The international community believes the Israel-Palestinian conflict must be solved to promote regional stability and address the grievances of the Palestinian people. The consensus view is the Palestinians must be given a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, and Israel is obligated to make whatever concessions are required to bring this about. The alternatives, it is believed, are either an unsustainable status quo or a unitary state that would leave Israel with the choice of either being a Jewish state or a democratic one. These are not the only alternatives; however, and I would argue the most likely future would result in what I call the no state solution.
If we look at reality as opposed to fantasies, it is evident that whatever merits one may see in a two-state solution, it is not possible for the foreseeable future. On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas has proven to be a disaster for the Palestinian people. He gave himself dictatorial powers, denies his people civil rights and has been unwilling to negotiate for years. Neither he nor any potential successor is willing to make the concessions necessary to convince Israelis they should take any risks for peace. The Palestinians will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, they will not accept a capital outside Jerusalem, they will not give up the right of return and they will insist on the evacuation of all settlements outside the major blocs. Only 46% of Palestinians in the latest poll supported a two-state solution and more than one-third preferred “armed struggle.”
Any potential Palestinian peace partners also are constrained by the reality that Hamas controls Gaza. No one on the West Bank can negotiate for the Gazans and no agreement for a state can be completed without them. The reconciliation with Fatah was predictably a failure, but even if it had succeeded, the inclusion of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority would have made negotiations with Israel impossible as neither Israel nor Hamas see the other as interlocutors.
Though some analysts have suggested that Hamas was open to reconciliation because of its weakness, it continues to be propped up by financial aid from Qatar and Iran. Furthermore, Hamas represents the Islamization of the conflict, which has spread to the supposedly secular Fatah, and makes concessions to Israel impossible on religious grounds.
Unlike Abbas, who is likely to be assassinated if he ever did agree to peace, the main threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is his coalition partners. Any concessions to the Palestinians without a dramatic change in their positions would likely lead his government to fall. The opposition in Israel is also no more likely to compromise because the views of the entire Israeli population shifted following the disengagement from Gaza. The popular “land for peace” formula was discredited when the Palestinians bombarded Israel with rockets. Hence, it is not surprising that in the same poll that found only a minority of the Palestinian public supported a two-state approach, the same percentage – 46% — of Israelis backed that solution.
Several other obstacles to a two-state solution exist. The most important is security. Israelis are not going to repeat the mistake in the West Bank they made in Gaza. They will not concede more land unless the Palestinians convince them they will not turn the area into Hamastan and, even then, Israel will insist on ironclad security. Israel also expects the Palestinians to accept demilitarization; however, the Zionists would never have accepted such a condition, and it is folly to think the Palestinians will. Israel also insists on control over the Jordan Valley, which would reduce the territory available for a Palestinian state and put IDF troops in a geographically awkward position on the eastern side of “Palestine.”
Settlements are not the obstacle to peace; Palestinian rejectionism is the principal impediment. Moreover, it is Palestinian intransigence that has exacerbated the problem the settlements do create; namely, limiting the area available for a Palestinian state. If the Palestinians had accepted Menachem Begin’s autonomy proposal in the 70s, when only about 10,000 Jews lived in the West Bank, they would have had a much larger territory than is available today when there are more than 400,000 settlers. That number only grows with each day the Palestinians refuse to make peace.
In 1991, 80 percent of the West Bank contained no settlements, or sparsely populated ones, and it was plausible to believe Israel could evacuate the isolated settlements and move the people inside the large settlement blocs or the Green Line. Today, however, approximately 40 percent of the Jews live outside the blocs and the number of militants among them has grown. Removing 9,000 Jews from Gaza was logistically difficult and emotionally gut-wrenching. It is difficult to imagine how the government would remove 160,000 people from the West Bank. Moreover, given the government’s perceived failure to live up to the promises made to the Jews who left Gaza, West Banker residents will be even more reluctant to leave.
The only alternative to the two-state solution, many argue, is one state created by Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and absorption of 2.7 million Palestinians. Few people talk about annexing Gaza, which would mean including another 1.8 million Palestinians in “Greater Israel.” There is no reason to annex Gaza, which has little religious or historical significance to the Jewish people, in contrast to the deep connections to the West Bank.
Many people argue that even without the Gazans, Palestinians will become the majority of Israel and it will cease to be a Jewish state. Some argue the state’s Jewish character can be preserved by denying the Palestinians the right to vote, but that means abandoning democracy. Jewish proponents of the one state solution sometimes argue the Palestinian population and birth rate figures are distorted and that they won’t become a majority, but they need only become a significant minority to force the Jews into the same Cornelian dilemma. Recognition of this reality is why even the so-called right-wing prime ministers, including Netanyahu, refused to annex the territories and Ariel Sharon evacuated Gaza.
From the Palestinian perspective, the one state solution is appealing because some believe they can destroy Israel from within using the “Palestinian womb” as a weapon. A Palestinian minority of roughly four million, compared to today’s one million, could sow civil discord and create a security nightmare. While they have largely failed to convince the world that Israel’s government is comparable to the Afrikaner regime that ruled South Africa, the comparison would become apt if they were denied voting rights in a unitary state. Playing the victims – their favorite role – the Palestinians could then demand redress from the international community.
The issue of Jerusalem is often said to be the most intractable. It is true that both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert offered compromises, but the Palestinians rejected them. Barak was ousted from power in large part because the Israeli public objected to his offer to divide the city. President Trump did the Palestinians a service by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and suggesting they accept Abu Dis as their capital, but they did not take advantage of what is the most likely and reasonable compromise.
One other idea is a confederation between the West Bank and Jordan. The Jordanians rejected the idea decades ago and are no more interested today. The Jordanian population is already mostly Palestinian, and it would become the de facto Palestinian state if it annexed the West Bank. That is the last thing the Hashemites want and would pose a greater danger to Israel’s security than a rump state in the West Bank.
Up until recently, the Palestinians could count on their brother Arabs to support their demands and to shun Israel until they were met. Now, however, the true disdain for the Palestinians is out in the open and Arab states are willing to engage with Israel because it suits their strategic interests and they are less afraid of the always exaggerated “Arab street.” After what happened to Anwar Sadat, Arab leaders have not completely lost their fear of abandoning the Palestinians, which is why it is unlikely a peace agreement can be negotiated with the Arab states alone. Even if the Gulf States did sign treaties with Israel, the Palestinians could still count on support from Islamists, Iran and the Europeans.
This leaves us with the status quo, which has lasted for more than 40 years, and could continue indefinitely. Now that the Arab states have opted out of the conflict, the main fear is that the Palestinians will revolt, but that is neither inevitable nor an existential threat to Israel. The Palestinians know that whatever pain they may inflict on Israel through another intifada will be a fraction of the suffering they will endure from Israel’s response. Just ask the people of Gaza who accomplished nothing by supporting Hamas’ attacks on Israel and now are endure food and other supply shortages, blackouts, undrinkable water, and a lack of housing or jobs. Palestinians in the West Bank, who are now flocking by the tens of thousands to work in Israel and Jewish settlements do not want to risk their relative economic security for another disastrous and futile uprising.
If a Palestinian Sadat miraculously emerged, perhaps the situation would dramatically change. With no such leader on the horizon, however, the Palestinians are stuck with the status quo. They may continue to fantasize that international pressure will force Israel to capitulate, but the United States stands in the way. Furthermore, the Palestinians’ dismissiveness of Trump, combined with the objective political reality, makes any U.S. initiative dead on arrival.
This leaves the no state solution – or more accurately – non-solution. As it stands, roughly 98 percent of Palestinians are already under the jurisdiction of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. That would continue. Israel will take whatever measures are required to protect its citizens, but it will also have to devote more resources to assisting the Palestinian economy and allow more workers into Israel to minimize the risk of an eruption of violence. Israel also recognizes the need to improve conditions in Gaza, but it may also have to take military action at some point to eradicate the rocket and tunnel threat.
While some might suggest that it is advisable to slow the growth of settlements, or to unilaterally withdraw from part of the West Bank, it is more likely settlements will expand given the current Israeli political reality. Though the actual territory these settlements cover is estimated at less than two percent; overall, Israel controls roughly 60 percent of the West Bank. That percentage would not change, but the number of Jews living in that area will increase, with a significant number moving to new or existing settlements outside the major blocs. At some point, it may make sense to end the fiction that the blocs are negotiable by annexing them. Another possibility is to annex the entire area under Israeli control. That would create the appearance, if not the reality, of foreclosing the possibility of future territorial concessions and leave the Palestinians with autonomous islands surround by Israel, which they will refer to as Bantustans in an effort to win international sympathy.
Palestinians have never accepted that Israel controls their fate. They have made the argument that because Israel is the stronger party, it should concede. Many liberals have bought this idea. Though Israel is treated differently from every other country by the international community, and has sometimes been forced to make concessions during conflicts, it will not compromise on its fundamental security. It is the Palestinians who must bend or live without a state.
The no state option is not optimal for either Israel or the Palestinians, but it appears increasingly inevitable in the absence of any Palestinian leader willing to agree to terms acceptable to Israel.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.