In the early morning hours of January 19, an Israeli military force came into the homes of the Salhiyeh family in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. They evicted the family, arresting some of them and leaving the rest of them to watch as, later in the day, bulldozers demolished their homes.
Thanks to the attention Palestinians and their supporters have brought to Sheikh Jarrah, there was some response to this latest Israeli outrage, even if there was, as usual, no material action taken as a result. The world is expressing more discomfort with what can only be described as ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem but is still taking no action to stop it or hold Israel to even the slightest account.
One supportive response came from Rep. Jackie Speier of California. Tweeting a New York Times article covering the episode, Speier wrote: “Where is the humanity? On what basis did the Israeli police evict a family of 15 in the cold of night in East Jerusalem and beat and arrest the male family members! What 2-state solution can be had with continued actions like these?”
It’s a good statement, but it also reflects the inability of not only the United States but virtually all international actors to help in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and putting an end to Israel’s occupation and to its apartheid system.
Speier’s mention of a two-state solution feels forced in that tweet, as if she had to squeeze it into an awkward spot, which is just what she did. Had she not, she would have left herself open to accusations of opposing the existence of Israel. Although such an accusation would be absurd, it would have real impact politically on a congresswoman representing a well-to-do California district with liberal leanings and a moderately-sized Jewish population.
The State of Two States
Both the Israeli government and its powerful affiliated groups in the United States have moved aggressively over the past decade to undermine any possibility of a two-state solution. The result is a Republican party which openly supports Israel’s apartheid policies and a Democratic party that pays lip service to a two-state solution that hasn’t been feasible for years. But suggesting any alternative is considered a hopelessly radical position.
With very few exceptions, even the most Israel-critical voices in Congress, such as Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar, support a two-state solution. Although the public discourse has expanded to begin exploring alternatives (a discourse which includes prominent, forward-thinking, but still patriotic Israelis and Palestinians), this, like virtually all reality-based approaches to Israel and Palestine, has not touched Capitol Hill at all. Hence, Speier’s need to thrust “Two States” into her statement.
There is nothing wrong with a two-state solution in the abstract. It is far from perfect justice, but that is rarely attainable in this world, and alternative solutions involve serious compromises of their own from all parties, as well as obstacles just as formidable as those to a two-state solution. But it hardly merits being the only acceptable option.
I supported the two-state solution for years, although never exclusively. The factors for me were these:
- It was the solution favored by majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians for a long time. After the Clinton Parameters—which were an improvement over what came before but still ill-conceived—came out at the end of 2000, the support for two states held on both sides. The Taba Summit improved upon them, and largely formed the basis for some extra-governmental efforts like the Geneva Initiative. But it mattered that both Israelis and Palestinians, in poll after poll, supported this framework. That has changed, much more than is generally acknowledged, as I will discuss below.
- The international community accepted it. Even before the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the Oslo Agreements of 1993-1995, there was a broad international consensus, sparked by Yasir Arafat’s decision in 1974 to focus on a state in whatever parts of Palestine the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) could liberate, to support the creation of a Palestinian state beside Israel. It fit well with UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, even though neither of them specifically referred to a Palestinian state. And while it presented a difficult road, it seemed diplomatically feasible, especially if both parties worked in good faith to pursue it. Sadly, that good faith was not to be found in sectors on both sides, but most devastatingly, in the Israeli government, no matter who led it.
- Given those conditions, two states made the most sense for work within the United States. The United States, and especially Congress, is the most hostile place for Palestinian rights in the world, outside of Israel. Trying to argue against the one way forward that could at least be discussed in Washington seemed self-defeating at the time.
But conditions have changed, even if the discourse in Washington has not. As we are seeing with the latest attempt at a confederation model—this time from former Israeli diplomat Yossi Beilin and Palestinian attorney Hiba Husseini— and as we have seen for years from advocates for one secular, democratic state, there are many different ways in which people are trying to revise or challenge the moribund two-state paradigm.
The two-state solution is no longer favored by majorities in Israel or in the Palestinian areas under Israeli occupation. In July 2021, a poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute reported that only 34% of Jewish Israelis said they preferred a two-state solution to the status quo of occupation, which 41.5% preferred. Among Palestinians, 59% oppose a two-state solution, while only 39% still support two states, according to a poll in December 2021 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Social Research. These results represent long term trends.
But it’s even more complicated than that. The Israeli government is in overwhelming agreement that any two-state solution must leave Israel in control of the strategically valuable Jordan Valley. While many Israelis oppose annexing the Jordan Valley unilaterally, most Israeli Jews believe Israel must maintain control over that patch of land in any future agreement with the Palestinians.
The Jordan Valley and the Northern Dead Sea area, which Israel might also insist on, cover some 30% of the West Bank, greatly diminishing the available sovereign territory that would be available for a Palestinian state. It would also mean that Israel would control the Palestinians’ access to Jordan, as they do now. Jordan is home to a large Palestinian population, and Palestinian families often have members living in both Jordan and Palestine.
Moreover, a nascent Palestinian state would desperately need easy and secure access to Jordan for business reasons. And, of course, this would make north-south commuting and transport through the West Bank significantly more difficult for Palestinians. It would not look very much like an independent state.
And if the Israeli ambition for the Jordan Valley is problematic, the attitude toward Jerusalem is even more so. It’s a point on which most Jewish Israeli leaders agree, as does the Israeli Jewish public. Outside of the miniscule Meretz party, and the non-Zionist and Arab parties, few politicians are diverging from the line that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel.
The United States takes a similar posture of ambiguity leaning toward Israeli dominance. While the U.S. still officially backs the idea of Jerusalem’s status being settled by negotiations, the realities of its policies paint a quite different picture.
When Donald Trump refused to waive the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act in 2017, the official U.S. position on Jerusalem did not change, but its de facto policy was fundamentally altered. Instead of playing along with the fiction of Jerusalem being an international city—a willful denial of the reality that Israel had seized control of the entire city and had faced no repercussions for doing so—the U.S. had now effectively recognized Israel’s sovereignty in the city.
One can argue that since Trump said the U.S. was not making any statement on the final status of the city, that there was still room for creative ambiguity. But both the physical and political realties since that day show that is not the case. In practice, the 1995 bill—passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority—was always intended as support for Israeli sovereignty over the whole city, and that is just how it has played out.
Palestinians, of course, never accepted this move. Neither the populace nor even the subservient Palestinian Authority have stopped objecting to, and demanding the reversal of, the move of the U.S. embassy and its concomitant impact on the status of Jerusalem. Yet the administration of Joe Biden, who campaigned on a promise to at least reopen a consulate that had once served as an unofficial liaison office of sorts to the PA, has done nothing at all to alter the status quo it inherited from Trump.
Not only has settlement growth in the West Bank expanded, but that expansion has steadily accelerated for many years. With 132 settlements and 140 so-called “unauthorized” outposts in the West Bank, there are now over 440,000 Jewish settlers in the territory. Some 200,000 more live in areas that have been annexed by Israel (though even the United States has not recognized this) in East Jerusalem.
This vast network is comprised of large blocs of settlements along with other, more isolated ones, strategically placed around the West Bank. These make up what Israeli activist and intellectual Jeff Halper dubbed the “Matrix of Control” some 20 years ago. The intervening years have only served to enhance Halper’s point.
Supporters of the two-state solution have long contended that these settlements could simply be abandoned, either demolished or the inhabitants moved within Israel’s final borders and the towns, some of them small cities, given to the Palestinians.
Even when the two-state solution looked like a real possibility, this was an unrealistic prospect. The withdrawal from Gaza had political repercussions for Israel that are still being felt to this day. While much attention in the media was paid to the narrative that the withdrawal from Gaza was not managed properly, the reality is that what we saw there was a tiny fraction of what will happen to Israeli society if the country pulls out of the West Bank.
There were only 8,000 or so Jewish settlers in Gaza, an area which offers little of material value to Israel. It is resource poor, and while its coastline carries some benefit, Israel already has an extensive western coast just north of the Strip.
Additionally, the land of Gaza itself holds much less meaning, both in a religious and a nationalistic sense, for Jews, in and out of Israel. Gaza was a part of Palestine for centuries, but it was never a part of the historical, much less biblical, Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel), the iconic Jewish homeland. In and of itself, surrendering Gaza was a relatively easy pill for nationalistic Zionists, religious and secular, to swallow.
The West Bank is a completely different case. It is the very cradle of Jewish connection to the land. There is no mention in the Bible of Tel Aviv or Haifa. But Hebron, Nablus (Shekhem in Hebrew), Jericho, and, of course, Jerusalem are a vastly different story. Giving up Jewish control of these areas is a completely different matter from abandoning the small settlements that were once in Gaza.
Where Gaza had long been treated as a separate entity, and its settlements more remote, the West Bank’s settlements are often indistinguishable to Israelis and visitors from Israel within its internationally recognized borders. The electric grid, water supply system, roads and economies of the established settlements are deeply integrated with Israel proper, and these days one can travel from Tel Aviv to many settlements and not realize you had left Israel’s internationally recognized sovereign territory at all. The outposts and more remote settlements might be less integrated, but they also tend to be populated by the most fanatical and zealous of the settler population.
It is also rarely noted that many settlers have now been there for several generations. Granted, their presence is illegal, but not all settlers engage in violence or work to further displace Palestinians. Many feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are now rooted in their homes there. Others live, as Jews did in pre-Zionist days in Palestine, on the land for religious reasons and would rather remain there under Palestinian rule than leave.
These are not the people most of us think of when we think of settlers. And perhaps they are not very representative. But they are there. This should not in any way hinder the Palestinian struggle for their rights and their independence. But for both practical and ethical reasons we can afford to at least consider paths that might afford these people reasonable options for their future.
Still, the settlement movement is a zealous, generally racist, colonialist movement. Whether from a secular or religious perspective, the movement is enthusiastic about not giving the proverbial “one inch” to the Palestinians, and the Israeli withdrawals from Gaza, Southern Lebanon, and a few settlements in the northern West Bank have only cemented in their minds the idea that these are self-destructive, futile, and, in some cases, sinful steps.
These factors would have made withdrawal from dozens of West Bank settlements a herculean task twenty years ago. In 2022, the massive costs in finance, in the reworking of Israeli infrastructure, and, most importantly, in the tsunami-like upheaval this would cause in Israeli society are well past the point where Israel can even be coerced into taking such steps. These costs would look to Israel like killing itself to live. And those costs are growing larger every day.
A friend and colleague once said to me that the two-state solution is never completely impossible, but the cost just keeps getting higher. He was right, but even at the time, some five years ago, I argued that the cost was already more than anyone was going to be willing to pay. Now it is tantamount to a candy bar costing $100,000. It is simply not feasible that Israel would agree to this voluntarily, and the kind of pressure it would take to convince it otherwise is inconceivable. It is certainly much higher than mere sanctions, much less the BDS movement, could ever bring.
Lack of Political Will
Even beyond material factors, there is simply no will for an actual two-state solution anymore. In 1993, when the Oslo Accords were signed, there was a significant appetite in Israel for withdrawing settlements from beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines. There was an understanding that Jerusalem would be a shared capital in some sense, and while this was a passionately contested view, it was also one that many Israelis supported.
Those conditions have not existed for a long time. They were largely destroyed by the American and Israeli insistence on a summit in 2000 that the Palestinian president, Yasir Arafat, resisted. Many of the issues that needed to be considered had not yet been fully vetted in public debate by the Palestinians, whose leadership, unlike the Americans and Israelis, were not facing elections that year.
Abandoning their promise not to blame Arafat if the summit failed, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak disingenuously told their constituents that Arafat rejected an incredibly “generous offer.” The bloody Second Intifada came soon after.
Even nearly two decades later, Israelis are understandably nervous because of these events. That is why there needs to be a strong incentive to do what is right; because that nervousness, whether rooted in genuine experience or in racism and a colonialist mindset, or both, exists in the hands of the only side in this “conflict” with power. The imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians is arguably the most fundamental cause of the occupation’s apparent immortality.
And on the Palestinian side? We have already seen that they are not going to accept a “solution” where they must give up Jerusalem. But that is just the most recent piece.
The Right of Return
There is a tacit assumption among Israelis and Americans that the Palestinians “understand” that a two-state solution would require that they surrender their pursuit of the right of return for Palestinian refugees forced out of the country in the wars of 1947-49 and 1967, and their descendants. I have argued for many years that this assumption is fatally flawed and that it needs to be reconsidered if there was ever to be a two-state, or any other, solution.
Along with Jerusalem, the right of return was the issue that Palestinians were most concerned over in the mid- and late-1990s. Many believed that Arafat was going to surrender the right of return, as this was of less concern to the Arab heads of state than Jerusalem was. Indeed, when I noted the fact that Arafat was not prepared for the Camp David II summit in 2000, the absence of serious discussion among the Palestinian public about the right of return was a major factor.
Palestinians were aware of the Israeli view that the right of return was a red line. Israel was prepared to allow a token return of refugees. Numbers mentioned were something like 25,000 or even 50,000. Maybe they would go a little higher, but they were not going to acknowledge the principle of a guaranteed right for the millions of Palestinian refugees. So how was this to be resolved?
I remember hearing from friends and colleagues in the West Bank as well as Palestinians I was working with in the U.S. about the fear that Arafat was going to give up the right of return. Palestinian activists started turning up the volume on the idea that the right of return was an individual as well as a national right, and that Arafat was not empowered to compromise it.
While return has always been a fundamental part of Palestinian national culture since the naqba in 1947-49, this sentiment has only grown and hardened among Palestinians today. Moreover, they have little incentive to even consider compromising on this point, given that it is viewed as a right enshrined in international law, and, more importantly, that any compromise is an admission that they have no real connection to the land of Palestine and that Zionism was, in part or whole, justified in its objectives.
So why, many Palestinians argue, should they even consider compromise with an oppressive regime that has dispossessed them, denied them their rights, and showed such bad faith after their leader gave Israelis the recognition of their national rights that they said they required?
An Offer of Limited Sovereignty
It is hard to see a satisfactory answer to that question. And here is another one that is almost never considered. The Clinton Parameters stipulated that the Palestinian state would be “non-militarized.” The state would give up its right to defend itself, with only a lightly armed security force meant to maintain internal order and, presumably, do similar work in thwarting militants that Palestinian security forces do now.
Self-defense is a key element of sovereignty, but more to the point, this stipulation means that the theoretical State of Palestine would be defenseless not only in what Israel refers to as a “tough neighborhood” but, worse, right next to the very state that held its people under an apartheid regime after colonizing their land and driving millions of Palestinians into life as refugees. The proposed state of Palestine would have to depend on an “international force” while sharing a border and cooperating with the regional military hegemon.
That does not seem very reasonable even under the conditions that existed twenty years ago, let alone under the current circumstances. Yet, since the Clinton Parameters were presented more than two decades ago, there has been no conversation around whether the Palestinian people—as distinct from the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who has affirmed his acceptance of this abrogation of self-defense from time to time—accept this idea. It is difficult to imagine that it has anything close to consensus support among Palestinians, which could explain why there is a dearth of conversation about it.
There is no longer majority, much less consensus, support for a two-state solution among either Israeli Jews or Palestinians. Yet, as we saw in Speier’s tweet, the only alternative to supporting it in Washington is to fully support Israeli apartheid. Other potential resolutions are simply out of bounds, even if they are routinely discussed in media, think tanks, and similar venues.
There is also no current path to a two-state solution, either politically or practically. John Kerry, who is among the most zealous of supporter of two states, in and out of the U.S. government, for years warned that the “window was closing.” Palestinian lawmaker and intellectual Hanan Ashrawi said in 2014 that the opportunity for a two-state solution “is disappearing before our eyes.” At some point, it must stop being a prediction and happen. And so it has.
Indeed, Kerry, when he was Secretary of State, said that the possibility of a two-state solution had “a year-and-a-half, maybe two” of life left to it. That was in 2013. J Street, perhaps the leading proponent group for a two-state solution, wrote in September 2010, “While the majority of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples continue to support a two-state solution, ongoing developments, expanding settlements, and a growing movement in support of a one-state outcome suggest that window of opportunity is rapidly closing.”
Those conditions have only accelerated over the past eleven years, and Kerry and J Street were right. If anything, they were already looking at the possibility of a two-state solution with rose-colored glasses, but now, all these years later, to deny that the conditions J Street named have made the two-state solution unfeasible is to deny the most obvious reality. It is as absurd as climate denial and flies in the face of the facts at hand.
The Fig Leaf
Instead of being a realistic solution, support for the two-state solution is often a tool used by centrists, moderates, and liberals to tacitly support apartheid while seeming to support peace. An example of this occurred back in October, when members of the New York City chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace approached Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and old him that they represented New York Jews who demanded that he use his position to stop the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Schumer simply said, “I support a two-state solution” and refused to engage any further or address the point that was raised to him.
Schumer demonstrated that the two-state solution has become nothing more than a dodge, a way to avoid doing anything to change the status quo but expressing an abstract desire to see it change. That leaves us in a hopeless place if the two-state solution is the only permissible option.
We can no longer stand by and allow, for example, Republicans, who have formally abandoned the two-state solution, to call the lone Palestinian woman in Congress, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, an antisemite for daring to support a solution of one secular, democratic state for all Israelis and Palestinians. Somehow, it is antisemitic to even posit the idea that a form of government that we ourselves employ and is the standard through much of the western world, is appropriate for Israelis and Palestinians.
Many of the two-state solution’s most sincere proponents insist that it must be the only option on the table even while they must be aware that the practical possibility of a two-state solution has disappeared.
Rep. Andy Levin introduced a bill in 2021 to take some very positive steps toward a two-state solution. It advocates “robust” monitoring of security assistance to Israel, clarifies the distinction between Israel and the West Bank, creates a method for finally removing the “terror group” designation from the PLO, and other positive provisions.
But the bill’s very first statement of policy is to cement the two-state approach as the only possible path for U.S. policy.
Levin touted his bill as being supported by “Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, Foreign Policy for America, J Street and Partners for Progressive Israel.” Those are good groups, but they are also all, with exception of Foreign Policy for America, Jewish groups. No Arab, Muslim, much less Palestinian, group endorses Levin’s bill. Without the endorsement of Palestinian groups, the bill cannot be an ingredient for a real resolution, especially given that one of the principles Washington repeatedly states is that the parties must not be pressured into an agreement.
Historically, that prohibition on significant pressure has only applied to pressure on Israel, and this is one of the fundamental reasons for American failure. Unfortunately, the groups supporting Levin’s bill—all of whom have the best of intentions within their own framework, and this should not be doubted—are representative of only one branch of this conflict, the Israeli side.
This is the nub of the issue. There is nothing wrong with J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and their fellow groups pursuing what they see as the best path for ending the occupation and creating a just future for everyone living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. They are often attacked for criticizing Israel from their own communities. They believe sincerely that the two-state solution can bring a better future for all Israelis and Palestinians.
But while these groups also speak out against Israel’s occupation and at least some of its human rights abuses, there are other pro-Israel groups who claim to support a two-state solution, or at least use the two-state rhetoric, but are clearly hostile to the rights of Palestinians. Groups like AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and other groups are among those who speak of a two-state solution in the abstract but defend every Israeli crime and infringement on Palestinian rights that undermines that possibility.
Even more extreme groups claim at times to support the two-state solution. About ten years ago, I published an article for a progressive Jewish magazine where I stated that Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a fanatical, apocalyptic Christian Zionist group was opposed to a two-state solution. This elicited a furious response from CUFI’s lawyer who insisted that Hagee supported two states and threatened to sue if the statement was not retracted (I refused, of course).
Even if the two-state solution were not being used so cynically, it would still be illegitimate for it to be the only possible policy the United States could consider. It has been battered, bruised, and overtaken by history. Its initial flaws have all been exposed and magnified, and its potential appeal has been badly diminished.
None of this means that adherents of the two-state solution cannot or should not zealously advocate for their position. They absolutely should. The conflict born out of Zionist colonization has gone on for well over a century and shows no sign of abating. It must be ended, and every idea that can bring about that end should be considered. It is long past time to open the conversation beyond, but not excluding, the two-state solution.