Requiem for a Two-state Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

There are moments when the truth flies into your face and you realize your political program is no longer viable. But while I have no alternative to offer, I know one thing is sure: the two-state solution is dead.

Nachum Barnea is considered to be one of Israel’s most influential journalists, independent in his judgment, fair and balanced in his reporting and analysis. A few days ago he wrote an outspoken column in which he comes to the conclusion that the settlement project has reached its goal: the situation on the ground is irreversible, and the two-state solution is no longer possible.

The context of the column was Barnea’s visit to Migron, an outpost currently under the spotlight of Israeli media. The Palestinian owner of the land claims he never sold it, and Israel’s High Court ruled that it must be evacuated.

But Barnea is not impressed with this ruling. Around Migron there are many other settlements that no one touches, because they are not built on private land. Barnea claims that this turns the High Court into an accomplice of the settlement project:

“The original sin was committed by the High Court. In the second decade after the six-day war, when the settlement enterprise transformed from a marginal whim to the government's primary policy in the territories, the High Court was asked to present its stance by ruling on a series of petitions. Over the years the court's judges ignored the international law, which forbids the establishment of a settlement on conquered land, and instead focused on the issue of ownership: Jews are permitted to settle anywhere in the West Bank as long as the land is not Palestinian-owned.”

Barnea rarely expresses such outspoken views. He was interviewed in the popular TV Program “London and Kirschenbaum”, and said that the governments of both Israel and Palestine are not willing or able to pay the price of implementing the two-state solution, concluding that “Everybody knows how this will end.” When asked what he means, he answers, “There will be a bi-national west of the Jordan… the two-state solution is no longer possible.”

This was, of course, a surprise: most center-left politicians and commentators have a standard line: “Everybody knows how the Israel-Palestine conflict will end.” It is generally taken as a matter of course that they imply the two-state solution as proposed by Clinton in 2000. Barnea assumes that this received wisdom is, at this point, devoid of any realistic foundation.

As of late summer 2012, I cannot see any coherent plan to deal with reality on the ground. Only Israel’s extreme right takes a clear stance: National religious Rabbis quite simply say that Palestinians will not have political rights in the Greater Land of Israel, and some of the leading settlers say that Israeli democracy must be replaced by a theocracy.

Most leaders on Israel’s moderate right do not make clear statements. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and former Likud minister Moshe Arens are laudable exceptions: they think that Israel should annex the West Bank and give Palestinians full political rights, while maintaining its Jewish character. The problem is that they base this on a theory by Yoram Ettinger that there are only 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. None of Israel’s professional demographers endorses this idea, and neither does Israel’s Central Bureau of statistics.

The situation is unpalatable to say the least: Israel’s extreme right argues for theocratic apartheid, and the moderate right builds its political program on demographic illusions – or thinks that Palestinians will settle for some disconnected Bantustans. The center and the left are silent for the simple reason that they do not have a coherent position. They prefer to talk about social and economic issues and disregard the elephant in the middle of the room.

I came to the conclusion that the two-state solution was dead at the end of 2011, when Abbas’ bid for recognition of Palestine by the UN failed. Ever since I published this assessment, friends and readers have asked what I suggest as an alternative. Some thought that I had finally moved to the extreme left’s endorsement of the one-state solution; others thought that I had moved to the right.

Neither is the case. There are moments when reality flies into your face, and in which you realize that your political program is no longer viable, even though you do not endorse any of the alternatives. I do not derive much comfort from being in good company: The remainders of Israel’s left pay lip service to the two-state solution, knowing that there is no longer a way to implement it.

My conversations with European diplomats and politicians generate the impression that the same holds true for Western Europe. For lack of an alternative to the two-state solution, European governments have not endorsed any alternative conception, but they are beginning to realize that the two-state solution won’t happen.

As I do not have any coherent strategy to propose, I’ll end on a more general historical reflection: the Middle East is currently in an ongoing upheaval. Except for Egypt, Iran and Turkey, none of its states have historical depth and most of them have lacked political cohesion once dictators were removed. Nobody can safely predict how the Middle East’s map will look in a decade: for starters it is very unclear whether Syria will continue to exist as a unified state after Assad’s fall. Other states may disintegrate along ethnic and religious lines, too.

It may well be that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is but a reflection of the Middle East’s inherent instability. Unfortunately, this means that the area’s fate – including that of Israel - will be determined by blind historical forces rather than by foresight and planning.