Brigitte Herremans
Open Democracy (Opinion)
November 21, 2011 - 1:00am

Nowadays, it is not an easy task to be a staunch advocate of the two state solution. True, there is a near-universal consensus at the international level that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in a viable and independent State of Palestine living in peace and security alongside the State of Israel.[i] However, far from the ideal solution, it is an imperfect compromise. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict begins with accepting that no just outcome exists,[ii] as the PLO did when making a historic compromise and declaring Palestinian independence on 22 percent of historical Palestine. Moreover, the days of the two state solution are numbered. With every passing day, Israel undermines the feasibility of a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders with its continued settlement expansion.

Re-evaluating the solution

These observations push an increasing number of advocates for the Palestinian cause to plead for a single state. They argue that the struggle for Palestinian self-determination is over and should be replaced by a civil rights struggle. In their vision, the reality in the field and the failure to bring about a Palestinian state necessitate a re-evaluation of the solution. The late Tony Judt already called in 2003 for the bi-national state as an alternative.[iii] I argue that currently, there is really no feasible alternative to the two state solution. It is the closest to a just and durable solution for both the Palestinian and the Israeli people, even if we have to acknowledge that Israel’s obliteration of the Green Line is close to irreversible and might inevitably lead to one state.

However, the dichotomy between the advocates of the two state solution and the single state should not be overemphasised. What both groups share is a desire to end the occupation and restore dignity, and they both rightly criticise Israel and the international community for failing to put the Palestinian right to self-determination into effect. The international community, including the European Union, cannot be absolved from its responsibilities and the fact that no advancement to the two state solution was made over the past two decades. The EU's strategy was to convince Israel to let go of as much control as possible, but it never put pressure on Israel to withdraw to the armistice line of 1949. The premise was that Israel should not be forced into giving up what it did not want to give up. The EU’s refusal to use its leverage by conditioning its bilateral relations with Israel on the respect for international law has sent a problematic signal of acquiescence to Israel. The EU should put the respect for international law central, ensuring that both Israel and the Palestinian armed groups stop violence against civilians.

Why abandon an internationally accepted solution?

The failure to realize a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders should not make us throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Palestinians cannot forsake their right to self-determination because Israel is blocking it and because the international community is failing to uphold it. The Palestinians have been struggling for decades for recognition of this right, which is enshrined in international law and confirmed in the resolutions of the Security Council of the United Nations. The “land for peace” principle underlying the peace process is also based on Security Council resolution 242 and the international prohibition on the acquisition of land by force. Long-time observers like the French journalist Dominique Vidal recall the sixties when the majority of the public opinion in the West supported Israel unconditionally and simply ignored the Palestinians;[iv] in contrast, today, there is worldwide support for the two state solution. As Tony Klug, a veteran English writer and analyst, states “it would be strange to abort the idea and start all over again with a different idea, and a controversial one.”

Moreover, there is little support among Palestinians and Israelis for the one-state idea, which has been around since the beginning of the twentieth century.[v] The Israeli population sees it as destructive, as it would have to surrender its idea of the “Jewish state”. In view of the current power balance and the importance of the concept of the Jewish state to the majority of the Israeli population, it is hard to conceive that Israeli Jews would be willing to give up the State of Israel and become a minority. It is not guaranteed either that the majority of the Palestinian population is comfortable with the idea of living in a single state. Over forty years of occupation and violations of international law have made them sceptical towards the idea of living with Israelis, whom they mostly meet as settlers and soldiers. Even if a lot of Palestinians are not hostile to one state, they estimate that the two-state solution is a necessary first step. Furthermore, how could it be assured that a single state would not be tantamount to the continuation of the current situation? The battle for equal rights would be a long and extremely difficult one.[vi] We only need to look at the discrimination of the Palestinian citizens of Israel to understand this.

Even if the political and diplomatic efforts of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) did not succeed in bringing about a Palestinian state, their merit cannot be underestimated. The PLO did manage to convince the majority of the international community of the need of an independent state within the pre-1967 borders. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that the PLO has not handled the negotiations with Israel particularly well. This was confirmed again by the “Palestine Papers”, the diplomatic documents that were leaked in the spring of 2011. They illustrate to what degree the Palestinian leadership was willing to further compromise on its historic compromise, especially with regard to East Jerusalem, without guarantees from Israel. In the light of the armed groups’ violence against Israeli civilians, the Palestinian Authority was eager to prove that it was a partner for peace and underestimated the complexities of negotiations with an unwilling partner. It also did not sufficiently address the problem of the internal division, thus further weakening the Palestinian position on the international level.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is primarily a territorial conflict, even if it is multifaceted as all conflicts are. Therefore it is hardly conceivable that there is another way out of the deadlock than a solution that allows each people to exercise its right to self-determination in its state. The question is how to stop Israel from further eroding the two-state solution. Its destructive policies have given rise to a worrisome paradox - even if the two-state solution is currently the only game in town, and the majority of the Palestinians support it, they no longer believe it is possible to achieve. The supporters of the single state have a straightforward answer to solve this paradox: a paradigm shift. There is another easy answer: increasing the pressure on Israel. However, as we have witnessed over the past two decades, the political will among the main international players: the US and the EU, is lacking. The question then is, how can we make our governments understand that not only is the time ticking for the two state solution, but that they are responsible for the deadlock?

Addressing the failure of the international community

The mixed international reactions to the Palestinian UN initiative in September prove once again, how difficult it is for the international community to come to terms with the Palestinian state and to remind Israel of its commitments. Even if Israel failed to recognise the Palestinian right to self-determination when Arafat recognised Israel in 1993,[vii] it agreed to the “land for peace” formula and acknowledged the need for a Palestinian state. The EU recognized the Palestinian right to self-determination in 1980 and has reaffirmed this right since. Nowadays, policy makers like to refer to the Council Conclusions of 2009. In this document the EU reaffirmed its position: no changes to the 1967 borders except those agreed upon by the two parties, and Jerusalem as the future capital of two States.[viii] Even the position of the United States has evolved, with US President Obama expressing his desire in the General Assembly of September 2010 to see a Palestinian state by September 2011. However, confronted with Israel’s unwillingness to respect its obligations, the international community continues to focus on the process and refuses to increase the pressure on Israel. This was illustrated once more by the Quartet’s position in September, when it called for resuming the negotiations without preconditions, ignoring the PA’s objections to continuing negotiations without a settlement freeze.

From the beginning of the peace process, the international community decided not to exert pressure on Israel in order not to spoil the peace process. It was accepted that Israel should not to be pressured to give up physical control over the occupied Palestinian territory. The countries of the international community decided not to pursue a rights-based approach, but to be pragmatic, in order to maintain Israel's cooperation. The decision not to ensure Israel’s respect for international humanitarian law and human rights contributed to a climate of the absence of the rule of law. It was not conceived that in order to achieve change and work towards a two-state solution, it was necessary to transform the conduct of both sides.

International aid delivery is a good example of the problematic involvement of the international community. Over the last decades, international donors have invested heavily in Palestinian state-building efforts: over $ 10 billion since 1993. However, Palestinian state-building turned out to be more problematic than donors had anticipated. Israel's ongoing occupation undermined the European Union's hoped-for transitional scenario, where the Palestinian Authority would successfully establish its authority, become an effective administrator and provider of public services, and gain popular legitimacy. However, the international donor community did not sufficiently address the grave consequences: de-development and the failure of Palestinian state-building arising from Israel's continued abuse of its effective control. The aid efforts were based on assumptions that did not correspond to the realities in the field. The premise was that Israel would respect its duties as an occupying power. When faced with Israel’s refusal to cooperate, donors chose to hold on to their premises, and to base assistance on them.

Concretely, the EU helped to build the best possible institutions under conditions in which the Palestinian government had no functional sovereignty. However, by focussing primarily on Palestinian state-building, the EU played into Israel's strategy. It did not tackle the issue of Israel's effective control and it even accommodated Israel's violations of international humanitarian law, which lie at the heart of the Palestinian de-development. In doing so it wanted to make progress in some fields where it could make a difference, such as the Palestinian economy and the removal of barriers to external trade. Even if the EU made considerable progress in state-building, this was not sufficient since Israel was working against the two-state solution.

What we need to re-evaluate is the role of the international community and how it could be more constructive. We need to convince our governments and the EU to invest in a political strategy that reverses the destructive dynamics on the ground. They need to understand that respect for international law is not a detail, but lies at the very heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017