Don’t Rush the Two-State Solution

Don’t Rush the Two-State Solution

Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem ready for an implementation of the two-state solution in the short term, assuming the conflict ceases.

Let’s be clear from the outset: a two-state outcome could be the solution—perhaps even the most desirable—to the fraught Israeli-Palestinian issue. However, its success or failure may hinge on context and timing. Even the best ideas and projects may go to waste if these are wrong. In the case at hand, neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian side seems ready for an implementation of the two-state solution following a ceasefire (itself far from certain). As a political solution cannot be sustainable when imposed over the people’s heads, the current state of public opinion is a crucial element any external player needs to consider.

In the current context of four months of violence, it is bewildering to hear Western leaders rake up the “two-state solution” from what seemed to be near oblivion. For several decades, a commitment to it had been an established policy position for more or less like-minded governments in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. However, for most of them, the Israeli-Palestinian question had ceased to be a pressing issue as frustration over its intricacies and other geopolitical matters mounted.

The Israeli-Palestinian problem is indeed complex. Questions related to the coexistence of Jews and Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea have been around for over a century. Responsibility is manifold and usually interconnected in a fateful chain of action and reaction. In addition, while serious internal rifts characterize both camps, their interests are also linked to those of regional and global actors.

In such a situation, applying the two-state solution, or any alternative, may be as tempting as a patch placed on top of an injury. However, if the inside trauma is not appropriately diagnosed and given a chance (including time) to heal correctly, festering will come out, covering the patch and eventually soaking it off. Therefore, in medicine, as in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, it is necessary to apply wound care first and only when the healing process is sufficiently underway, begin working towards consolidating the situation.

As things stand now, Israeli society is still reeling from the Hamas attacks, with national media covering the military operations in Gaza and Lebanon, recalling the 134 hostages, and still bringing first-hand stories and recordings of survivors and victims of the October 7 bloodshed. It is not entirely surprising that a majority of Israelis reject the scenario in which a Palestinian state would exist alongside Israel. Even before the current war, confidence levels had been low for several years.

Not surprisingly, a mirroring image is to be found on the Palestinian side. A Gallup poll carried out before October 2023 already showed low support for a two-state solution in the context of growing anger over the Israeli presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as stringencies imposed on Gaza. The present military operations in all of the Palestinian territories do anything but instill feelings of acceptance towards Israel. Another hurdle is the lack of political experience among Palestinians and their leaders in setting up and running state institutions representative of and responsible to the entire population. Whether the responsibility for this lies with themselves or with Israel (or both) is less relevant here: external actors need to be aware of this situation and address it before hastily cobbling together a Palestinian state. 

What can be done if rushing the two-state solution is not a possible option right now? Several steps are possible. A precondition is restoring the relative calm that reigned before October 7. As long as Palestinians and Israelis live their daily lives in fear, most measures will remain ineffective. However, once basic safety is again guaranteed, it is time to assess whether previous Israeli-Palestinian economic exchanges can be resumed and possibly developed. While in the past, these exchanges have not led to a lasting peace, the matter-of-fact nature of financial transactions is a workable form of cooperation that sidesteps issues more inflammatory issues like national and historical rights. 

Of course, political questions about governance in the different territories will inevitably crop up. In this respect, external players must invest in understanding the developments and trends that have played out in Palestinian politics so far. It would be illusory to expect the emergence of stable Palestinian institutions overnight. Yet, the more outsiders gain insight into the internal complexity on the Palestinian side, the better they can assist in building those institutions. 

It is also essential to keep an eye on developments within Israel, where a political-judicial crisis veered into a societal crisis before the war and risks erupting again as soon as the current military operations are concluded. 

With sufficiently stable and representative institutions in place, it would be tempting to put in motion a political process between Israelis and Palestinians and hope for a swift outcome. However, any rapprochement at the political level needs to be matched by parallel steps among the population, something which can be done, for instance, by bolstering and expanding on existing People to People initiatives. Crucially, any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must consider and tackle the structural entrenchment of narratives in crucial aspects of daily life, such as education, media, design of public spaces, language, culture, and commemorative events. Such a process will likely take (at least) a generation. Otherwise, “spoiler” actions and attacks similar to those seen in the 1990s are a matter of time.

As these past months, “Al-Aqsa Flood” and “Swords of Iron” have again illustrated that Israelis and Palestinians are unlikely to solve their disputes by themselves, mediation by third parties appears indispensable. An internationally negotiated two-state solution has often been termed the “only viable alternative,” which may be true even after the recent horrors. However, global actors set on playing a constructive role on the Israeli-Palestinian scene would be wise to keep it at hand as an option among others and, in the current moment, refrain from pushing for it.

Dr. Alexander Loengarov is a senior affiliated fellow at the Institute for International Law at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven, Belgium) and a former official of the European Economic and Social Committee of the European Union.