Two-State Solution in Israel-Palestine: crossing the Rubicon?

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Back in December 2002, the European Council rang its alarm bells for the first time “at the continuing settlement activities, which threaten to render the two-state solution physically impossible.” 1 Since then, innumerable Cassandras in Europe, the United States, the Arab world, Palestine and Israel have voiced their despair and warned about the perils of the fast fading two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. Year after year there has been a growing chorus of cries suggesting this may be the ‘last opportunity’ for a two-state solution, that we may be dangerously inching towards the shores of the two-state Rubicon. But how can we actually know when developments on the ground have become is it really irreversible? How can we determine with any degree of objectivity and precision how close we are to the Rubicon, or whether the Rubicon of the two state solution has already been crossed without anyone noticing?

The European Council on Foreign Relations has recently released its “Two-State Stress Test”.The project represents a comprehensive effort at distilling the core indicators of what might constitute progress or retreat on the accomplishment of a viable and contiguous two state solution in Israel and Palestine, by assessing quantitative and qualitative data for a set of indicators that make up the health status of the two state solution. The core indicators include well known dossiers on the final status negotiating agenda: territory, Jerusalem, security and refugees, as well as other factors deemed critical in the pursuit of the two-state solution: the state of international diplomatic activity aimed at advancing a solution, and the social, political and attitudinal trends amongst both Israeli and Palestinian societies.

So what story emerges from 2013? How does the two state solution fare this year? Predictably, the picture is not reassuring. The two state solution is under stress, in more than one way. Two sets of indicators emerge as most worrying. First is Israel’s territorial expansion in the West Bank, which has accelerated – quite typically – since Israeli-Palestinian talks resumed this year. The first half of 2013 saw a 70 percent increase in new construction, compared to the same period in 2012. The second noticeable development are the trends within Israeli elite and public debate. Key segments of the Israeli political elite, including prominent members of the governing coalition, are outright opposed to a two-state solution and openly support different forms of annexation of the West Bank. Alongside this, the Israeli public, while still lukewarmly supportive of two states (62 percent in favour), simply do not consider this to be a priority (10 percent rank negotiations a priority). Several other issues top their list of concerns, from domestic budgetary and socio-economic issues to the Iranian nuclear question.

Both “territory” and “Israeli political dynamics” put the two-state solution under severe strain. On other indicators, the project also notes considerable, yet less acute, strain, including settlement expansion and house demolitions in East Jerusalem, security, attitudes towards the settlement of the refugee question, and broader Palestinian attitudes towards a two-state -solution. The indicator that fares best is the “state of international diplomacy:” In 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry invested heavily in re-launching the peace process, he visited Israel and Palestine seven times since his appointment, and even the European Union finally began taking international law seriously in the conduct of its contractual relations with Israel (by excluding Israeli entities in the occupied territories as possible recipients of EU-awarded R&D grants and prizes).

Taken as a whole, two general reflections surface. The first regards the level of strain on the two state solution and whether and when such strain becomes intolerable to the point that a two state solution becomes unachievable. The static snapshot from 2013 paints a two-state solution in poor health, but still within reach. Developments on a whole are deeply troubling, but not irreversible. With sufficient political will from all sides, a two-state solution is still possible. The Rubicon has not been crossed.

But when we look at the issue over time, a different picture emerges. Had the two-state stress test been carried out over the last two decades, the succession of static snapshots year after year would have told a story of deteriorating health at least since 2000 (and arguably even before it). Each year developments took place making a two-state outcome more difficult to achieve. At times the deterioration accelerated, at other times it slowed down, in different years different indicators fared better or worse. A single snapshot may show that trends are irreversible; but looking at the bigger picture can we really still say the two state solution remains within reach? As the ECFR two-state stress test will be carried out year after year, it will be worth reflecting, a few years down the line, on what the aggregate story is actually telling us.

The second consideration regards the actual meaning of a two-state solution. The TSST selected indicators and assessed data on the basis of a specific benchmark: a two state solution as it emerged since the onset of the “Middle East Peace Process” two decades ago. A solution is thus taken to mean a final status agreement in compliance with the entire body of work produced from the 1993 Declaration of Principles onwards, including the 2000 Clinton parameters and all subsequent official and track-two proposals – for instance the Geneva accords. This understanding of a -two state solution is aimed at constructing two secure, viable and contiguous states premised on the notion of separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Security and self-determination would be achieved through separation between the two communities. This is the interpretation of a two state solution which is under severe strain, most importantly in view of Israel’s territorial expansion and the increasing acceptance in Israeli political debate of the notion of annexation.

Yet precisely because a separation-based two-state solution is under severe strain, the time may have come to widen the debate and engage in the possibility of other understandings of two states based on contact, power-sharing and consociation. As the separation based-two state solution recedes, a different interpretation of two states based on the freedom of movement and settlement, but in which political rights and citizenship would be exercised exclusively within the confines of one’s own community, may become more feasible. Such a different understanding of a two-state solution would not be easy to agree on. But it would ease negotiations over territory, continue to ensure self-determination for both nations, while at the same time addressing some of the 1948 issues such as refugees, which the separation-based two state solution woefully failed to adequately address.

Much like in the European Union, Italians, French or Germans are free to settle in one another’s country but retain citizenship and exercise political rights within their own nation-state, a contact-based two state solution in Israel and Palestine could do likewise. The dogma of separation is deeply entrenched in Israeli, Palestinian as well as the international community’s psyche, and will not quickly fade. But as the separation based two-state solution itself fades and one-state alternatives remain even less feasible, there may simply be no other option.

Nathalie Tocci is deputy director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali

1 European Council in Copenhagen on the 12-13 December 2002, Declaration on the Middle East. For similar declarations see also European Council in Thessaloniki on the 19-20 June 2003, Presidency Conclusions, (11638/03), point 86; Conclusions of the Council of Ministers on the Middle East, 20 June 2003; European Council in Brussels on the 16-17 October 2003, Presidency Conclusions, (15188/03); European Council in Brussels on 17-18 June 2004, Presidency Conclusions, (10679/2/04).

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