It has become increasingly fashionable to question the viability of a two-state
solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such views overlook a deceptively
simple fact, which is supported by quantitative research on asymmetric
territorial conflicts. Simply put: powerful rivals don’t disappear.
are four basic outcomes which can occur in any bilateral territorial dispute:
exclusive control of the disputed land by either of the rivals, some kind of
split control, or indefinite avoidance of a clear outcome.
Israeli-Palestinian case, exclusive control by either side is extremely
unlikely. Israel has avoided the annexation of lands heavily populated by
Palestinians, as this would effectively put an end to its existence as the
Jewish nation-state; the Palestinians have neither the power to unilaterally
seize all of the land they claim nor to force Israel to formally incorporate
additional areas within its territory. Thus, exclusive control by either Israel
or the Palestinians is highly improbable.
rivalries (those waged between rivals of widely disparate capabilities) can be
grouped into two basic categories, each with a distinct and highly prevalent
outcome: “weak-contiguous” rivalries in which the disputed land is not
contiguous with the homeland territory of the more powerful rival; and “mutually
contiguous” rivalries in which the disputed land is contiguous with the home
territory of the more powerful party.
Weak-contiguous rivalries almost
always end with the weak rival in exclusive control of the disputed area.
Examples abound in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries among newly
independent states in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
rivalries usually continue indefinitely with the powerful rival in control of
the disputed land and the weak rival’s population incorporated within the
Numerous instances of minorities seeking independence
from the state in which they reside constitute the bulk of such cases.
Quantitative work on almost 400 territorial disputes in the 1816-2000 era
demonstrates these patterns to be very robust.
case is a mutually contiguous rivalry. There is something rather unique about
it, however, which sets it apart from most other asymmetric cases: the
demographic component of the rivals’ power is not correlated with the economic
and military components.
National capabilities are typically measured in
the conflict studies literature in terms of military, economic and demographic
Usually, the three are highly correlated. This pattern is
disrupted in the Israeli-Palestinian case. While Israel is vastly more powerful
than the Palestinians militarily and economically, the two populations are
essentially on a par demographically.
This fact makes a world of
difference when it comes to contemplating what is likely to lie in store for the
conflict, since it is one of the few instances in which the demographic factor
is perceived as a tangible threat to the more powerful side. Israeli governments
have avoided outright annexation of Judea and Samaria and extension of
citizenship to its Palestinian inhabitants, realizing that such a step would
fundamentally alter Israel’s character.
Yet, those who speak ominously of
an unavoidable “one-state solution” imply that somehow Israel could be compelled
to take such a step against its will. If this were a genuine possibility, one
would expect to see examples of such forced annexations in other
The complete absence of any such instance among the hundreds of
conflicts that have transpired in the last 200 years, coupled with a lack of any
plausible mechanism to actually bring it about, suggests that it is not a
Some states have found themselves contracting
territorially and giving up previously held areas for the establishment of a
weak rival’s state. Some, like the Soviet Union and Austria-Hungary, have in the
process renamed themselves in accordance with the core ethno- national component
of their polity. However, looking at the empirical record in the modern era, one
cannot find a case in which the powerful side in an asymmetric territorial
conflict has been eliminated altogether.
This basically sanguine view is
supported by empirical work on independence in the post- 1816 era that has shown
“cross-border-ethnic” ties – the presence of an ethnic group or groups in both
predecessor and successor (newly independent) states – to be fairly common,
occurring in about a third of the cases. On the downside, such ethnic ties are
strongly associated with post-independence conflict. On the upside, overall such
conflict has tended to be fairly minor in scope. For example, one study on 166
cases of independence between 1816 and 2001 has found that violence has erupted
only 2.5% of the time in the years following independence.
demographic trends are not leading inexorably to a one-state solution or to an
inevitable future of bloodshed, what are they leading to? It seems that the
alternative has already been playing out before our eyes: increasingly
consolidated Palestinian rule over those areas already under some form of
Palestinian control, which, pending a diplomatic breakthrough, will continue
solidifying. As noted, successful negotiations could transform this situation
into a formal two-state solution.
Thus, insofar as other instances of
territorial conflict can be instructive as to what is more or less likely to
occur in the Israeli-Palestinian case – and we should neither exaggerate nor
discount the extent to which they can – Israel is here to stay, and with it, so
will be some manner of two-state (or, until then, “two-entity”)
Whether and when it will be formalized and fleshed out
completely, or left as an increasingly well-defined status quo, depends on the
sides successfully negotiating a mutually acceptable agreement. The good news is
that in going about doing so – and quite contrary to conventional wisdom – time
is on their side.
The author is Deputy Consul General in Los Angeles.