The Two-State Solution Vacuum

In Israel/Palestine, it is an established truism that there is no alternative to the two-state solution. When the Oslo Accord was signed in September 1993, this solution was its central premise.

Developments over the past 30 years, however, have rendered it impossible. This is something we must talk about.

Rabin and Arafat shake hands at The White House in 1993. Photo: Mark Reinstein (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Jerusalem, settlements and annexation

The death of the two-state solution has left a vacuum that is difficult to fill. Even so, one cannot simply brush aside accounts of the reality of its demise as purely political, as former Norwegian foreign minister Ine Eriksen Søreide does in response to my analysis. There is a long list of specific political developments that have rendered a two-state solution impossible, but developments concerning Jerusalem and settlements are particularly crucial.

Jerusalem: The two-state solution requires Jerusalem to be divided, physically or conceptually, between Israel and the Palestinians, with the city becoming the capital of both states. Since 1967, Israel has consolidated its control over East Jerusalem, physically and legally. In contrast to its approach in the rest of the West Bank, Israel has annexed East Jerusalem. Until Trump became president, the United States took the same position as the rest of the world, namely that Jerusalem was a ‘final status issue’, and that the city could not be recognised as Israel’s capital until a peace agreement was in place.

In December 2017, the United States changed its policy and recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In 2020, Trump went further and declared the city to be Israel’s undivided capital. With such clear support for Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem from the United States, it is impossible to envisage how the rest of the international community could get Israel to change its policy and share the city with a future Palestinian state.

Settlements: The two-state solution requires the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as Gaza, to become the territory of a future Palestinian state. The West Bank has become completely fragmented by various Israeli security measures, by infrastructure for settlements, and by homes for approximately 700,000 Israeli settlers. As long ago as 2007, the World Bank estimated that Palestinians had access to only 50 percent of the West Bank. Israel has since then expanded its control. All Israeli governments since 1967 have contributed to increasing settler numbers, but now leading extremist settlers hold high-ranking positions in the Israeli government. Accordingly, the trend is not only towards growing numbers of settlers, but also towards the legalization of existing outposts and the establishment of further settlements.

Those Israeli political parties that could support a withdrawal from the occupied West Bank have long performed poorly in Israeli elections, hovering around the electoral threshold for representation. The debate has now shifted far more towards arguments over whether to annex parts of the West Bank. President Trump changed American policy on this issue too, by signalling that Israel would be able to retain all the settlements in any peace deal, and by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s pronouncement that the settlements formed part of the State of Israel. President Biden has not shown any willingness to change course. Both the internal and external pressures that could have gotten Israel to change these developments have disappeared.

The absence of alternatives

Nothing in today’s situation suggests that a two-state solution is possible. At the same time, other solutions fall short. A one-state solution, whereby the whole territory would become a single democratic state, would require two things: Israel to give citizenship to all Palestinians in the occupied territories (and thus abandon the essence of Zionism, for Israel to exist as a Jewish state); and also for Palestinians to demand Israeli citizenship (and thus abandon the essence of Palestinian nationalism, the existence of an independent Palestinian nation state).

If it is impossible to get Israel to give up control over the 22 percent of historic Palestine that comprises the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, it is futile to think that the state would abandon its fundamental ideology. Meanwhile, federal solutions of various kinds run into the same wall as the two-state solution. The Israeli occupation has become so firmly entrenched that there is no prospect of dismantling it.

In unknown territory

In step with the negative developments on the ground in Israel/Palestine, a gap has developed between how politicians and diplomats speak about the situation and how academics and human rights organizations describe it. While human rights organizations and academics have increasingly begun to describe the situation on the ground as one-state reality and apartheid, the standard political formulation continues to be one of ‘actively supporting the goal of Israel and Palestine as two states within secure and internationally recognised borders’.

Unfortunately, reality has superseded any prospect of a two-state solution being a realistic goal. For a long time, politicians have been warning that the window for a two-state solution is about to close, but now there have been so many of these warnings that it’s like crying wolf. The point that people were warning about is behind us, but the political approach remains unchanged. In my opinion, neither politicians, diplomats, researchers nor human rights organizations have good answers for what should be done, but the map must match the territory if one is to succeed in shaping a policy that will boost the chances of positive change.

For over 30 years, Norway has invested enormous amounts of political and economic capital in the two-state solution while that solution has crumbled. I have great sympathy for the Norwegian diplomats and politicians who have devoted countless hours to working for such a solution, while it ran through their fingers. What is one to do now?

This is an important debate that we must engage in. If Norway wishes to continue to be a relevant actor in Israel/Palestine, the Norwegian government should use its position to lead an international assessment of what policy should be implemented, and what solutions are realistic, in light of the altered reality.

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