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By Alon Ben-Meir for RUSI.org
In the wake of the Gaza war questions are being raised about the prospect of a two-state solution and whether or not this remaining option was buried in Gaza. Many seem to forget that the Gaza war, while deeply tragic, is a rude awakening to a majority of Israelis and Palestinians about the futility of continuing the conflict. It might have also been necessary to jolt both camps into realising that future wars may escalate into an even worse scenario if nothing is done. In the end, a two-state solution is the only viable option simply because the status quo is not sustainable, and no one has come up with a better idea acceptable to both parties.
Strong rejectionist elements on both sides in and outside their governments have managed over the years to undermine that prospect. Moreover, the frequent violence — whether large-scale like the the Gaza war and second Intifada, or small scale like the firing of rockets and targeted killings — not only derails negotiations but creates a deep sense of anxiety and lost confidence. As a result, negotiations often break down, which makes it ever harder to heal the wounds and mitigate the deepening hatred in the streets.
From the time it was first alluded to during the 1977 Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations, the idea of the two-state solution has remained constant despite war and violent uprisings. It remains grounded in both facts and in irreversible developments that have precluded any other alternative. This includes the near universal recognition of both Israel’s and the Palestinians' right to the same land, Israeli-Palestinian agreements in the Madrid peace conference in 1992, the Oslo accord in 1993, several peace plans including the Clinton Parameters in 2000, the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 and the Road Map in 2003 which serves as the official United States policy for the region. In addition, for Israel the emergence of a daunting demographic reality has excluded any solution that could compromise the Jewish national identity of the state, leaving the two-state solution the only plausible option.
Palestinians arguing that if Israel rejects the two-state solution it must instead pursue the one-state solution do not appreciate Israel’s unshakable commitment to maintaining the Jewish national identity of the state. The Palestinians need no convincing to accept the one state option: it would almost immediately make Palestinians the demographic majority. The combined number of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper will likely exceed that of the Jews within a decade.
As a result, the Palestinians would have majority control should the government want to remain democratic. This is precisely why Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the father of the settlement movement, determined that, from a demographic perspective, continued occupation was not sustainable. As a result, he reversed his life-long policy on the expansion of settlements and abandoned the idea of greater Israel, however cherished that goal might have for he and much of his party. This momentous decision subsequently led to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and plans to withdraw from much of the West Bank. This remains central to the Kadima party’s platform.
Despite this, the Israelis and the Palestinians may not be able to achieve a durable peace without outside pressure. The consequences of the Gaza war and the crippling of Hamas militarily must be measured against the Palestinians’ collective long-term interests. Unless Hamas and the other extremist groups join in a unity government and renounce violent resistance they will continue to be the greatest impediment to sustainable progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Violence which begets violence has always been a major source of contention. To be sure, other symbols of occupation, particularly the settlements, have raised doubt in the mind of many Palestinians. But violence and missed opportunities following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 have perpetuated a conflict whose resolution, based on the two-state solution, has long since been envisioned as the only viable one remaining.
The changing political climate in the Middle East, the prospect of a Palestinian unity government, the Israeli national elections in February and the advent of the Obama administration all present both opportunities and obstacles to progress. The key will be the Obama administration and whether it is prepared to use its full weight to get the parties to enter into serious negotiations.
The appointment of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as special envoy to the Middle East is a positive sign for America’s re-engagement in the region and commitment toward the Arab-Israeli peace process. Mitchell, who co-authored the 2001 Mitchell Commission Report after the Al-Aqsa Intifada, is a seasoned veteran in Israeli-Palestinian issues and may prove to be a tough and unbiased broker in the region.
With the new foreign policy team including Hillary Clinton, Jim Jones, and a bevy of new envoys, the United States must break down the old modes and be willing to get directly involved in negotiations as part of the solution. In addition, the Obama administration must develop a multilateral approach to engage other players like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the EU to contribute to the peace process.
However disheartening the current war in Gaza has been, it can become the catalyst for productive peace negotiations that will lead to the two-state solution. Moreover, moderate Palestinians and Israelis representing the majority in both camps have reached the point of exhaustion as was demonstrated by the calm that was maintained in the West Bank throughout the Gaza war. The continuation of the conflict can no longer improve their position over each other substantially enough to justify the cost involved.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern Studies at The New School and at New York University and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.