The notion that Israelis and Palestinians can share the Holy Land living in separate, independent nations has been a seductive goal for eight decades. The vision drove on-and-off peace talks for more than 20 years. The latest round foundered in 2014, giving way to a growing sentiment that the two-state solution was dead. But if not two states, then what? An enlarged Jewish state in which Palestinians are less than equal? One with Arabs and Jews living together in a state that is no longer Jewish? Anyone have a better idea?

The Situation

U.S. President Donald Trump has said he’d like to broker a peace agreement, but a number of decisions favoring Israel in the conflict — beginning with his 2017 recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — has alienated the Palestinians, who claim the city’s eastern sector for their future capital. Trump has said he’s not committed to the idea of a Palestinian state, a goal of American diplomacy for two decades, although he’d support one if both sides agreed to it. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said a Palestinian state “would endanger” Israel’s existence. He’s vowed to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, land Palestinians hope to make part of a future state. About 130 government-approved settlements and 100 unofficial ones are home to some 400,000 Israelis in the West Bank, where an estimated 2.6 million Palestinians live. The U.S. in late 2019 reversed its position on Israeli settlements, saying they did not violate international law. In the absence of progress toward independence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to abandon previously signed peace accords with Israel and has cut off high-level contacts with the U.S. According to polls, 35% of Israelis supported the concept of a two-state solution in March, and 42% of Palestinians backed it in December. 

The Background

The two-state solution dates to the 1937 Peel Commission, which recommended partition of what was then British Mandatory Palestine to stop Arab-Jewish violence. The United Nations embraced a different partition plan in 1947, but the Arabs rejected both, leading to Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 and the first Arab-Israeli war. That period produced more than half a million Palestinian refugees who either fled or were expelled from their homes. In a 1967 war, Israel captured, among other Arab territories, the Gaza Strip, West Bank and east Jerusalem, putting residents under military occupation, which fanned Palestinian nationalism. After a Palestinian uprising that began in 1987 claimed more than 1,200 Palestinian and 200 Israeli lives, secret negotiations produced the landmark 1993 Oslo accords. As an interim measure, Palestinians gained limited self-rule under an entity called the Palestinian Authority. The occupation, Israeli settlement building and violence continued, however, as the two sides repeatedly failed to resolve issues standing in the way of a promised final agreement that presumably would establish a Palestinian state. A second Palestinian uprising, from 2000 to 2005, was especially bloody. Most countries already recognize Palestine as a state, but that hasn’t changed things on the ground: Israel has ultimate control over the territory. Stumbling blocks in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations included where to draw borders, how to share Jerusalem, and the status of Palestinian refugees. Israel acted alone in 2005, withdrawing its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip, while largely sealing the frontier and later imposing a blockade after the militant group  Hamas wrested control of the territory from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Gaza subsequently became a launchpad for rockets and mortars into Israel. 

The Argument

Supporters of Netanyahu’s annexation proposal say Israelis have a right to remain permanently in the West Bank, which they call by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria — the cradle of Jewish civilization. Critics say annexing the settlements would make it all but impossible for the Palestinians to have a viable state. If Israel ultimately took full control over more Palestinians in the West Bank, it would have to choose between offering them citizenship — diluting the country’s Jewish majority — or keeping them stateless, reinforcing accusations of apartheid. If it did offer them citizenship in a democratic binational state, elections would determine who controls the government. While a growing number of Palestinians favor this approach, few Israelis do. Jews would outnumber Arabs in such a state today but barely, and perhaps not for long given the likely return of Palestinian refugees and the higher Arab birth rate. For Jews to be a minority would defeat the purpose of creating the world’s only Jewish state. No one particularly champions perpetuation of the status quo. In the absence of progress toward two states or a sound alternative, however, that looks to be the most likely outcome for the foreseeable future.

The Reference Shelf

• An article in Foreign Affairs on the one-state solution.

• A Council on Foreign Relations blog post on the future of the two-state solution.

• A commentary in The Forward argues that two states would serve Israel as well as the Palestinians.

• An article in The American Interest on the demise of the two-state solution.

• Related QuickTakes on Israeli settlements, the issue of annexing them to Israel, the battle over Jerusalem, Hamas, Palestinian refugees and the Golan Heights. 

To contact the author of this QuickTake: Amy Teibel in Jerusalem at ateibel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net

First published May 7, 2015

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