A National Intelligence Estimate prepared by the U.S. intelligence community said the following: “If Israel continues to occupy conquered territory for an extended period, say two to three years, it will find it increasingly difficult to relinquish control. Domestic pressures to establish paramilitary settlements in occupied areas would grow, and it would be harder to turn back to the Arabs land which contained such settlements.”
One might, as I’ve written before, think that that is a very grim prognosis and that by 2016 the two-state solution will surely be impossible. But that N.I.E. was written in 1968, only a year after Israel occupied the West Bank and when barely a couple thousand settlers lived beyond the Green Line. Now, some six hundred fifty thousand Israelis are there, with well over a hundred colonies, turning maps of the West Bank into Swiss cheese. It is farcical to talk about the impending death of the two-state solution—it’s been long dead and decomposing before our eyes, yet few have had the common decency to bury it.
Ian Lustick had no problem putting the two-state solution in its final resting place this past week, in a lengthy Op-Ed in the Times. If this can open the door to new thinking on a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian question, the timing could not be better. Identifying the flaws and faults of a two-state solution has been done many times before. What we need now is new thinking on a policy level that grapples both with the failures of the two-state approach and the realities on the ground.
What is the solution? Standing alone without context, that question is impossible to definitively answer. We must first understand the problem we are trying to solve. And when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the two-state solution, which has dominated mainstream discourse on policy toward this issue, is primarily a solution to a problem: Israel’s problem.
Israel’s problem is one of identity and territory. It claims it is both Jewish and Democratic, and yet, under the control of the Israeli state today, between the river and the sea, there are an equal number of Jews and non-Jews. Those non-Jews, the Palestinians, are either treated as second-class citizens or have no citizenship rights at all.
The reason for this problem is the implementation of Zionism. The ideology sought to establish a Jewish state, which envisioned and required a Jewish majority. It did so, problematically, in a geographic space where the majority of the native inhabitants were Palestinians Arabs. Every attempt to resolve this conflict between Zionist ideology and demographic reality for the past hundred years has included some form of gerrymandering—drawing oddly shaped, impractical, winding borders around often sparse Jewish populations to encompass them in a single geographic entity. The most recent version of the two-state solution is yet another iteration of these attempts, but with lines drawn a little differently to account for even more illegal Israeli colonists in the West Bank year after year.
While the two-state solution might provide an answer to Israel’s identity crisis, it does little in terms of solving both the humanitarian and human-rights crisis facing Palestinians. In the best-case scenario, a Palestinian state would be demilitarized and have not a semblance of the sovereignty afforded to every other state in the international system. It would, more or less, be under glorified occupation. Palestinian refugees would not be permitted to return to their homes. The status of Jerusalem, having become so marred by Israeli settlement-building, would likely be indivisible and largely off limits to the Palestinian statelet.
Endlessly pursuing a two-state solution that is condemned to failure, simply out of a reluctance to challenge the core problem Zionism has created, leaves Palestinians subjugated and waiting. They have already been waiting for far too long, and we owe them more than just robotically returning to the two-state framework every time it fails.
From 1947 to 1949, Palestine was emptied of sixty-seven per cent of its native Arab inhabitants. A conventional two-state solution would do little to address the grievances of these refugees or their descendants, many of whom were launched into a lifetime of dispossession. An individual on the other side of the world who found out yesterday that he has Jewish heritage can immigrate and live on the land of a Palestinian who was expelled from it and clutches his house keys on his deathbed just a few dozen miles away. So what is the problem here? In short, that one party, the Israelis, demands perpetual demographic dominance. That demand is simply unjustifiable. If Palestine were in fact a land without a people, as many Zionists claimed a century ago, and as some still do today, then perhaps things would have been different.
But for Palestinians, the problem is not a problem of identity. We know who we are. We are native inhabitants of Palestine. We belong to this land, whether we reside in it or live afar. Our problem is not that we are in search of a flag, or a national anthem, or a seat at the United Nations, or postage stamps, or currency. All of these things are fine. But they pale in comparison to our core desire and right: to live in freedom and dignity in the land of our forefathers.
If an independent Palestinian state, born out of a two-state solution, actually were a vehicle to the reclamation of Palestinian rights, then it would have been more welcomed and more successful. In fact, the many Palestinians who did support the two-state solution did so by taking a leap of faith, believing this disadvantageous offer would be the most the structures of power would allow. But instead, as Lustick rightly notes, the two-state solution, like the peace process that accompanies it, has been a chimera.
Why would the Israelis ever accept a single state—one in which they’d be equal to Palestinians before the law? No party in power willfully cedes it unless the costs of monopolizing become overbearing. Israelis face a choice today between affording equal rights to the Palestinians in one geographic space or managing conflict through an apartheid system. Neither alternative may be particularly attractive to Israelis, but continuing the apartheid route will only get uglier and costlier over time, as well as being constantly at odds with the state’s claim of democracy. All the while, as Israel’s colonies metastasize in the West Bank, the price of disentanglement will become even steeper. Neither of these paths are ideal, to be sure, not for Israelis or Palestinians, but that Israel arrives at this juncture is largely a matter of its own doing.
How do Israelis want to live? Many decades ago, before Israel was created, Hannah Arendt wrote that the Zionist demands of Jewish majoritarian nationalism imposed by force would lead to perpetual conflict. In these circumstances, Arendt wrote, “a Jewish state can only be erected at the price of a Jewish homeland.” The Jews in Palestine would be condemned to live as “one of those small warrior tribes about whose possibilities and importance history has taught us since the days of Sparta,” always fighting with their neighbors. One thinks of those lines today while walking down a street in Israel, or onto a train or bus when countless fatigue-clad conscripts pile on with their M-16 rifles in hand. The conflict between the aims of the Zionist project and democracy were evident to a few thinkers like Arendt in 1948. For many others, it crystalized after 1967. For most, it should be undeniable today.
The reality now is that there is a single state. The problem is that it takes an apartheid form. Billions upon billions of dollars continue to be poured into the Israeli settlement enterprise. Natural resources are being exploited illegally. More and more land is being taken from Palestinians. Israeli infrastructure plans are growing. Everything about the Israeli state’s actual behavior suggests it has no intention of ever leaving the West Bank.
Recognizing that we have a “one-state problem” is the key to peace. The first step is ending discrimination in the law based on ethnicity or religion throughout the entirety of the territory. Palestinians must be part of shaping any future state they will live in, and they can do so only on equal footing with their Jewish counterparts before the law, not under military occupation. For the next steps, numerous historic examples of multi-ethnic democracies exist, including those that made transitions from parallel situations. South Africa is one. It is important to note that while each case is different, and no analogy is perfect, lessons learned from those experiences and examples can inform the path forward for Israelis and Palestinians, even as they simultaneously take into consideration the uniqueness of this case.
Settlers and settlements not only pose a geographic obstacle to the advent of a contiguous Palestinian second state; they pose a political and economic obstacle as well. Israeli settlers now exercise outsized influence on Israeli policymaking, and they continue to vote in growing and impressive numbers. Further, even the relocation and resettlement of a conservative estimate of a hundred thousand Israeli settlers, based on the compensation and resettlement of settlers from Gaza, would cost about ten per cent of Israel’s G.D.P. In short, the math is simple: the political interests geared toward Israel retaining control of the West Bank are far, far more influential in this calculus than any countervailing pressure that the United States has ever been willing to bring to bear.
One could fill a library with all the books, research documents, and policy papers that have been written on the different elements that make up the two-state framework, such as borders, settlements, water, refugees, and Jerusalem. To move a policy-level discussion on alternative solutions forward, we need similar work dedicated to studying and crafting policies on constitutionalism, institution formation and transition, power- and resource-sharing, and security.
Standing in the way of any progress will be two-state absolutists, who refuse to rethink and reëvaluate failed policy and strategy because of an irrational or ideological commitment to it. This is dangerous stuff. Absolutism is innovation’s mortal enemy. It’s time to start thinking outside the Zionist box and look for solutions that secure the human rights and equality of all involved, and not simply the political demands of the stronger party.
Yousef Munayyer directs the Jerusalem Fund in Washington, D.C., and its educational program, the Palestine Center.