Is the Two-State Solution Obsolete? | Sojourners


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Is the Two-State Solution Obsolete?

Israeli settlements have made a viable Palestinian state impossible. Finding a new path to peace in the Middle East.
By Jonathan Kuttab

THE ISRAELI VICTORY in the 1967 war created a new reality in the region. Gradually, the outlines of a possible Grand Compromise began to take shape: Israel would return the land it captured in that war and in return the Palestinians and the Arab world would acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty over the 78 percent of Palestine that constituted the state of Israel on the eve of that war. This Grand Compromise, often referred to as “Land for Peace,” was enshrined in U.N. Resolution 242, and it gradually obtained the support of solid majorities among Palestinians and Arabs as well as Israelis and their supporters abroad. The two-state solution became the acknowledged goal for all well-meaning people as the ideal formula for a peaceful solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Those who rejected it from either side were viewed as maximalist hardliners and enemies to peace.

But as soon as the guns were silent in 1967, the issue of Jewish settlements in the newly occupied territories became a central and defining feature of the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. International law allowed neither annexation nor the demographic shifts required to fulfill the Zionist ideal in terms of ejecting the non-Jewish population and moving Jews into the newly occupied territories. All such Zionist activity, therefore, needed to be carefully camouflaged and justified in secular, non-Zionist terms. It had to be justified either as a security measure, a temporary arrangement, or the creation of bargaining chips for the peace negotiations that were to come.

Palestinians who happened to be out of the area at the end of the war, or who left because of the war, were promptly blocked from returning. Israel started taking property all over the West Bank and Gaza under a variety of excuses and legal machinations and making that land available for Jewish settlers. Jewish settlers started moving in and creating exclusive Jewish enclaves that gave every indication of permanence. It is noteworthy that these settlements were not Israeli per se (Israeli Arab citizens were barred from them) but specifically and exclusively Jewish.

The settlements totally, fully, and radically contradicted and undermined the possibility of a two-state solution. Any credible two-state solution required an “Arab” Palestine in 22 percent of historic Palestine, in return for abandoning Palestinian claims in Israel as it existed before the 1967 war. In this sense, settlements became the primary impediments for a two-state solution, and those dedicated to it necessarily saw the settlers as the spoilers of any possibility of implementing the Grand Compromise.

Facts on the ground

FROM THE BEGINNING, the goal of the settlement enterprise was to create “facts on the ground” that would be difficult, if not impossible, to change later. For example, some of the most immediate activities in the settlement realm were started as early as 1967 and centered on East Jerusalem. The entire Moghrabi Quarter in the Old City was razed to create a plaza in front of the Western Wall, and two rings of residential high-rise settlements were created in East Jerusalem, cutting it off from the rest of the West Bank. This policy eventually led to introducing enough Jews into the expanded East Jerusalem to create a Jewish majority there, thus making East Jerusalem a permanent part of the state of Israel.

Additional activities were undertaken in the rest of the occupied territories to create Jewish settlements there, complete with their own infrastructure and even a separate road system connecting them with each other and with Israel. These activities were in line with Zionist ideology that would eventually create irreversible new facts on the ground and preclude a two-state solution. Now, more than 50 years after the 1967 war, the “facts on the ground” have reached a level of solidity and permanence that makes them impossible to reverse.

Today there are more than 700,000 Jewish settlers who have moved into the occupied territories and made their homes there. They live in coherent communities, with homes, playgrounds, gardens, graveyards, swimming pools, neighbors, schools, a university, infrastructure, and all the fabric of civilian life. They are “at home” there as much as any Jewish Israeli is within the Green Line (the 1967 border). To even contemplate uprooting them at this time is to contemplate a major emotional and humanitarian disaster of monumental proportions. It is true that their presence was illegal in the first place and that they are actually living on stolen property. It is also true that the very structure of their communities is racist, discriminatory, and exclusivist, being closed to non-Jewish Israeli citizens. Furthermore, there is an international consensus on the illegality of these settlements.

However, all these factors are beside the point. To uproot them now would be so disruptive of the lives of the settlers, their children, and the entire fabric of Jewish Israeli society that it is difficult to contemplate. If an Israeli government were to attempt it, the effect would be so disruptive that it might well plunge the country into civil war. Even if such an outcome could be obtained by bribery (compensation), fear, or compulsion, there is no question as to its enormous cost in human terms alone, and that the political will to do it is beyond the capability of any Israeli government. The fact that tens of thousands of these settlers are also fundamentalists who have dedicated their lives to the settlement enterprise will further ensure that removing them could not be accomplished without the risk of starting a civil war. Settlers today constitute about 10 percent of the Jewish population of Israel, and they are well organized to resist any attempt to remove them.

In certain cases, the declared intent of the government was to locate some settlements in such a manner as to block the possibility of a future Palestinian state. At other times, the Israeli government would insist that such offending settlements were not authorized or legitimate and would be removed in an eventual peace agreement. Regardless, the result is that the location of settlements has become a factor that makes it impossible to establish a coherent and contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank.

No one in Israel today seriously contemplates any substantial uprooting or removal of settlers in the West Bank. This means that the basic premise of the two-state solution cannot possibly be realized since a Palestinian state cannot exist without massive removal of Jewish settlers and dismantlement of a large number, if not all, of the settlements.

It has been argued that the bulk of the settlements (the settlement blocks) can be allowed to remain and annexed to Israel through an agreement for land swaps, whereby Israel would grant a new Palestinian state equivalent land from Israel itself. However, even under the most optimistic scenarios, at least 100,000 settlers would still have to be removed to provide any serious coherent contiguous territory to such a state. This is not a realistic possibility. The settlements and the settler outposts are so scattered throughout the West Bank, and so firmly rooted in Israeli psychology and political reality, that a contiguous Palestinian state is no longer physically possible.

But if that is the case, what is the alternative? What is the endgame for those on both sides, as well as their supporters outside and the international community itself? Some out-of-the box thinking is required: a new strategy by which we may pursue peace, justice, some measure of stability, and an end to the conflict. Such new thinking would require a radical reformulation of the language, assumptions, and orientation of people on all sides. How to achieve it is a totally different question.

“A contiguous Palestinian state is no longer physically possible.”

New thinking is necessary—on both sides

TO THINK OUT of the box regarding a future for Israeli Jews and their supporters, and for Palestinian Arabs and their supporters, we must start by acknowledging that the ideologies of the two protagonists are basically incompatible: One ideology wanted to have a Jewish state in the land (whether by divine right, or historical connection, or existential need) which serves the interest of all Jews worldwide and is dedicated exclusively to their interests. This necessarily requires the elimination or subjugation and repression of the indigenous non-Jewish population. On the other hand, a different ideology insists on an Arab Palestine as part of the Arab world and treats all Jews—other than the original Palestinian Jews—as foreign invaders with no rights and connection to the land. Such an ideology logically requires the elimination or forced expulsion of most Israelis as recent immigrants and a denial of the Jewish religious and cultural aspirations and requirements.

New thinking, beyond the two-state solution, would require each group to sufficiently empathize with and understand the hopes, fears, interests, and aspirations of the other group. It would lead each group to sufficiently moderate and otherwise change its own ideology to accommodate the other group rather than vanquish and dominate it and deny it any legitimacy.

To achieve this outcome, we need to ask Zionists, “What is it that you really want? What are your rock bottom needs, and can those needs be accommodated in Palestine/Israel without thoroughly negating the interests and reality of the Palestinians?” We also need to ask the Palestinians, “What is it that you really want? What are your rock bottom needs, and can these needs be accomplished in a state where you are not dominant and where Israeli Jews are roughly equal in number to the Palestinian Arabs?”

Implicit in both questions is a belief that while an electoral democracy requires one-person, one-vote, a state that belongs to more than one major ethnic/religious group cannot afford to ignore the other. It must find a formula that accommodates all people and contains sufficient iron-clad legal and institutional guarantees to protect each group, particularly the minority against the caprice of the majority. This is especially true where historic differences and recent enmities shape present realities. New structures must be created, and iron-clad guarantees must be firmly established in constitutions and laws that cannot be altered or overturned by numerical majorities, or that require a supermajority of more than one house of representatives, so as to prevent them from being derailed by the group with a numerical majority.

In our situation, the system requires—in addition to internal legal and other controls—a high level of international support, guarantees, and legitimacy in light of the extensive interest of and involvement of significant outside actors. Specifically, the religious importance of the land—and particularly Jerusalem—to all three monotheistic religions gives the international community a significant stake. It is of interest to ensure the governance of the whole country in a manner that guarantees open access to it, and nonexclusive control over its destiny. Jewish or Muslim claims of exclusivity cannot be tolerated; thank God, since the times of the Crusaders, Christians have ceased to make such exclusive religious claims.

For a solution to commend itself to people of goodwill on both sides, and significant third parties as well, it must address the major needs of each community. These needs should be identified by each side as bottom-line irreducible requirements, as opposed to desired or demanded outcomes. These needs must be met and addressed by the new order regardless of whether either group is in the numeric majority or minority now or in the future.

This article is adapted with permission from Beyond the Two-State Solution, by Jonathan Kuttab (available from

This appears in the July 2021 issue of Sojourners

Jonathan Kuttab, co-founder of Nonviolence International, is executive director of Friends of Sabeel North America, from which this is adapated.