Over the past two decades, the idea of a “two-state solution” has been proposed by countless intellectuals and political thinkers as the end-game to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the idea of such a solution has been used to perpetuate a constant state of uncertainty in Israel-Palestine, thereby allowing Israel to continue the expansion of settlements into the Palestinian Territories indefinitely. The two-state solution has been rejected by much of the international Left, who argue for peace entailing a democratic, one-state solution in Israel-Palestine. The impasse created by preconditions from all parties shows that pretending the-two state solution is feasible does a disservice to anyone striving for an end to the conflict and justice for Palestine.
The Zionist movement to establish a Jewish state was historically based on settler-colonialism, a process which is predicated upon the seizure of foreign land, and insertion of non-indigenous foreigners. Settler-colonialism can’t stop until it has caused a massive shift in the demographic distribution of land and/or resources, and Israel today, as a creation of Zionism, is beholden to that ideology. Therefore, Israel can never accept the Palestinian state — populated by what it sees as foreign entities — in what it sees as its rightful land. The two-state solution would never be acceptable given the foundation of Zionism in modern Israel.
Following the 1967 war, UN Resolution 242 stated that all countries in the Middle East (though it was arguably aimed at Israel) have the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” During the Oslo Accords, Yasser Arafat, representing the Palestinian political organization Fatah, wrote, “the provisions of the [Palestinian] Covenant which are inconsistent with the commitments [of peaceful resolution in] this letter are now inoperative and no longer valid.” The Palestinian leadership no longer seemed unwilling to compromise; therefore, Israel changed the conversation. The Israelis demanded that Palestinians recognize the “right for Israel to exist” (meaning that Palestinians would have to agree that Israel has a right to exist on the land they were expelled from in 1948). At the present moment, it is important to note that a state’s “right to exist” is a concept without precedence in the world. States don’t recognize other states’ rights to exist — they recognize each other (or don’t), but not their rights to exist. States come and go over time, just as apartheid Rhodesia became modern-day Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, official Palestinian channels capitulated to this as well, so the goalposts were moved again; now Israel demands recognition of its right to exist “as a Jewish state.” To cite Noam Chomsky, “in an effort to prevent negotiations and a diplomatic settlement, the U.S. and Israel insisted on raising the barrier to something that nobody’s going to accept.”
The expansion of Israeli settlements has been met with international ire. Israel has directly and indirectly been described as a colonial power by UN General Assembly resolution 37/43 and a number of other international organizations and scholars, based on the policies of seizure of Palestinian land, bulldozing of Palestinian homes, and construction of Jewish-only settlements, into which non-indigenous foreigners move.
As former Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress Henry Siegman said while recounting a meeting with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon:
A vivid recollection from the time I headed the American Jewish Congress is a helicopter trip over the West Bank on which I was taken by Ariel Sharon. With large, worn maps in hand, he pointed out to me strategic locations of present and future settlements on east-west and north-south axes that, Sharon assured me, would rule out a future Palestinian state.
Sharon believed that if Israel could establish a presence in certain strategic areas, the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state would be effectively nil.
Considering this, it is easy to see how the perpetual state of unresolved conflict benefits Israel. After the 1967 war, Israel acquired the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Gaza, and shortly after expanded the building of settlements, a process which is ongoing. The Israelis settle people in these areas in order to have a better claim on the land than Palestinians in any future peace settlement. As the Institute for Middle East Understanding states, “The settlement enterprise was also intended to ensure that a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state would never emerge in the occupied territories.”
In dealing with the theoretical possibilities of a two-state solution, the peace process runs into what are, historically, very difficult issues, including:
- The Right of Return for Palestinian refugees from the Nakba (ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948),
- The end of the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land,
- Recognition of full equality for Palestinians inside of Israel.
If we assume that most people who advocate for a two-state solution do so genuinely, then we can reasonably assume that what they desire, consciously or not, is for two relatively equal yet thoroughly independent states where each group can live in peace. However, given the current state of affairs in which Israel controls the land, sea, air, water, food, infrastructural, and economic conditions of the entirety of Israel-Palestine, there is little reason to believe that Israel would be open to a meaningful partition of these resources in the newly erected Palestinian state. As Moshe Machover, Israeli activist, mathematician, and philosopher writes:
The Palestinians, economically shattered, lightly armed and enjoying little effective international support, are facing a dominant modern capitalist Israel, a regional hegemonic nuclear superpower, a local hatchet man, and junior partner of the global hyper-power. So long as such gross imbalance of power persists, any settlement will inevitably impose harsh oppressive conditions on the weaker side…In these circumstances any ‘two-state settlement’ is bound to be a travesty: not two real sovereign states (let alone two equal ones) but one powerful Israeli state dominating a disjointed set of Palestinian enclaves similar to Indian Reservations…
A term often used when discussing this conflict is “demographic threat,” or the need for Israel to maintain its “Jewish character.” This concept is highly normalized, but must be understood before moving on, as maintenance of peace in the current paradigm carries with it heavy demographic-related consequences. The notion of a demographic threat has at its center the idea that, for Israel to be a Jewish state, Jews must make up a demographic majority of the population. Ali Abunimah has identified a handful of issues that arise here; if Israel believes it has a right to be, up to a point, a Jewish state, then the mere existence of non-Jews within the state’s borders can be seen as a threat to this right. Israel’s past actions reflect this sentiment as well, as seen in the 1948 war, in which Zionist settlers drove 750,000 Palestinians (about half the population at the time) from their homes, removing both the people who already lived there, and their potential “threat” of having children.
Since then, during wars, Israeli forces have acted with “callous indifference to carnage,” a strategy which regularly results in the deaths of countless Palestinian civilians and children. This can be seen in the Israeli military’s every-few-years assaults on Gaza. These wars, presented by Israel as attempts to fight Hamas, actually result in the killing of Palestinian civilians (thus neutralizing their “threat” of populating Israel-Palestine with non-Jews from those killed), the destruction of infrastructure (a form of collective punishment which results in dead civilians and is illegal under international law). In Israel, this is referred to as “mowing the lawn.”
To further curtail this “demographic threat,” Israel has separated mixed families (ie: Jewish and non-Jewish) in order to reduce their birth rate. Currently, Israel has a law that denies citizenship to spouses of Israeli citizens if they are from places Israel deems enemy states, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and, of course, the West Bank and Gaza. When this law was challenged in the Israeli Supreme Court, the majority wrote, “Human rights are not a prescription for national suicide…the right to a family life does not necessarily have to be realized within the borders of Israel.”
All of these scenarios have been employed at one time or another by the Israeli government, highlighting the state’s willingness to disregard international and ethical norms in pursuit of “demographic balance.”
Based on the preceding evidence, we can draw the conclusion that, to Israel, the demographic security of the state is a precondition to any peace agreement. Meanwhile, under international law, the Palestinian refugees (an estimated five million people) have a national right to return to their land, which would throw the balance far more in Palestinian favor than Jewish favor. Since it is fair to see the maintenance of a Jewish state as unreachable should the refugees gain their right to return, the conversation must continue to revolve around the two-state narrative. This means either a) delivering a powerful Israeli state alongside a weak and dependent Palestinian one, or b) perpetuating the conversation long enough that Israel can absorb as much land as possible, with as few Palestinian people on it as possible. As Dov Weissglass, confidant of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, once put it:
The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process…And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders, and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. The disengagement is actually formaldehyde; it supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.
Currently, as activist Hanan Ashrawi wrote, “Palestinians are the only people on earth required to guarantee the security of the occupier, while Israel is the only country that demands protection from its victims.” The factors on the ground, not to mention the political fault lines of respective parties, have made two states neither possible nor desirable. The only reason that the conversation still centers around the notion of two states is because it is necessary for Israel’s continued reality as 21st century settler-colonial state.