By: Omar Dweik
2021 has been an animated year for Palestine and Israel. It is well known that the Palestinians have fallen on rough times since former U.S. President Trump took office. Financing for the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) and the Palestinian Authority was slashed, the US administration recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and several Arab countries normalised relations with Tel Aviv as a result of US diplomatic efforts. To make matters worse for the Palestinians, the Trump Middle East peace proposition was essentially nothing more than an entrenchment of the current situation on the ground, which the Palestinians desperately seek to change. It is therefore unsurprising that the Palestinians saw Biden’s election as a positive development. Nonetheless, Biden’s presidency was met with cautious optimism since the former senator has a longstanding record of supporting the Hebrew state. Israel, meanwhile, seems bitterly divided, having gone through repeated cycles of elections. Benjamin Netanyahu was removed from office after a wide range of political parties (including an Arab-Islamist one) banded together and formed a coalition which comprised of a mosaic of different ideologies and views with far-right-winger Bennett at the helm (who will be replaced by centrist Yair Lapid in 2023). However, Bennett had a rocky start to his premiership, as he was denounced as a traitor and a liar by right-wing voters.
Undoubtedly, the Palestinian leadership did not shed a tear over the departure of Benjamin Netanyahu from office. Yet, as his predecessor, Bennett has voiced his opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Nonetheless, for the first time since 2014, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held high-level meetings with an Israeli minister. On the 30th of August 2021, Defence Minister Benny Gantz visited Abbas in Ramallah where they discussed civil and security matters. Several months later, on the 29th of December, Abbas returned the favour, visiting the Israeli Defence minister at his home in Tel Aviv.
While these meetings were not insignificant, they received much less attention in the international media than Muna and Mohammed al-Kurd. The sibling activists rose to prominence following the highly mediatised planned eviction (in contradiction to International Law as forced evictions and settlement construction are contrary to article 49 of the Geneva Conventions) of over a dozen Palestinian families from their homes in the highly sought-after neighbourhood of Shaikh Jarrah, to make way for Israeli settlers. What made the al-Kurds so remarkable was their ability to rally support for their cause which reinvigorated the Palestinian National Movement. When the 2021 Hamas-Israel war broke out, protests erupted in virtually every major Israeli and Palestinian city against the violence. In addition, international pressure to halt the fighting mounted as hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the streets around the globe in solidarity with the Palestinians. The al-Kurd siblings were a central reason behind this show of solidarity with the Palestinians. Well-articulated and charming, the twins provided a window into the lives of people living under occupation. Through a series of viral videos, they managed to humanise the international image of the families threatened by eviction and changed the perception that violent acts were predominantly carried out by the Palestinians. While the Biden administration initially treated the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a low-priority issue, the al-Kurd family’s activism helped ramp up protests in the U.S. against the occupation and the Gaza war, prompting significant U.S. pressure on Israel to halt the hostilities in Gaza (albeit it being behind closed doors).
Despite these developments, peace talks between Palestine and Israel remain distant. Muffled calls sound occasionally in Western capitals to renew peace talks. Yet, there are no signs that global leaders are actively pressuring Israel and Palestine to return to the negotiating table. Additionally, Naftali Bennett stated that he sees “no point” in meeting Abbas and that the establishment of a Palestinian state would be a great mistake. On the other side of the wall, ageing president Abbas is losing support among the Palestinian population, and the rift between his party (Fatah) and Hamas remains a major obstacle for national unity (let alone the effectuation of a peace plan). It is unsurprising then, that for the first time since the UN partition plan was adopted in 1947, support for the one-(binational)state solution has surpassed support for the two-state model among the Palestinians in the West-Bank (this was already the case in Gaza). This begs the question: is it still favourable to pursue the two-state solution?
Shortly after the end of World War II, Britain transferred its mandate over Palestine to the newly established UN The panel of eleven countries then decided that partitioning the tiny strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea was the most viable solution to end the hostility and violence between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine. While the plan was unanimously adopted, Iran (as part of the eleven countries) initially staunchly opposed the partitioning as it predicted long-term instability and fighting. Yet, following significant pressure from the other ten members, Iran moved to approve the plan, with catastrophic results. Almost immediately after the adoption of the plan, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out, which spelt the prelude to many more rounds of fighting. At the core of the disagreement lies the Israeli and Palestinian perception that the entirety of the land belongs to them, and that seizing any inch of territory would be a favour to the other party rather than the fulfilment of a right. Effectively, separating the land is perceived as amputating a limb by both the Palestinians and Israelis and significantly reduces the potential for the necessary concessions to reach a peace agreement. While partitioning the land is difficult, the Palestinians and Israelis wish to be separated politically but view the establishment of a state alongside theirs as an existential threat to their own (this has been further aggravated by the collapse of the Oslo Accords in the early 2000s), further complicating the matter. However, world leaders including the Biden administration reiterate their commitment to this model.
Many international experts, including Professor Dov Waxman of Oxford University, Mathias Mossberg of Lund University, and Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institute, have declared the end of the two-state solution. This thesis also seems to hold true when interrogating the situation on the ground. Currently, there are 677.000 settlers living in the West Bank, an additional 270.000 in East Jerusalem. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett staunchly opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, and faith in the two-state solution is at a historically low point. Particularly important is the lack of trust between Israelis and Palestinians. Currently, only 31% of Israelis believe the Palestinians want a two-state solution, and 36% of the Palestinians believe Israelis support this structure. Furthermore, the decaying one-party authoritarian system of Mahmoud Abbas has receded into obscurity up to a point where approximately 80% of the Palestinians call for his resignation and 59% view the Palestinian Authority as a burden rather than an asset according to Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. This significantly reduces the Palestinian Authority’s room to manoeuvre since it lacks the legitimacy to materialise far-reaching concessions to turn the two-state solution into reality.
While many explanations have been devised as to why peace between Palestine and Israel has faltered, the truth of the matter is that the two-state solution does not provide sufficient benefits to either Palestine or Israel. The demands of the Palestinians surpass what Israel is willing to provide in return. Israel is the stronger party to the conflict and as long as a peace agreement does not confer sufficient benefits to the Hebrew state, it has no incentive to make politically unpopular concessions such as dismantling the settlements. In addition, Israel is unwilling to partition the land as it would make the country significantly less effective at thwarting any attack on its territory (Israel’s most densely populated area is the coastal plain around Tel Aviv and is approximately 15 km wide at its narrowest point when severed from the West-Bank). And these issues still ignore the sensitive topics of Jerusalem, water resources, and refugees.
The principal argument in favour of the two-state solution is that the Palestinians and Israelis have the right to self-determination. Israel argues that one bi-national state would undermine Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity. If the Palestinians were to be incorporated in the Israeli political process, Israel would cease to be a Jewish majority state, and the only country by-and-for Jews (in the eyes of Israel at least) would thus cease to exist. However, if under a one-state structure Palestinians would be deprived of enjoying equal political rights, and thus enabled to partake in the Israeli political process on the basis of their ascriptive characteristics, the country would by definition cease to be democratic. Meanwhile, Israel fears that a Palestinian state would be hostile to Israel, undermining its security and potentially posing an existential threat to the Hebrew state. As such, Israeli leaders since the Olmert government (2006-2009) have favoured a “state minus” structure where Palestine would be an autonomous region within Israel over which the latter exercises overarching security control. Naturally, this falls largely short of the Palestinian demand for self-determination as it denies Palestinians autonomous political, cultural, social and economic rule.
Any peace structure should take into account these elements. A two-state solution aggravates these issues, rather than resolving them. The establishment of two completely separate states results in mutual distrust and on top of that, necessitates major territorial concessions on both sides. It is therefore time to explore different models for peace, particularly a confederate “EU-like” structure as it is more flexible, promotes cooperation, and foregoes the need for painful concessions.
In essence, the foundations for an EU-like structure between Palestine and Israel are already in place. There is a common Palestinian and Israeli market, the PA and Israel use the same currency, the infrastructure is integrated, and there is a certain level of cooperation in areas such as security between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Furthermore, while porous borders are currently complicated to achieve, the prospect of freedom of movement could entice both parties to make more far-reaching concessions. Settlements would not need to be disbanded as Israelis living on Palestinian territory could travel freely to Israel while contributing towards the Palestinian economy, and cities as Jerusalem would not need to be physically partitioned. Furthermore, it would be within both Palestinian and Israeli interest to maintain a robust security regime as an attack on either one by external forces would have far-reaching effects for both prospective states as the economies are integrated. In addition, Jerusalem could serve as the capital of the union, satisfying both Palestinian and Israeli desires for the ancient city to serve as their capital. However, perhaps more importantly, an EU-like structure is less disruptive to the present status quo and therefore more feasible in the short-term. Whereas a two-state solution is an end-stop since it is difficult to alter once established, structures like the EU are in continuous development and mirror the domestic political sentiment and trends of its members. It is not unthinkable therefore, that a short term peace agreement with loose cooperative structures and closed borders could morph into a much more integrated structure with porous borders over time.
Naturally, however, such a structure could only function when Palestine and Israel are equals and thus necessitates the recognition of Palestine as a state. While this is a big step for Israel, it would cement its Jewish and democratic nature since the Palestinians would be politically separated. Additionally, as security would be a common interest, the current cooperative regime between Palestine and Israel could be expanded and institutionalised to resemble a joint-command structure allowing Israel indirect presence in Palestine without the need to have military personnel on the ground. The Palestinians have also offered Israel the establishment of a NATO base with an Israeli presence in the Jordan valley to dissuade any incursions into Israel via the newly established Palestinian state in previous agreements. Lastly, since Palestine and Israel would have common security interests, it would not be unthinkable that Arab countries would be more amenable to establish security ties with the union, and thus contribute towards Israeli security needs (especially following the Abraham Accords which established some security cooperation between Israel and Arab States).
Naturally, these suggestions are speculative at this stage, but to achieve peace between Palestine and Israel, a solution must work with the desires of the Palestinians and Israelis rather than against them. While theoretically, the two-state solution makes sense, the practical implementation thereof is difficult to attain since it requires far-reaching concessions the Palestinians and Israelis are not ready to make. Rather than taking a pre-set model as a starting point for negotiations, the international community needs to encourage any structure acceptable to the Palestinians and Israelis. Solutions for issues such as borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements must be treated in isolation and a structure for peace modelled towards the individual solutions found for these issues, rather than treating them as a subset of an overall peace structure.
The entry of an Islamist-Arab party into an Israeli government headed by a former far-right settler proves that cooperation is possible despite disagreement. Furthermore, the mass mobilisation of Arab-Israelis and left-wing Israelis following the activism of the al-Kurd twins show that Palestine and Israel are intertwined and therefore difficult to sever through a two-state model. However, an EU-like model allows for the political separation of Palestine and Israel without a radical disruption of the status quo. The international community must capitalise on the political developments in Palestine and Israel of last year. Furthermore, rather than reiterating their commitment to the two-state model, the international community must adopt and promote new thinking regarding solutions for Palestine and Israel to bring an end to the conflict through a lasting peace that guarantees the rights of all peoples between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.