The Two-State Solution: The Only Path for the Israelis and the Palestinians?
Excluded at the creation, rejected repeatedly over the years, dismissed even now as a possibility, the “two-state solution” — long the deadest of dead letters — would seem the only path for the Israelis and the Palestinians in this latest and bloodiest breakdown in their relations.
As the world watches in agony — who can look away? — Israel has returned fire for the horrific atrocities inflicted on it in the October 7th cross-border raid conducted by Hamas, the extremist Islamist group, which left 1,400 Israeli dead in kibbutzim across southern Israel, with 240 taken hostage. Now, after conducting thousands of preliminary air strikes in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are engaged in urban warfare to capture Hamas fighters hiding among the citizenry. In just a month of this Israel-Hamas war, the collateral death toll is staggering: Per U.N. estimates, 10,500 Palestinians have been killed, including over 4,000 children.
Understandably, the Israeli government categorically refuses to deal with Hamas in future as the representative of Gaza’s two million Palestinians. For its part, Hamas vows to repeat the atrocities of October 7th “a second, a third, a fourth” time and calls for Israel’s “extermination.” Senior Hamas official Ghazi Hamad vows, “We must annihilate that country, because for the Arab and Islamic world it constitutes a disaster.”
Clearly, the status quo is no more; it is untenable, in ruins. Where will this go? Quo vadis?
Reviewing recent Israeli-Palestinian history, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, writes:
“Israel was created precisely out of a sense that a tiny and persecuted population, following centuries of violence culminating in the Holocaust, could no longer endure the precarity of exile. More than any event in Israeli history, the massacre of October 7th shattered the country’s sense of protection. At the same time, the Palestinians of Gaza, after years of Israeli siege and blockade, and immiserating misrule by Hamas, live in a state of excruciating loss and fear; the Palestinians of the West Bank continue to live under an unbearable occupation that has lately grown so intimidating and violent that there is frequent talk in the territories of a ‘second Nakba’” [in Arabic, the “catastrophe” of Palestinian displacement].
To free Israel of the aforementioned occupier role that followed from its own creation in 1948, and to allow the Palestinians to live free and not as refugees in their home territories of Gaza and the West Bank, these two peoples would be best separated into two states — Israel and Palestine — to function as self-governing entities, with the Palestinians free of Hamas. Yet even a long-time Israel observer like Remnick pronounces the two-state solution a “nostalgic fantasy.”
Fantasy it may be, but it also may be — with the prospect of many thousands more dead, Gaza reduced to rubble, and, horrible thought, war igniting throughout the region — the only practical solution.
Tellingly, a recent roundtable conference conducted by the Israeli think-tank Mitvim treated the two-state solution as the only possible outcome — as a given — for “the day after” this current war ends, even as it now escalates into who-knows-what levels of death and destruction. The two-state solution is also, tellingly, invoked more and more often by talking heads in the media.
But will it surface in the councils of war? Not likely. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arch-conservative, has never been an advocate of the two-state solution, even less so with his present far-right extremist cabinet. And just now, Netanyahu announced Israel will exercise “overall security responsibility” for Gaza “for an indefinite period” after the war ends, which may foreclose a two-state solution. Meanwhile, he does little to rein in his extremist ministers (one actually suggested nuking Gaza!) or rein in the settlers in the West Bank who attack and kill Palestinians: over 110 since October 7th. Along with Hamas’ vow to exterminate Israel, opposition to a two-state solution at present comes from leaders with every interest in keeping this conflict going.
But: An idea whose time has come is galvanically powerful, not to be refuted. Especially if the idea proposed is the only workable option in an otherwise impossible-to-be-break impasse and especially if, again, this impasse threatens a wider regional war or, even more horrible, threatens war beyond, with the U.S. forced to engage. At that far-gone point, the two-state solution would suddenly become very workable, take on new utility.
Already, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are raising the two-state option. In Mr. Biden’s in-country visit with Netanyahu, “the President,” per the White House readout, “emphasized the need to….maintain the viability of a two-state solution, and promote a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” More recently the President stated: “When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next. And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution.” He consistently distinguishes the Palestinians from Hamas. In phone calls to Netanyahu, Mr. Biden has underscored Israel’s right to self-defense consistent with international law, urged humanitarian aid to Gaza, and urged Netanyahu to hold “extremist settlers accountable for violent acts.” Secretary Blinken, in his fourth visit to the region, stated:
“The United States continues to believe that the best viable path — indeed, the only path — is through a two-state solution. That’s the only guarantor of a secure, Jewish, and democratic Israel; the only guarantor of Palestinians realizing their legitimate right to live in a state of their own, enjoying equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity, and dignity; the only way to end a cycle of violence once and for all.”
How do the Israeli and Palestinian people feel about a two-state solution? According to The Economist, among Israelis, in a September 2022 poll, only 32% supported it, down from 47% five years earlier. “Support has plummeted even further among Palestinians. A survey in June 2023….found that just 28% still support a two-state solution,” while 53% did ten years earlier. And now, with a grinding war, those approval levels may drop further, also harden.
But I hold out more hope for the Israeli public. Impressively, in this war’s early days, citizens criticized the “extremist” Netanyahu for leading Israel down the wrong path. In one poll, 80% said Netanyahu must take responsibility for the October 7th failures. Those voices are quieter now, as the war becomes more consuming, but postwar…? The Israeli commentariat has throughout this war been highly critical of Netanyahu (also here and here). And the Israeli protest movement, which mounted historic and formidable pushback to Netanyahu’s attempts to weaken the judiciary, also Israel’s democracy: It has shifted focus, since war began, to doing what the ineffective government can’t, like providing food and shelter for displaced Israelis and tracking the hostages, but postwar…?
Might the two-state solution be the idea that guides a grand reckoning in Israel…?
Palestinian lawyer Hiba Husseini holds out hope, too. Speaking of the Palestinian people in general, Ms. Husseini says:
“Opinion on the street responds to what is happening. The mood reflects the moment, and now the moment is very dark. But if we have a horizon where we can see an endgame, the mood will change.”
How to get to that new “horizon”? Ideas are the bailiwick of the commentariat: Were commentators to take up the call for a two-state solution, as Guardian columnists did recently (here, here, and here), a new horizon might come into view. Likewise the media’s talking heads: Invoking the two-state solution as a given to an otherwise intractable war gives momentum to the idea. Likewise world leaders: U.K. prime minister Rishi Sunak and French president Emmanuel Macron have voiced support of the two-state solution, as has the European Union. And so has the former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.
If these idea-shaping mechanisms seem slender reeds upon which to build hope, observe how powerfully public opinion is affecting, even driving, the Israel-Hamas war. After the October 7th massacre, world opinion was strongly pro-Israel. But now, with the IDF’s incursion in Gaza and the resulting mass casualties among Palestinian civilians, world opinion has shifted to the Palestinian cause. It could shift again. Opinions change, pushed by ideas and optics.
Moreover, a drumbeat for the two-state solution might temper the hideous rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia expressed around the world, notably on college campuses. Properly presented, the two-state solution, being a both-and proposition — where both sides win — could overcome, even expand to embrace, the either-or of nationalist emotion, where only one side can win and the other side must lose.
“Never again”: This was the vow of the Jews, indeed the world, after the terrors of the Holocaust in World War II. But to listen to Israeli Jews following the October 7th massacre, those same terrors, and the pogroms of earlier times, now haunt again. On the Palestinian side, the world has heard ample testimony of blighted lives endured under decades of occupation. No more, enough; it’s truly untenable.
To the two-state solution — where both sides win. To a New Day in the Middle East.