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The Green Line Blurs: Fading Hope for a Two-State Solution

The chances of a two-state solution have rarely looked worse. In a recent open letter to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, 19 former senior European officials, politicians and diplomats claimed, “the Oslo process has nothing more to offer” and that without immediate action, the window of opportunity for a viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would soon close. A number of analysts have disputed this and gone ever farther, claiming that the Oslo process, referring to the process of political negotiation for a Palestinian state that began with the 1993 Oslo Accords, is already dead.

Bitter Sentiments

These sentiments are increasingly shared across the political spectrum. The apparent death of the two-state solution has been celebrated among segments of the left and right always hostile to the plan, while being decried and lamented both by many members of the foreign policy establishment who supported the Oslo process through thick and thin, and by liberal elements of the Western Jewish establishment. As Israeli settlements continue to secure “facts on the ground” by gobbling up expropriated Palestinian farmland and blurring the Green Line, the 1967 armistice line separating occupied territory and Israel proper, a viable Palestinian state seems less and less likely.

This is compounded by political disunity and dysfunction on the Palestinian side. Division between Hamas, an Islamic extremist faction which rules Gaza, and the secular nationalist Fatah in the West Bank has made it impossible to create a united Palestinian representative in negotiations; this is only made harder by technocratic Prime Minister Salam Fayyed’s recent and abrupt resignation. Finally, both Israel and the Palestinians, with extremely difficult choices ahead, seem unable to come to a compromise of any type on any issue, let alone the gut-wrenching compromises over borders, refugees, religious sites and compensation that would entail a final agreement for a two-state solution.

What Alternatives to the Two-State Solution?

Over the years, a wide variety of solutions have been suggested to end the conflict, each with its own ideological grounding, advantages and disadvantages. One solution, commonly called the “one-state solution”, proposes a single, secular, democratic state including both Jews and Palestinian Arabs as equal citizens, stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. This solution has been proposed primarily from the left side of the political spectrum, and was the official policy of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from its inception until 1988.

A one-state solution has the advantage of simplicity. Issues like refugee flows and border tensions disappear when everything is united under a democratic framework. Critics rightfully point out that this state would be the end to a Jewish state. Others claim that it would be a recipe for disaster, with ethno-religious violence and civil breakdown inevitable. This is borne out by public opinion both in Israel and Palestine, which broadly rejects a one-state solution.

Another solution, partway between a one and two-state solution, is a bi-national or confederal state. Under this framework, Palestinian Arabs and Jews would be largely self-governing, with some shared institutions responsible for trade, borders, security and potentially foreign affairs in a sort of confederation. A variety of outlines exist within the confederal or bi-national framework, from a patchwork of partially segregated cantons to a consociational system like Lebanon to a loose, EU-style union.


The advantage of this framework is that it seems to be able to reconcile the goals of Zionism, a homeland for the Jews, with the goals of Palestinian nationalism, the return of refugees and self-determination. Palestinian refugees would be able to return to what is now Israel, while remaining Palestinian citizens and not overwhelming a Jewish state demographically, while the larger Israeli settlement blocks could be left in place. The main disadvantages to this framework are in its inherent complexity; any system built on an ethnic and political balancing act would be delicate and prone to sudden collapse in the face of crisis or political opportunism; the civil wars of Yugoslavia and Lebanon offer a cautionary tale.

Another solution, prominently advocated by the far-right settler-dominated party, The Jewish Home, calls for the annexation of Area C, the sparsely-populated majority of the West Bank controlled directly by the Israeli military under the Oslo Accords, with its residents given Israeli citizenship. People living in the rest of the West Bank would be allowed “self-rule”, while being holed up in overcrowded enclaves cut off from one another and the outside world by a sea of Israeli territory. This would effectively end any hope for real Palestinian self-determination, and would lead to a situation resembling apartheid South Africa’s Bantustan system, inevitably leading to cycles of violence, retaliation and human rights catastrophe.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the two-state solution is the worst solution available, other than all of the other options. It is the only solution that will not result in inevitable ethno-religious violence or massive human rights abuses, while also ending a running sore on the world’s body politic, and allowing real self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians. If the two-state solution is well and truly dead, hope for a tolerable future for Israelis and Palestinians may be dying with it.

– Alex Langer


Featured photo: Attribution  davidsotokarlin, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo 1: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike  Synne Tonidas, Creative Commons, Flickr

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  1. Here’s a question. If (and by “if”, I mean “this is a thought experiment”) the vast majority of Palestinians eventually decided to be in favour of peacefully assimilating with Jews into a secular, democratic state, would the need for a Jewish ethnic majority or “homeland for the Jews” still be a viable reason to reject the proposal of a democratic, secular, single state?

    • What do I think? No, I’m a pretty strong anti-nationalist, and wish everyone could live together with some level of harmony. I also want a pony. One issue is that there are substantial minorities of Arab and Jewish people that would refuse to live in a state that is not explicitly geared towards them. They will sabotage any attempt at a single state (and any attempt at two states, but they are somewhat easier to get around in that model at least)

      The other issue is the history. In any one-state solution, there will need to be years and years and years of “Truth and Reconciliation”, for both sides of the conflict, to sort out everyone’s anger and frustration. If that doesn’t happen, any political order is going to be built on foundations of sand (no pun intended). Look at how fast Yugoslavia went from a model of ethnic harmony (with people who are actually very similar) to a bloodbath.

      • “One issue is that there are substantial minorities of Arab and Jewish people that would refuse to live in a state that is not explicitly geared towards them. They will sabotage any attempt at a single state (and any attempt at two states, but they are somewhat easier to get around in that model at least)”

        Wouldn’t this be what the democratic process effectively solves?

        But even if it did “solve” this, your statement about Truth and Reconciliation is correct; there would need to be a cool-down period. Let’s assume that this cool down period would take place in a two-state scenario.

        What irks me about the two state solution is that Palestine would effectively be told to “make do with what they have”. The near totality of their infrastructure in Gaza is either damaged or destroyed, and their infrastructure in the west bank (especially roads) isn’t doing to well either. Israel would never pay reparations, and even if they did, it would never be able to repay the costs of the damage. The fact that they would have to displace half a million settlers would also reinforce their reluctance to dish out extra “aid”.

        So, we are stuck with a Palestine which remains in stasis; it will start with a government which has no corporeal state apparatus, a largely poor and unemployed population, lack of institutions, very little global market value and a possible propensity to rely on other nations for aid (its arab neighbours aren’t exactly sympathetic towards its cause, either).

        So, how does Palestine built itself without taking out IMF/World Bank (just an example) loans; how does it create a state apparatus without remaining subservient to the policies of other states?

        I am pessimistic about all proposed solutions. Personally, a two-state solution would not effectively allow for a cool-down unless Israel plays a part in assisting the reconstruction of Palestine. It’s a “gesture of good” faith……which is too costly to undertake.

        • “Wouldn’t this be what the democratic process effectively solves?”

          Not at all. Democracy can only really function if there is a common conception as to the basic identity of the state that is shared by all but a negligible part of the population. In a single, majoritarian democratic state, any political order would be undermined both by legal political obstruction and illegal political violence from the Israeli nationalist right and religious right, as well as Hamas and its even more radical compatriots on the Palestinian side. There would be no way for a new democracy to function under that kind of strain, especially with the pre-existing tensions.

          “What irks me about the two state solution is that Palestine would effectively be told to “make do with what they have”.”

          Yup. They will have to. The world isn’t a fair or just place, and can’t be. We can try as hard as we can to make it so (thus why a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so vital) but any solution will be imperfect. Preventing Palestinian refugees from returning to their land is terribly unjust, but it’s less unjust than maintaining the status quo or shoving everyone into a state doomed to failure.

          As for reparations, Israel will pay them to a certain extent as long as it can a) annex the border settlement blocks and b) does not have to take very many Palestinian refugees. If money is the price to pay for a solution to the demographic crisis, Israel will take it in a second.

          I personally prefer an EU-style confederation between the states of Israel and Palestine, with an internationally mandated ‘condominium’ over the city of Jerusalem, UN protection of holy sites and a NATO-UN peacekeeping force in the Jordan Valley. That being said, everything other than the status quo is impossible right now, so its all dreams and fairy dust.

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