An Alternative to the Two-State Solution

With the status quo unsustainable is there a way to “shrink the conflict”?

By: /
19 February, 2024
President Bill Clinton walks with Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority on the grounds of Camp David in July 2000.  Image by the White House Photograph Office.
Jack Cunningham
By: Jack Cunningham
Program Coordinator, Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History

The current war in Gaza has spurred renewed calls for the resumption of progress toward the “two-state solution”, wherein Israel and a Palestinian state would live side-by-side, in peace. These calls have come from President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and numerous commentators, including, in OpenCanada, former Canadian Ambassador to Israel Jon Allen.

Yet there is ample reason for skepticism towards this panacea. In his last interview before his death, Henry Kissinger, who as US Secretary of State initiated the contemporary Middle East peace process by brokering an end to the hostilities of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, argued that the two-state solution was not viable.  There is not only logic on his side, but much history, including the consistent failure of past efforts to reach such a solution, failure rooted in deeply entrenched features of the regional political landscape.

In Mandatory Palestine, Jews were a grudgingly tolerated minority until the 1930s, when Jewish immigration spiked in response to persecution in Europe, and generated deep Arab hostility, culminating in the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt. The Peel Commission’s 1937 proposal for partition into Jewish and Arab states, the first attempt at a two-state solution, was not rejected by the Jews, though they disliked the exact borders, but was by the Arabs, who demanded a single state and an end to Jewish immigration. This marked the coalescence of a coherent Palestinian identity, based upon rejection of what was seen as an alien, indeed blasphemous, Jewish presence.  And in 1948, the Arab states responded to the 1947 UN partition plan, the second effort at a two-state solution, by invading Israel after its proclamation, justified in what Benny Morris, perhaps Israel’s leading historian, reveals as a jihadist worldview.

Rejectionism, as Bernard Lewis noted, was rooted in a longstanding Arab sense of humiliation vis-à-vis the West, with various scapegoats, from colonialism to the Jews, blamed for Arab failure to successfully adapt to modernity.  And where other refugees generated during and in the aftermath of the Second World War (including the Jews who fled Arab lands in 1948) were resettled, Israel’s Arab neighbours imprisoned the Palestinians in squalid refugee camps. This weaponized the refugee problem to delegitimize Israel, and kept alive the Palestinians’ irredentist ambition of reclaiming the land they had left, an ambition incompatible with any lasting peace.  And in this they were abetted by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East or UNRWA. 

Successive military defeats by Israel, according to Fouad Ajami only deepened this hostility, notably the 1967 Six-Day War.  In recent years, added Paul Berman, resurgent Islamic fundamentalism has blended with accretions from European interwar totalitarianism to produce an ever more toxic rejection of coexistence with Israel.

There have, of course, been successive efforts to obtain peace, often pursued by statesmen captivated by the goal of a comprehensive resolution of all regional issues. Such efforts have failed, largely because “comprehensivism”, by enabling the Palestinians to hold the resolution of all issues hostage to their demands, reinforces their intransigence, notably the unrealistic insistence on a “right of return”, which would be demographic suicide for Israel, and which no Israeli government could ever accept. 

Comprehensivism, has also foundered on a brutally enforced norm of Arab solidarity, where those who breach the rejectionist front to pursue a separate peace with Israel face political marginalization or worse (in the case of Anwar Sadat, assassination). Even those Arab states that did not collude with anti-Israel terrorism have too often turned a blind eye to it.

The closest approach to success in negotiating a two-state solution was the second Camp David Process, presided over by President Bill Clinton in July 2000. This collapsed in the face of renewed jihadist violence, with the Palestinians using the pretext of an allegedly provocative visit by Israeli politician Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to pray a few months later.

In 2005, Prime Minister Sharon withdrew Israeli forces from Gaza, in what was, as Kissinger noted, a test of the two-state solution. In 2006, Hamas won power over the more secular Fatah, and has ruled the area ruthlessly ever since. And most recently, the attacks of October 7, when there was a ceasefire in place, confirm the folly of a two-state solution where the preconditions for a stable peace are absent.

Kissinger’s own approach worked precisely because it was piecemeal, incremental, and patient. As former US Ambassador to Israel and Middle East envoy Martin Indyk notes, Kissinger’s negotiations in 1973 deferred final agreement on major issues and rested on disengagement agreements and interim accords that produced stable borders, met the basic security needs of all parties, and bought time for the Arab states to come to tolerate and ultimately accept Israel’s existence. This was the groundwork for “peace accords with a widening circle of Arab states.” To put it mildly, such acceptance did not grow overnight; almost half a century elapsed between the Yom Kippur War and the Abraham Accords, a timeframe that those tempted by an impatient rush towards a two-state solution would be wise to remember.

For a Palestinian state to provide a stable peace, it would have to be governed by a suitable leadership. Hamas, which openly advocates genocide against Jews, is not a contender. Jon Allen has urged Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to reiterate support for a two-state solution, but this is not a promising option either. Unlike Hamas, Fatah does preach coexistence with Israel when speaking in English, but in Arabic, addressing its own constituency, promises that a Palestinian state beside Israel would be but the first stage in the phased reconquest of Historic Palestine. 

Indeed, the PA is not only tolerant of terrorism against Israel, it colludes with it, not least through pensions to the families of suicide bombers. Abbas himself is an unregenerate antisemite, whose doctoral dissertation blamed the Holocaust on Jews and minimized the numbers slain.  Indeed, some regional observers have referred to the PA as “Hamas in suits.” Gaza under PA rule would be a constant threat to Israel. 

In their shared underlying rejectionism, Hamas and the PA reflect widespread Palestinian sentiments. Well before the current war, survey data showed Palestinian majority support for the reconquest of all of Historic Palestine, and agreement with the proposition that even in the event of a Palestinian state being created, the struggle should continue. Less popular was the option of a binational, secular democratic state, the so-called “one-state solution”, which would in short order lose its secular and democratic trappings, with Jews becoming a persecuted minority in an Islamist theocracy, and still less popular yet is permanent coexistence.

In the face of such widespread hostility to coexistence, the peace brought by any fully sovereign Palestinian state would be illusory and short-lived. Nor is there a great deal of support for a two-state solution in Israel.  An old Israeli joke goes, “What’s the definition of a Palestinian moderate?” “Someone who’s temporarily out of ammunition.” Some would say this is unfair, but nevertheless reflective of Israeli opinion now that October 7 has demonstrated the dangers even a semi-autonomous Palestinian statelet can pose. 

Certainly, Prime Minister Netanyahu is deeply unpopular, but his rejection of a two-state solution commands widespread support. The emerging consensus is such that his rival and likeliest successor, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, has now retreated from past statements implying support for a two-state solution, speaking of “an entity”, with something less than the full attributes of sovereignty.

If not a two-state solution, then what? Both Kissinger and Morris have argued for Jordanian control of Gaza (Jordan has no love for Hamas, its current public position notwithstanding), and the Gulf States could have a constructive role in its economic reconstruction. The tutelage of a relatively moderate Arab state could have a salutary effect in nudging the Palestinians away from nihilistic rejectionism. To be sure, this would all require greater engagement by the US, the only outside power with sufficient credibility and leverage, as broker.  As for the UN, and despite what former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy and Michael W. Manulak recently suggested in the Globe and Mail, it is viewed by Israelis as irredeemably hostile, and has no credibility as an interlocutor.

There is also room to adopt, suitably modified, the ideas put forward in 2017 by the Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman for “shrinking the conflict.” Writing out of despair at the political impasse in Israel, with the left rightly convinced the status quo was unsustainable over the long term, and the left rightly convinced that a Palestinian state would pose an existential threat, Goodman proposed measures that would at least reduce the salience of the conflict, while not leading to its definitive and unambiguous resolution. 

To ensure security against attack, and the weapons smuggling that precedes it, he suggested a Palestinian entity comprising Gaza and the West Bank would be fully demilitarized. Israel would retain: control of all borders and security control in the Jordan valley; security service access to Palestinian towns; a no-fly zone; and control of cybernetic networks. But the Palestinians would benefit from a reduced Israeli footprint and a higher quality of life, including: Palestinian control over new tunnels and roads linking their towns, without Israeli checkpoints; greater mobility rights and the freedom to travel abroad; reductions in settlements; increased employment rights; and the freedom to trade with others. The Israeli presence would be less obtrusive, and Palestinians would be left to their own devices in most aspects of daily life.

No doubt critics of such an approach would deride it as minimalist, but minimal steps are all current circumstances allow. The fundamental infirmity of the two-state solution, at least any time soon, is that it places the cart several leagues ahead of the horse. Palestinian deradicalization is a precondition of any eventual Palestinian state, not its potential product. To gamble on it becoming the latter is not only to ignore history and logic and to resort to magical thinking, but to prepare the field for future, and worse, violence.

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