The Untimely Resurrection of the Two-State Solution

Originally published at Project-Syndicate | Mar 7th, 2024

As the war in Gaza rages on, the top priority for American diplomats should be to end the carnage and stabilize the region. But by linking this effort to the ghost of the two-state solution, the United States risks prolonging the war and enabling Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to save his political career.

TEL AVIV – US President Joe Biden’s Middle East peace plan, which reportedly involves re-establishing a path to a two-state solution and full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world, offers Israelis and Palestinians a chance to salvage their respective national projects from the wreckage of their own self-defeating policies.

Biden recognizes that progress toward Israeli-Arab peace has historically followed major wars and strategic shifts. The same logic, he appears to believe, could be applied to the ongoing war in Gaza, the region’s most devastating since the 1948 war. But the prospects for a diplomatic resolution remain bleak, given Israel’s security concerns and territorial ambitions, along with what Israelis view as the Palestinians’ inflexible demands.

While former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has expressed support for Biden’s plan, albeit with several caveats that the United States might find difficult to accept, Biden’s proposal could pose even greater political challenges for the Palestinians.

In December 2000, Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned Fatah leader often likened to a Palestinian Nelson Mandela, categorically rejected the peace parameters proposed by then-US President Bill Clinton. These parameters, which Clinton cited in 2016 as the moment when he “killed” himself to offer the Palestinians a state, included the dismantling of most Israeli settlements and establishment of a Palestinian state encompassing the entire Gaza Strip and 97% of the West Bank. Today, there is no conceivable Israeli government willing to offer more than these terms.

At the time, Barghouti vehemently opposed Clinton’s proposals, stating, “Show me one Palestinian who dares to accept these American ideas or even thinks of accepting them.” Would Barghouti be more open to less favorable terms now, given that Israeli support for Clinton’s proposal has practically vanished? If the US decides to enforce a peace plan through a binding United Nations Security Council resolution, its framework will likely not meet Barghouti’s expectations, let alone those of Hamas.

Barghouti has outlined his conditions for peace from his prison cell. In 2006, he was the architect of the Prisoners’ National Conciliation Document, in which representatives from every major Palestinian faction, including Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state over all the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, alongside “the right of return for refugees to their homes and properties from which they were evicted” and financial reparations. But when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas proposed a referendum on the document, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad withdrew their support.

For Hamas, the problem extended beyond the specifics of the agreement, which involved the taboo of recognizing Israel and dividing what it considered the sacred land of Palestine. The organization also aspired to become the dominant force within a unified Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was meant to consolidate all the different factions. With the concept of a unified Palestinian movement back on the table, Hamas – having engaged in armed resistance against Israel while Abbas was busy cooperating with the Israeli authorities – is poised to play a major role in shaping it.

Paradoxically, it was Hamas, not Abbas’s PLO, that prompted Biden to propose a regional peace plan contingent on the establishment of a Palestinian state, an idea that was previously considered dead and buried. But the notion that Hamas will simply vanish, enabling a new Palestinian Authority to take over Gaza, is utterly unrealistic. There is simply no way that Abbas and his allies could endorse a peace deal rejected by either Hamas or Barghouti.

Moreover, the Palestinians are unlikely to accept the diminished Palestinian state reportedly envisioned by Biden – a disarmed Costa Rica-like entity with no control over its airspace and electromagnetic spectrum – regardless of Hamas’s stance. Given that Israel already controls security from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, why would any Palestinian accept this arrangement as consistent with the idea of a sovereign Palestine?

Israelis, now faced with the prospect of “rewarding” the Palestinians with statehood after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, are still haunted by the memories of Israel’s previous withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza. In both cases, Israeli retreats were followed by military conflicts that bolstered Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively. These traumatic events underpin Israel’s current opposition to the two-state solution.

Establishing a Palestinian state strong enough to deal with internal dissent while not posing a threat to Israel is a difficult balancing act. Striking such a balance proved impossible during the good-faith negotiations of the 1990s and early 2000s and would be even more elusive in the aftermath of the current war in Gaza and the ongoing fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants along Israel’s northern border.

Similarly, accommodating the West Bank’s 400,000 settlers was already a significant challenge during previous peace negotiations. This task has become even more daunting since then, with Biden’s proposed two-state plan potentially requiring the relocation of 500,000 people currently living in nearly 300 settlements and illegal outposts. Another 220,000 Israelis (“settlers” in the Palestinians’ view) live in East Jerusalem. Moreover, the Israeli public, which had already elected the most annexationist government in Israel’s history before the war in Gaza, is now even more skeptical about the idea of a Palestinian state just a few miles from Tel Aviv.

Notably, before the war in Gaza, support for a two-state solution among Israelis stood at only 35%. Following the October 7 massacre, this support dropped to 28.6%, even if such a state were to come with American guarantees and a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia. In February, 99 of the Knesset’s 120 members voted against any unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, underscoring the deep-rooted skepticism toward the very idea of Palestinian statehood.

Crucially, before any diplomatic endgame can gain momentum, Israelis must oust the most dangerous coalition in the country’s history. But to avoid an early election, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is cynically pursuing an unattainable “total victory” in Gaza.

The impending US presidential election adds another layer of uncertainty. The top priority now should be to end the carnage and stabilize the region. But by tying the pursuit of a ceasefire to the fading prospect of a two-state solution, American diplomats risk prolonging the conflict and enabling Netanyahu to unite the country behind his discredited leadership, thereby saving his political career.

Shlomo Ben-Ami: A former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace and the author of Prophets without Honor: The 2000 Camp David Summit and the End of the Two-State Solution (Oxford University Press, 2022).

Related Posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This