Whether a two-state solution and the current Palestinian political leadership can still survive in its absence, and what, if anything, might replace them remain open questions. The precarious position of Abbas’ leadership, a lack of clarity over succession, and the threat of further aid cuts, raise the very real possibility of the PA’s collapse. The PA’s demise would represent the most tangible—and likely fatal—blow to the goal of two states. For many, particularly on the Israeli and American right, these may seem like tolerable if not welcome outcomes carrying few costs for Israel or the United States. The Republican Party, which currently controls both houses of Congress and the White House, has already expunged references to a two-state solution from its 2016 platform and “reject[s] the false notion that Israel is an occupier.” At a minimum, recent developments in the region would seem to justify the administration’s downgrading of the issue. After all, the Palestinian issue no longer seems to be a priority for Washington’s allies in the region, and the conflict appear to be an impediment to security and economic ties between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors. Given the century-old history of the conflict, however, there is no reason to believe things will remain as they are indefinitely.
In reality, the demise of a two-state solution would have far-reaching implications—and not just for Palestinians. The Oslo process has helped to sustain the ambiguous status quo of neither one state nor two. Without the prospect of an independent state, however, the focus of Palestinian political aspirations will inevitably move toward the demand for equal citizenship rights for all people now living under Israeli rule. This shift is already happening among younger Palestinians, many of whom now see boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel as the surest way to attain their rights.
The prospect of Israel maintaining indefinite control over millions of stateless Palestinians while denying them citizenship and other basic rights would also pose a dilemma for American politicians, especially in liberal circles, where support for Israel traditionally has been strong but has begun to show signs of decline. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, a strong supporter of Israel, has warned that without a two-state solution Israel risked becoming “an apartheid state.” In his valedictory speech, Kerry summed up the dilemma facing both countries: “How does Israel reconcile a permanent occupation with its democratic ideals? How does the United States continue to defend that and still live up to our own democratic ideals? Nobody has ever provided good answers to those questions because there aren’t any.” The growing polarization in the American discourse over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict may not provide ready answers, but it could form the basis for a lively—and long-overdue—debate.
Khaled Elgindy is a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings and a founding board member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association.