The ‘two-state solution’ assumes a State of Palestine is possible — but is it?


Anyone who wants to be regarded as in the mainstream of the Middle East debate at the moment has to declare solemn support for the “two-state solution” to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is taken to mean a settlement which would see the State of Israel, admitted to the United Nations in May 1949, exist alongside a State of Palestine, currently a “non-member observer state” at the U.N. But a huge question mark hangs over what that Palestinian state would look like.

Sensing a groundswell of anti-Israel sentiment in the international community, Hamas has also begun flirting with the idea of a two-state solution. Khalil al-Hayya, who represents Gaza City on the suspended Palestinian Legislative Council and is a member of Hamas’s Qatar-based Political Bureau, stated that the terrorist organization would disband its military units, the al-Qassam Brigades, if a “fully sovereign Palestinian state” were recognized.

However, al-Hayya said separately to a London-based Arabic newspaper that any accommodation with Israel would merely be an interim measure, and asserted a commitment to the “historic right to all Palestinian lands” — by which he means all of the former Mandate for Palestine, including what is now the State of Israel. This is hardly surprising: Hamas’s 1988 founding charter, a ranting document of wild-eyed antisemitism, lays claim to “every inch of Palestine,” which it describes as “an Islamic Waqf land consecrated for Moslem generations until Judgement Day.”

The charter was updated in 2017, but the revision was deeply ambivalent. There was a concession to the notion of a Palestinian state on the borders existing before the 1967 Six Day War, but Khaled Mashal, then chairman of Hamas’s Political Bureau, told al-Jazeera at the time that “our national principles have remained unchanged. There is no contradiction.” The likelihood of Hamas and the government of Israel reaching a mutually intelligible understanding of a “two-state solution” is therefore small.

Even if we do accept the idea of two states in a scenario in which Hamas disavows its desire to destroy the State of Israel and carry out genocide against the Jewish population of the Middle East, what would a sovereign Palestinian state look like? Is it even feasible as a political entity?

The first major obstacle is that the two centers of Palestinian population, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, are not contiguous. Even at its narrowest, the distance between these two areas is 25 miles, with territory between them that there is absolutely no prospect of Israel relinquishing. A Palestinian state would consist of two separate regions, with more than two million people in Gaza and nearly three million in the West Bank.

Excepting countries with much smaller exclaves, like Russia’s marooned oblast of Kaliningrad, and island nations, it is hard to think of a successful and sustainable state that consists of two more-or-less equally sized but geographically separate entities. From 1947 to 1971, Pakistan consisted of what we now think of as Pakistan and modern Bangladesh (East Bengal 1947-55, East Pakistan 1955-71), but that arrangement of less than 25 years fell apart after a bloody war of independence in which millions of civilians were killed.

If we accept this geographical discontiguity, the West Bank itself is not a homogenous unit. It was seized by Israel from Jordan in 1967, and the Palestinian government, under 88-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas — now in the 19th year of his four-year term of office — only controls about two-thirds of the West Bank in hundreds of individual enclaves. Around 400,000 of the population comprises Jewish settlers.

The brutal honesty is that there is limited functioning government in either part of the current Palestinian state, and, while different views can be taken on the reasons for that, there is no coherent, unified administration waiting to assume control in the event of international recognition. Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, while Fatah, the largest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, holds sway in the West Bank, and the two bodies are fierce rivals operating an uneasy truce.

There are a number of other complicating factors. The economy of Gaza, always ramshackle, is in ruins after Israel’s invasion; corruption is endemic in both parts of the Palestinian state; human rights abuses are widespread; there is a national debt of more than $8 billion, around a fifth of GDP; there is a “refugee” population of 5.9 million, some of whom currently live in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but for all of whom the Palestinian National Authority claims the right of return.

Advocating a “two-state solution” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is fine as a slogan. But even the most starry-eyed observer would have to concede it could not happen soon. Implementation would be slow and expensive, requiring huge external investment, and it is not at all clear whether a non-contiguous polity would even work in the long term. So the question remains — what would the international community create alongside Israel, what would it look like and how would it operate?

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The question is unanswered but not unanswerable. There are reports that the U.S. is “hopeful” that Hamas might accept new ceasefire terms offered by Israel, which would be a first step on a very long road. We can acknowledge some necessary elements: Israel must reasonably be able to feel that its security is guaranteed; Palestinian representatives must be persuaded that there is a process that can lead to viable sovereignty; Hamas in its present form, committed to violence, cannot be part of a post-conflict architecture; and the Palestinians will need genuine and earnest pledges of support from other Arab nations.

The two-state solution must cease to be a mantra and become the inspiration for a practical way of transforming the situation. Simply paying homage to the idea currently raises many questions, but there are still very few answers, and that means it’s not yet a solution at all.

Eliot Wilson is a freelance writer on politics and international affairs and the co-founder of Pivot Point Group. He was senior official in the U.K. House of Commons from 2005 to 2016, including serving as a clerk of the Defence Committee and secretary of the U.K. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

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