The no-solution limbo of the Israel–Palestine conflict
The fall of the two-state solution has been long in the making, but neither Israel, the Palestinians nor the international community has a plan B. While there are no good options in sight all actors involved need to have a serious debate about what the current deadlock means and how we can understand the absence of a viable path forward.
The apartheid paradigm
In 2021 and 2022 all three of the leading human rights organizations working on Israel-Palestine (B’Tselem 2021; Human Rights Watch 2021; Amnesty International 2022) accused Israel of being an apartheid state. The character of Israel had not changed prior to this discursive shift, but the hope that perpetual occupation would end had dwindled. The three organizations concluded that the two-solution was no longer viable. The problem is that while the apartheid paradigm might be an apt descriptor of the current state of affairs it does nothing to provide a way out of the conflict.
Prior to the rise of the apartheid paradigm the diplomatic community and the human rights community had generally agreed on the basic premises of the conflict. The human rights organizations were more vocally critical of specific Israeli politics, but their assessment of the overall situation was the same. This is no longer the case. Diplomats and politicians insist that Israel is a democracy temporarily occupying the Palestinian territories, while these human rights organizations point out that the occupation is a core part of Israel and that between the river and the sea, for the foreseeable future, there is only the Israeli regime.
The international consensus
Over seven decades have passed since Israel was established, and over five decades since Israel started its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East-Jerusalem. Israel has since then made peace with two of its neighbours, Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), and developed diplomatic relations with multiple Arab states through the Abraham Accords (2020). Yet, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is unresolved and further away from a solution than ever.
The international consensus is that peace between Israel and the Palestinians should amount to a two-state solution, based on the land for peace formula developed in UN Security Council Resolution 242 (UN 1967). Resolution 242 did not explicitly mention the Palestinians, but with self-determination as the international norm there was no way around that two states, meaning a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The exact details of the international consensus are not set in stone, but the core themes are:
Borders: The June 1967 lines with mutual agreed land-swaps.
Jerusalem: The city should be the capitol of both states.
Refugees: A “just solution”, implying a combination of return, resettlement, compensation and a recognition of the cause for their suffering.
Mutual recognition: Israel recognizes the Palestinian state, and the Palestinian state recognizes Israel.
In the 1993 Oslo accords mutual recognition was partially addressed. The PLO recognized Israel, but Israel only recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative for the Palestinians. There was no Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. The idea, according to the optimist view of Oslo, was to start with that as a first phase and then move towards solving the other issues in due time, as “final status issues” (Waage 2004).
The end of the peace process
Almost thirty years have passed since the Oslo agreement. Not only has the Oslo timetable collapsed, but so has the entire premise on which it was built. The blow-by-blow death of the peace process is a tragedy in many acts, but an up-to-date status report is warranted.
Of the above-listed issues the refugee question was the first to be abandoned by the international community. On the border question, the Israeli settlements embody the death of the two-state solution. While settlements in Gaza were dismantled in 2005 the settlements in the West Bank and East-Jerusalem have grown year by year. When the Oslo treaty was signed there were about 200.000 settlers. Today they number well over 600.000 (B’Tselem 2019). The settlements themselves, the infrastructure supporting them and the Israeli security installations such as checkpoints and the wall, have reduced the land accessible to the Palestinians to 50% of the West Bank (UN 2007). The remaining Palestinian areas are fractured islands in Israeli controlled territory meaning that there is no room for a viable Palestinian state. While the international community has expressed its displeasure at such a development there are few indications that there is a will to pressure Israel out of these areas.
In Jerusalem Israel has since 1967 had a policy of annexation, refusing to cede control of any parts of the city. This policy was further cemented during the Trump years as his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the entire city emboldened Israeli politics (Landler 2017). The increasing Israeli pushes to move Palestinians out of East-Jerusalem neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah are the latest examples of this process. Here too the international community voices its displeasure but no policies are enacted to change the Israeli course.
Palestinian society is fractured along political, geographical, and generational divides. Between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority running the semi-autonomous areas in the West Bank and the Hamas run Gaza Strip; between the refugees and the non-refugees; between the youth and the methuselah leadership. The Israeli paradigm that “we have nobody to talk to” has become correct, not because Palestinian leaders have radicalized, but because they have ceased to be representative of the people they claim to lead. They have become increasingly authoritarian and corrupt. The failure of Palestinian democratic leadership can best be illustrated by the decision to cancel parliamentary and presidential elections yet again in 2021 (Toameh 2021). Despite this the international community has persisted in pouring money into the Palestinian institutions because they are seen as pillars of stability and carriers of a future peace process. A growing body of literature criticizes such aid, but the donor community sees no other options (e.g. Tartir, Dana and Seidel 2021; Le More 2008).
The writing is on the wall, and it has been for a long time. Past politicians have warned of a closing window of opportunity. US Secretary of State John Kerry famously warned, in 2013: “We’re running out of time. We’re running out of possibilities. And let’s be clear: If we do not succeed now […] we may not get another chance. […] We will find ourselves in a negative spiral of responses and counter-responses that could literally slam the door on a two-state solution” (Kerry 2013). That last chance passed almost a decade ago, yet no recalibration of policy has occurred. Instead, we see a policy passivity matched with a blind insistence that there is only one solution, and we are working towards it.
Who wants what one-state?
On the ground, in Palestine, faith in that solution has dwindled drastically. At the height of the peace process 80% of Palestinians supported a two-state solution. Today that has dropped to 40%. Support for a one-state solution now stands at 33% (Shikaki 2018; Shikaki and Scheindlin 2021). The plummeting support for a two-state solution and the gradually growing support for a one-state solution is an indication of a crisis which the current political leadership, whether in Israel, Palestine or abroad, are not willing to address.
There are multiple suggestions for alternative solutions, such as a confederation (Beilin 2015; Hirschfeld 2016; Scheindlin 2020) or renewed engagement with other non-partition approaches to Palestine (Farsakh 2021). All of these are purely theoretical prospects. Comparatively speaking, asking Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories is easy. Asking Israel to give up sovereign monopoly over the territory as a whole (as per the confederation solution) or the Jewish character of the state (as per a one state solution) is a completely different ball game. This should be the big question for the international community going forward: If the two-solution is truly the goal, then what must be done to get us there?
If core international actors such as the US and EU are not willing to pressure Israel to end the occupation, then they should stop pretending that they are actually invested in a two-state solution. The absence of viable alternatives is not an excuse, rather, it should be a rallying call for the urgency of pushing for a political solution they insist is the only one. UN Security Council resolution 2334 (UN 2016), which insisted on a clear differentiation policy between Israel and the occupied territories, could have been the mechanism to start such a pressure-campaign. That moment was squandered, overtaken by the Trump years which emboldened the annexationist thinking in Israel, highlighting that the EU and other international actors were not willing to lead without the US.
Amnesty International, “Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: a cruel system of domination and a crime against humanity”, 1 February 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/02/israels-apartheid-against...
Beilin, Yossi, “Confederation Is the Key to Mideast Peace”, New York Times, 14 May 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/15/opinion/yossi-beilin-a-confederation-...
B’Tselem, “Statistics on Settlements and Settler Population”, updated 2019, https://www.btselem.org/settlements/statistics
B’Tselem, “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid”, 12 January 2021, https://www.btselem.org/publications/fulltext/202101_this_is_apartheid
Farsakh, Leila H. (ed), Rethinking Statehood in Palestine Self-Determination and Decolonization Beyond Partition, University of California Press 2021.
Hirschfeld, Yair, “An Israeli-Palestinian Confederation: A viable alternative for the ‘two states solution’?”, 2016, Friedrich Naumann Stiftung.
Human Rights Watch, “A Threshold Crossed Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution”, 27 April 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/04/27/threshold-crossed/israeli-authorit...
Kerry, John, “Remarks at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum”, 13 June 20213, https://2009-2017.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2013/06/210236.htm
Landler, Mark, “Trump Recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital and Orders U.S. Embassy to Move”, The New York Times, 6 December 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/06/world/middleeast/trump-jerusalem-isra...
Le More, Ann, International Assistance to the Palestinians after Oslo: Political guilt, wasted money, Routledge 2008.
Scheindlin, Dahlia, “The Confederation Alternative for Israel and Palestine”, The Century Foundation, 3 February 2020, https://tcf.org/content/report/confederation-alternative-israel-palestine/
Shikaki, Khalil, “Do Palestinians Still Support the Two-State Solution?”, Foreign Affairs, 12 September 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2018-09-12/do-palest...
Shikaki, Khalil and Dahlia Scheindlin, “Palestinian-Israeli Pulse: A Joint Poll (2016-2018) Final Report, https://pcpsr.org/en/node/742
Tartir, Alaa; Tariq Dana and Timothy Seidel (eds.), Political Economy of Palestine Critical, Interdisciplinary, and Decolonial Perspectives, Palgrave MacMillan 2021.
Toameh, Khaled Abu, “Abbas: Palestinian elections postponed after Israel blocks Jerusalem vote”, The Jerusalem Post, 30 April 2021, https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/abbas-israel-said-no-to-pale...
UN Security Council Resolution 242, 22 November 1967, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/240/94/PDF/NR0240...
UN, “World Bank Technical Team: Movement and Access Restrictions in the West Bank: Uncertainty and Inefficiency in the Palestinian Economy”, 9 May 2007, https://www.un.org/unispal/document/auto-insert-209464/
UN Security Council Resolution 2334, 23 December 2016, https://www.un.org/webcast/pdfs/SRES2334-2016.pdf
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