The World

The Israel-Palestine Debate Is Expanding—but the Options Are Only Shrinking

Are we running out of time for a two-state solution, or has the time already run out?

A wall seen in a landscape photo with houses in the background.
This picture taken on June 30 from east Jerusalem behind Israel’s controversial separation barrier shows the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank. Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Longtime Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller, writing in Foreign Policy, once referred to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a “religion,” in that it’s “driven by propositions that bind or adhere the believer to a compelling set of ideas that satisfy rationally or spiritually, but always obligate.” And no tenet is more central to the faith than the two-state solution.

So it’s not surprising that journalist Peter Beinart’s essay in the magazine Jewish Currents provoked such a reaction from the faithful last week. Beinart eloquently makes the case that progressive Jews should abandon the two-state solution paradigm and instead push for Jewish-Arab equality within a single state. He refers to Belgium and Northern Ireland as promising examples of “binational states” in which ethnic groups maintain a certain level of political autonomy while sharing one sovereign country.

Beinart’s argument isn’t brand new. It relies heavily on the 2018 book Beyond the Nation-State by historian Dmitry Shumsky. The Palestinian American activist and scholar Yousef Munayyer made his own comprehensive case for why one state is inevitable in Foreign Affairs last year. But it was still striking to hear this case made by Beinart, a prominent left-of-center but generally mainstream voice in the U.S. debate on Israel, who has long advocated the two-state solution, most notably in his 2012 book The Crisis of Zionism. That someone like Beinart can now countenance the idea of a not-solely-Jewish state is an indication of just how rapidly the debate on this topic is shifting. But, while his new essay may have shoved the Overton window of the American debate on Israeli-Palestinian issues open just a tad, that doesn’t mean it’s going to change the U.S.’s Israel-Palestine policy, and that’s true even if a U.S. administration less aligned with the Israeli right comes into office next year.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, director of the center-left “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group J Street, told me by email, “ ‘one state’ is not a solution, it’s the problem. The idea of a democratic state with equal rights for all between the Jordan and the Mediterranean may well have appeal in academic and intellectual circles as an abstract idea worthy of discussion. But in our view as a real-world solution it’s just about the only thing convincingly less likely than reaching a negotiated agreement to end the conflict by drawing a border that results in two viable, independent states.”

The Democratic Party’s 2020 platform reportedly contains almost no changes when it comes to Israel, despite growing pressure from the left to condemn the occupation of the Palestinian territories or place conditions on military aid. And not surprisingly, the party remains committed to a two-state solution.

In April, Antony Blinken, one of Joe Biden’s top foreign policy advisers, said that “pulling the plug on a two-state solution is pulling the plug, potentially, on an Israel that is not only secure but is Jewish and democratic—for the future. That’s not something any of us, who are ardent supporters of Israel, would want to see.” Even Sen. Bernie Sanders—the former kibbutznik, who has done more than anyone to expand the range of the U.S. debate on Israel—has made clear that he believes a one-state solution “would be the end of the State of Israel, and I support Israel’s right to exist.”

Palestinian leaders aren’t quite ready to abandon the two-state framework either. At an online event hosted by the Arab Center on Wednesday, Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a longtime veteran of Israel-Palestinian negotiations, was a bit cagey on the topic, saying “the two-state solution is not my position; it’s my concession.” But, he continued, the current official position of the PLO is “with the two-state solution, we are with international law.” He also suggested this could change if Israel moves forward with plans to annex large portions of Palestinian territory.

Indeed, the most serious threat right now to the two-state paradigm comes not from essays in niche Jewish American publications, but from the current Israeli government and its enablers in the Trump administration. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that he will not allow the creation of a Palestinian state—or at least anything resembling the traditional definition of a sovereign state under international law. Netanyahu had been due on July 1 to announce plans for annexation of a large portion of the West Bank, but those plans now seem to be on the backburner. Netanyahu’s rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz has suggested this is because the government is devoting its full attention to a resurgence of the coronavirus, but it also seems clear that the Israeli government was unable to obtain the full support of the Trump administration for its plan.

In his more discursive moments, Trump has suggested he could “live with” either a one-state or two-state solution, but officially, the administration remains committed to two states—sort of. Shaul Arieli, a retired Israel Defense Forces colonel and leading expert on Israeli-Palestinian territorial issues, notes in a forthcoming Israel Policy Forum report that the Jared Kushner–masterminded peace plan that the administration released earlier this year uses “key terms that were common during the preceding diplomatic process”—including “two states.” “However, it interprets these terms in a way that contradicts everything that was discussed and agreed to by the parties and the international community (led by the US) prior to its publication.” In other words, the Trump-Kushner plan still calls itself a “two-state solution,” but it would leave the Palestinians with only limited administrative sovereignty over a noncontiguous territory completely surrounded by Israel.

As a “peace plan,” the Trump-Kushner effort was dead on arrival, since Palestinian leaders—who have not engaged with the Trump administration since its decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018—did not even consider it. Arieli suggests that plan’s real purpose was not to solve the conflict but to “formalize the existing situation, where two different legal systems exist in the same area on the basis of an ethnic criterion, and to compound this by permitting an annexation that would create a reality of apartheid.”

Netanyahu’s annexation move would have threatened the existing situation—it would certainly be met with a furious international backlash if not the end of Palestinian security cooperation—which is why even many strident Israel hawks in the U.S. opposed it. The fact that the Trump administration, which has given the Israeli government a green light on nearly everything it has wanted to do, seems to have put the brakes on the Israeli plan, or at least stopped short of endorsing it, indicates just how difficult it is to challenge the two-state paradigm, even if it’s merely a rhetorical framework rather than an actual political intention.

Advocates of a two-state solution have been warning for years that it’s on the verge of becoming impossible, which raises the questions of when it will be too late and what could finally kill it off.

Netanyahu’s annexation plan, which may have involved as much as 30 percent of the West Bank, might have been such a tipping point. But even under the status quo, Beinart and others argue that Israeli settlement growth has already made two states unfeasible. “Two states might have been the beginning of a more lasting solution. We’ll likely never know because, in the decades since Palestinians accepted a state based in the West Bank, Israel has made one impossible,” he writes.

Others, like Arieli, claim we haven’t reached a tipping point yet and won’t any time soon, that most Israeli Jewish population growth on the West Bank has been in a couple of large settlements near the separation border, meaning most demographic issues can be resolved through relatively small land swaps.

This is very optimistic. As is Beinart’s suggestion that a binational state between the Jordan River and the sea will resemble contemporary Northern Ireland—hardly a model of effective governance—rather than the Yugoslavia of the early 1990s or Lebanon of the 1980s.

The two-state solution has persisted as a dominant paradigm largely because nobody has had a better idea. Polls show support for it in the region has fallen precipitously over the past decade—to 49 percent among Israelis and 43 percent among Palestinians—but that support for alternatives including a binational democratic state, annexation without full rights for Palestinians, and expulsion of the other group poll even lower.

Efforts to explore some of the less terrifying alternatives are necessary, as are challenges to the peace process community’s orthodoxy. But until there’s political will to challenge the status quo, all solutions are equally academic.