Powerful rivals don’t disappear

Why a two-state solution is basically inevitable.

December 2, 2013 23:00
4 minute read.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams sit with US Secretary of Kerry in New York, Sept 27, 2013.

Livni, Erekat, Kerry and Indyk at negotiating meeting 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid )

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.

There 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.

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In the 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.

Asymmetric territorial 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.

Mutually contiguous rivalries usually continue indefinitely with the powerful rival in control of the disputed land and the weak rival’s population incorporated within the former’s polity.

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.

The Israeli-Palestinian 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 components.

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 contexts.

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 realistic possibility.

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.

So if 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”) solution.

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.

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