idea but those countries it needs to manage the process of reconstruction and security in the Gaza Strip are demanding that it commits to this policy. Hamas has no Israeli state at all in its vision for the future (that is what the “from the river to sea” chant is all about) though in the past it has suggested as a matter of expedience that it could live with two states. But for now, the future of the Gaza Strip is being taken out of its hands.

It appears the time of the “two-state solution” has come. It already figures prominently in all international deliberations on the “day after” – when and if a relatively durable ceasefire is in place, allowing for relief to get to the population, the release of hostages, and a start to the hard work of reconstruction. There is, however, no simple path from where we are now to a viable Palestinian state. It requires more than a declaration. If Gaza is to be rebuilt and the West Bank protected, Western and Arab governments will need to accept that they will have a substantial role to play in this process for some time.

Origins

The “two-state solution” is not new. Proposals for partition date back to the British mandate (a commission report of 1937) and a 1947 UN General Assembly resolution. They did not survive the Israeli war of independence in 1948. This left Jordan in control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which were then seized by Israel during the 1967 war. Once Jordan relinquished its claim to the occupied lands, the dispute became between Israelis and Palestinians, aggravated over time as land was taken for Israeli settlements in those areas.

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A serious peace process was initiated at the start of the 1990s, once the Palestinian Liberation Organisation under Yasser Arafat acknowledged that Israel was not going to disappear, and the Israelis appreciated they could not hold back Palestinian anger and frustration indefinitely. Through this, the idea of an independent Palestinian state began to take shape. The most mature proposal was tabled by Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency. Martin Indyk, one of Clinton’s negotiating team, recently set out what was then on offer:

“A Palestinian state in 97 per cent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with mutually agreed swaps of territory that would compensate the Palestinian state for the 3 per cent of West Bank land that Israel would annex, which at that time contained some 80 per cent of all the Jewish settlers on Palestinian lands. The Palestinians would have their capital in East Jerusalem, where predominantly Arab suburbs would come under Palestinian sovereignty and predominantly Jewish suburbs under Israeli sovereignty. The two countries would share control of Jerusalem’s so-called Holy Basin, the site of the most important shrines of the three Abrahamic faiths.”

The final negotiation failed for a variety of reasons. Indyk puts it down to the difficulty of getting a compromise on who would control Jerusalem, and the extent of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The idea of two separate states was opposed by hard-line Palestinians, including Hamas, which insisted that a “Zionist entity” had no place in the Middle East, and hard-line Israelis, who warned that a Palestinian state would organise terrorism against Israel.

One lesson from this experience might be that comprehensive deals can require too many compromises at the same time. Once the compromises are agreed and the peace deal is signed and sealed, then disappointment is baked in. A cherished aspiration, such as an unrestricted right of return for all refugees, will be lost forever and that is what the critics will focus upon. It takes a strong leader to explain why a decent deal may be better than a perfect one, especially when the benefits are all in the future and require trusting an old foe. In this case, neither leader was strong: the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak was facing an election against the hawkish Ariel Sharon, while Arafat feared that he was getting outflanked by Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

It is impossible to know what would have happened if Arafat had signed up to Clinton’s proposals. Implementation would still have been difficult, and it would probably have been against a backdrop of continuing violence. All we know is that the aftermath of the failure involved even more intense violence and was deadly for both sides. The Israelis eventually concluded that they could manage without a peace process.

The conditions of the Palestinians deteriorated as Israeli settlements ate into more of the West Bank territory once assigned to the Palestinian Authority (PA), the entity established in 1994, initially as an interim body, to take over control from the Israelis of designated territories. In principle the PA was also in charge of Gaza, but in 2006 it lost control there to Hamas. Hamas built up its military strength and continued to yearn for Israel’s elimination. Other Arab states paid lip-service to the idea of two states (it remained part of the Arab League’s peace plan) but, as they came to doubt that this would ever happen, they decided to move on to a new relationship with Israel, marked by diplomatic recognition and economic cooperation.

The failure of Netanyahu’s strategy

Israel became confident that it had achieved a victor’s peace. Since December 2022 the governing coalition, including extremist parties, felt not only able to ignore Palestinian grievances but also to aggravate them. This depended on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s confidence that he had neutered the threat while keeping Palestinians divided, with Hamas controlling Gaza and the PA still in charge in the West Bank. This strategy fell apart when Hamas broke out of its box on 7 October, shocking Israel with the ferocity of its attacks. The government concluded immediately that it could not put Hamas back in the box: it had to be eradicated.

The most immediate consequence of this decision was the war that has ripped Gaza apart and cost so many lives. Hamas may well survive this war politically, though it has lost much of its military capacity. But even if elements of Hamas manage to hang on in Gaza, given the scale of the damage caused by the Israeli campaign it will be unable to cope with the demands of reconstruction and relief. The divisions within the Palestinian camp, upon which Netanyahu relied, remain but are far less relevant. The full implications of this development, a consequence of how Israel’s war aims were framed, has yet to be fully acknowledged by the prime minister. By removing one of his best arguments against an independent Palestinian state he has potentially given the idea more credibility. Hamas was never a credible partner in a peace process; now, the starting point for any discussions of “the day after” is how Gaza is to be governed without Hamas.

The day after

Netanyahu’s coalition relies on right-wing and religious extremists to stay in power. Because of this he has struggled to articulate a coherent vision for the day after. The gap was filled by those in the West and in the region who expect to be asked to do the heavy lifting when it comes to putting Gaza together. These are the countries that have always considered two states to be the only desirable objective for any peace process. Biden made his view clear a few weeks into the war, on 29 October: “There has to be a vision for what comes next. And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution.” He has repeated this a number of times since. And, as already noted, outside of Israel there is a remarkable unanimity that this really is the only way forward.

The PA has argued that the international community can recognise a Palestinian state without having to wait for Israeli approval. This possibility was even raised by the British Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, at the end of January – he spoke of the need to show the Palestinian people there was “irreversible progress” towards a two-state solution. “As that happens, we – with allies – will look at the issue of recognising a Palestinian state, including at the United Nations… That could be one of the things that helps to make this process irreversible.”

The Israeli government is aware, then, that this idea has acquired some momentum. Two days before the G20 meeting, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, pre-empted its conclusion with 99 out of its 120 members voting to oppose any “unilateral” recognition of a Palestinian state. The vote did not exactly preclude a move in this direction, but it did insist that any new accord with the Palestinians be achieved through direct negotiation, though no direct negotiations were actually proposed.

While there are risks in opposing Israel’s major ally on this matter, especially given that Biden has used up a lot of political capital opposing a premature ceasefire that might leave Hamas in position, one can already see Netanyahu campaigning to stay in power as the person best placed to prevent a Palestinian state, even if this means more arguments with allies. Certainly, most Israelis think this is a dreadful idea, as rewarding terrorism and, instead of creating the foundations for peace, would set the conditions for a deeper conflict. They assume that a Palestinian state would be irredeemably hostile to Israel and use its independence to build up its armed forces. It should be noted that there is not a lot of enthusiasm among Palestinians for the idea. Past two-state failures mean that talk of its revival encourages cynicism. It appears as a way of talking about grand visions that are bound to be contradicted by a meagre reality.

Netanyahu’s proposals on the future governance of Gaza, which only emerged after four months of war, are sketchy, and barely address Palestinian concerns. He does not explicitly rule out a role for the PA, although it does not get a mention. There is just a suggestion that Gaza could be run by “local officials” with “administrative experience”, with no ties to “countries or entities that support terrorism”. This, of course, depends on how terrorism is defined – and some Israeli definitions are very broad.

Netanyahu’s problem is that the other elements of his plan, including those that are intended to enhance Israel’s future security, require cooperation from others. He wants Israel to take control of the Philadelphi corridor along the Egypt-Gaza border, which is a major smuggling route. But this will be opposed by Egypt as a violation of its sovereignty, so any arrangement would have to be agreed with Cairo. Another proposal is the “deradicalisation” of Gazans, with a suggestion that the Saudis can help with this. Israel has put a lot of effort into discrediting UN Refugees and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees – because of allegations some of its staff were involved in the 7 October massacre – but, privately, Israeli officials acknowledge that nobody else can distribute aid.

The amounts required to rebuild what its forces have destroyed are enormous (at least $50bn), and donors will expect a say in how funds are used and the nature of the government that will administer it. In all aspects of the conflict – diplomatic, military and economic – Israel depends on American support. There are already many tensions in the relationship that will only become greater – Israel is taking Palestinian territory in northern Gaza to establish a new security buffer zone, yet the US position is that there should be no reduction in Gaza’s borders. It wants the Israeli Defence Forces to have complete freedom to operate in the Strip, but this could soon interfere with the work of resettlement and reconstruction.

In short, Israel has in mind a security-heavy and politically light approach to Gaza. But all the partners it needs to prevent Gaza descending into utter chaos and even greater misery cannot agree to measures that do not involve an authentic Palestinian voice – and with Hamas shut down and the PA thus far ignored, that is lacking. Community leaders appointed by Israel will have no legitimacy. This is why everyone Israel needs to help address the next stage of this conflict believe in the “two-state solution”. Whether or not it is realistic, it would give Palestinians some hope of a future in which they can regain control of their destinies.

A solution to what problem?

The idea of an independent Palestinian state refuses to die because nobody can think of a better alternative. The one-state solution envisaged by the Israeli right is closer to being achieved than the one envisaged by Hamas, but, as has been painfully demonstrated, it can in no way be considered a recipe for peaceful coexistence. Once the fighting finishes, Israel will be unable to duck the issue of Palestinian rights and self-determination.

Yet there are reasons for caution in making this the centrepiece of the next stage of Middle Eastern diplomacy. The difficulties come not so much with the talk of “two states”, because that is a reasonable aspiration, but of a “solution”. A solution to what problem?

It would be one thing if the PA was already a state in everything but name, ready to govern once recognised. But it is not. It lacks the capabilities and competence to govern on its own. It has a geriatric leadership that enjoys little respect among Palestinians. A Palestinian presence in the central government is vital, and only the authority is really available, but as of now it is not even fit for the limited role that it may need to play in the coming months. The resignation of the Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh on 26 February was a start to this reform process. A new government, he stated, was needed to “take into account the emerging reality in the Gaza Strip, the national unity talks, and the urgent need for an inter-Palestinian consensus”, and to extend the PA’s “authority over the entire land, Palestine”. There is a long way to go.

Preparing for statehood is an even bigger deal, and that will take much longer. There needs to be detailed discussions on the mechanics of state-building, including constitutional arrangements, financial models, civil service recruitment and training, police forces and the judiciary, and so on. The institutions and personnel needed to support a new state are simply not there and will take time to develop.

The comeback to this is that I am being too literal, and that everyone knows statehood will not happen immediately. What is important is that the goal is established. But to set goals without being sure how they are going to be reached is a recipe for disappointment and disillusion, which is why so many Palestinians already view this talk sceptically. Meanwhile, the short term is full of urgent problems and if these are not addressed adequately then the options for future political arrangements will be narrowed rather than expanded. Addressing these urgent problems will require actions that will inevitably be short-termist and expedient.

Those who have been displaced by the fighting will want to return to their homes, if they still exist. Homes will need to be repaired or rebuilt, along with hospitals, schools and other public buildings. There are serious concerns about public health. The funding for this will need to be raised and then distributed. Measures will be required to revive the local economy. All this will need to be done in ways that do not – and can be shown to not – facilitate corruption, or once again allow military facilities to hide in civilian sites. Israel wants Gaza to be demilitarised but leaving aside the possibility of armed militias reforming, there will be general law-and-order issues to be addressed. Might this require external peace-keepers? And then there are all the issues connected with the conditions of Palestinian life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The decisions that will be made on the future of Gaza, and by extension, on the future of Israel and the West Bank, over the coming weeks and months will shape the possibilities for the future. The conditions for an independent and viable Palestinian state might emerge, but they might not. Countries that would like to make this a reality would do well to concentrate on addressing the many challenges of the here and now. The risk is Gaza will simply descend into more anarchy and chaos.

An international conference

There is no point waiting for Netanyahu to navigate his way through the conflicting pressures of his governing coalition, or for the moment when he declares that the “day after” has arrived, or even when he is ejected from office by the Israeli electorate. Hamas is also putting conditions in the way of a ceasefire. Even if a formal ceasefire is agreed, the situation is still going to be tense for some time. Meanwhile, the situation in the Strip is becoming more desperate. The resort to air drops for relief is a measure of the desperation as much as a sensible way of distributing aid.

The idea of an international conference has been around for some time. The George HW Bush administration set a sort of precedent when it got frustrated with the Israelis in 1991, organising a peace conference in Madrid. The US pressured Israel to attend by threatening to withhold aid. This then got caught up with the 1992 election campaign and Bush’s eventual defeat. There is a risk this could happen time, although a broader range of sponsors would help mitigate against over-dependence on the US. The PA has called for something similar for some time, but too large a gathering would be unwieldy. The EU has proposed a “preparatory peace conference”, with the aim of developing the “components of a comprehensive regional peace” – that is the two-state solution.

The “two-state solution” is the wrong place to start, not because it is unacceptable in principle but because it belies the urgency of the situation. An international conference on the future of Gaza should certainly be called as soon as possible by the leading Western and Arab states. The Israeli government and the PA, along with relevant international agencies, would need to be present. The aim, however, would not be drafting a communiqué on a peace process, or to start considering the mechanisms of Palestinian statehood, but to hammer out plans to address the big and immediate issues of relief, reconstruction, governance and security. Out of that, a peace process might and hopefully would emerge. Without it, a serious peace process will be even less likely. What is possible in the long term depends on the management of the short term.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: Joe Biden: the wrong candidate]

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