The embattled and weary Two-State Solution is still the only game in town

By: Charles P. Kirchofer

The West Bank barrier near Bethlehem. Photo by Marc Venezia, creative commons license, 2007
The West Bank barrier near Bethlehem. Photo by Marc Venezia, creative commons license, 2007

With the Oslo Accords all but dead and support for a two-state solution declining among both Israelis and Palestinians, it is tempting to abandon the idea altogether. There is no conceivable alternative, however. The longer two states are not a reality in Israel/Palestine, the worse things will become—especially for Israel.

In a book whose very title accepted that it would be controversial, the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld argues: ‘History shows that walls, provided people are prepared to do what is necessary to defend them and prevent other people from crossing them, by using lethal force if necessary, work.’ This is controversial because, as the photo above suggests, people tend to associate walls with oppression and, above all, Cold War Berlin. Yet the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, as promulgated by the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO in the 1990s, implies separation. Given the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, such a separation would almost certainly involve additional wall and fence building, unless more creative, but unlikely, solutions are found. Wall or not, the Oslo Accords were a reaction to the recognition that the status quo in Israel/Palestine had become untenable. Recent violence shows that the status quo is once again, or more accurately still, untenable. It also shows that the two-state solution is still the only game in town.

The arguments against the two-state solution sometimes come from ideology, but more often from shear exasperation. There was great hope for two states in the 1990s. But as the former head of Israel’s internal security service puts it: ‘There was no good faith. […] We wanted security and we got more terrorism. They wanted a state and got more settlements.’ Gaza is now controlled by a group that Israel, the United States, and most European governments consider to be a terrorist group and that launches rockets on Israeli communities. With this in mind, many Israelis have concluded that ‘land for peace’ does not work. After all, the West Bank is much closer to the bulk of Israel’s population. If a group like Hamas took over there and decided to attack Israelis, their ability to do so would be much greater than it is from Gaza.

Palestinians, meanwhile, hear platitudes about two states but see little change since the 1990s, except for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Furthermore, As Kobi Michael, former Deputy Director and head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs points out, many Palestinians have concluded that that withdrawal came about as a result of the violence of the Second Intifada.[1] Some therefore question the wisdom of ‘peace for land’, as little seems to have come from it. Finally, on a purely technical basis, the spread of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the growth in the number of settlers there has made agreeing on borders devilishly difficult.

All of these arguments are true, and yet they are essentially irrelevant without an alternative. The only other possibility would be a one-state solution. This would lead Israel to become either a state with a minority Jewish population, the very situation Israel was founded to avoid, or an apartheid state, with Palestinians as second-class citizens. As difficult as a two-state solution seems, both of those alternatives are worse for Israelis (though arguably not for Palestinians). A binational state with fewer rights for Palestinians would also be unacceptable to Israel’s European and US allies because they could not be seen presiding over a slide to an overtly racist form of government. As US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman warned in April: If Israel ‘is seen to be stepping back from its commitment to a two-state solution that will make our job in the international arena much tougher… it will be harder for us to prevent internationalizing the conflict’. Israel’s very survival and legitimacy are therefore predicated on an eventual two-state solution.

All is not lost. Israelis and Palestinians have come close to agreement before, including on what is perhaps the most contentious issue: Jerusalem. They came closest in 2000, when US President Clinton presented them with the so-called ‘Clinton Parameters’, which called for the partition of Jerusalem, including its holy sites, between Israelis and Palestinians. Most Israelis do not live in settlements and most (still) support a two-state solution in principle, as is the case with Palestinians. Palestinians’ faith in ‘peace for land’ would increase if they saw progress on gaining sovereignty over more of it. Israelis’ faith in ‘land for peace’ would increase if they saw less violence. Unfortunately, violence is currently riding high, with 11 Israelis and 62 Palestinians killed since September, and shows no sign of abating. Israelis will rightly be concerned that picking up negotiations again now will reward violence.

The time to move would ideally have been during a period of relative calm. Israel is now building a wall to separate two sections of Jerusalem from each other, one Jewish, one Arab. If van Creveld is right and such measures eventually bring down tensions, such a calm could return. Both parties would be wise to seize upon the opportunity to settle the issue once and for all. As hard as it would be all involved, the alternatives are either horrid or the products of wishful thinking. ‘Two states for two peoples’ is the only way.

Charles Kirchofer is finishing up his PhD on Israel’s deterrence policies towards Hamas at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He can be found on Twitter @CPKirchofer and his blog:

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