The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beneath the conflict in Gaza lies the death of the two-state solution

Smoke from an Israeli strike rises over the Gaza Strip on July 25. Israeli warplanes struck houses throughout the Gaza Strip as international efforts continue to broker a cease fire in the 18-day-old war. (Hatem Moussa/AP)

It is not that controversial to suggest that the two-state solution — the mantra intoned for decades now by U.S. politicians when speaking of peace between Israelis and Palestinians — is dead. Indeed, a flurry of recent articles and commentary have all said as much.

But as we watch the conflict in Gaza, it's easy to forget the shadow cast by the lapsed peace process. For more than two weeks, the Israeli military has pummeled the Gaza Strip, home to the militant group Hamas, which has been firing rockets into Israel. Caught in the warzone are 1.8 million Palestinians living in the cramped, impoverished territory. The resulting carnage has inflamed tensions, led to protests in the West Bank and suggestions that we may see the start of a Third Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

A recent Pew poll shows there is deepening pessimism among Israelis and Arabs about whether they can co-exist peacefully side by side.

Mounting Pessimism about Israeli-Palestinian Peace

According to initial reports on Friday, the Israeli cabinet, confident in its strength of arms, rejected a U.S.-proposed ceasefire. Even if a ceasefire comes into effect, the anguish and bitterness of the current moment would underscore how distant the prospect of a separate, viable Palestinian state is -- an illusory goal that has driven U.S.-led talks for years, despite the steady accumulation of facts on the ground that would militate against it.

Here are some reasons the tw0-state solution as we know it is dead, all of which echo in the latest tragic round of fighting.

Hamas is dominating the conversation

The Islamist organization whose militant wing is now locked in combat with Israel, alongside some other jihadist outfits, has never had any real interest in the two-state solution. As Israelis often point out, its founding charter shows no acceptance of the right of Israel to exist. And Hamas's refusal to renounce violence -- something the PLO of the late Yasser Arafat and current Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has done -- keeps it firmly in the crosshairs of Israel's vast security apparatus.

The threat posed by Hamas to Israeli civilians is, in the rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others in his government, the original sin justifying all offensive Israeli action, including missile strikes, shelling and ground incursions into the Gaza Strip that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

Earlier this year, Hamas was on its knees: It had lost allies abroad, was desperately short of funds and faced mounting anger in Gaza, the territory it controls and rules. The group buried the hatchet with Abbas's Fatah party in the West Bank and joined a unity government -- but the Israelis, as Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group writes, were opposed to that pact and made it virtually impossible for Hamas to pay the salaries of more than 40,000 public employees working in Gaza, whose economy has been hollowed out by Israeli and Egyptian blockades. "Hamas is now seeking through violence what it couldn’t obtain through a peaceful handover of responsibilities," writes Thrall, referring to the present fighting.

Hamas is an institution built to resist Israeli occupation and thrives in such adversarial circumstances. Previous Israeli campaigns have exacted a punishing toll, particularly on civilians, but Hamas has withstood the offensives, cynically gaining in propaganda as bodies pile up around it. All the while, as my colleagues wrote  this month, Abbas and the Palestinian establishment — those seeking an independent Palestinian state through dialogue — appear more enfeebled and irrelevant.

Israel doesn't think it needs a separate Palestinian state to feel safe

Netanyahu himself signaled clearly  this month that the two-state solution was off the table. In a speech discussing the current Operation Protective Edge, he made this stark pronouncement: "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan."

This would mean that any Palestinian state in the West Bank would still functionally exist under occupation, a non-starter for the Palestinians as well as those in the international community pushing for a lasting peace.

But Israeli concerns revolve entirely around the question of security, and its hawkish government appears to think a satisfying resolution can be found militarily. They repeatedly raise the comparative argument: Would your government allow militants to lob lethal rockets onto its citizens? As Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., wrote today in The Washington Post, "war must be given a chance" to root out Hamas. There is strong support for this point of view in Israeli society, which has moved markedly toward the right since the 1993 Oslo accords that were supposed to pave the way for a two-state solution.

Amira Hass, a left-wing Israeli journalist, sums up the bleak calculus:

Gaza and the West Bank are cut off. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, but under conditions that we dictate, just as Fatah and the [Abbas's Palestinian Authority] "rule" in their pockets in the West Bank, in accordance with our conditions. If the Palestinians need to be tamed at times, we will tame them with blood and with more blood. And peace be upon Israel.

The settlements are here to stay

Despite being considered illegal under international law, the construction of settlements in the West Bank has continued apace during Netanyahu's tenure in  office. Settlers form a key constituency for some of the parties in Netanyahu's ruling coalition, and have led to the rise of far-right politicians like Naftali Bennett, who rejects the idea of an independent Palestinian state.

The settlements are scattered all over the West Bank, as well as in East Jerusalem — which the Palestinians would want as the capital of their independent state — and would pose a permanent challenge to the territorial integrity of a Palestinian state. The Israelis framed their actions as counter-measures to the Palestinians' quixotic bids for recognition at the U.N., a symbolic status that speaks to how little leverage Abbas and his negotiators actually have.

Much to the ire of the Obama administration, Netanyahu's government expanded settlement construction even as peace talks were ongoing. And they unveiled plans to build in areas away from the established "blocks" of settlements that sit not far from the Green Line, the border demarcating the West Bank and Israel. The new planned settlements would likely be occupied by deeply religious Jews who see all the land in the West Bank, home to 2.5 million Palestinians, as belonging to Israel.

The Israelis say that the settlements don't preclude a two-state solution and that withdrawal of some settlers and land swaps elsewhere could yield a viable Palestinian state. (It would remain demilitarized, with Israeli military control over its borders up to Jordan.) But the political will to actually achieve that kind of agreement is nowhere to be seen.

Martin Indyk,  lead U.S. mediator in the last failed round of talks, quit his post in part out of frustration with Israel's "sabotage" of the process with its expansion of settlements, which he said "are doing great damage to Israel's future."

As Dan Drezner noted last week, when even the Americans realize that the process is going nowhere, then you know it's in bad shape. He cites a lengthy piece in the New Republic on Secretary of State John Kerry's nine-month mission to find an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. “I think we have some period of time in one to one-and-a-half to two years or it’s over," Kerry is quoted saying at a House hearing.

"Well," as Drezner writes, "it's over." And now the much harder question of how to deal with the occupation and the rights of millions of Palestinians — as well as Israel's growing political alienation on the international stage — will need to be pondered all over again in Washington.