The Two-State Solution: an Idea Whose Time Has Come?

The ’two-state solution’ is not new. Proposals for partition date back to the British mandate (a Commission Report of 1937) and a 1947 UN General Assembly resolution. They did not survive the Israeli War of Independence. This left Jordan in control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which were then seized by Israel during the 1967 war. Once Jordan relinquished its claim to the occupied lands, the dispute became one between Israelis and Palestinians, aggravated over time as land was taken for Israeli settlements.

Once the Palestinian Liberation Organization under Yaser Arafat managed to acknowledge that Israel was not going to disappear and the Israelis appreciated they could not hold back Palestinian anger and frustration indefinitely, a serious peace process was launched at the start of the 1990s. Through this process the idea of an independent Palestinian state began to take shape. The most mature proposal was tabled by Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency. Martin Indyk, one of Clinton’s negotiating team, has set out what was then on offer:

a Palestinian state in 97 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with mutually agreed swaps of territory that would compensate the Palestinian state for the three percent of West Bank land that Israel would annex, which at that time contained some 80 percent of all the Jewish settlers on Palestinian lands. The Palestinians would have their capital in East Jerusalem, where predominantly Arab suburbs would come under Palestinian sovereignty and predominantly Jewish suburbs under Israeli sovereignty. The two countries would share control of Jerusalem’s so-called Holy Basin, the site of the most important shrines of the three Abrahamic faiths.

For a variety of reasons the final negotiation failed. Indyk puts it down to the difficulty of getting a compromise on who would control Jerusalem and the extent of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The idea of two separate states was opposed by hardline Palestinians, including Hamas, who insisted that a ‘Zionist entity’ had no place in the Middle East and hardline Israelis, who warned that a Palestinian state would spend its time organizing terrorism against Israel.

One lesson from this experience might be that comprehensive deals can require too many compromises all at the same time. Once the compromises are agreed and the peace deal is signed and sealed then disappointment is baked in. A cherished aspiration, such as an unrestricted right of return for all refugees, will be lost forever and that is what the critics will focus upon. It takes a strong leader to explain why a decent deal may be better than a perfect one, especially when the benefits are all in the future and require trusting an old foe. In this case neither leader was strong: the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was facing an election against the hawkish Ariel Sharon, while Arafat feared that he was getting outflanked by Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

It is difficult now to be sure what would have happened if Arafat had signed up to Clinton’s proposals. Implementation would still have been difficult and it would probably have been against a backdrop of continuing violence. All we know is that the aftermath of the failure involved even more intense violence and was deadly for both sides. The Israelis eventually concluded that they could manage without a peace process.

The conditions of the Palestinians deteriorated as Israeli settlements ate into more of the West Bank territory once assigned to the Palestinian Authority (PA), the entity established in 1994, initially as an interim body, to take over control from the Israelis of designated territories. In principle the PA was also in charge of Gaza, but in 2006 here it lost control to Hamas. Hamas built up its military strength and continued to yearn for Israel’s elimination. Other Arab states paid lip-service to the idea of two states (it remained part of the Arab League’s peace plan) but, as they came to doubt that this would ever happen, they decided to move on to a new relationship with Israel, marked by diplomatic recognition and economic cooperation.

The Failure of Netanyahu’s Strategy
Israel became confident that it had achieved a victor’s peace. Since December 2022 the governing coalition, including extremist parties, felt not only able to ignore Palestinian grievances but also to aggravate them. This depended on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s confidence that he had neutered the threat while keeping Palestinians divided, with Hamas controlling Gaza and the PA still in charge in the West Bank. This strategy fell apart when Hamas broke out of its box on 7 October, shocking Israel with the ferocity of its attacks. The government concluded immediately that it could not put Hamas back in the box: instead it had to be eradicated.

The most immediate consequence of this decision was the war that has ripped Gaza apart, and cost so many lives, for almost five months. Hamas may well survive this war politically, though it has lost much of its military capacity. But even if elements of Hamas manage to hang on in Gaza, given the scale of the damage caused by the Israeli campaign, it will be unable to cope with the demands of reconstruction and relief. So the divisions within the Palestinian camp, upon which Netanyahu relied, remain but for now are far less relevant. The full implications of this development, a consequence of how Israel’s war aims were framed, has yet to be fully acknowledged by Netanyahu. By removing one of his best arguments against an independent Palestinian state he has potentially given the idea more credibility. Hamas was never a credible partner in a peace process: now the starting point for any discussions of ‘the day after’ is how Gaza is to be governed without Hamas.

The Day After
Netanyahu’s political position is fragile as he depends on right-wing and religious extremists to keep his coalition in power. Because of this he has struggled to articulate a coherent vision for the day after. The gap was filled by those in the west and in the region who expect to be asked to do the heavy lifting when it comes to putting Gaza together. These are the countries that have always hankered after two states as the only desirable objective for any peace process. Biden made his view clear a few weeks into the war, on 29 October: ’There has to be a vision for what comes next. And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution.’ He has repeated this a number of times since. And, as already noted, outside of Israel there is a remarkable unanimity that this really is the only way forward.

The Palestinian Authority has argued that the international community can recognize a Palestinian state without having to wait for Israeli approval. This possibility was even raised by British Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron at the end of January when he spoke of the need to show the Palestinian people ‘irreversible progress’ towards a two-state solution.

As that happens, we - with allies - will look at the issue of recognizing a Palestinian state, including at the United Nations. ‘That could be one of the things that helps to make this process irreversible.

The Israeli government is therefore well aware that this idea has acquired some momentum. Two days before the G20 meeting, the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, pre-empted its conclusion with 99 out of its 120 members voting to oppose any ‘unilateral’ recognition of a Palestinian state. The vote did not exactly preclude a move in this direction but it did insist that any new accord with the Palestinians be achieved through direction negotiation, though no direct negotiations were actually proposed.

While there are risks in opposing Israel’s major ally on this matter, especially given that Biden has used up a lot of political capital opposing a premature cease-fire that might leave Hamas in position, one can already see Netanyahu campaigning to stay in power as the man best placed to prevent a Palestinian state, even if this means even more arguments with allies. Certainly most Israelis think this is a dreadful idea, as rewarding terrorism and, instead of creating the foundations for peace, would set the conditions for an even deeper conflict. They assume that a Palestinian state would be irredeemably hostile to Israel and use its independence to build up its armed forces. It should be noted that there is not a lot of enthusiasm among Palestinians for the idea. Its past associations with a failed process mean that talk of its revival encourages cynicism. It appears as a way of talking about grand visions that are bound to be contradicted by a meagre reality.

Netanyahu’s proposals on the future governance of Gaza, which only emerged after four months of war, are sketchy, and barely address Palestinian concerns. He does not explicitly rule out a role for the Palestinian Authority, although it does not get a mention. There is just a suggestion that Gaza could be run by ‘local officials’ with ‘administrative experience’, with no ties to ‘countries or entities that support terrorism.’ This of course depends on how terrorism is defined and some Israeli definitions are very broad.

Netanyahu’s problem is that the other elements of his plan, including those that are intended to enhance Israel’s future security, require cooperation from others. He wants Israel to take control of the Philadelphi corridor along the Egypt-Gaza border, which is a major smuggling route. But this will be opposed by Egypt as a violation of its sovereignty, so any arrangement would have to be agreed with Egypt. Another proposal is for ‘deradicalization’ measures for Gazans, with a suggestion that the Saudis can help in this. Israel has put a lot of effort into discrediting UNRWA (UN Refugees and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees) because some of its staff were involved in the 7 October massacre, but privately Israeli officials acknowledge that nobody else can distribute aid.

The amounts required to rebuild what its forces have destroyed are enormous (at least $50 billion) and donors will expect a say in how funds are used and the nature of the government that will administer it. And in all aspects of the conflict – diplomatic, military, and economic – Israel depends on American support. There are already many tensions in the relationship that will if anything become greater over time – Israel is moving forward on taking Palestinian territory in northern Gaza to establish a new security buffer zone yet the US position is that there should be no reduction in Gaza’s borders. It intends the Israeli Defense Forces to maintain an indefinite freedom to operate throughout the entire Strip but this could soon interfere with the work of resettlement and reconstruction.

In short, Israel has in mind a security heavy and politically light approach to Gaza. But all the partners they need to prevent Gaza descending into utter chaos and even greater misery cannot agree to measures that do not involve an authentic Palestinian voice, and with Hamas shut down and the Palestinian Authority thus far ignored, that is lacking. Any community leaders appointed by Israel will have no legitimacy. This is why all those Israel needs to help addressing the next stage of this conflict have the ‘two-state solution’ at the center of their thinking. Whether or not it is realistic it captures the thought that Palestinians must be given some hope of a better future in which they have regained control of their destinies.

A Solution to What Problem?
The idea of an independent Palestinian state refuses to die therefore because nobody can think of a better alternative. The one state solution envisaged by the Israeli right is closer to being achieved than the one envisaged by Hamas, but, as has been painfully demonstrated, it can in no way be considered a recipe for peaceful coexistence. Once the fighting finishes Israel will be unable to duck the issue of Palestinian rights and self-determination.

Yet there are reasons for caution in making this the centerpiece of the next stage of Middle Eastern diplomacy. The difficulties come not so much with the talk of ‘two states’, because that is a reasonable aspiration, but of a ‘solution’. A solution to what problem?

It would be one thing if the Palestinian Authority was already a state in everything but name, ready to govern once recognized. But it is not. It lacks the capabilities and competence  to govern on its own. It has a geriatric leadership that enjoys little respect among Palestinians. A Palestinian presence in central government is vital, and only the PA is really available, but as of now it is not even fit for even the limited role that it may need to play in the coming months. A start on a reform process was made with the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on 26 February. A new government, he stated, was needed to ’take into account the emerging reality in the Gaza Strip, the national unity talks, and the urgent need for an inter-Palestinian consensus’, and to extend the PA’s ‘authority over the entire land, Palestine.’ There is a long way to go.

Preparing for statehood is an even bigger deal and that will take much longer and be a major endeavor. There will need to be detailed discussions of the mechanics of state-building, including constitutional arrangements, financial models, civil service recruitment and training, police forces and judiciary, and so on. The institutions and personnel needed to support a new state are simply not there and they will take time to develop.

The comeback to this is that I am being too literal and everyone knows that statehood will not happen immediately. What is important is that the goal is established. But to set goals without being sure how they are going to be reached is a recipe for disappointment and disillusion, which is why so many Palestinians already view this talk skeptically. Meanwhile the short-term is full of urgent problems and if these are not addressed adequately then the options for future political arrangements will be narrowed rather than expanded. Addressing these urgent problems will require actions that in many aspects will inevitably be short-term and expedient.

Those who have been displaced by the fighting will want to return to their homes, if they still exist, and where necessary homes will need to be repaired/rebuilt, along with hospitals, schools, and other public buildings. There are serious concerns about public health. The funding for all of this will need to be raised and then distributed. Measures will be required to revive the local economy. All this will need to be done in ways that do not – and can be shown to not - facilitate corruption or once again allow military facilities to hide in civilian sites. Israel wants Gaza to be demilitarized but leaving aside the possibility of armed militias reforming there will be general law and order issues to be addressed. Might this require external peace-keepers? And then there are all the issues connected with the conditions of Palestinian life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The decisions that will be made on the future of Gaza, and by extension on the future of Israel and the West Bank, over the coming weeks and months will shape the possibilities for the future. Out of this might come the conditions for an independent and viable Palestinian state but they might not. Those countries that would like to make this a reality would do well to concentrate on addressing the many challenges of the here and now. The risk at the moment is of Gaza descending into more anarchy and chaos.

An International Conference
There is no point waiting for Netanyahu to navigate his way through the conflicting pressures of his governing coalition or for the moment when he declares that the ‘day after’ has arrived, or even when he is ejected from office by the Israeli electorate. Hamas is also putting conditions in the way of a cease-fire, and even if a formal cease-fire is agreed the situation is still going to be tense and edgy for some time. Meanwhile the situation in the Strip is becoming more desperate. The resort to air drops to get relief is a measure of the desperation as much as a sensible way of distributing aid.

The idea of an international conference has been around for some time. There is a sort of precedent when the George H Bush administration got frustrated with the Israelis in 1991 and decided to call a peace conference in Madrid, which they pressured the Israelis to attend by threatening to withhold aid. This then got caught up with the 1992 election campaign and Bush’s eventual defeat. There is a risk this could happen again, although a broader range of sponsors would help mitigate against over-dependence upon the US. The PA has called for something similar for some time but too large a gathering would be unwieldy. The EU has proposed a ‘Preparatory Peace Conference’, with the aim of developing proposals for a ‘components of a comprehensive regional peace’, that is the two-state solution.

The ‘two-state solution’ is the wrong place to start, not because it is unacceptable in principle but because it belies the urgency of the situation. An international conference on the future of Gaza should certainly be called as soon as possible by the leading Western and Arab states. The Israeli government and the PA, along with relevant international agencies, would need to be present. The aim, however, would not be to draft a communique on a peace process, or to start considering the mechanisms of Palestinian statehood, but to hammer out plans to address the big and immediate issues of relief, reconstruction, governance, and security. Out of that a peace process might and hopefully would emerge. Without it a serious peace process will be even less likely. What is possible in the long-term depends on the management of the short-term.

Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. The article originally appeared on Lawrence Freedman’s Substack “Comment is Freed.”