Despite its centenary history, the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is still far from being solved and continues to be a major source of instability for the whole Middle Eastern region. Throughout the decades, a number of different plans have been outlined in order to settle the dispute, but each of them has proved unable to meet and satisfy the requests of the two parties involved. The two-state model for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is based on the establishment of two independent states in the disputed areas of historic Palestine: one for the Jewish people and the other for the Palestinian people. The separation of the land into two states is still considered by the international community as the only just solution to the long-standing conflict, and many countries and institutions, as well as parts of both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships, officially support this framework, at least nominally. In a meeting held on July 29th, Egypt and Jordan have renewed their commitment to working towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state based on June 1967 borders, East Jerusalem being its capital. The European Union, an important actor with regard to the peace process in the Middle East, is among the main sponsors of a two-state settlement, whose principles are found in several U.N. Security Council resolutions, such as UNSC resolutions 242 and 338. The United Nations as well considers the establishment of two separate states as the only feasible path towards peace, ruling out any other plan B. Despite its primacy, at least in the public discourse, the feasibility of the two-state solution seems on the verge of its definitive collapse, especially after the most recent proposals of the Israeli PM Netanyahu on the annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Moreover, although this solution remains the most popular one among both Israelis and Palestinians, a 2018 poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research Center found that only 43% of Palestinians and Israeli Jews support the two-state plan, the lowest percentage in the last twenty years, while 54% of Palestinians and 48% of Jews reject this option. The remaining share of the two respondents is divided among three alternatives: one-state solution with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians; one-state solution with the denial of equal rights for one side; one-state solution with the expulsion of the other side from the entire territory of historic Palestine.
This article will begin by examining the history of the two-state solution from the Peel Commission proposal until the most recent developments, in order to highlight how this plan has evolved over a century; the relationship between Israeli strategic weaknesses and the establishment of a Palestinian state will then be investigated, followed by an analysis on the role and implications of the Israeli Wall. The final section will suggest that, given the constraints and limitations of the two-state plan, the parties should examine the viability of a one-state solution in future negotiations.
A Brief History of the Two-State Solution
At the end of the 19th century, when the first nationalist movements were exploiting the fragility of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, both the Palestinian Arab and the Jewish nationalist movements started to perceive Palestine as the land of a potential unitary state, and in this respect the idea was shared by the two fronts. The Jews, on one hand, have historically identified historic Palestine as their holy land and, following the growth of political Zionism, started to endorse the establishment of a Jewish state in that region. Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, began to envisage the creation of their independent statehood during the 1920s, following the establishment of the French and British mandates over former Ottoman territories.
Since the beginning, it was clear that Jewish nationalism would collide with other nationalist movements, be it Arab, Islamic or Palestinian. For instance, Negib Azoury, a Lebanese Christian Ottoman official, was the first to predict the impossibility of coexistence between the Jewish and the Arab nationalist movements; indeed, already in 1905, he concluded that the fight between the two nationalist stances would end only with the victory of one party over the other.
Following the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which endorsed “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, the number of Jews in Palestine started to mount. According to Metzer, from 1919 to 1949 more than 450.000 Jews settled in Mandatory Palestine, leading to the Great Palestinian Revolt of 1936 – 1939. The number of inhabitants of Palestine grew from 750.000 in 1922 (78% Muslims, 11% Jews), to 1.620.000 in 1942 (61% Muslims, 30% Jews). The stunning increase of Jews living in Palestine can well explain the social unrest of that period. In order to examine the causes of this revolt, Great Britain set up the Peel Commission in 1936, whose final report called for the creation of two separate states in the British Mandate of Palestine, for the first time in history. A second proposal for the partition of the land was outlined in 1947 by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). The plan was slightly modified and then voted on by the U.N General Assembly in 1947 with the Resolution 181; the Resolution was rejected by Arab states but succeeded with 33 votes in favour, 13 against and 10 abstentions. The first Arab-Israeli war then broke out in 1948 and the state of Israel was proclaimed. Following the 1967 war and the Israeli expansion, notably in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula up to the Suez canal, the U.N. Security Council adopted the Resolution 242, which called for the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied”. From that moment, every framework not based on pre-1967 boundaries would be rejected by the Palestinians.
In the mid-1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the person of Said Hammani, indicated that it would be willing to accept the partition of the land based on a two-state solution, at least on an interim basis. The 1970s were important because several United Nations resolutions involved the two-state solution, such as the U.N. General Assembly Resolution 3236, adopted in 1974, which affirmed the “right to national independence and sovereignty” of the Palestinians. The 1979 peace agreement between the state of Israel and Egypt (Camp David Accords) set the principles which laid the foundation for the creation of a Palestinian state. In 1987 the first Intifada arose, leading the international community and the two parties involved in the conflict to speed up the diplomatic efforts in order to reach an agreement. The 1991 Madrid conference did not achieve major results, but for the first time the Israeli government accepted to negotiate with the PLO.
A potential watershed moment came in 1993, when in Oslo a series of meetings were held between Israel’s foreign minister Shimon Peres and the PLO. The result of the meetings was the recognition by the PLO of Israel’s right to exist, the acceptance of U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and the renounce to violence and terrorism. In return, Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians and agreed to set up a Palestinian self-government which would last five years. After that five-year period, negotiations would be held to discuss the status of Jerusalem, final borders, settlements, the return of Palestinian refugees and other controversial issues. In 1994, Israel withdrew from Gaza and Jericho and the Palestinian Authority was founded. In the following two years, other territories were handed to the Palestinians and three different areas were created: Area A under full Palestinian civil and security control, Area B under Palestinian civil control but with joint Israeli-Palestinian security control, Area C with Israeli control over security, planning and construction.
Despite the efforts and the Oslo premises, both sides failed to resolve the most contentious issues of their dispute and violence continued, as well as Israeli occupation and settlement building. Further summits and agreements, such as the 2000 Camp David Summit, the 2001 Summit of Taba or the 2005 Road Map, all failed to both solve Israeli-Palestinian conflict and clear the way to a Palestinian statehood.
Israel’s Strategic Weaknesses and Palestinian Statehood
The two-state framework presents several pros and cons. A vast majority of U.N. member states, 163 in total, support a Palestinian state; in addition, the two-state solution is the preferred framework for consecutive United States administrations, the European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League. Supporters of the two-state division, especially in Israel, point to the fact that establishing a Palestinian state would allow Israel to be a truly Jewish and democratic state, thus avoiding any demographic risk of living in a country dominated by the Palestinians, whose number is projected to overcome that of Jews. Moreover, on Israel’s side, the integration of Palestinians would result in a deeply divided country from a socio-economic point of view. Finally, Palestinian statehood would allow Palestinians to reach their goal of setting up a self-governed state. On the side of the cons, despite this centrality of the two-state framework, any attempt to bring this solution to life has failed and hopes are vanishing as well, therefore opening the way for other proposals. Secondly, some experts such as the former U.N. Special Rapporteur Falk argue that the establishment of two states based on ethnic and religious lines will only lead to a continuation of the sectarian violence throughout the region. Another reason which contributes to making the formation of a Palestinian state an unachievable result is linked to Israel’s security concerns; state survival and security of the land within its own borders are the top priority of every country in the world. These priorities are particularly relevant for the state of Israel which, since the beginning of its history, has been opposed by a multitude of actors for several reasons, such as the perceived illegitimacy of its existence, its alliance with Western imperialist powers and its Jewish nature. The perception of an existential threat to its survival has been a daily presence in the life of the country and, most importantly, has been shaping both its domestic and foreign agenda. As highlighted by Dan Diker, Israel’s security requirements have lost their primacy since the 1993 Oslo Agreement, sacrificing them in the service of reaching a compromise between the two parties. Due to both the impossibility to reach a durable agreement with the Palestinians and the uncertainties surrounding the regional environment, Israel is no longer willing to adopt such a policy and is instead re-shifting its approach into a security-based one; this approach also reflects Israel’s commitment to rely on its forces only for the defense of the state.
The geography of the state of Israel makes the country particularly vulnerable to military attacks, especially to attacks from the air. If a Palestinian state was established, the vulnerability of Israel would likely increase. The first issue that should be taken into account when analyzing the risks associated with the foundation of the Palestinian state is the potential takeover of Judea and Samaria by forces hostile to Israel, which could easily launch deadly attacks on the Israeli territory; in particular, Israel fears that a Palestinian state may fall into the hands of militant factions of Fatah or Hamas, whose military apparatuses may target the center of Israel, where 70% of the population resides, from the mountain ridge overlooking the Israeli plain. Hamas, for instance, is believed to own up to six thousand rockets, including dozens of long-range missiles and thousands of short-range but very precise rockets. Furthermore, Tel Aviv’s vulnerability is further increased by the very thin waistline of the state – in certain points the distance between the sea and the Palestinian territories is only 14 km; this narrow territory might become almost indefensible if a Palestinian state is established on the Eastern side of the country. The worst scenario for Israel would be a crisis with a neighboring state – such as Lebanon or Syria – which would concentrate the army away from the most vulnerable areas of the Israeli territory. The strategic importance of the strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank, in addition to the population residing there, is due to the presence of several key infrastructures for the Israeli state, such as the Ben-Gurion airport, the 204 kms Trans-Israel Highway and the National Water Carrier, whose aim is to transfer water from the Sea of Galilee to the whole country; all these infrastructures can easily become the target of enemy fire coming from the hills of the West Bank overlooking the low-lying coastal plain. Additionally, a hostile entity would pose a serious threat to other key infrastructures of the Israeli state, such as chemical and biological factories and, above all, nuclear power plants like Dimona, which have been indicated as potential targets of a missile strike several times in the past, notably by the Iranians and Hezbollah.
A Palestinian entity would be dangerous for Israel both in the case it was militarized, and in the case it wasn’t; in the former scenario terrorist groups may easily seize stockpiles of weapons belonging to the legitimate Palestinian security forces, while in the latter case the security forces of the demilitarized Palestinian state might not have the capacity to effectively fight against potential infiltration of radical militias, which could be helped by foreign proxies such as the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The security of Israel would be further undermined by the fragility of the Arab states following the so-called Arab Spring. The 2011 revolts have showed that the majority of Arab governments in the Middle East are not able to guarantee stability both internally and in the whole region; given this weakness, jihadist forces have spread all over the Middle East and are now able to directly threaten Israel, considering also the increased military capabilities of these organizations. Another consequence of the Arab states’ instability is the growing power of Tehran. The Islamic Republic, indeed, has managed to intervene in a series of internal conflicts through its support to non-state actors; all that in order to increase its status and prestige in the region. If a Palestinian state was established, Israel would be directly threatened by an alliance between the Palestinians and the Iranian regime, an alliance which is already established since the Iranians have so far given assistance to groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The Wall and its Effects on the Feasibility of a Palestinian State
The already difficult path toward a solution that implies two separate states is further complicated by the Wall which Israel have been building in the West Bank since 2002. In particular, the Wall is being employed as a geopolitical tool, being considered as a “manifesto of a borderland of fragmentation and the obliteration of Palestinian human landscape in the West Bank”. The Wall has an impact on several issues, such as borders, water, Jerusalem and settlements. With regard to border, the Wall undermines the de-facto border established between Israel and the Palestinian territories: the so-called Green Line, which refers to the 1949 armistice line established between Israel and the Arab states in the aftermath of the 1948 war, is the border to which Israel has to withdraw its military forces according to the both the 242 and the 338 United Nations Security Council Resolutions. Only 15% of the Wall runs either on the Green Line or in Israel; the remaining portion is within the West Bank, thus limiting the territory of the Palestinians, who believe that the Wall, since it is being built unilaterally and with no consideration for their demands and rights, undermines the kernel of the Palestinian statehood.
In a region where water scarcity is a prominent issue, and in the future major conflicts could arise in order to control this vital resource, Israeli authorities have adopted a policy of controlling the water resources of the West Bank which has been imposing restrictions on water consumption by the Palestinians. There is a huge discrepancy in water utilization between Israel’s settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank: in 2013, for instance, 600.000 settlers used six times more water than 3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank; furthermore, Israel frequently sabotages Palestinian infrastructures.
The Wall has an impact on another issue which is jeopardizing the peace process, that is Jerusalem. Since the occupation of the Arab East part of the city in 1967, Israel has been implementing policies aimed at guaranteeing a Jewish demographic hegemony there. The Wall contributes to enfolding more than 43% of the Jerusalem governorate within the Western Segregation Zone and, as part of the Greater Jerusalem plan, it disrupts the northern part of the West Bank from the southern part; Jerusalem would therefore be cut from the heartland of the West Bank.
Israeli settlements constitute the greatest challenge to a Palestinian statehood. The establishment of settlements, which began in 1967, is in clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, whose article 49 states that “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive”. Despite both the international humanitarian law explicitly prohibiting this practice and the widespread criticism of this policy, Israel has so far established more than 200 settlements and currently more than 600 thousand people live in those areas, who enjoy almost the same benefits and rights as citizens living within Israel. The planning processes adopted by the Israeli governments have been characterized by a statutory nature in order to better legitimize the acquisition of new land and to remove the confiscated territories from the jurisdiction of any Palestinian self-administration, therefore preventing these areas to fall under Palestinian authority in a future agreement; furthermore, Israel has confiscated West Bank lands and Palestinian properties by appealing to decreed military orders. With regard to the settlements, the importance of the Wall lies in the fact that it links those settlements with Israel: the majority of the settlements are positioned in the Western Segregation Zone, while few are found within the Eastern Segregation Zone; settlements located between the two above-mentioned zones are distributed across the West Bank in a way that turns Palestinian towns and villages into apartheid-like cantons. The geo-demographic implications of the Wall are evident, since its trajectory is specifically designed to include as many Israeli settlements as possible. The already harmful effects of the Wall for the Palestinian population will likely be exacerbated by the increasing number of Palestinians living in the West Bank, who will have to face limited natural resources and increasingly difficult living conditions. All of this will negatively impact the likelihood of a Palestinian statehood.
The Wall which Israel has been building since 2002 is the most noticeable and one of the greatest threats to the establishment of a Palestinian state. It challenges the internationally-recognized border between the state of Israel and Palestinian territories and dramatically impacts the availability of water resources to the Palestinians. Additionally, the Wall has been employed by the Israelis as a tool to implement their agenda toward one of the most controversial aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that is Jerusalem. Finally, this physical barrier has been used by Tel Aviv both to guard Israeli settlements in the West Bank and to isolate the Palestinians into enclaves, thus making the institution of a Palestinian state an almost unreachable goal.
Despite the international endorsement of the two-state solution and the support which this solution enjoys within the majority of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, a resolution of the conflict based on the creation of two separate state entities now seems unachievable. In the last few years, no steps were taken in order to pursue the objective of establishing an independent Palestinian statehood, and events in the region have contributed to burying this plan almost permanently. Moreover, the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has recently proposed a plan to annex the Jordan Valley to Israel, thus giving the ultimate blow to the two-state solution.
If in the coming years the position of the international community remains unchanged, stressing the United Nations viewpoint which refuses any plan B, then it will be mandatory to address Israel’s strategic vulnerabilities, which shape the country’s foreign policy and in particular its stance concerning the Palestinian issue. A demilitarized Palestinian state does not seem to be a viable alternative: a state without proper military forces and with a very limited room for maneuver with regard to its own security will likely be an unacceptable option for the Palestinians; additionally, demilitarization will not completely resolve Israel’s weakness: for instance, the country would remain extremely vulnerable to rocket attacks from the Palestinian entity, which would not have the capabilities to oppose the infiltration of groups and militias hostile to Israel. Besides, it is very unlikely that Israel will give up on its West Bank settlements and the Wall, which constitute a stumbling block to the Palestinian statehood. As long as Benjamin Netanyahu remains in power, there will not be any chance for the establishment of a Palestinian entity; and even when the current PM steps down, given the uncertainties, the difficulties and the political unwillingness surrounding the two-state option, a Palestinian state would unlikely see the light.
In view of the unfeasibility of the two-state solution, should the parties re-consider and work on a settlement based on a one-state entity with equal rights? While waiting for the release of the political portion of the so-called Deal of the Century, the viability of a single state for both people should be granted further research.References
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