The idea of partitioning Palestine into two states as a way of satisfying both Palestinian and Zionist national aspirations is not a new one. It was first proposed at the official level by the Peel Commission of Inquiry in 1937, following the outbreak of the Arab Revolt.
The Arabs, under the leadership of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, rejected the plan, not least because the Arab state was to be merged with Transjordan. The Zionist movement was divided but the moderates, led by Dr. Chaim Weizmann, won the argument. “The Jews would be fools not to accept it,” said Weizmann, “even if the Jewish state were the size of a tablecloth. C’est le premier pas qui compte!” ̶ It is the first step that counts!
A decade later, in 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181 which called for replacing the British Mandate for Palestine with two states, one Arab and one Jewish, with a special international regime for the City of Jerusalem. The logic of partition was now endorsed by the international community. Once again, however, the Partition Plan was accepted by the Jewish Agency and rejected by the Arabs.
The Arabs went to war in 1948 to resist partition and to liberate Palestine, but they suffered a resounding defeat. The winners in this war were Israel and Jordan; the greatest losers were the Palestinians: 750,000 Palestinians became refugees, and the name Palestine was wiped off the map of the Middle East. This was the nakba, the catastrophe. One of the reasons for the Arab defeat was a tacit understanding reached the previous year between King Abdullah of Jordan and the Jewish Agency to divide up Palestine between themselves at the expense of the Palestinians. This secret understanding laid the foundation for limiting the clashes of their armed forces during the war and continuing collaboration in its aftermath.1
In the course of the 1948 war, the newly born state of Israel enlarged its territory from the 55% proposed by the UN cartographers to 78% of Mandatory Palestine. Jordan captured, and two years later formally annexed, the West Bank, which would have been the heartland of the Palestinian state. The Palestinians were reduced from a nation in search of a state to a refugee problem, and a UN agency was created to cater to their basic needs as refugees. The two-state solution to the Zionist-Palestinian conflict remained in abeyance for the next four decades.
June 1967 Marks a Turning-Point
The next major turning point in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict was the June 1967 War, popularly known as the Six-Day War. In the course of this war, Israel captured the remaining 22% percent of Mandatory Palestine: the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan, including the Old City of Jerusalem, the jewel in the Hashemite crown.
In November 1967, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, which remained the basis for nearly all subsequent international plans for resolving the conflict. The resolution proposed a package deal: Israel was to withdraw from the territories it captured during the war in return for peace with its Arab neighbors. Resolution 242 did not acknowledge the Palestinians as a stateless nation or even mention them by name. All it called for was “a just solution to the refugee problem.” The two-state solution thus disappeared from the international agenda. There was support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel in some left-wing quarters, but it was miniscule and politically insignificant.
The most prominent option for a settlement after the Six-Day War was the Jordanian option. This involved a peace agreement between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan based on a return to the pre-1967 territorial status quo. Given the previous history of collaboration between the Zionist movement and the Hashemites, the ruling Labor Party in Israel had a strong preference for Jordan over the Palestinians as a partner for peace. King Hussein was a willing, indeed an eager interlocutor. Back in 1963, he began a series of secret talks with Israeli officials, breaking the biggest Arab taboo. Immediately after the end of hostilities, he resumed the dialogue across the battle lines and offered Israel total peace in return for total withdrawal. But by this time Israel was drunk with victory and swept along a wave of religious and secular nationalism which militated against withdrawal.2 Prime Minister Levi Eshkol summed up the national mood by telling his colleagues: “You like the dowry but not the bride,” meaning you like the land but not the Arabs who lived on it.3 In return for peace, Israel's leaders offered King Hussein only part of the West Bank without the Old City of Jerusalem. This he repeatedly rejected, so no agreement was reached, and the political deadlock persisted.
The Palestinian option as an alternative to the Jordanian option did not emerge until the late 1980s. In July 1988, following the outbreak of the first intifada, King Hussein severed Jordan’s legal and administrative ties with the West Bank and made way for the PLO to represent its inhabitants in future negotiations with Israel. At that point, the Palestinian national movement moderated its political program. In November 1988, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) adopted a series of profoundly important resolutions. It recognized Israel’s right to exist; it accepted all previous UN resolutions on the conflict going back to 181; and it opted unambiguously for a twostate solution to the dispute between the two peoples. These resolutions represented a revolution in PLO thinking. The architect of this revolution was Yasser Arafat. The PNC resolutions opened the door to a dialogue with the enemy. But a hard-line Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir adamantly refused to negotiate with the PLO, continuing to denounce it as a terrorist organization.
In the meantime, Israel continued to build civilian settlements or colonies on occupied Palestinian territory. These settlements are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to peace, yet Israel’s two main parties promoted them, although with a difference in approach. Whereas the Labor-led governments built settlements mainly in areas of strategic importance that they intended to keep permanently, Likud governments built settlements across the length and breadth of the West Bank, partly for reasons connected with the ideology of “the Greater Land of Israel,” and partly to block the path to withdrawal in the event of a Labor return to power.
The Oslo Years
In 1992, Labor did return to power under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, and a year later it signed the Oslo Accord with the PLO. The Oslo Accord was preceded by an exchange of letters that denoted mutual recognition. The PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist, while the Israeli letter only recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people without recognizing any Palestinian national rights. Nevertheless, to many optimistic observers, including the present writer, the accord looked like the first step on the long road towards a two-state solution.
On the Palestinian side, the Oslo Accord enjoyed broad support but was also subjected to fierce criticism. The most basic criticism was that the deal negotiated by Yasser Arafat did not carry the promise, let alone guarantee, of an independent Palestinian state at the end of the five-year transition period. One of the most hard-hitting critics was Edward Said. In a series of newspaper articles, he argued that the Oslo Accord compromised the basic national rights of the Palestinian people as well as the individual rights of the 1948 refugees. He lambasted Yasser Arafat for failing to coordinate his moves with the Arab states and for introducing appalling disarray within the ranks of the PLO. “The PLO”, wrote Said, “has transformed itself from a national liberation movement into a kind of small-town government, with the same handful of people still in command.” Arafat and his corrupt cronies, according to Said, had sacrificed principle to grab power.
Furthermore, this was not a deal between two equal parties: On the one hand there was Israel, a modern state and a military superpower; on the other hand there was the PLO, a leadership in exile with no maps, no technical expertise, no territorial base, and no friends. “All secret deals between a very strong and a very weak partner,” wrote Said, “necessarily involve concessions hidden in embarrassment by the latter…. The deal before us smacks of the PLO leadership’s exhaustion and isolation, and of Israel’s shrewdness.”4
Rabin’s shrewdness in foisting upon the PLO such an unequal, unfair, and unpromising deal was to no avail. He himself was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic in what turned out to be a highly successful attempt to derail the Oslo peace process. Following his death, Rabin was surrounded by the aura of a martyr who had sacrificed his life on the altar of peace. Rabin’s supporters argued that had he lived, he would have proceeded step by step towards a two-state solution. There is no way, however, of knowing what might have happened had Rabin lived longer. History does not disclose its alternatives. All we know for a fact is that to his dying day, Rabin never agreed to a full-fledged Palestinian state alongside Israel. The most he was prepared to concede, and this rather grudgingly, was what he called “a state minus.”
On October 31, three days before Rabin’s murder, Yossi Beilin, Israel's militantly moderate deputy foreign minister, and senior PLO official Mahmoud Abbas (better known as Abu-Mazen) concluded the framework for a future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The basic premise of the Beilin-Abu-Mazen plan was that there would be a demilitarized Palestinian state. The plan envisaged the annexation by Israel of about 6% of the West Bank, where roughly 75% of the Jewish settlers resided. The Muslim holy places in East Jerusalem were to be given an exterritorial status, but the capital of the Palestinian state had to be just outside the municipal boundary of the city as defined by Israel. Hussein Agha, a Palestinian negotiator, dubbed the Beilin-Abu-Mazen plan “the deal of the century.” But Shimon Peres, who succeeded Rabin as prime minister, could not be persuaded to adopt the plan as the Labor Party’s platform in the coming elections. He was afraid he would be accused of dividing Jerusalem, and he wanted to retain the Jordan Valley as Israel’s strategic border. When Peres was unexpectedly defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu in the May 1996 elections, the Beilin–Abu-Mazen plan became history.
Failure of Camp David
Three years later, the Labor Party was back in power under the leadership of Ehud Barak. Barak was a former IDF chief of staff and Israel's most decorated soldier. He was a brave and brilliant soldier but an inept politician who lacked the courage to take the necessary risks for the sake of peace. The moment of truth came at the Camp David summit in July 2000, which Barak himself had asked President Bill Clinton to convene. Barak’s advisers warned him that the Palestinians would not budge from their basic demand for an independent state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with a capital city in East Jerusalem. Barak believed that with Clinton’s help, he could push Yasser Arafat into a corner and force him to settle for less.
What Barak set out to achieve at Camp David was not a peace treaty grounded in international legality, but a deal dictated by the acute asymmetry in the power of the two sides. His modus operandi was peace by ultimatum. For two weeks at the presidential retreat, Barak refused to meet with Arafat and to negotiate with him face-to-face. He used his own aides and the American president to convey offers to his opponent. Every time Arafat turned down an offer, Barak tried a slightly improved offer, the last of which included Gaza and 91% of the West Bank but no sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif in the Old City of Jerusalem. When Arafat rejected this offer, the summit ended in spectacular failure.
Following the failure of the summit, Barak invented the myth that there is no Palestinian partner for peace. He claimed that at Camp David he had made the most generous offer imaginable to the Palestinians but that Arafat rejected it and made a strategic decision to return to violence, a decision that led to the outbreak of the second intifada four months later. The claim that Arafat planned and instigated the second intifada is utterly baseless. Instead of admitting his own fault, Barak sought to pin the blame for the impasse on the other side.
The problem with Barak’s post-facto explanation, or more precisely the myth he invented, was that the great majority of Israelis believed it. This myth had dire consequences for the Labor Party, the peace camp, and the prospects of a peaceful settlement. For if there was no Palestinian partner for peace, it was only logical for Israelis to vote for a leader who was good at killing Palestinians rather than for a party that advocated negotiations with them. Ariel Sharon fitted the bill perfectly. Consequently, his Likud party was elected in February 2001, and right-wing parties have remained in power ever since.
Sharon – Unilateralist ‘Par Excellence’
Sharon was an aggressive former soldier and an ardent Israeli nationalist who from the beginning rejected the notion that diplomacy could resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was a proponent of the doctrine of permanent conflict and a champion of violent solutions. His long-term thinking was encapsulated in the slogan that “Jordan is Palestine.” He maintained that a Palestinian state already existed on the East Bank of the Jordan River because the majority of its inhabitants were Palestinian, and he hoped that the Palestinians would topple the monarchy, transform the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan into the Republic of Palestine, and thereby facilitate the absorption of the West Bank into Greater Israel.
Sharon’s premiership provided further proof, if further proof was needed, that Israel was not ready for a genuine a two-state solution. On March 12, 2002, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1397, the first UN resolution to explicitly call for a two-state solution. Sharon rejected it. On March 27, the Arab League offered Israel peace and normalization with all its 22 members in return for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories (including the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and Lebanon), a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN Resolution 194, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Arab Peace Initiative (API) was overshadowed by a Hamas suicide bombing that killed 29 Israelis and wounded 150. Sharon retaliated by launching “Operation Defensive Shield,” the biggest and most destructive military operation in the West Bank since the Six-Day War. At no point subsequently was he willing to engage with the API.
Sharon was suspicious of diplomacy and addicted to violence. He even boasted that during his five years in power, there were no peace negotiations of any kind with the Palestinians. Yet, in rejecting an independent Palestinian state, Sharon faithfully represented the policy position of the Likud and more broadly of the Israeli right. Sharon fell out with his party over his plan to withdraw from Gaza in 2005. Sharon was the unilateralist par excellence. He envisaged disengagement from Gaza as a unilateral Israeli move to enhance Israeli security, not as a first step towards a negotiated settlement of the conflict. The plan was anchored in a fundamental rejection of Palestinian statehood. Yet the hard-liners in the Likud denounced the withdrawal from Gaza as a betrayal of the settlers and appeasement of Hamas, prompting Sharon to quit and form a new party, Kadima (Forward).
Differing Accounts of Olmert-Abbas Negotiations
Ehud Olmert succeeded Sharon as leader of Kadima and prime minister in January 2006. Olmert’s main claim to being a peacemaker rested on an offer he made at his residence in Jerusalem to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, on September 16, 2008, 12 days before announcing his resignation. He resigned because of a police investigation into charges of corruption of which he was later convicted. After leaving office, Olmert made the offer public, claiming he had been willing to place the entire Old City under an international regime, divide Jerusalem, give the Palestinians 93.5% of the West Bank with one-to-one swaps for the areas to be retained by Israel, and absorb 5,000 refugees inside the Green Line over a period of five years. This was certainly a far-reaching proposal for a two-state solution, which addressed all the “permanent status” issues. On Jerusalem and borders, Olmert went well beyond what Ehud Barak had been prepared to concede.
Yet Olmert’s version of events is not entirely accurate. By his own account, Olmert demanded that Abbas meet him the very next day, together with map experts, in order to arrive at a final line for the border between Palestine and Israel. Abbas asked to take the Israeli map with him to show to his experts. Olmert declined, fearing the map would be used not for closure but as the starting point in future negotiations. Abbas was not prepared to be rushed by the “caretaker” prime minister on a matter of such supreme importance, and no meeting took place the following day. Olmert claimed that he never heard from Abbas again and that the most generous offer in Israel’s history remained without a Palestinian answer. But Olmert and Abbas did negotiate subsequently, on more than one occasion. Far from ignoring the offer, the Palestinians requested clarifications, which they did not receive.
Palestinian doubts about Olmert’s credibility were compounded by his deep unpopularity at home and his imminent political demise. He was a lame duck prime minister, and his constitutional right to sign the agreement he proposed was wide open to challenge. Abbas was advised by some Israelis not to sign an agreement with Olmert. Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and number two in Kadima, reportedly sent messages to Abbas advising him to wait for her to become prime minister and promising to improve on Olmert’s terms. Henry Kissinger famously said that Israel has no foreign policy, only internal politics. This was a classic example of internal rivalries obstructing peace-making.5
Even without the added complications of internal Israeli rivalries, Olmert’s peace initiative faced an uncertain future. On a number of critical issues, the two sides remained far apart. The Palestinians were not told whether Olmert’s percentages for the West Bank included or excluded the Jewish neighborhoods around Jerusalem, nor was there agreement on the West Bank settlements to be removed. Olmert, for example, insisted on keeping Ariel, which extended nearly halfway across the West Bank, and this was not acceptable to the Palestinians. Olmert demanded that Israel’s armed forces be stationed on the territory of the future Palestinian state; this, too, was not acceptable to the Palestinians. Olmert offered to admit 5,000 refugees into Israel in five years; Abbas wanted 150,000 to return over a period of 10 years. So even if his hold on power had been much firmer, it is far from certain that Olmert could have reached an overall settlement on a two-state solution. He later accused Abbas of lacking guts, of being indecisive, and of missing a unique opportunity for peace. But under the circumstances, the Palestinian leader’s caution was understandable.
Netanyahu Was Firmly Wedded to the Status Quo
The Likud returned to power under Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009. Netanyahu was the longest serving prime minister in Israel's history. He served as prime minister in 1996-1999 and in three consecutive terms from 2009 until 2021. One of the myths surrounding his premiership was that he supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The only solid piece of evidence for this claim was a speech he made at Bar-Ilan University on June 14, 2009, two and a half months after he formed his second government. In that speech, Netanyahu stated: “We will be willing to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.” The speech, however, was made only under intense pressure from the Obama administration, and the change of policy it announced was more apparent than real. A month after the speech, Benzion Netanyahu, the prime minister’s octogenarian father, told a Channel 2 TV interviewer: “Binyamin does not support a Palestinian state, except on conditions that the Arabs will never ever accept. I heard this from him.”
Throughout his time in power, Benjamin Netanyahu remained firmly wedded to the status quo: limited Palestinian autonomy under Israeli rule; in other words, an apartheid regime with Israel as the all-powerful colonial overlord. In his Bar-Ilan speech, Netanyahu called for negotiations without preconditions. But in the same breath, he posed a series of preconditions to the Palestinians. First, he dissociated himself from the understandings that his predecessor, Olmert, had reached with Abbas a year earlier. Second, he rejected Abbas’s demand for a freeze on settlement expansion during the negotiations. In other words, while pretending to negotiate over the division of the cake, Netanyahu proposed to keep eating it. Third, there could be absolutely no return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes, not even in symbolic numbers. Fourth, he insisted that Jerusalem would remain Israel’s united capital. Moreover, Netanyahu introduced a completely new condition: The Palestinians had to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The reason Netanyahu stipulated this last condition was because he knew that no Palestinian leader, however moderate, could possibly accept it. It was an absurd condition, not least because it ignored the Palestinian citizens who make up a fifth of Israel's population. In short, Netanyahu never accepted a two-state solution in good faith. In the run-up to the 2015 elections, he himself declared: “If I am elected, no Palestinian state will emerge on my watch. He was re-elected, and he was true to his word.
The Bennett Government and the Status Quo
After four inconclusive elections, Netanyahu’s Likud was ousted from power in March 2021 and replaced by a very strange coalition government that includes the dovish Meretz, the Labor Party, several centrist parties, and a small Islamic party of Israeli Arabs. This marked the first time in Israel's history that an Arab party joined the government. The prime minister is Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultranationalist Yemina (Rightwards) party which has only six seats in the 120-member Knesset. Bennett is a religious nationalist and a former head of the settlers’ council. He shares Netanyahu’s strong opposition to Palestinian independence, but he used to go much further in advocating outright annexation of Area C, which consists of 60% of the West Bank where the great majority of the Jewish settlers live. Bennett’s government can only survive in power by clinging to the status quo ̶ colonial rule over the West Bank ̶ and refraining from any major policy shift in either a dovish or a hawkish direction.
The Two-State Solution Was Never Born
In recent years, it has become fashionable to say that the two-state solution is dead. If not stone dead, this solution is surely 'OBE ̶ Overtaken By Events.' Many different reasons combined to make this solution obsolete, but the most important is Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem. Another cause of the death of the two-state solution is the security barrier that Israel has been constructing in the West Bank since 2003. Between them, the settlements and the wall de facto annex to Israel around 10% of the West Bank. The settlements represent the aggressive expansion of the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The wall is not just illegal but a brutal instrument of landgrabbing. What is left to the Palestinians is a collection of enclaves that cannot form a viable, territorially contiguous state.
It is therefore no exaggeration, or only a slight exaggeration, to say that the two-state solution is dead. I would go further and argue that the two-state solution was never born. The reason for this assertion is that no Israeli Government since 1967, with the possible exception of the Olmert government, has been willing to accept an independent Palestinian state over the whole of Gaza and the West Bank with a capital city in East Jerusalem.
Nor has Israel had to face any international sanction for its diplomatic intransigence, for its oppression of the Palestinians, or for its flagrant violations of international law. True, the UN has passed a raft of resolutions condemning Israel's annexation of Jerusalem, creeping annexation of the West Bank, systematic violations of Palestinian human rights, and successive assaults on the civilian population of Gaza. But Israel shakes off these resolutions like water off a duck’s back.
That Israel has become an apartheid state is now beyond doubt. The claim is hotly disputed by Israel's supporters, but it is nevertheless a fact. That was the conclusion reached by B’Tselem, the highly respected Israeli human rights organization. Until recently, B’Tselem’s reports used to focus on Israeli human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territory. A point was reached, however, when Israeli practices and policies in the occupied territories could no longer be considered separately from the regime in Israel proper. In January 2021, B’Tselem issued a closely argued position paper entitled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.” According to the report: “The entire area Israel controls between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is governed by a single regime working to advance and perpetuate the supremacy of one group over another. By geographically, demographically and physically engineering space, the regime enables Jews to live in a contiguous area with full rights, including self-determination, while Palestinians live in separate units and enjoy fewer rights.”6
Israel’s principal Western backers, the United States and the European Union, know that apartheid is the reality on the ground and that this reality is incompatible with a two-state solution in any meaningful sense of the term. So why do they continue to parrot their support for the two-state solution at every opportunity? The answer is that they are afraid to admit that the root of the problem is the racist and colonial character of Israeli rule over the Palestinian territories. An open rift with Israel would be costly for the Western powers in political terms. It is therefore convenient for them to continue to pretend that Israel is a democratic state and that its conflict with the Palestinians can only be resolved by direct negotiations leading to the partition of the land between the river and the sea. They know full well that Israel will not mend its ways unless sanctions are imposed, but they are unwilling or unable to impose sanctions. In the meantime, in the absence of any Israeli-Palestinian peace process, they are free to persist in the policy posture of useless hand-wringing and pious platitudes.
Israel Must Be Decolonized
What emerges from this brief historical survey is that no Israeli Government, with one dubious exception, has been willing to accept Palestinian self-determination over the entire territory it captured in the June 1967 War. Rhetorical Western support for the elusive two-state solution makes them complicit in Israel’s continuing crimes against the Palestinian people. Fundamentally, however, it is Israel’s own opposition to Palestinian independence and statehood that make the much-vaunted two-state solution an illusion rather than a realistic possibility.
If one recognizes, as I do, that the root of the problem is the Jewish supremacist character of the state of Israel, it follows that ending the occupation is not enough; Israel, too, needs to be decolonized. The Palestinian citizens of Israel are second-class citizens. True, they have the vote, but there is a whole raft of laws and practices that discriminate against them. A two-state solution would not address their problem. On the contrary, it would distance them further from the other branch of the Palestinian family. The best hope for resolving the century-old conflict between Jews and Palestinians lies not in the partition of Palestine but in building one democratic state from the river to the sea with equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
1 Avi Shlaim, Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).
2 Avi Shlaim, Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace (London: Allen Lane/ Penguin Books, 2007).
3 Avi Raz, The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
4 Edward Said, Peace and its Discontents: Gaza-Jericho, 1993-1995 (London: Vintage, 1995), p. 2.
5 On the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy see Amnon Aran, Israeli Foreign Policy since the End of the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2020).