The dust of the contentious US elections seems to have settled and Joe Biden’s win is starting to dawn on the Republicans. Yet the recent meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is a reminder that the status quo between Palestine and Israel has been so severely altered by Donald Trump’s Middle East policy that a new US administration cannot reverse it. While the Palestinians have indicated to President-elect Biden that they are ready to resume negotiations, it would be a mistake to try to go back to the two-state model based on the 1967 borders.
Perhaps one of the main reasons why peace between Palestine and Israel has been so hard to achieve is the mutually exclusive claims that the two-state solution fails to resolve. Both Palestinians and Israelis consider the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea to be their rightful land for the establishment of a state. This obscures the benefit of peace because either party will view the relinquishing of any centimeter of land as a major concession, creating an adversarial and conflicted climate that is doomed to fail.
The Palestinians and Israelis have blamed one another for the failures of previous peace talks, but the real culprit is the Catch-22 of the two-state solution. The Palestinians have repeated their claim to the West Bank and Gaza, with East-Jerusalem as its capital based on the 1967 borders so often that the PA cannot sign a peace treaty that settles for less. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu will face a revolt if he needs to vacate the settlements in what is for Israelis Judea and Samaria. Therefore, the two-state solution cannot succeed. As Israel is the dominant party to the conflict, the Palestinians will need to adapt their claims.
The two-state solution rests on a Westphalian model of statehood (which dates back to 1648) whereby borders are seen as the pinnacle of sovereignty over a particular piece of land. However, borders are increasingly subject to interpretation in a modern globalized world. For instance, in Northern Ireland the separation between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in the city of Belfast is more visible than the international border between the UK and Ireland. In that regard, the separation within the city of Belfast is more akin to a traditional border, whereas the international frontier between the UK and Ireland serves more as a municipal boundary.
The Palestinians should take these developments as a source of inspiration as it would allow the PA to let go of the 1967 mantra (a solution based on the 1967 borders is not going to happen anyway) and justify dropping these territorial claims by promoting a rights-based solution and embracing modernity. Focusing less on borders would decrease Israeli incentives to override Palestinian rights in the name of security, particularly claims to independence and freedom.
The next round of negotiations must revolve around the benefits of peace, rather than where to draw a line in the sand. Dropping territorial claims to the 1967 borders will provide the Palestinians with two much-needed bargaining chips. On the one hand, this alleviates the pressure on Israel and reduces the amount of territorial concessions it needs to make for peace, bringing an end to the conflict much closer. Second, it would force Israel to accept a framework whereby a binational or apartheid state is averted through an alternate model based on “soft” borders in order to maintain the Israeli democratic-Jewish identity.
Creative solutions that embrace modernity could be the key to a just solution. Possibilities for soft borders with electronic or biometric security checks could be explored. This has as an advantage that the human element will be taken out of the equation, rendering abuse of the system more difficult. Other formulations such as “settlers for Palestinian refugees” swaps, joint control areas, cantonized administrative control, and parallel civil judicial systems based on nationality could also serve as substitutes for 1967 borders. These solutions could then serve as a foundation for an EU-like system that could organically grow through continuous and deepening cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians and ultimately satisfy both sides’ “Jordan river to Mediterranean Sea” claims.