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Why the two-state solution is dead. And why it may rise again.

REUTERS/Debbie Hill
Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering joint statements during their meeting in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Is the so-called two-state solution, the creation of an independent Palestinian state that would exist alongside Israel, all but dead? It looks that way. And if so, it’s a politically perilous moment for Israel — that some say could lead it right back to a two-state solution.

Few diplomats or national leaders will acknowledge that they see little point in talking. But for the moment, actions (or rather, lack of them) speak louder than words. The main action in recent months has been grinding, low-level violence. On Tuesday, a Palestinian attacker stabbed 10 people, killing an American graduate student, before being shot and killed. Since October, according to a count by the BBC, nearly 30 Israelis and more than 160 Palestinians have been killed.

Don’t look for any dramatic action from politicians.

On the Palestinian side, the Gaza-West Bank divide remains. The West Bank leadership is exhausted and focused on issues of succession. For all his bluster, it makes sense to think of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a very cautious politician whose room to maneuver is further limited by the powerful settlement movement and the more extreme voices in his party and his governing coalition. 

Netanyahu’s relations with Washington are so bad the two sides can’t even agree on whose fault it is that he and President Obama aren’t meeting in Washington later this month. 

Vice President Joe Biden is currently in the region, and U.S. officials say Secretary of State John F. Kerry will try to make some progress on the issue before leaving office. But no one’s holding their breath.

Populations on both side are suspicious and pessimistic, as this new report from the Pew Research Center on attitudes among Israeli Jewish and Arab citizens makes clear.

There is a time and a place to parse the mutual suspicions and accusations. But there is also a time and a place when leaders, even in the most intractable conflicts, set them aside in the interests of getting the best deal they can – voluntarily (if they are visionary) or under pressure (if they have little choice).

That’s unlikely under the current leadership. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is 80 years old and slowly exiting with no clear successor.

Israel is operating from a position of strength in its relationship with the Palestinians. And this analysis by Brookings’ Natan Sachs offers an interesting way to look at Netanyahu – as less of a hawk than a politician who is by nature conservative, unwilling to get pushed into a deal he doesn’t like, and content to wait for something better. As Sachs points out, there are risks involved.

While that approach locks in Israel’s political dominance, not everything is static. Demographics and external public opinion appear to be moving decisively against Israel. The longer the status quo continues, the bigger the problems are likely to get.

Israelis Jews and Palestinians share, and will continue to share, a defined geographic space – whether it is as two independent states, one state, or some hybrid. And while three-quarters of Israel’s population, 6.3 million out of 8.4 million people, is Jewish, the picture is very different if you add up the Palestinians who live in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. When you do that, according to this Reuters story, you get 6.3 million, equal to the number of Israeli Jews. And the Palestinian population has been growing faster.

So if the Palestinians don’t have their own state, Israelis run a risk that U.S. officials have warned of for years – becoming a minority in a unitary democratic state, or ruling a majority of the population by coercion.

At the same time, Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza are alienating traditional friends, particularly in Europe, where a drive to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state has had several successes. One of them has been in Sweden, whose foreign minister also called recently for an investigation into the killings of Palestinians in the recent violence.

Netanyahu responded that the comments by Margot Wallstrom were “outrageous…immoral and … stupid.” 

The European Union also has required that some goods manufactured in Israeli settlements be labeled as such – a symbolic move, for sure, but one that could be the leading edge of tougher actions by Israel’s leading trading partner. 

Europe is seeming less hospitable for Jews: More Jews emigrated to Israel from Western Europe last year than any previous year. Most of them came from France, where Jews have faced a rising number of anti-Semitic attacks, most of them by Muslim extremists.

As Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon wrote in Foreign Affairs, many younger Palestinians already have given up on the two-state solution. An alternative strategy is to scuttle the Palestinian Authority and demand civil rights from Israel. And the frustration is likely to result in more violence. 

Israel may find the demand for rights, the unwanted responsibility for millions of Palestinians, the possibility of becoming a minority and external diplomatic and economic pressure untenable. A smart politician, Rumley and Tibon write, would aim for an agreement with the Palestinians, and argue that any concessions are not a matter of goodwill, but of ensuring Israel’s survival.

The most likely solution? That would be separation – offering a deal to give the Palestinians their own state, and hoping they take it.

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/10/2016 - 09:16 am.

    “A rising tide lifts all boats” – except Israel’s.

    The xenophobic hysteria of Netanyahu as a driver of Israeli policy is so clearly unsustainable, it leaves me wondering how an otherwise sane person can bet everything on it.

    Can Israel leverage it’s military superiority over the Palestinians for the next 100 years?? How about 50 years?? The Palestinians are currently handcuffed – socially, economically, militarily – in the biggest prison in the world. How long does anyone think this can actually last??

    It is only the support of the U.S. that makes this possible. Maybe the American people will wake up someday and choose to no longer enable and support the vast human rights abuses of Israel.

  2. Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 03/10/2016 - 04:38 pm.

    Don’t see how a two state solution is possible any more.

    Having recently returned from Palestine and Israel I just don’t see how a two state solution is any longer possible. Like it or not (and I loathe it) the Israeli’s have spent the last several decades putting in what are euphemistically called settlements, but are really modern towns and cities all over the west bank. They’ve managed to slice up the territory, restrict access, tie-up the water rights and seize the prime land within the west bank. I fail to see how what is left could ever be a viable state.

    The only real chance I see for peace is a gradual tit for tat series of steps toward equal rights in exchange for security and partnership. For a start maybe the Jerusalem city administration could start provide equivalent services for taxes in the Arab and Christian sections of the city as they do for those living in the Jewish sections. Or maybe police in the Arab and Christian sections could be equipped and act more like the police in the Jewish sections. Maybe, just maybe with those sources of tension lifted, the acts of violence by young Palestinian hot heads might die down and create some room for dialogue.

    • Submitted by miki polumbaum on 03/23/2016 - 08:27 am.

      I disagree, Colin. Here’s why:

      Both the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians share the same common need(s): the need for normalization and the need for self-determination, which can only be achieved through the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as an international city and a shared Capitol between Israel and the nascent State of Palestine: Jewish West Jerusalem as the Capitol of Israel, and Arab East Jerusalem as the Capitol of Palestine. That is the only way that both the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians can survive–by being in two separate independent, sovereign nation-states that’re side by side with each other. Ever heard the expression “Good fences make good neighbors”? That applies here..perfectly, imho.

      Having said all of the above, The United States, the UN, and the International community can and should move swiftly (like they should’ve done after the 1967 Six-Day War) to implement and enforce the two-state solution, by forcing Israel to give up West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, as well as their control over the waters and airspace in those territories. Israel must also be forced to evacuate their right-wing Jewish settlers from West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, stop their demolition of Palestinians’ homes, the humiliating checkpoints, and the killing, and overall ugly treatment of innocent Palestinian civilians.

      The only way that Israel will survive is totally withdraw from West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and to allow the Palestinians to create their own independent, sovereign nation-state alongside Israel, and not in place of Israel.

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/10/2016 - 10:23 pm.

    If I were…

    If I were a Palestinian and were so downsized and degraded and held literally in a prison where homes were/are burned and land taken from me and my children were shot…downgrading the concept of life down to the most unacceptable, minimal form of survival… a two state solution would be the only way to free oneself and ones people from slavery.

    A one state solution would be a pathetic alternative that would never fulfill the equality of existence , if I were a Palestinian.. Walk in their shoes and there can be no such compromise, only mocking acceptance recognizing certainly no more than a most false freedom?

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/10/2016 - 10:29 pm.

    How about this

    Mr. Titterud, your blaming Netanyahu at the time when Abbas praises young Palestinians to kill Jews is illogical to say the least. And have you forgotten all the offers Israel made to Palestinians in the past, the ones they refused?

    Mr. Brownlow, what do you think about this way: all western countries tell Abbas and Hamas that until violence stops, not a single dollar will go to PA or Gaza. I guarantee violence will stop immediately.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 03/11/2016 - 06:10 am.

      Excuse No 20147

      Duly noted.

      In other news Israel will be building a few thousand more settlement homes for probably few tens of thousands of settlers. Also their research and intelligence wings will be doing deep intelligence into why Palestinians are so violent.

      Also, the Israeli news agency reports that there will be changes to the Excuse Department. Once a new president is elected in America, there needs to be a fresh set generated. They are looking for volunteer. Qualifications would be a) Pretend there is no land grab b) Pretend there is no UN c) Ability to make up a never ending series of non-legal excuses.

    • Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 03/11/2016 - 08:07 am.

      Uh! No, No I don’t

      First in response to Beryl John-Knudson. Beryl – there is no viable state left for the Palestinians. Visit the West Bank. Or just look at a map. 20 years ago, maybe the two state solution was viable. Now – not a chance. It’s not a matter of will or justice. It’s a matter of geography. The Israeli’s have created a reality on the ground that makes our idealistic hopes of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank impossible.

      Second in response to Ilya Gutman I don’t think that would work. So first it assumes that there is a unified “Western Voice” on the middle east. Don’t think that is correct. Second it assumes that if there were a unified voice that it would be listened to. Don’t think that is correct. Third it assumes that the PA and Hamas control the youth that are committing the current acts of violence. From what I’ve seen these are spontaneous and sporadic acts by frustrated and largely unemployed young men. Doubt the PA or even Hamas could do much about that. Fourth the underlying premise of your question to me is that the fault for the violence is all on one side. I reject that premise.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/12/2016 - 08:49 am.

        Well phrased…

        “So first it assumes that there is a unified “Western Voice”…” Thank you for this key observation. To my recollection, there has never been a truly “unified voice” from the earliest of 1940s discussions. If one takes the UN resolution to be “unified,” then I suppose one may stand on that. Among others, France and Britain happily signed the paperwork, quite eager to be out of the area, knowing by experience that lines on Near East maps do not represent “unification.”

        Once again, the U.S. was left as custodian of inevitable chaos. How is it that little there has become significantly better in these 70 years since 1946?

  5. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/11/2016 - 11:34 am.

    Brownlow…consider another two state solution

    A two-state solution is an impossibility, of that you have more substantive knowledge than I…let’s say two-state solution represents Dignity and Decency as a sub cultural theme demanded; embedded in the one-state solution so the cultural groups receive equal recognition; that being accomplished as a preamble to a just single state?

    And the injustice of land appropriations by Israel which generated the chaos of geography; that is the burning of Palestinian homes and illegal building of Israeli settlements…let that be also demanded. Then may Hope arrive as an exhausted bird; a most unfamiliar plumage on the scene?

    As in the words of the late Arab poet Nazim Hikmet…”Destiny will be changed one day when at the edge of darkness they stand up…it was said, they have nothing to lose but their chains”

    • Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 03/11/2016 - 01:45 pm.

      I’m not sure what your saying although we may be in agreement

      I think large sectors or the Palestinian and Israeli populations are near exhaustion. You sort of get that sense in Jerusalem of a kind of weariness. That in and of itself may create a window of opportunity.

      There are still some things going on under the radar that we hear little about in the US. Israeli, Palestininian dialogue groups, joint schools, and other contacts between individuals and NGO’s. Dialogue is happening, but it seems to be slow going and outside the normal channels of government to government.

      While in Jerusalem, we had an opportunity to talk with both Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. None of them thought a two state territorial solution was possible anymore. What they did think was that a move to a unitary state solution might be possible. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but could offer a way forward. Obviously there are huge risks to Israeli identity in this – the demographics are on the Palestinians side. At some point though the Palestinian population advantage will outstrip Israel’s military and economic advantage anyway,

      I left Israel early October of last year feeling deeply pessimistic about peace prospects. After several months of reading, reflection and talking I feel somewhat more hopeful although I’m not sure why.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/11/2016 - 08:33 pm.


    Ms. Beryl-Knudson, will you please explain to me why Israeli Arabs (who are Palestinians in their own definition) are dead set against their land being transferred to the future Palestinian state? And how about injustice of killing Jews?

    Mr. Brownlow, saying that the West will never do what I suggest is not a proof that my proposal will not work. It is unfortunately not realistic, that is correct, but there are many things in the world that are not realistic due to politics, prejudice, etc. but will work if implemented. Second, of course PA and especially Hamas can stop it; it won’t be pretty but they definitely can use force and do it… let alone they can use their propaganda machine… Third, yes, I firmly believe that a murderer is the only one who is responsible for a murder, the same as the rapist is the only one responsible for a rape regardless of what a woman wears. And finally, talking to Israeli peace activists does not give the actual picture of what is going on in Israel.

    Mr. Maddali, so you are saying that if someone builds a shed on your property, you may shoot that person? It is an interesting legal concept…

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 03/12/2016 - 07:34 am.


      Mr Gutman lets put it this way. You build a shed on another property AND put the residents of that property in a cage for 50 years.

      Israeli Arabs are dead set against transferring because they were part of the original Resolution. How willing would Israel be to rework the entire original Resolution. Why limit your outrage to only those facts that you agree with.

      A murderer is responsible for murder. And an occupier is responsible for an armed occupation. You always omit that part.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/12/2016 - 11:38 am.

        yes, reality

        No, you put a shed on your neighbor’s property and build a high fence after your neighbor tried to kill you and take your property to begin with (along with refusing to claim the rights to his property) and still tries to do it all the time; shed just helps you prevent some of those attempts. As for transfer, I was not talking about people transfer; I was talking about area transfers with people staying where they are now. Why do Israeli Arabs want to be citizens of racist Israel instead of a Palestinian state? And sure, occupier is responsible for occupying: you just omit the fact that Israel took over territory that was unclaimed by intended user to prevent attacks against it.

        • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 03/13/2016 - 12:20 pm.

          more unreality

          Actually, you put a shed on your neighbors property, then put a few more shed. Put your neighbor in a cage, while they fight back. And then pretend the shed is there to protect you from your neighbor, while your’e on HIS land. Why is your shed on HIS land ? Of course you’ll never answer that. Just blame the neighbor.

          Why do Israeli Arabs want to be citizens of racist Israel instead of a Palestinian state? I thought they were equal citizens. Oh wait, never mind. Why don’t you answer the question, that if you want to rework the solution, start from scratch. Rather why choose bits and pieces that are convenient for your narrative.

          And you clearly obsfuscate (i can use a stronger word) the fact that unclaimed land is because your neighbor is in a cage and behind a wall. Yet another wonderful excuse.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/13/2016 - 04:38 pm.

            Reality still

            Of course, I answered why my shed is on his land: Because when the land was divided, he did not claim his portion of the land and tried to get me killed to get my portion of the land (all of that well before I came and built anything there) so I had to build a shed and a fence to protect myself. I think there may be no disagreement with the chain and sequence of events.

            Of course, Arabs are equal citizens of Israel – that is why they want to stay there. And even if they are unequal as they claim, they still think it is better than to be citizens of future Palestinian state (unless they have another reason you did not explain) – a very telling fact which has nothing to do with the original solution (which by the way was rejected by the Arabs and Palestinians right away).

            And of course, I do not obfuscate anything – as I said my neighbor never claimed this land (for a long time, actually) even before I came and actually let others claim it without any complaints (and those others do not claim it anymore).

            • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 03/13/2016 - 06:21 pm.

              Totally Unreal

              He did not claim his portion of the land. Because most of them came from the portion of the land you claim was yours. And then you squatted on even the other portion. With a series of excuses to follow.

              Arabs are not equal citizens of Israel. They are at best fifth class citizens. Even then why should they agree to be tossed around to meet some fanatical objective. And sure the “original solution” was rejected. Could you tell us how many of them were involved/consulted in that “original solution”. Even so none of then loose any rights under any international law.

              Your neigbor never claimed his land because you claimed everything on one side and started occupying what was left on the other side.

              • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/13/2016 - 07:39 pm.

                Real facts

                Let’s talk facts: The UN resolution called for two states: Jewish and Arab. Jews accepted while Arabs did not meaning they refused to claim the land that was supposed to be theirs. Then Jordan and Egypt claimed that land for themselves with no protests from the Palestinians. It is irrelevant who came from where – Israel did not set a foot on that territory until 1967 (so no, I did not start occupying anything on the other side) and no Palestinian state had been claimed by that time. And all the time prior to 1967 and after that Israel was attacked from those territories. All of the above are facts with no opinion or bias infused. Now, you said that the “original solution” was rejected by the Arabs because they were not consulted. Actually, they were – they just didn’t like it. However, it is irrelevant: If you think that they rejected it justifiably, you cannot bring it up now as something Israel has to follow.

                Arabs are equal citizens of Israel by all legal means and no discrimination laws exist in Israel unlike in most Arab countries where Palestinians can’t work or live where they want to… Why would they agree to their land being transferred? Because if they are fifth class citizens of Israel, as you claim, whey would want to be the first class citizens in a Palestinian state – that would be a logical thing to do considering that they would stay in their own houses, wouldn’t it?

                • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 03/13/2016 - 08:04 pm.

                  Fiction Galore.

                  “Jews accepted while Arabs did not meaning they refused to claim the land that was supposed to be theirs.” – Rejection of a resolution does not strip either party of any rights. Your concoction is ABSOLUTE FICTION.

                  A Palestinian state was claimed after 1967 because the Palestinians were willing to accept less.

                  “Arabs because they were not consulted. Actually, they were – they just didn’t like it. ” – Prove that Palestinians were consulted. PROVE IT.

                  “Arabs are equal citizens of Israel by all legal means and no discrimination laws exist in Israel unlike in most Arab countries where Palestinians can’t work or live where they want to…” – Can a Muslim Arab in Israel immigrate his family members by marriage. Or sponsor a Muslim relative ?

                  “that would be a logical thing to do considering that they would stay in their own houses, wouldn’t it?” Or better yet rework the entire solution. Why is it that you get to choose for others.

                  • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/13/2016 - 10:04 pm.

                    Where is the fiction?

                    In my last post, I did not say that rejection of a resolution strips either party of any rights – you attributed this to me. However, not accepting someone’s will and property coming under that may limit future rights… let alone that trying to kill someone to get the entire inheritance will not help the cause. As any UN resolution, Palestine partition resolution was available for review by all members, including all Arab states – that is what I said and there is nothing to prove here. I assume you agree with everything else I said. So where is the fiction here?

                    Immigration is different from domestic laws which I was talking about; plus, Israel was made as a Jewish State (and I just wonder how many Jews are left in Arab countries, let alone allowed to bring in relatives). But of course, the question is why Israeli Arabs would want to bring in their relatives into racist Israel instead of going to live with their relatives in another non-racist country… And you never explained why Israeli Arabs want to live there rather than in a Palestinian state. Neither did you explain your “entire solution” reference. Nor responded to the statement about Palestinians’ rights in the Arab countries. So I never wanted to choose for others – I just wondered about their motives.

  7. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/13/2016 - 10:08 am.

    A Little More Original Intrigue

    This is a tidy retrospection by an influential statesman working with another, Clark Clifford, on memoirs. It’s a most interesting account of contemporaneous official conversations that sets the tone behind American positions on recognition of Israel.
    President Truman’s Decision to Recognize Israel:
    Amb. Richard Holbrooke, May 1, 2008
    (Please, no gratuitous comments on the publication source.)

    “President Truman regarded his Secretary of State, General of the Army George C. Marshall, as “the greatest living American.” Yet the two men were on a collision course over Mideast policy. Marshall firmly opposed American recognition of the new Jewish state.”


    Showdown in the Oval Office: May 12, 1948

    “At 4 p.m. on Wednesday, May 12, a cloudless, sweltering day, we assembled in the Oval Office. President Truman sat at his desk, his back to the bay window overlooking the lawn, his famous THE BUCK STOPS HERE plaque in front of him on his desk.

    “The Wise Men” Oppose U.S. Recognition of Israel

    The Case for a Jewish State

    The Aftermath

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