One, Two or Three States: What Future For the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?
A growing chorus of Israeli, Palestinian and international voices are questioning whether a two-state framework for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still applicable given the current realities on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Nineteen years since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 and notwithstanding a massive international effort towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state, a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still a distant and by no means guaranteed outcome. The two-state framework, based on a partition of the land and the creation of a yet-to-be defined Palestinian state living side by side with Israel is by far the most accepted outcome for the conflict. It is endorsed by the great majority of domestic and international players and according to opinion polls still enjoys a sizable majority among the respective Israeli and Palestinian communities.
Peace negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority (PA) reached a complete deadlock in 2008 and no significant contact between the parties has occurred since September 2010. Major disagreements persist on all of the so-called ‘final status issues’ – borders, Jerusalem, security arrangements, water, and the Palestinian refugee problem – and, most recently, new conditions are being invoked by both sides which are further complicating the task of resuming negotiations. While the Palestinians insist on a complete halt to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, Israel is showing no inclination to meet such a demand and is instead requesting a Palestinian recognition of the ‘Jewish character’ of Israel in order for talks to resume.
Reflecting the Palestinian lack of trust in the current Israeli government’s professed commitment to the two-state solution, the PA is advancing its request for an upgrade in status at the UN in order to increase international pressure on Israel and reaffirm Palestine’s right to statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. An upgrade at the UN from nonmember observer entity to observer state would not translate into tangible improvements on the ground in the OPT and in fact probably result in a worsening of the economic situation due to Israeli and American punitive measures. The PA is aware of these risks but maintains that an upgrade at the UN is compatible with and in fact even advances the prospect of a two-state solution given that it would result in an international endorsement of the broad contours of a future Palestinian state and thus reassure Palestinian fears that they are negotiating with Israel without a clear end-goal in sight. Such an upgrade would further allow Palestinians to become signatories to the International Criminal Court (ICC), allowing for eventual investigations into Israeli actions in the OPT. Overall, the PA’s UN bid can be characterized as a desperate attempt to break the current stalemate. It aims to increase international awareness of the conflict while highlighting the fact that a two-state framework cannot survive indefinitely as Israel continues to colonize the land. Moreover, this strategy is also an attempt to diminish the asymmetry between the two negotiating sides by firmly grounding Palestinian claims in international law.
Following a vote in the UN General Assembly, which is expected to take place in late November 2012, the PA has assured it will resume negotiations with Israel, but faced with the reality of general elections coming up in Israel and a regional setting characterized by increased turmoil and uncertainty, few trust these negotiations will seriously advance the prospects of two states.
Meanwhile in the West Bank, the main body of land supposedly belonging to a future Palestinian state, Israeli settlements – recognized as illegal under international law – continue to grow at an exponential pace. This November, over a thousand new home lenders were issued for the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Jewish setters in the West Bank have increased by 15,000 in just one year, bringing the total number (excluding East Jerusalem) to an estimated 350,000. The territory itself – and the Palestinians living on it – remains frozen under varying degrees of Israeli restrictions and control.
Following the signing of the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was subdivided into three areas – A, B and C – in preparation for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and Israel’s complete disengagement from the OPT scheduled for 1998. Since then little has changed. Some limited areas have been transferred to Palestinian control but the great majority of West Bank land (Area C), that which contains the most significant natural water reserves, remains under exclusive Israeli control; control that is used to sponsor an incessant settlement drive that in turn risks undermining the very applicability of the two-state framework.
In Area C, today covering 61 percent of the West Bank, Israel enjoys full civil and military control, over the years building an extensive network of settlements, Israeli-only access roads and so on to accommodate and attract a growing population of Jewish settlers. The great majority of settlers live in this area, and some within Israel’s right-wing political establishment have recently called for a complete annexation of Area C to Israel proper.
Full Palestinian security and civilian control is restricted to Area A, 18 percent of the West Bank, largely covering the major Arab population centers and given to the Palestinian Authority (PA), itself an institution born out of the Oslo Accords. In the remaining 21 percent, Area B, Israel enjoys complete security powers while the PA is responsible for running civilian affairs for the Palestinian inhabitants of the area. All entry points to the Palestinian zones are controlled by Israel which also manages Palestinian trade, collects taxes in the West Bank, controls and rations water while restricting Palestinian access to large areas of fertile land.
This reality has been prevailing in the West Bank for almost twenty years and since the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000, Jewish settlers in the West Bank have almost doubled in number. The Arab Palestinian population of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is estimated at about 2.65 million (with an extra 1.65 million living in the Gaza Strip). By comparison, Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem number an estimated 550,000-600,000. In 1993, on the eve of the Oslo Accords that were meant to pave the way for the creation of a Palestinian state, Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem numbered 264,400 according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
In light of the complete diplomatic stalemate between the parties and faced with the seemingly impossible task of evacuating all, or even most, of the half a million settlers living in the West Bank, a growing number of people have begun to question if two states is indeed a workable framework for the conflict and if a Palestinian state would indeed be viable given the current circumstances on the ground. The idea of a single, bi-national state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River and encompassing both Israeli and Palestinian identities, preferably in a federal-type arrangement with Jerusalem as a an independent capital, is not new and some have been advocating similar formulations for many years.
Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli political scientist and Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem from 1971 to 1978, has been a longtime proponent of a one-state solution, and in his latest book, Dream of a White Sabra: An Autobiography of Disillusionment (in Hebrew) he makes the case for this outcome again, arguing that Israel must face reality and decide between being a democracy or an exclusivist Jewish state. “The Jewish nation-state is doomed” Benvenisti was quoted saying in a recent Ha’aretz interview, “it will implode. In the end, the only way to live here will be to create an equality of respect between us and the Palestinians. To recognize the fact that there are two national communities here which love this land and whose obligation is to channel the unavoidable conflict between them into a process of dialogue for life together”.
Benevenisti is not alone in proposing such ideas and another eloquent case has recently been made by Palestinian professor Sari Nusseibeh in his latest book, What is a Palestinian State worth? Even Avi Shlaim, celebrated International Relations professor at Oxford University, has recently shifted to supporting a one-state solution, adding however that this outcome is not what he would “ideally like”. Yossi Beilin, one of the primary Israeli politicians involved in negotiating the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, has also sent an open letter to Palestinian Authority (PA) President, Mahmoud Abbas, calling on him to “end this farce”, disband the PA, and invite Israel to take up direct responsibility for ruling over the West Bank. Beilin endorses this action, however, more as a means to pressure Israel into finally agreeing to a Palestinian state rather than advocating directly for a one-state reality. Finally, writing on the eve of the U.S. Presidential Election, chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, warned that the next American president “might very well be the last president of the ‘two-state solution’ era”.
While a one-man one-vote scenario in a single bi-national state would no doubt look good on paper, and possibly even help heal some of the territorial, psychological, and legal wounds dividing the two communities, the lack of a clear pathway for achieving this goal and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles found in its way are such that this idea is often dismissed as utopian or a simple thought experiment at best. Israel’s categorical refusal to even consider a one-state paradigm, given that this would imply an end to the Jewish demographic majority, coupled with the great uncertainty and high risk of violence that would follow an eventual disbanding of the PA or an Israeli physical re-occupation of the West Bank are also matters worth considering. The Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas as a separate entity from the West Bank since 2007, is another question mark hovering over the one-state paradigm, and the continued division between the Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah further complicates not only the one-state but also the two-state formula given that in practice what has been developing on the ground is a three-state reality. Finally, many critics of the one-state framework point to the fact that nationalism and a quest for sovereignty continue to be the major driving forces underpinning the conflict and further that there is no functioning example of a bi-national state in the Middle East. On the contrary, the worrying example of Lebanon’s ethno-religious conflicts is often cited as a case in point.
While there is no doubt that the two-state formula still enjoys an almost complete consensus within the international community, the leaderships of the parties involved, and a majority of the people in the two communities, one must also acknowledge that the conditions for such a solution are not set in stone and that changing realities on the ground in the OPT are bound to affect its overall chances for success. Two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security represents the traditional mantra underpinning all international efforts aimed at resolving the conflict but time is running out for this solution and perhaps the moment has come to seriously begin considering possible alternatives to this paradigm instead of simply sitting back and complaining that no diplomatic solution is in sight.
Reset-DoC has interviewed six Israeli, Palestinian and American thinkers on the topic of a one-state solution and discussed the obstacles, challenges and benefits that would follow in the eventuality of a single state. Most interviewees agree that the current status quo is not sustainable but that there is little chance for a solution in the near future. A majority agree that the current status quo in the West Bank already represents a de-facto one-state reality, however distant from a just and equal bi-national state this reality actually is. A one-state paradigm is however generally seen as a distant and unlikely outcome, one that is no doubt beginning to be seriously explored by a growing number of people but which is unlikely to be taken up as a strategy by the international community or the leaderships’ of the two peoples involved.
This must not detract from the important work being made by activists, students, and thinkers who for years have been building up an important conceptual framework surrounding the idea of a one-state. Proponents of a one-state acknowledge the obstacles confronting this idea and claim that this paradigm is only just emerging as a possible alternative. Much more discussion and work needs to be done on this issue, but a serious conversation has finally begun and as such this idea seems to be gradually attracting more legitimacy and interest. Just 10 or even 5 years ago, talk of a one-state solution would have been immediately discarded as fanciful, but today, and in light of the complete diplomatic stalemate between the parties, this idea should no longer be automatically discarded. Those who advocate for a one-state do so not solely out of frustration or disillusionment, but rather out of a deep belief in the universal traits of the common man and those values of justice, liberty, and equality that transcend borders and ethnicity and in turn allow for the belief that better future for both communities is indeed possible.
The interviewees include Aaron David Miller, author, negotiator and ex-U.S. State Department official who personally followed the evolution of the Oslo Accords as well as being on the U.S. negotiating team during the failed Camp David negotiations of 2000; Ahmed Moor, Palestinian-American student at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, co-author of After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine and co-organizer of the One State Conference at Harvard University in March 2012; Khalil Shikaki, Palestinian author, academic and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah which has conducted dozens of opinion surveys in Gaza and the West Bank; Gideon Levy, Israeli writer and journalist for the Israeli left-leaning daily Ha’aretz; Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) in Washington and Executive Director of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American Leadership; Diana Butto, Harvard Law School Fellow, Palestinian Human Rights Lawyer and former legal advisor to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Negotiating Team.
Full transcripts of the interviews follow
*Andrea Dessì is a researcher within the Mediterranean and Middle East programme of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome, Italy. His research interests include the history and politics of the wider Middle Eastern region with a particular focus on U.S. foreign policy towards the Arab world and the diplomatic and military history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and modern history of Algeria. He has conducted internships with the Associated Press (AP) in Rome and the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) in East Jerusalem. A graduate in Middle Eastern history and politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, he has completed a Master in Conflict, Security and Development at King's College London. He regularly contributes to Reset-DoC's work.