Sandwiched between the mantras of “There is no alternative to the two-state solution” and “The two-state solution is dead,” the contemporary debate over how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been reduced to little more than a shouting match between two absolutist camps, both certain that they are correct. It is possible that they both are.
It is conceivable that the two-state solution is effectively dead — or at best in intensive care — and, at the same time, that there is no plausible alternative. If both claims are indeed true, we will have to brace ourselves for a future of perpetual conflict with all its toxic overflows. This is a horrendous scenario, but it is not preordained. It depends on decisions that human beings make.
Full disclosure: I was among a small number of people who started to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alongside Israel in the wake of the 1967 war1. During an extended research visit to the region in 1973, I tracked down and interviewed all the Palestinians and Israelis that I had been advised were advancing the same proposal2. In most cases, in that pre-Internet era, they were not in touch with one another and had arrived at the two-state idea independently.
However, I don’t remember anyone in this disparate group (myself included) ever speaking of two states as a “solution.” This simplistic language started to infiltrate the debate years later, stifling creative thinking and compressing an abundance of problems into a single issue for which there was, supposedly, a solitary solution for all time. Supporters of a unitary state soon copied that language. Their so-called “one-state solution” would dissolve all problems after miraculously circumventing the multitude of obstacles in the way of its own fruition.
Nor did any of the early advocates conceive of the two neighboring states as a means of separating the two peoples according to the formula of “us here, them there,” a doctrine that was to take root in some Israeli circles in later years. On the contrary, the general view was that, over time and in an evolving climate of peace, a slew of “horizontal” relations between the two peoples might develop — including trading, business, sporting and cultural links — that would be likely to propel the institutions of the two states into ever closer cooperation, possibly culminating in a confederative-type arrangement. But there was no need to predetermine this.
This is a critical point, because two states were viewed not just as the indispensable basis for the long-term relationship between the two peoples, but also as the essential structure for serious negotiations on all outstanding issues, whatever the ultimate vision. In other words, it was as much “framework” as “solution.”
Sooner or later, even the proponents of a unitary state would have to face the question of how to get from here to there. Who would protect Palestinian interests during the long and hazardous transition to a single state: a toothless Palestinian Authority, an amorphous Palestinian civil society, a mythical international community, a magician’s wand? In practice, unless there was an underlying political parity between the two sides at an early stage of the journey, the Israeli government would call all the shots. It would naturally do so on its own terms (although not necessarily in the long-term interests of the Israeli people).
The Missing Parameter: A Palestinian State
So the first step needed to be two neighboring governments exercising sovereign control over territory and population, extending the same right of self-determination to the Palestinians as to the Israelis. Thus, the consensual view of the early proponents of two states (most of whom are sadly no longer living) was that the vital missing parameter was an independent Palestinian state, without which any sort of progress was pretty much doomed. Correcting this deficiency was therefore considered to be the foremost priority3 . Some fifty years of fruitless diplomacy since then would appear to have borne out this perspective.
If we try to view the histories of the two peoples empathetically, seeing them as they see them, it is not hard to understand why the long-suffering Palestinian Arabs — displaced, dispossessed and abandoned — are unlikely ever to give up their struggle for independence, just as it is hard to imagine the fiercely independent Israeli Jews — after some two thousand years of precarious existence — ever agreeing to become a minority again in someone else’s land.
For a “solution” to be plausible, it has to be responsive to these cardinal sentiments and have the intuitive backing of the principal parties. The “one-state solution” comes in many guises — Muslim, Jewish, Arab, secular, unitary, democratic, federal, bi-national, cantonal or multi-confessional — but it is doubtful whether any of these versions is capable of satisfying the minimum aspirations of either people. Stripped of their rhetoric, none of them has been well thought out. On the contrary, they tend to be unrealistic and often contradictory and would deny national rights to either or both peoples. Thus, it is hardly surprising if they are viewed as deeply threatening by one side or the other or, in some cases, by both sides.
A Democratic Secular State?
The version of one state that appears to have growing support in some liberal and leftist circles in the West is that of a democratic, secular, unitary state where everyone in Israel and Palestine has the same rights in just one political entity from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. On the face of it, this vision might seem appealing, but here are a few considerations to reflect on:
First, to state the obvious, fundamental rights are not determined by the number of states. They could be realized — or not -— in one state, two states or multiple states.
Second, this particular one-state vision rests on the simplistic notion that complex Middle Eastern societies can be atomized down to the level of the individual and that a historical clash of two national movements can be reduced to a one-dimensional struggle for civil rights. It discounts the rudimentary need for both peoples to come to terms with the national imperative of the other. Indeed, it is predicated on there being no such national imperative. This denial, whether doctrinaire or merely uninformed, is its most serious defect.
Third, the proponents of this vision — what could be dubbed the “here is a solution, where is the problem?” approach — are emulating an old western tradition that has historically imposed, from the outside, its own values and systems on other peoples. The instinct to do this, whether it emanates from the right, the center or the left, betrays an underlying neo-colonial mindset of “we know best” that has caused mayhem around the world for generations. That there are very few, if any, examples of this Western-style democratic-secular model in the region should at least give its ardent proponents pause for thought.
Fourth, the inevitable Israeli-Palestinian coalition government in a unitary state, where the fragile population balance would be politically critical, would be highly unlikely to reach an agreement on a full-scale Palestinian right of return, a central plank of the one-state argument. By contrast, an independent Palestinian state would almost certainly enact this right, albeit limited to the West Bank and Gaza. On similar grounds, the incorporation into the new state of the Gaza Strip with its nearly 2 million Palestinian inhabitants may also be vetoed by the Israeli side. Other unresolved bitter rivalries would be locked in, too.
Fifth, a one-state set-up would be unlikely to be the end of the matter. The Scots, the Catalans, the Basques and others live in democratic secular states with full equal rights. This hasn’t stopped many of them from agitating for self-determination and separate statehood. Czechoslovakia was one united democratic secular state until a disgruntled Slovakia seceded in 1993.
Sixth, calling for one state plays right into the hands of the Israeli hard right by severely undermining the worldwide campaign to terminate the occupation through a physical Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and affording legitimacy to the settlement and annexation enterprises.
Seventh, over the past 60 years there have been several attempts in the region to merge separate entities, the best known of which was the United Arab Republic (UAR) of Egypt and Syria, which lasted, mostly on paper, from 1958 through 1961, when Syria withdrew. If such attempts failed miserably among peoples who regarded themselves as having many traits in common, why would we anticipate a more positive outcome between two peoples who don’t share such traits and have been bitter foes for over a century?
Finally, calls for one state are often predicated on the premise that the two-state solution has failed. But it hasn’t even been tried. The problem has not been with the end of establishing two states, but with the means of achieving it, in particular the chronic failure of world powers to apply judicious pressure through a combination of rewards and penalties. A different end is not going to change this. More discerning and focused campaigning might. Starting all over again — with a more contentious goal — would be likely to set back the struggle for an equitable end of conflict immeasurably if not indefinitely.
Global Support for Two States
Forging an international consensus is not easily achieved and should not be taken for granted. In the case of two states, it was an uphill battle for many years following the 1967 war. Indeed, it took until March 2002 for the United Nations Security Council eventually to adopt it as official UN policy.
In the same month, the Arab League unanimously launched its Arab Peace Initiative which envisaged comprehensive peace and full diplomatic relations between Israel and all Arab states based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and what it has called a “just and agreed settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem. Significantly, more than a hundred retired Israeli generals have endorsed this approach, as has the 57-member-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation. However, no Israeli government has seriously considered it.
This initiative, coupled with the 1977 Sadat initiative and the subsequent PLO initiative (see below), contradict the idea that the Arab parties have not changed their positions since 1967, that they remain committed to the destruction of Israel and always will be, and that they have never put forward constructive proposals.
For its part, the PLO officially embraced the two-state paradigm in 1988 at its landmark congress in Algiers, following years of fierce internal debate. The immensity of this move, sometimes lauded as the PLO’s grand “historical compromise,” should not be underestimated. It was a hard pill to swallow. It meant lowering Palestinian sights from the hitherto unshakeable demand for 100 percent of the land to accepting a scaled-down state on the remaining 22 percent, comprising the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Additionally, opinion polls for many years from the 1990s onward showed more than two-thirds’ support for the two-state idea among Palestinians (and among Israelis, too). However, there have been some wobbles in more recent times, with support appearing to wane on both sides. This decline in support is largely due to people losing faith in it as a practical outcome.
In addition, there is a common growing illusion that a deal based on mutual recognition is no longer necessary. Indeed, there are indications that both sides are reverting to the entrenched attitudes of an earlier era when each summarily rejected the national imperative of the other.
These rigid attitudes were steadily to erode in the years following the 1967 war, culminating in effective mutual recognition under the Oslo Accords of the 1990s. Over those three decades, both Palestinians and Israelis gradually, if reluctantly, came around to the view that accommodating the other people’s national rights was critical to attaining and preserving their own national rights.
However, more recently, there appears to have been a growing perception on the Israeli side that the Palestinians are weak and divided and that, after more than 50 years of unwanted Israeli rule, the Palestinians will have to accept their fate as a defeated people. They won’t of course. Their struggle will continue one way or another, internally or externally, and might at some point take the form of a protracted insurgency on the West Bank to gain independence — a more likely eventuality, I suspect, than a popular striving towards a harmonious unitary state.
On their part, the Palestinians have witnessed a dramatic, if sometimes overstated, shift of international sympathy from the Israeli side to the Palestinian cause. This has fueled the belief among some of them that they don’t now need to come to terms with the Israeli reality, as time will take care of the problem. So they, too, have been loosening their allegiance to the two-state idea and reverting to their former maximal demands.
But there is a fundamental fallacy here. The two-state idea was not based in the first place on support for it by the two peoples. Indeed, it was conceived at a time when there was very little such support by either of them. Rather, the idea was predicated on the zeal of each people for their own state and there is no solid evidence of a reduction in this sentiment on either side. If anything, the contrary is true.
The Only Plausible Solution — but Is It Still Feasible?
With all this in mind, it is hard not to conclude that a two-state formula is still the only plausible “solution”. What is alarming, however, is that it is becoming less feasible by the day, as the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank continues to escalate from fewer than 5,000 in the early 1970s to hundreds of thousands today. Many of the settlements have been strategically located so that they surround and dominate the Palestinian population of the West Bank.
Coupled with the fragmentation of the territory into three, or arguably four, discrete areas, plus the unconcealed annexation yearnings of leading Israeli politicians, including government ministers, this policy is deliberately designed to entrench Israeli rule and prevent the formation of a Palestinian state.
But it is not only the Palestinians who are blighted by the protracted occupation. It is also impacting Israel’s own citizens in the form of spreading anti-Israel sentiment, creeping isolation, an expanding boycott campaign, growing challenges to the legitimacy of the state itself and spreading accusations of apartheid. The steady erosion of internal democracy is a telling symptom of the moral damage exacted on a society that daily enforces a despised military rule over another people. If there is one cast-iron law of history, it is probably that occupations are, sooner or later, resisted. If there is a second, it is that they brutalize and corrupt the occupier as well as the occupied.
These problems will only get worse as Israel’s “occupation chickens” continue to come home to roost. And if we definitively lose the only plausible “solution,” we will indeed have to contend with a situation of endless conflict, with all its lethal consequences. Make no mistake about this: indefinite strife is the real alternative to two states. We need to face up squarely to this danger and stop deluding ourselves with sweet-sounding make-believe alternatives.
Nor is the damage confined to Palestinians and Israelis. The sharp rise in anti-Jewish sentiment in the Arab and Muslim worlds over the past century and the parallel rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the Jewish world are not a coincidence. Both are primarily products of the contemporary conflict. Each feeds off and cultivates the other and, in turn, they help to nourish latent bigotries towards Jews, Arabs and Muslims everywhere. Neither the conflict nor the occupation initiated the global prejudices — which have much deeper historical roots — but they have helped to revive and aggravate them in the modern era. The longer the conflict continues, the more ingrained the bigotries will become4.
Where Do We Go from Here?
So what may be done? Ideally, Israel would take stock itself and sharply change course by declaring its intention to end the occupation promptly, accept the general principles of the Arab Peace Initiative and enter into authentic negotiations with all parties with the express purpose of ending the conflict once and for all.
Failing this, the international community could call on Israel either to recognize a Palestinian state imminently or, pending the resolution of the conflict, grant equal rights to everyone subject to its rule5. This is not a call for one state but for equal rights until there is an eventual solution. The primary aim would be to spark new political currents in Israel and hasten the return to the Israeli political agenda of two neighboring states. The feasibility of this outcome depends in part on how we picture the two states.
An apposite model may be provided by the peaceful splitting-up of Czechoslovakia, which left many Czech communities within Slovakia and many Slovak communities within the Czech Republic, with free movement between the two states. The goal was not ethnic purity but political sovereignty. If we see the future more in these terms, many of the ostensible barriers to the realization of two states in the current era may prove to be far more amenable to solution than often thought.
In sum, it seems clear that two independent states remains the only formula capable of meeting the fundamental needs and aspirations of both peoples, with the prospect of a confederal arrangement in the future (possibly incorporating Jordan too), But a confederation is not an alternative to a Palestinian state but a potential — and I would say desirable — outgrowth of it. The state needs to be established first. What’s more, a confederation of two states is two states, not one state.
Above all, what the world urgently needs now is strategic leadership from Palestinian and Israeli activists who share a firm commitment to ending the occupation. Any past inhibitions about working together or at least in parallel, need to be put aside so that a common strategy may be devised that civil societies and governments around the world may unite behind and campaign for. Time is short and the need is pressing.
1 Middle East conflict: a tale of two peoples. Tony Klug, Young Fabian pamphlet 32, January 1973, http://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/objects/lse:fon863riw.
2 Among the Palestinians were the Ramallah-based lawyer Aziz Shehadeh, the veteran East Jerusalem journalist Muhammad Abu Shilbaya, the political activist and historian Aref al-Aref, the president of the West Bank court of appeal Nihad Jarallah, and the independent journalist (and future mother-in-law of Yasser Arafat) Raymonde Tawil. Among the Israelis were the maverick journalist and politician Uri Avnery and former general secretary of the Israeli Labour Party Arie (Lova) Eliav. Professor Yehoshafat Harkabi, former chief of Israeli military intelligence, and the renowned author Amos Oz were among other prominent Israelis who came round to supporting two states in later years. However, when I spoke to them in 1973, Oz was not in favour of a Palestinian state and Harkabi was strongly against the idea.
3 To this end, in 1977 I proposed an initial unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the bulk of the West Bank to enable the emergence of a pro-tem Palestinian state: Middle East impasse: the only way out. Fabian Research Series 330, Tony Klug, January 1977.
4 This is not a new observation. I originally drew attention to these potential connections in a 1977 writing: Middle East impasse: the only way out. Fabian Research Series 330, Tony Klug, January 1977, pg 14.
5 Original proposal in If Kerry fails, what then? By Sam Bahour & Tony Klug, Le Monde Diplomatique, 8 April 2014. https://mondediplo.com/outsidein/if-kerry-fails-what-then .