Recent violence in Jerusalem and Gaza—the worst in seven years—has once again turned the eyes of the world to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Two decades ago, hopes of a peace deal were dashed when the Oslo Accords failed. Still, many politicians and international observers continued to favour a two-state solution. In recent years, there has been increasing acknowledgement that Israelis and Palestinians have lived in a one-state reality for decades, and that the dream of Palestinian statehood seems further and further from reality. However, pursuit of a one-state solution would pose its own significant challenges.
In the early 20th century, the Zionist movement was born as tens of thousands of Jews fled persecution in Europe and sought to establish a Jewish homeland in Arab-majority Palestine. Tensions between the Jewish settlers and the Arab Palestinians eventually escalated into sectarian violence, and in 1948, the United Nations intervened with a plan to partition the region into two separate states—one Israeli and one Palestinian. Civil war erupted months later. The Arab-Israeli War left Israel with a state and with around 20% more land than was allocated to it in the UN plan, and the Palestinians were left stateless and confined to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the eastern quarter of Jerusalem.
In 1967, Israel annexed these Palestinian territories. The West Bank is still under Israeli military occupation today, and Palestinians living there have curtailed freedoms and effectively zero representation in government. The Palestinian Authority (PA), which is run by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and has been dominated by the secular party Fatah for decades, nominally represents the Palestinian people. However, the PA is impotent and suffers from deep-seated corruption, and the residents of the West Bank are essentially under the control of the Israeli state. Gaza, on the other hand, is ruled by the fundamentalist Islamist group Hamas, which was founded in 1987 with the mandate of destroying the state of Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian state. Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza in 2005, though it continues to control the flow of goods and people in and out of the region. In 2006, Hamas won a slight majority in the PA legislative elections, but Hamas and Fatah failed to form a coalition and the split left Hamas governing in Gaza and Fatah governing in the West Bank.
Only with the 1993 Oslo Accords did serious peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO begin, mediated by the Americans. Up until that point, Fatah’s rhetoric had centred on the destruction of the Israeli state, and this was a serious barrier to peace efforts. In 1993, Fatah agreed to recognize Israel’s right to self-determination, and at the same time, Israel agreed to recognize the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Several years of secret peace talks followed, with the goal of reaching a two-state solution in which Palestine would form its own state in Gaza and the West Bank. The fear that Iran would support the Palestinian cause was one important factor motivating Israel to resolve the conflict. The Oslo process broke down in 2000 (the reason is heavily debated). Shortly after, the second intifada, a violent Palestinian insurgency against Israeli forces, began, enflaming tensions and significantly increasing skepticism about the peace process, especially on Israel’s side.
There are a number of major roadblocks that make the resurrection of the two-state solution difficult. The first, as mentioned above, is the lack of a unified Palestinian government. There is little chance of cooperation between Fatah and Hamas, meaning that there is little chance that there will ever be a unified body representing all Palestinians in hypothetical negotiations with Israel. Additionally, it would be shocking if Israel agreed to negotiate with any government that included Hamas. Any agreement reached between Israel and the PA, then, would not guarantee an end to Hamas’s ongoing military actions in Israeli cities.
The second factor impairing the peace process is disagreement over the ‘right of return’ of Palestinian refugees currently scattered throughout the Middle East. In the 1948 war, more than 700,000 Palestinians were forced out in a mass displacement that Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (literally, ‘the Catastrophe’). An estimated 300,000 more were displaced in 1967. In total, these refugees and their descendants now number at over seven million, and they wish to return to their homes in Palestine. Israel staunchly opposes a reversal of the Nakba because it threatens to turn the Jewish people into a minority. Currently, about one-fifth of the population of Israel is Arab. The return of millions of Arab Palestinians to their homes in Israel, many of which are now occupied by Israelis, would undermine Israel’s fundamental identity as a Jewish nation. The subject is especially touchy because the Nakba was what made the creation of a majority-Jewish state in Palestine possible in the first place. Many see Israel’s opposition to allowing the refugees to return to Palestine as deeply hypocritical, however, since the very premise of the Zionist movement is the right that the Jews claim to return to the land from which they were displaced 2,000 years ago.
The third roadblock is the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers have been moving systematically into government-subsidized settlements in strategic points throughout the West Bank. The evictions of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, which sparked the recent outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, have become emblematic of the injustice of the Israeli resettlement campaign. Many in the international community believe that the West Bank settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids any state from forcibly transferring its own population into its occupied territories. Negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine would inevitably require some kind of resolution on this front.
Finally, there is the question of where exactly the borders between Israel and a putative Palestinian state would be drawn. Particularly contentious is the city of Jerusalem, which contains holy sites in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Israel claims the entire city for its own, but Palestine wants East Jerusalem to be the capital of the envisioned Palestinian state.
When taken at face-value, a two-state solution seems like the logical answer to a conflict between two groups so thoroughly divided. However, the key disputes that would need to be resolved to make such a solution possible are so deeply entrenched that some think that aspirations to a two-state solution at this point are misguided. For this reason, many argue that a one-state solution, in which Israeli and Palestinian territories would be combined to form a single nation between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, is the most likely outcome. (See Yousef Munayyer’s argument in Foreign Affairs or Nathan J. Brown’s article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.) Many observers, and certainly many Israelis and Palestinians, acknowledge this paradigm shift. The Trump administration did, for better or for worse. But many centrist and left-wing politicians, including President Biden, continue to evoke the goal of the two-state solution.
However, a one-state solution poses an existential threat to Israel as a democratic, Jewish nation. The incorporation of the Arab populations of Palestine’s territories as full and equal citizens, and especially the reversal of the Nakba, would create a unified state without a Jewish majority. Thus Israel would be losing its identity as a Jewish nation—a non-negotiable for most Israelis. The other option is to create an apartheid-like system by incorporating the Arab populations into Israel as second-class citizens without the right to vote, ensuring that Israel would continue to be governed by Jewish leaders and protecting the state’s Jewish character. This would require Israel to abandon its democratic identity, and would of course constitute an egregious human rights violation.
In many ways, the latter is already the unofficial reality in Palestine. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians living under a seemingly indefinite military occupation can hardly be considered democratic. In 2018, Israel formally declared that the right to self-determination is “unique to the Jewish people,” and does not apply to non-Jewish citizens. Palestinians living in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories are already second-class citizens without the same rights and freedoms as their Jewish counterparts. A recent report by Human Rights Watch concluded that Israel, through ongoing “movement restrictions, land expropriation, forcible transfer, denial of residency and nationality, and the mass suspension of civil rights,” is guilty of “the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
There has never been a simple path to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, either through a one-state solution or a two-state solution. Many of the central disputes in the conflict, especially the disputes over Hamas and Israeli security, the right to return of Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, and the partitioning of Jerusalem, often seem intractable. However, acknowledging that the situation has changed since the Oslo process of the 1990s and that a one-state solution may be the de facto outcome of the conflict can provide a new jumping-off point for efforts to achieve peace in the region. The international community, and particularly the Biden administration, must focus their efforts on ensuring that, if it comes down to that, a unified state will be democratic and just, with safety and full rights for every Jewish and Arab citizen.
A final note: resolving conflict in a just manner requires a certain level of mutual understanding and trust. Current relations between Israelis and Palestinians are moving farther and farther from both. Enabled in part by the spread of online misinformation, even onlookers with no stake in the conflict are becoming absorbed into a corrosive climate of hatred. Fighting in the streets between Jews and Arabs of the sort which is happening now has rarely been seen since 1948. Some fear that the violence could escalate into an all-out war. It is important to recognize that blame does not lie exclusively with one side or the other; both sides have committed atrocities, and in the end it is civilians, not the politicians who refuse to compromise, who suffer. Both sides also have internally consistent narratives about the conflict in which they strongly believe—both see the other side as colonizers of land that is rightfully theirs, and themselves as defenders of their people’s liberty—but have little sympathy for their opponent’s narrative. De-escalating the violence currently playing out between Israelis and Palestinians must involve efforts to address the climate of hatred and extremism underlying it.
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