In defense of the two-state solution

Last week, Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire in a conflict that claimed nearly 250 lives. But the underlying status quo makes another round of fighting all but inevitable, and a fundamental solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems further away than ever.

Worse, the long-running American solution for the problem — a US-mediated peace process aimed at creating a “two-state solution,” with an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank existing alongside Israel — has proven to be a dismal failure.

Israel has become more and more entrenched in the West Bank, building new Jewish settlements that make it increasingly difficult to imagine a viable Palestinian state on that land. Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership remains deeply divided: The militant group Hamas controls Gaza, while Fatah, a secular nationalist political party, nominally administers the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority (with Israel still ultimately in control).

This has led to a growing sense among analysts and experts that the two-state solution is no longer possible. Writing in the New York Times last week, the Arab Center’s Yousef Munayyer proclaimed “a growing global consensus” that “the two-state solution is dead. Israel has killed it.” Last year, influential Jewish American writer Peter Beinart declared that “the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades — a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews — has failed.”

But while pointing out the failings of the current approach is vital, its critics go too far. As far away as it may seem, the two-state solution is still the best possible option available for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s in large part because the alternatives are even less plausible.

The most commonly proposed replacement is a “one-state solution,” which would merge Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip into a single democratic country with equal rights for Arabs and Jews. Under this scenario, Arab Muslims would outnumber Jews, thus ending Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Nor would Palestinians have a state purely to call their own, instead having to accommodate a large Jewish minority.

One state is even less likely to happen than a two-state solution. It would involve the most powerful player in the conflict, Israel, choosing to abandon its raison d’être. It’s far more likely to abandon West Bank settlements than to give up on Zionism wholesale.

This speaks to the deeper reason the two-state solution remains better than the leading alternative: It is the only realistic way of dealing with the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one between two distinct nations. Israelis and Palestinians have fundamentally different identities and different ideas about how they want to be governed; in one state, one of their political projects would necessarily be defeated. This would make future violence more likely, not less.

Reviving the goal of a two-state solution is vital. But to do that, it needs to be separated from the moribund peace process. Instead, the US should pursue a strategy that could be termed “deoccupation”: one that aims to weaken the Israeli occupation’s hold on Israeli minds and Palestinian lives while, ultimately, creating the conditions under which its dismantling may become possible.