The geopolitical developments in Israel and the Palestinian Territories can often feel like a looping nightmare. Negotiations end without a peace agreement. Hamas and Israel seesaw between murderous operations and uneasy cease-fires. The Palestinian Authority threatens to end security coordination for the billionth time. Jerusalem sets the region by the ears again after another controversial march, eviction, and/or police incident.
Amid all of the patterns and repetitions, however, there’s a broader shift – and the last few months have accelerated it. With PA control challenged internally in the West Bank, the most ideological right-wing government elected in the history of Israel and a de facto annexation that many of our future ministers want to formalize, we are hurtling towards a one-state reality, one that will end either the Jewish or democratic character of the State of Israel.
People have been declaring the death of the two-state solution since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. For a policy direction that was supposedly destroyed in 1995, it remains the most championed, reviled and generally debated ideological vision for the future of the region. Thirty years of obituaries have yet to convince the PLO to pursue a one-state solution, and the last ten years have actually moved Hamas closer to a two-state position, rather than moving Fatah away from it.
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Within Israel, there are several recipes for replacing the two-state solution. The most popular one by far is “shrinking the conflict.” Supporters of this policy cite its political neutrality as an advantage. On the surface, it allows Israelis to unite behind positive cosmetic changes on the ground without having to choose between Israeli annexation and Palestinian sovereignty.
In practice, it allows the settlement enterprise to put down stronger roots in the West Bank and increases the price that Israeli society (including the settlers themselves) will have to pay in order to end the hostilities. In the meantime, the conflict doesn’t “shrink” at all.
There is no viable alternative that ends the conflict and serves the national interests of both sides. This is why moderates in Israel, the Palestinian Territories and the international community are still officially standing behind the two-state solution. Other competing policy proposals are either glosses on a two-state solution or intellectual thought experiments that have no recognition, let alone support, among the broader publics.
The Israeli political left has been claiming for years that too much focus on a two-state solution would put off centrist voters. Without a compelling vision for the future, they have now lost both the center and the left, while Yair Lapid’s party, which focused on a two-state solution in the last campaign, grew by seven seats.
However bruised and sidelined, the two-state solution is still the only game in town. Those who have already eulogized it, must be prepared to face the alternative that the right is selling: ceaseless violence and entrenched inequality based on ethnicity.
Israel's last election round offers substantial evidence that a one-state reality would not be the democratic paradise that its more liberal proponents envision; the popularity of the far-right Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir clearly signals the political ramifications of annexation.
The next government is going to challenge the fabric of Israeli democracy through multiple channels: undermining the judicial system, targeting human rights organizations, expanding and legalizing settlements. The underlying common denominator of these changes is a vision of Israel as the permanent sovereign authority in the West Bank, and full acceptance of an eternal conflict with millions of Palestinian residents as a result.
It’s not difficult to imagine the conflict spreading beyond our immediate neighbors to other actors in the region, as well. Challenging the status quo on the Temple Mount, a policy priority for the extremist elements in the next government, is the one move that our partners in the Abraham Accords cannot afford to ignore.
The two-state solution is not inevitable, and the challenges to achieving it have never been greater. It’s become fashionable to depict the discourse around the two-state solution as one of naivety versus realism. This implies that our future has already been decided in favor of inevitable and endless bloodshed. The “realism” spreading throughout both societies today is just rebranded despair.
Rational actors can no longer afford to support this policy direction through lip service alone. The Biden administration may have washed its hands of negotiations, but in the absence of hope, the current wave of violence rocking the West Bank will only spread. Total security destabilization is a much worse headache for the United States than the one U.S. President Joe Biden is currently trying to avoid.
For years, Israeli, Palestinian and international actors committed to peace have been pursuing a policy of containment, protesting and preventing the worst changes on the ground. That approach was never enough, and has now become downright self-defeating.
It is time for the peace camp to decide whether it accepts the right-wing assumption of a never-ending conflict, in which our only goal is to create a more tempered occupation; or whether we are ready to provide an alternative vision which offers Israelis and Palestinians hope of security, dignity, and self-determination.
Supporting the two-state solution is not a theoretical position. It’s a strategic choice. Despite the best efforts of extremists on both sides to convince us otherwise, the power to destroy or realize an end to the conflict still rests in our hands.
Tehila Wenger is Deputy Director of the Israeli branch of the Geneva Initiative, a policy NGO working to increase support for a negotiated settlement to the conflict