Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 26 January 2024


Push Israel now for a two-state solution? You must be kidding.

A display, in Jerusalem on Oct. 29, of posters of Israeli hostages abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)
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In 2005, Israel, with U.S. encouragement, embarked on a unilateral trial run for a Palestinian state. It evacuated its soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip, leaving the coastal enclave, then of 1.3 million people, to govern itself. Palestinians held elections in 2006. Hamas, the revolutionary party dedicated to Israel’s destruction, swiftly seized power.

That experiment in Palestinian sovereignty is ending in untold suffering. Hamas thoroughly militarized the Strip, importing arms from Iran, starting rocket wars every few years, tunneling under civilian centers, and finally invading and rampaging through Israel’s south on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 and abducting 250. The humanitarian calamity in Gaza as Israel’s military tries to extirpate Hamas and free Israeli hostages is the predictable result.

You might expect the origins of the current war to inspire caution about the practicality of barreling toward a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Instead, the concept — essentially moribund before the war began — is suddenly at the center of U.S. diplomacy. It was elevated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 17, pushed two days later by President Biden in a widely reported phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and this week is the subject of a Senate resolution supported by 49 Democrats.

Opinions about the Middle East
Push Israel now for a two-state solution? You must be kidding.

The two-state solution has eluded a series of U.S. presidents. What is supposed to have changed now? Israelis have learned a brutal lesson in the dangers of withdrawing from territory. Meanwhile, polls show Palestinians in the West Bank overwhelmingly support the Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis, and support for Hamas generally has surged there as well. Implicit in Blinken’s two-state exhortations is that the Hamas attacks were driven by the lack of Palestinian statehood. But a Hamas leader last week exuberantly explained that he sees Palestinian statehood as just a way station to Israel’s destruction.

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It has long been popular for critics to blame Israeli policy for the political weakness of Palestinian moderates. Since Oct. 7, that argument has taken a more pointed form: that Netanyahu empowered Hamas in a divide-and-conquer strategy against the Palestinians. But it wasn’t Israel that hurled Palestinians off buildings in the 2007 battle to control Gaza. Hamas and Fatah did that to each other. Israel has certainly tried to exploit Palestinian divisions, but it did not create them. Hamas’s claim to popular legitimacy rooted in a commitment to destroying Israel is now the foremost obstacle to a Palestinian state.

Former diplomat Alon Pinkas, writing for the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, describes the current two-state discussion as “completely artificial” and “untethered from political realities.” He observes that the politically embattled but conniving Netanyahu can nonetheless brandish the specter of a U.S.-imposed Palestinian state to shore up his flighty right-wing coalition. But Netanyahu isn’t the only one for whom a phantom two-state debate is useful. Biden’s election-year advocacy of statehood might mollify some progressives incensed at his backing of Israel’s war on Hamas. The two leaders benefit with their respective political bases from two-state shadowboxing.

For many journalists, meanwhile, the two-state posturing is a delicious opportunity to play up divisions between the United States and Israel — and to construct a tidy moral binary about the conflict. But look more closely at what Biden and Netanyahu are saying, and there might be more give in both leaders’ positions than is sometimes portrayed.

For example, in one statement deemed as ruling out a Palestinian state, Netanyahu said that “Israel must have security control of the entire area west of the Jordan,” adding: “It’s a necessary requirement, and it clashes with the idea of sovereignty.” In other words, any Palestinian polity west of the Jordan River would not be fully sovereign. But when Biden leaned on Netanyahu about Palestinian statehood last week, in the New York Times’s account, the president also “raised options that would limit Palestinian sovereignty.”

Biden told reporters after the call that “there are a number of types of two-state solutions.” The question of Palestinian statehood — yes or no — misses the point. The relevant question is how to increase the capacity of Palestinian governing institutions, in the West Bank and Gaza, in a regime that draws its legitimacy from a source other than the sort of eliminationism advocated by Hamas.

As political scientist Samuel Huntington observed in his 1968 study of political development, “The problem is not to hold elections but to create organizations. In many, if not most, modernizing countries elections serve only to enhance the power of disruptive and often reactionary social forces.” There’s every reason to fear that Hamas or similar entities would control a nascent democratic Palestinian state in the near-term aftermath of this brutal war.

The term “two-state solution” assumes its own conclusion. If the United States and other powers recognized the pre-1967 Palestinian territories as a state tomorrow, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not be solved. The solution will come only with the demonstration of effective Palestinian governance and engagement with Israel — and the Israeli concessions that could come about, under pressure from Washington and Arab states, in response. The decimated landscape of Gaza shows the price of getting that sequence wrong.


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