This newsletter was shared with you by a TPM member. JOIN TPM
One must-read delivered daily to your inbox

Is A Two State Solution Really No Longer Possible?

 Member Newsletter
October 30, 2023 2:20 p.m.
GAZA CITY, GAZA - OCTOBER 10: Palestinian citizens inspect damage to their homes caused by Israeli airstrikes on October 10, 2023 in Gaza City, Gaza. Almost 800 people have died in Gaza, and 187, 000 displaced, after... GAZA CITY, GAZA - OCTOBER 10: Palestinian citizens inspect damage to their homes caused by Israeli airstrikes on October 10, 2023 in Gaza City, Gaza. Almost 800 people have died in Gaza, and 187, 000 displaced, after Israel launched sustained retaliatory air strikes after a large-scale attack by Hamas. On October 7, the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza by land, sea, and air, killing 1000 people and wounding more than 2000. Israeli soldiers and civilians have also been taken hostage by Hamas and moved into Gaza. The attack prompted a declaration of war by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images) MORE LESS

What can be called a “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians ended with the failure of the Camp David summit and the onset of the Second Intifada in late 2000. Over the subsequent years, as settlement activity continued, it became increasingly common, especially among the more hard-bitten and realist-minded, to say that the time had run out on a so-called “two state solution.” From different quarters this verdict had different meanings. For Israeli maximalists it was a concluding judgment on the folly of the Oslo Accords and refusal of territorial concessions. For Palestinians it signaled a rejection of territorial compromise born of disappointment with the failure of Oslo. More concretely it was a simple statement of the reality on the ground. The West Bank had become so shot through with settlements — not just the large agglomerations along the 1967 border but lines of control reaching much deeper into Palestinian areas — that it simply wasn’t possible to create a viable state even if there was the will to create one. And quite clearly there wasn’t the will to make one.

On the Israeli side, the Oslo Accords had been born of a strategic recognition on the part of significant elements of the Israeli national security establishment. It wasn’t possible to keep the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians in a permanently stateless/occupied status. Nor was it possible to absorb them into Israel since Israeli Jews would cease to make up the overwhelming majority of the population. The years between 2000 and 2008 represented a kind of back and forth holding pattern. Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009 was based on a very different premise: that the Palestinian issue could be managed indefinitely rather than resolved and with no major repercussions.

Among American opponents of the occupation, there’s often been a caricature of Netanyahu as an inveterate hawk, always hungry to annex more territory, expel more Palestinians, fight new wars. That’s not quite true. In national security and war-making, risk-aversion and extemporizing have been his hallmark. His argument to Israelis was something like, ‘You don’t need to resolve anything. Don’t worry about Palestinians. You can have your affluent, high-tech society and first world life style. I’ve got the Palestinian thing covered. Yes, your sons and daughters will do occupation duty in the West Bank and we’ll have occasional flareups of rocket barrages. But it’s all manageable and I’ll manage it.’

For those of us who never believed this could be true, it did slowly become a matter of reason over experience. That couldn’t go on forever. And yet, year after year somehow it did. Israel’s economy grew stronger. It normalized relations with more Arab countries. It even managed a de facto normalization and something close to a de facto, though sub rosa, alliance with Saudi Arabia. It couldn’t work and yet it kept working. Until it didn’t.

What exploded Netanyahu’s legitimacy and reputation on October 7th wasn’t just an abject national security failure. It exploded the whole idea that the occupation could be effectively managed and that Benjamin Netanyahu could manage it.

Which brings us back to the matter of two states.

People who face realities will tell you that two states is no longer possible. That window has closed. Two states is happy talk people use to evade or avoid facing the reality of the situation on the ground. Looking at a map it’s hard to disagree.

That’s what we’re told. And yet the exact opposite is the case.

Many think a two state reality or hope can only be borne of optimism. Quite the contrary. The current array of Israeli settlements across the West Bank are an immovable impediment to creating two states … until a future war wipes them from the map. Or until a future war drives out all the Palestinians living adjacent to current settlements. Indeed, it is hard to think of any two peoples for whom displacement, expulsion and exile are more central to historic experience and national identity. Who is so starry-eyed and foolish to think all of that must be in the past rather than the future?

It’s the so-called one state solution that is a sort of absurd daydream. Positing a binational secular state with equality and justice for both peoples is much easier than creating one. Any democratic polity, even by the most elastic definition, relies on some threshold level of consensus among a large majority of the population. Imagine looking at these two damaged peoples, capable of brutalizing each other to the extremes we are now seeing and actually thinking they could all be piled into a single state that wouldn’t immediately break down into paramilitary violence and civil chaos. Indeed, one of the surest, albeit bloodiest and misery-wracked paths to two states would be to try one state, allow the ensuing civil breakdown to play itself out and then partition that state into two states along the emerging battle lines. You might say this is a dark view of human nature. But absurdity is its own darkness.

From the other side of the equation, the surest path to, if not to a single state then a confederation, would be the creation of two states which could build trust over time and increasingly collaborate on issues such as water, security and trade. Both of these models are validated by the history of the Balkans in the 1990s and there the antagonism and violence were of much newer vintage than anything between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

I can’t speak to the Palestinian side of the equation because I don’t know their experience and who they are as I do the Israelis, though that understanding is certainly very incomplete. But with Jewish Israelis, the single state model imagines an ability to recognize equality, share power and more generally disenthrall themselves when they as a people have proved wholly unable to make much simpler concessions to create two states. There are certainly comparable improbable imaginings on the Palestinian side.

The Roman philosopher Seneca tells us that fate guides the willing and drags the unwilling. Peace and partition can come in many ways — through painful negotiation or bloody inter-communal violence. The current status quo may perpetuate itself for years or decades but it will never be free of violence and instability. People who believe a two state solution is no longer possible are guilty of a failure of imagination. But unlike what many think, it is not only a failure to dream but an equal failure to think of the nightmares that are always possible and have actually visited the two peoples in question many times.

Even if the Israelis are successful in toppling the Hamas government in Gaza and destroying its military capacity, such a success will be no more than a holding pattern if it is not followed by a broader political settlement involving both Gaza and the West Bank. In Israel the events of October 7th 2023 have represented a watershed in matters of politics and national security. The question is a watershed to what?

Did you enjoy this article?

Join TPM and get The Backchannel member newsletter along with unlimited access to all TPM articles and member features.

I'm already subscribed

Not yet a TPM Member?

I'm already subscribed

One must-read from Josh Marshall delivered weekly to your inbox

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

One must-read from Josh Marshall delivered weekly to your inbox

Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: