Is This the End of the Two-State Solution?

The consequences and possibilities of the civil war in Gaza.

Masked Hamas militants

The United Nations has carried out approximately 60 “peace-keeping missions” since World War II. Only 14 of them were established before the end of the 1980s, and almost 50 started after the end of the Cold War. The trend is toward getting involved in trying to solve local conflicts. And now the world has one more problem on its hands: what to do with the Gaza Strip? Ideas are in short supply.

Two years ago, when Ariel Sharon decided to pull Israel out of Gaza, he failed miserably in one respect: Israel didn’t get the security it wished for; the daily shelling of Israeli towns continued and even intensified. However, he did succeed in transforming Gaza from an Israeli headache into a Palestinian problem, thus making the prospect for a Palestinian state grimmer than ever.

Presumably, this has been a terrible week for the region’s fragile peace camp, and even worse for Palestinian nationalists. With Hamas now controlling practically all of Gaza and the refugee camps surrounding it, any talk about a “Palestinian Authority” needs to be taken with a grain of salt: Which authority—the more moderate one controlling the West Bank or the radical one controlling Gaza?

The leadership in the West Bank seeks compromise; the one in Gaza confrontation. The West Bank is headed by a man the world is ready to do business with; Gaza has a radical leader at home and is controlled by an even more radical leader sitting in Damascus. The regime in the West Bank is supported and encouraged by Washington; the one in Gaza is shunned by both the United States and Israel. As a matter of fact, Hamas decided to confront moderate Fatah forces sooner rather than later, because it feared that international support would strengthen Fatah so much that it could not be defeated in the future.

And it is a dreadful spectacle. Shootings, executions, people thrown out of windows and off roofs, civilians caught in the line of fire. It is a civil war in all its ugliness, and it is not over yet. As is always the case with such wars, only two outcomes are possible: one camp winning and taking control, or a split. In Lebanon, the world wants to help the central government control the whole country, but in Iraq many scholars and politicians now suggest a division into three separate entities.

Thinking seriously about the Palestinian Authority, all the factors seem to point to the latter, Iraqi-style, option. Gaza is separated geographically from the West Bank, its culture and people are different, it is isolated and surrounded by Israel and Egypt. And most of all, no force in the world seems ready to try to wrestle it away from Hamas. It’s too risky, too dangerous, and too costly.

It was June 24, 2002—almost five years ago—when President Bush called for “two states, living side by side in peace and security.” In 10 days, he will make another speech on the same topic. But what will he say?

A couple of days ago, meeting with the NBC News editorial board, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the 2002 speech. According to her interpretation, it was this speech, and Bush’s vision, that deserve the credit for changing the minds of the “great bulk” of Israelis and Palestinians. Today, according to polls, most of them want to see a two-state solution. “People act as if it just kind of happened magically,” Rice said, “Well, of course not. It happened because it’s a policy that Bush articulated early and has pursued ever since.”

But in this much-admired 2002 speech, Bush didn’t just call for a two-state solution. He also set some conditions, among them that the Palestinian people would “elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty.” The Palestinians didn’t follow the script. They elected a moderate president and a radical parliament. And if it wasn’t always clear which can speak authoritatively for the “people,” this week it’s clear enough that each can speak for a fraction of the population, and no one can speak for them all.

“The American strategy has totally collapsed,” Israeli officials said this week. First, they carried out an exercise in democracy, and that led to the election of Hamas. Then they abandoned democracy and tried to arm Fatah operatives in Gaza so they would fight Hamas. This approach didn’t work out very well, either. The next step will be to isolate Gaza and hope to prevent the internal struggle from spilling into the West Bank.

It’s no wonder that everyone involved in this issue is now madly seeking “new ideas.” A state in the West Bank only, leaving Gaza to its fate? (Would that state be viable, and who would take care of Gaza?) A three-state solution? (Why give Hamas a base from which it could cause trouble?) A return to the Jordanian-Egyptian solution? (Let them deal with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. There’s one problem: They aren’t interested.) An international force? (Hamas promised to treat such a force as an “occupying power.” Any volunteers?) Start talking to Hamas? (This won’t solve the internal Palestinian problems.) Keep fighting for Gaza? (Fatah seems to be losing its appetite for conflict, and, even with the support it has received from the West, doesn’t have enough muscle to stay in the fight.)

The one idea no one in his right mind is taking seriously this week is the old formula of the two-state solution that will solve, once and for all, and in a timely manner, the “Palestinian problem.” The best people can hope for is a lengthy process in which a more moderate entity in the West Bank, established with the help and cooperation of Israel and the United States, will serve as a “shining example,” as one diplomat chose to frame it, for those Palestinians left behind under Hamas’ rule. This process started today, with the announcement by President Mahmoud Abbas—the moderate from the West Bank—that he is dissolving the unity government of Hamas and Fatah and declaring the government headed by Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh to be unconstitutional. 

In 2004, in a lengthy interview with Ha’aretz, Ariel Sharon’s aide Dov Weisglass uttered some words that provoked a great deal of criticism. In light of this week’s events, they seem almost prophetic, even if not exactly in the way he intended them to be. The pullout plan, Weisglass said, “supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” As a result, he said, “you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state” until “the Palestinians turn into Finns.”

This week, that seems a very long time in the future.