Prime Minister Yair Lapid announced his vision at the UN for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the two-state solution (2SS).
While many countries lauded Lapid, including the US, a policy recommendation based on an illusion is unlikely to succeed. The idea that Jewish and Arab states will coexist peacefully is widespread in contemporary academic and political circles but ignores the reality on the ground.
Unfortunately, for two reasons, a stable and peaceful outcome per the 2SS paradigm is unlikely to emerge soon: The Palestinian Arab and the Zionist national movements are not close to reaching a historic compromise, and the Palestinians have proven themselves unable to build a state.
Oslo and the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
FOR MOST Israelis, the Oslo interim agreements in the 1990s amounted to the beginning of separating from the Palestinians, a process that would eventually lead to partition. The Palestinian Authority was supposed to take over territories that the Israeli military evacuated and fulfill the national aspirations of the Palestinians, provide law and order, and prevent terrorism against Israel. The PA was also expected to negotiate a permanent settlement with Israel, bringing about a historic compromise between the two national movements.
Yet, despite repeated efforts, primarily by the US, this envisioned peace process failed to reach a comprehensive agreement.
The protagonists’ attitudes on the core issues of Jerusalem, refugees, and borders, are too far apart, and bridging the differences appears impossible. Israel’s positions have hardened since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000; threat perception has increased, leading to a noticeable decline in Israeli support for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Recent polls indicate that only a third of Jewish Israelis support the 2SS paradigm.
With intermittent Palestinian terrorism from the West Bank after 2000 and Gaza becoming a launching pad for thousands of missiles aimed at Israeli civilians after 2007, most Israelis stopped believing that the Palestinians are a partner for peace.
At this juncture, Palestinian society, under the spell of a nationalist and Islamic ethos, is unable to reach a compromise with the Zionist movement. Recent polls (March 2022) show that two-thirds of the Palestinians say Israel is an apartheid state, and 73% believe the Koran contains a prophecy about the demise of the State of Israel.
The proposition that statehood inevitably produces responsible behavior is doubtful, considering the number of leaders who have led their states into the abyss. The current Palestinian education system and official media incite hatred of Jews, who are blamed for all Palestinian misfortunes.
Moreover, since 2000, the role model for young Palestinians has been the “shahid” (martyr) who blows himself up among Jews. The Palestinians’ level of support for acts of violence against Israeli targets is staggering.
Indeed, Palestinian rejectionism won the day whenever a concrete partition was on the agenda, such as the one offered by former prime minister Ehud Barak in 2000 or the one proposed by former prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2007. Even the “moderate” Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas rejects the idea that Israel should be a Jewish state. Any Palestinian state will be dissatisfied with its borders and intent on using force to attain its goals.
Furthermore, Hamas’s more significant political clout, which views Israel’s mere existence as religious sacrilege, undermines any chance – if there ever was one – of reaching a compromise. As the Gaza affair makes clear, there is little reason to believe empowering radical Islamists will lead to moderation. Indeed, the continuous attacks on Israel from Hamas-ruled Gaza indicate that the “end of the occupation” and the “removal of settlements” are insufficient conditions for ending the conflict.
Finally, the two dueling societies still have the energy to battle and, more significantly, to absorb the anguish required to achieve their respective political objectives. Nationalism inspires people to endure pain and hardship during national wars. Often, societal exhaustion – rather than an opportunity for an optimal compromise – ends protracted ethnic conflict. If pain is the most influential factor on the learning curve of societies, it seems that Israelis and Palestinians have not suffered enough to settle.
The sober realization that a Palestinian state will not live peacefully next to Israel refutes the first assumption of the 2SS paradigm.
Why can't the Palestinians build a state?
THE SECOND assumption of the 2SS postulates that the Palestinian national movement would accomplish this goal, given the opportunity to build a state. This assumption is also divorced from the current political reality.
Not every ethnic group has state-building capabilities. Given the opportunity for self-rule, former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat established a corrupt, inefficient, lawless, and authoritarian political system. Arafat’s PA was a Byzantine system in which he ruled by divide-and-rule tactics. By allowing competition between leaders, agencies and even militias, he made himself the ultimate arbiter and dispenser of jobs and remuneration. This decentralized system eventually degenerated into chaos.
The system’s primary failure lay in the area most critical to state-building – a monopoly over the use of force. The plethora of armed militias defies central authority and preserves a fractured Palestinian community already made up of feuding families and clans.
To a significant extent, the PA is a failed state, defined by the lack of a monopoly on the use of force, the provision of only limited justice and services to the population, and the incapacity to maintain a legal and regulatory climate suitable to a modern economy.
Abbas, elected in January 2005 to head the PA, could not transcend Arafat’s political legacy. Abbas shied away from confronting the armed gangs and failed to centralize the security services. Indeed, the PA lost control of Gaza to Hamas and has continuous difficulties dismantling militias in the territory under its formal control. Noteworthy is that even Hamas has failed to acquire a monopoly over the use of force in Gaza, allowing armed organizations and clans to exist.
The understanding that the PA is not a functioning political entity has gradually penetrated the international community’s consciousness. Even the global media, mostly pro-Palestinian, are increasingly questioning the two-state formula’s feasibility. Similarly, the current international diplomatic discourse acknowledges the inability of the PA to serve as a peace partner for Israel by advocating international support for state-building.
The expectations that the Palestinians will build a modern state soon, even with Western assistance, are naive. It took centuries to build nation-states in Europe. Except for Egypt, a historical entity possessing a level of political cohesion, attempts at state-building in the Middle East have only partially succeeded. Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen are all examples of political entities grappling with the problem of establishing central authority and modernity.
UNFORTUNATELY, NOT every protracted conflict has an immediately available solution. In the absence of a negotiated agreement, conflict management is the appropriate strategy for dealing with the Israel-Palestinian Arab dispute.
Such a strategy aims to minimize the cost of armed conflict and preserve freedom of political maneuvering. Its goal is also to buy time, hoping the future may bring better alternatives. The lack of a clear end goal is not inspiring, yet this may be the best way to deal with a complex situation.
The writer is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.