In the past month or so I have noticed a flurry of articles about the future of the two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. What has brought about this sudden interest in resurrecting the two-state solution? The short answer is the brutality of the Israeli war on Palestinians in Gaza and the recent general election in Israel. As a result of this election it is expected that the next Israeli government will not only be more right wing than the last, but will not even pay lip service to the notion of a Palestinian state. This of course is causing some concern and consternation in the generally pro-Israel West. And the first thing to note is that it is mainly in the West, the USA and the UK, where voices questioning the two-state solution are being raised. Less so, if at all, in Israel.
There never was a two-state solution
If there is to ever be a two state solution in the sense of establishing long term peace in the area, then this can only come about when a majority of Israelis and Palestinians accept the boundaries of the respective states and are willing to recognize each state as fully sovereign. It is at this point that it is clear that the two-state solution was never a viable option. From the perspective of the Palestinians the acceptance of two-states in historic Palestine is in itself an immense compromise.
A little bit of history. When the UN in 1948 voted to partition the then British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish and a Palestinian state, 55% was awarded to the new Jewish state and only 45% to the Palestinians. This itself was regarded by all Arabs and many others as unjust. Neither side was in fact happy with the proposal and war almost immediately broke out. At the end of this war the newly created Jewish state – Israel – had conquered 78 % of Mandate Palestine. To ensure that Israel was indeed a Jewish state, the Israelis forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians - 750,000 Palestinians - from their homes and villages. These families and their descendants now number approximately seven million and live in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Their position in any solution is another complicating factor which I will not deal with in this post.
The key point is that as of 1949 Israel was in possession of 78% of historic Palestine, far in excess of what it had been awarded by the UN. What remained for Palestinians was the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Since the 1967 war these three areas are now of course under Israeli occupation. The idea of two states that then developed among Palestinians was that they would recognize Israel within its pre 1967 borders in return for the creation of a Palestinian state in the remainder of historic Palestine. Thus Palestinians are willing to accept their own state on only 22% of the land, less than half of what they were awarded by the UN. This is and remains the official Palestinian position, put forward by the PLO and signed to in the Oslo agreements. It is also the position of the Arab League. Even Hamas, the so called bad boys on the Palestinian side, have stated repeatedly that they too would accept this solution.
One would have thought that from the Israeli perspective this was a deal they could not refuse. Recognition by the whole of the Arab world, peace and security and in control of 78% of historic Palestine. But refuse they did. Again and again and right from the beginning in 1967. Everyone knows what the Palestinian position is, Israelis better than most, yet Israel has never, ever, made any attempt to recognize this position. Firstly they formally, though illegally, annexed East Jerusalem into Israel proper. Secondly they built and continue to build, also illegally, settlements in the West Bank. Today there are 275,000 Israelis in more than 230 settlements. No Israeli government has ever proposed to evacuate these settlements. So how can there be a two-state solution? There is no conceivable Palestinian majority which would ever accept anything less than the whole of the West Bank and the whole of East Jerusalem. The Israelis know this. The question is why did the Western powers pretend that two-states was a viable outcome? And why do they continue to do so? The West, especially the USA and the UK urge the Palestinians to compromise. But they know full well that the Palestinians have already compromised and can offer no more. The call for a two-state solution can only be a pretence on the part of the West. A delaying tactic to allow the Israelis to create facts on the ground, i.e. ever more settlements in the West Bank. This is why the many pro-Israelis in the West are so upset. The murderous assault on Gaza has shown vividly to the rest of the world the true nature of Israelis occupation. While the prospect of Bibi Netanyahu as the new Prime Minister of Israel will destroy for ever the notion that Israel is a partner for peace.
It will be interesting to see how the new Obama administration reacts to all of this. The appointment of George Mitchell as envoy to the region is encouraging as is the appointment of Chas. W. Freeman as the new head of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman has previously spoken about this conflict - “Israeli occupation and settlement of Arab lands is inherently violent. And as long as such Israeli violence against Palestinians continues, it is utterly unrealistic to expect that Palestinians will stand down from violent resistance and retaliation against Israelis. The Israeli government understands this. So, when they set the complete absence of Palestinian violence as a precondition for any negotiating process, they are deliberately setting a precondition they know can never be met.” Further he has stated that: “The so-called ‘two-state solution’ is widely seen in the region as too late and too little. Too late, because so much land has been colonized by Israel that there is not enough left for a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel; too little, because what is on offer looks to Palestinians more like an Indian reservation than a country.”
What next for Israel?
If the two-state solution is dead, what are the options for the region. Many voices are now recognizing that Israel has but three options, none of them very appealing to most Israelis. These options were succinctly outlined by Stephen M. Walt, professor of International Relations at Harvard University and long term proponent of the two-state solution.
There are only three alternative options..... First, Israel could drive most or all of the 2.5 million Palestinians out of the West Bank by force, thereby preserving "greater Israel" as a Jewish state through an overt act of ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians would surely resist, and it would be a crime against humanity, conducted in full view of a horrified world. No American government could support such a step, and no true friend of Israel could endorse that solution.
Second, Israel could retain control of the West Bank but allow the Palestinians limited autonomy in a set of disconnected enclaves, while it controlled access in and out, their water supplies, and the airspace above them. This appears to have been Ariel Sharon's strategy before he was incapacitated, and Bibi Netanyahu's proposal for "economic peace" without a Palestinian state seems to envision a similar outcome. In short, the Palestinians would not get a viable state of their own and would not enjoy full political rights. This is the solution that many people -- including Prime Minister Olmert -- compare to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is hard to imagine the United States supporting this outcome over the long term, and Olmert has said as much. Denying the Palestinians their own national aspirations is also not going to end the conflict.
Which brings me to the third option. The Israeli government could maintain its physical control over "greater Israel" and grant the Palestinians full democratic rights within this territory. This option has been proposed by a handful of Israeli Jews and a growing number of Palestinians.
Walt, who still favours the two-state solution, is clearly a worried man. And the reason is that recent events have brought out with great clarity that the reality of a mono-ethnic Jewish state is no longer feasible, legitimate nor desirable. How long, and how many more Israeli war crimes, before governments in the West recognize this reality and work to bring about a democratic bi-national state in the whole of Palestine.