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

The current situation could be politically perilous for Israel, which some believe could lead it right back to a two-state solution.

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

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. 

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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.

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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.