Beyond a Two-State Solution: Justice and Self-Determination for Palestinians

Despite his obvious ignorance of the complexities, President Trump’s line — stated as Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu chuckled loudly at their February 15, 2017, press conference — that he would support one state or two, whatever “both parties like,” is a break from politics-as-usual when it comes to US views on the issue.

The problem Trump and most of the bipartisan US establishment fail to acknowledge is that an authentic, lasting agreement requires “parties” more or less equally empowered to ensure their people’s rights are recognized, respected and obtained to an acceptable degree. Domination does not foster stability, let alone justice.

And the United States, with international acquiescence, has long kept its thumb firmly on the scale to perpetuate Israeli domination with financial, military and diplomatic backing.

Meanwhile, the so-called “international consensus” for a “two-state solution” has increasingly flouted reality. Belatedly, John Kerry acknowledged as much in his parting statement after getting absolutely nowhere with diplomacy. Polls show Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike increasingly skeptical. Yet “two-state solution” has remained a mantra for establishment politicians on both sides in Israel-Palestine, for world leaders — and for well-meaning peace promoters of all stripes.

Kerry’s skepticism stemmed from what is easily observable on the ground: More than 23 years after the Oslo Accords that were seen as leading to creation of a contiguous, independent Palestinian state, successive Israeli governments have solidified control of the West Bank, carving it up with fortified walls and fences, restricted “bypass” roads and checkpoints while transplanting hundreds of thousands of additional Jews into colonies and setting vast stretches of territory off-limits for Palestinian residents. Maps show remaining areas under Palestinian semi-control as an archipelago of islands in a sea of occupation — no basis for a sovereign state by any stretch.

Diehard proponents of two states insist the situation is reversible; Israel removed all settlements and troops in Gaza, for instance. But it did so without fostering any transition to Palestinian rule, and it then proceeded to impose a blockade on the beleaguered territory, setting the stage for resistance by caged inhabitants, multiple rounds of massive bombardment, killing thousands and the current humanitarian disaster. Hardly a model for fostering peace between neighbors.

Yes, West Bank settlements, too, could be removed, and the mistakes of Gaza could conceivably be avoided. But the Israeli polity, meanwhile, has moved steadily toward domination by the pro-settler movement. Netanyahu, with his lip-service acceptance of two states in some hypothetical future as he continues to do all he can to make that outcome impossible, is now considered a centrist, the main threat to his power coming from the hard nationalist, mostly religious parties that push for formal annexation of all or most of the West Bank. Some openly call for expulsion of even more of the territory’s non-Jewish residents.

In fact, one state now exists from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, and it is a state of, by and for one ethno-religious group, Israeli Jews, with Palestinians subject to varying sets of lesser rights, depending on where they happen to live:

  • Those who managed to remain in 1948 Israel when more than 80 percent were expelled from the country ultimately gained citizenship, but they and their descendants are subject to pervasive discrimination, de jure and de facto, much greater poverty and less opportunity than their Jewish counterparts. Until 1966, they were subject to direct military rule. And even in their homeland, many still lost their homes and/or land since 1948 in a continuing process of expropriation and displacement.
  • Israel formally annexed large swaths of the West Bank, unilaterally declaring them part of greater Jerusalem, along with the Old City and surroundings, shortly after it conquered the territory in 1967. But it did not grant citizenship to Palestinians there, who make up about 40 percent of the municipality. Their residency rights enable them — unlike others in the West Bank to work freely in Israel or go to the beach — but is under constant threat of revocation if they, for instance, work or study abroad for a period, or want to cohabit with a spouse from a nearby town who is barred from living in Jerusalem. (I by contrast, as an American Jew, was able to live in Jerusalem — or anywhere in Israel or the occupied territories — from 1974 to 1985, and I could go back any time.)
  • Some 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians are subject to military rule, barred from entering Israel or even Jerusalem without a permit. In “Area A” (under Oslo) cities, there is a semblance of normality. But “Area C,” more than 60 percent of the total, is entirely Israel-controlled, its non-Jewish residents subject to intense pressure aimed at chasing them out of their villages.
  • Gaza is barely habitable for its nearly 2 million (mostly refugee) population. Everyone expects another military assault before long.
  • The largest category of Palestinians reside outside their homeland altogether, expelled in the 1948 or 1967 waves or in smaller episodes, and barred from exercising their right under international law to return.

Groups I joined and led were avid advocates for two states as far back as 1970, when we considered it a viable way to calm the conflict and pave the way for a shared, equitable future. The idea was anathema at the time, both to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which demanded one Palestinian state from which many Jews would leave, and to Israeli (Labor Party) governments, which sought to keep much of the 1967-conquered territory and let Jordan exercise limited control over the rest.

Could two states have worked? Perhaps, if Israel had honored its promises under Oslo, ending the settlement project and permitting steps toward real statehood for Palestinians, based on cooperation, not sterile, hermetic — and unrealistic — separation. At best, it was a lost opportunity.

That a two-state solution is now virtually impossible, however, does not make a different vision of one state, in which every individual enjoys equal rights along with guarantees for the two national communities, Palestinians and Israeli Jews, any closer to realization. Nevertheless, there are many possible arrangements, and creative dreamers are beginning to articulate options such as two states in one undivided country, or one state with cantons and two separate citizenships.

Such visions sound utopian today. And they’re in stark contrast with the apartheid-like scenario where Trump and Netanyahu inevitably land when they contemplate ending the two-state charade while maintaining Israeli domination. For Israelis, however, a future of peace and security requires, one way or another, a serious measure of restorative justice for the Palestinian people, who were decimated and denied their rights in the process of Israel’s establishment. Then there could emerge a solution that “both parties like.”