Amid one of the most devastating phases of the century-long Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, misery and loss of hope for peace are mainstream moods among Palestinians and Israelis alike. However, if there is one valuable lesson from history, it is that even the most protracted and violent conflicts can be replaced by long-lasting peace. Several bilateral and multilateral agreements ended hostilities in Europe after the Second World War, as did the 1948 Bogota Pact in Latin America and the 1999 Kumanovo Agreement that ended the Kosovo War. These agreements did not eliminate ancient hatreds but ended prolonged bloody conflicts. So far, the stubborn Israeli-Palestinian conflict has refused to end despite many cycles of violence and several peacebuilding efforts.
It is time for the United States and the international community to step in and lead another attempt, but this time succeed.
To say that ending one of the most prolonged and complex conflicts in modern times is a formidable task would be an obvious understatement. To succeed where previous attempts have failed despite having the best intentions and making massive investments of human and financial resources requires that we take a sober look at the reality of the conflict, set reasonable expectations for how it may evolve in the future, and make sure not to repeat past mistakes. No simple or perfect solution exists to an immensely complex problem. Therefore, before introducing my plan for ending the conflict, let us first assess the other options on the table.
Zero-sum game solutions that promise more bloodshed
The first and most dangerous agenda can be summarized as everything for us, nothing for them. Islamic and Jewish religious fundamentalists share similar, albeit competing, aspirations to gain complete and exclusive control over all Israeli and Palestinian territories and potentially expand to Arab countries to restore the biblical Land of Israel or an Islamic Caliphate. The fate of people on the losing side is also similar in both programs: they will need to choose between fighting to the death, immigrating, or surrendering and becoming residents of the theocratic state. The current war merely hints at what each side will be willing to do if the conflict evolves into a “winner takes it all” battle. It is the path to ethnoreligious cleansing, maybe even genocide.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s conflict management strategy is a soft version of everything for us, nothing for them, and it plays to the hands of religious fundamentalists on both sides of the conflict. The main goals of this strategy are to prevent the foundation of a Palestinian state and annex the West Bank without granting Israeli citizenship to the Palestinian residents (this has become an official goal of Israel since Netanyahu’s current government was sworn in On December 29, 2022). Disconnecting the West Bank from Gaza and nurturing the Hamas rule over the latter territory, and seeking to politically isolate the Palestinians through normalization with Arab countries (the Abraham Accords were part of this strategy, as is the pending agreement with Saudi Arabia that was likely the trigger for the Iran-backed Hamas attack on Israel on October 7) are two main pieces of Netanyahu’s plan that gave birth to the current tragedy. Walking further in the same direction will likely transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a “winner takes it all” war. Many Israelis and Palestinians believe the doomsday war has already begun and must be won at any cost.
Power-sharing solutions that mark targets that are too far
On the other side of the spectrum of solutions, some academics and peace activists have been promoting solutions centered on shared governance and other resources. Their basic pair of arguments suggest that (a) de facto, there is a one-state reality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and the spread of settlement in the West Bank and the dependence of both the West Bank and Gaza on Israel for essential resources do not permit splitting the territory into two states; and (b) that, in line with an influential power-sharing theory of conflict resolution, increasing interdependence promises greater stability and will make re-escalation unlikely. In the late 1990s, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said was the most prominent advocate of a binational one-state solution almost as old as the conflict. However, in light of the growing hostilities since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000, skepticism of a one-state solution has increased even among scholars who claim that a one-state reality prevents a two-state solution. In an era in which the principles of nationalism still govern world politics and guide state functions, and in light of decades of Palestinians and Israelis constructing each other as evils who deny their national aspirations, the one-state solution presents itself to both nations not as a promise but as a threat, not a sweet dream but a nightmare.
The one-state solution, too, has a softer version. A grassroots Israeli-Palestinian initiative named Two States, One Homeland: An Open Land for All proposes a two nation-states solution with confederative arrangements that maximize resource sharing, allow free movement across the borders between the states, and grant permanent or long-term residence to non-citizens (which means that a peace agreement will force no one to leave their homes). The architects of this program present it as antithetical to the one-state solution because it explicitly aims to protect the right of both nations to self-determination. However, this solution shares with the one-state solution a fundamental weakness: they are both centering on power sharing; hence, implementing any of them requires building trust between nations that have learned to hate and fear each other, hold competing narratives of being the only real native people on the land, and of being the victim of the other group’s ethnic cleansing ambitions. Increasing the interconnectedness between Palestinian and Israeli communities is an essential goal that I hope will be achieved one day, because this will create a better reality for residents of this troubled land. However, as long as Israelis and Palestinians maintain a hostile relationship, there will never be sufficient levels of trust to allow them even to consider removing barriers and be willing to share power.
Two-state solutions that mark the right target but shoot the wrong arrow
The alternative to all the plans discussed above is putting the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority back on the track of a two-state solution. In his public address on October 10, President Biden highlighted that the United States remains committed to a two-state solution, but he left a critical question unanswered: how can a two-state solution be implemented? Indeed, skeptics often claim that the fact that efforts to advance a two-state solution have failed in the past suggests that it is impossible to achieve this outcome. Both advocates of an everything for us, nothing for them agenda and proponents of power-sharing have expressed skepticism, albeit for different reasons. Without a sober look at reality, adjusting expectations about the future, and calibrating plans accordingly, skepticism may become prophesy.
Many people worldwide identify with the call for Palestinian liberation through a two-state solution, but too often, desires for justice and peace do not translate into pragmatic thinking. Loud cries for Israeli decolonization can be heard among progressive circles in the West and throughout the Arab world. They call on the international community to apply enough pressure on Israel to compel a decision to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank and release its grip on Gaza. While the sentiment behind the decolonization discourse is understandable, considering the experiences of nations of being either colonized or colonizers, this sentiment alone is insufficient for ending the vicious cycle of attacks and retaliations or to lead to the foundation of an independent Palestine state. Suppose Israel withdraws to its internationally recognized borders (similar to the British and French decolonization after the Second World War). Decades of military rule and insufficient development of civil institutions will destine the state on the other side of the Green Line to be what political scientists call a failed state doomed for political instability, increase in the power of extremist organizations, internal violence, and hostile relations with Israel. In the past eighteen years, we have witnessed the tragedy unfolded by Israel’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Pragmatic thinking must aim not for any two-state solution but a solution that will guarantee prosperity and stability on both sides of the border.
Still, my cautionary prediction about decolonization may never be realized because international pressure on Israel to withdraw unilaterally would likely fail. There is a near consensus in Israel, both in the general public and among politicians, that the 2005 disengagement from Gaza was a terrible mistake. Any Israeli government will resist pressures for another unilateral withdrawal vehemently. Further, it is pretty clear (mainly due to the solid commitment of the United States to defend Israel, as well as the tensions among the superpowers) that the international community will not be able to apply enough pressure to force Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.
More pragmatic supporters of a two-state solution hope the current crisis will lead to renewing the diplomatic peace negotiations years after they ended. They recognize the high levels of skepticism and suspicion on both sides of the conflict but hope that reason and wise diplomacy will prevail. This is not an impossible scenario, but it is unlikely. The forces that have successfully curtailed any previous attempt to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feed on the misery and horror of the never-ending violence. Arguably, the most fundamental error of the Oslo Peace was its reliance on a long and gradual process in which the people and government on both sides did not receive enough assurances that the process would likely bear the desired fruit. Every violent incident increased skepticism and suspension about the other side’s intentions. The outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada and Israel’s massive retaliation jointly killed the Oslo process. Subsequent peacebuilding attempts suffered a similar fate.
What can be done to make the next attempt to end the conflict likely to succeed? I now turn to share what I believe is the most realistic assessment of the present state of the conflict and to set reasonable expectations for a positive development in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Then, I outline my end-of-conflict plan.
The starting point for a feasible plan to end the conflict: Recognizing the mutual fear, hatred, and mistrust
A precondition for succeeding in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is recognizing the deep scars the protracted violent conflict and failed peacebuilding attempts have left on Palestinians and Israelis. Both nations have very high levels of fear, hatred, and mistrust of the other side and widespread beliefs in collective victimhood. Both Israelis and Palestinians also believe that “the world” has failed them in the past, and they do not trust the international community to bring a better future to them. Local parties that call for ending the conflict through diplomacy also encounter high skepticism, and their electoral power has declined and may now be further diminishing. Empathy for this prevalent state of mind should lead policymakers to conclude that ending the hostilities should not require developing mutual trust. Instead, it should be achieved despite extreme levels of distrust that will not ease any time soon. Similarly, peace activists who aspire for reconciliation should expect to have only minimal success before an end of hostilities allows wounds to start healing.
However, diplomats worldwide should recognize that the dire situation in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank opens the door for a radical strategic change in the conflict and the region. Historical precedents such as the end of hostilities in Europe following the Second World War and the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s should remind us not to be satisfied with hopes for justice and peace but rather be committed to taking decisive multilateral action to end the conflict. As King Abdullah II of Jordan said when he concluded his speech at the Cairo Summit for Peace on October 21, The time to act is now!
My plan aligns with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and the Arab Peace Initiative but adds essential elements. The plan aims to ensure a relatively smooth and safe split of the territory into a two-state reality, develop the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to govern, guarantee the security of both Palestinians and Israelis, provide temporary solutions to problems that must be solved to end the hostilities, and lay the ground for discussions of the core issues in subsequent peacebuilding talks.
A 20-point plan to end the conflict
- An international front led by the United States and the European Union should be formed to initiate and carry the process in collaboration with Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and key states in the region (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and emirate states).
- The initiative should also include the foundation of an international committee in charge of dispute resolution during the end-of-hostilities process.
- The PA will take over Gaza with the help of Israel, security forces from Arab countries, and an international force in charge of coordination and supervision.
- A Palestinian state will be founded and recognized by the UN shortly after the process begins. In contrast to the past peace negotiations, a two-state reality will not be the expected outcome but one of the first steps in the end-of-hostilities process.
- Normalization between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other members of the Arab League will be guaranteed at the beginning of the process and sealed in the conclusion.
- Israel will leave most of the West Bank except for the large settlement clusters. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will retract from its installations in Palestinian territories, and all Jewish civilian outposts will be evacuated. Israeli settlements outside the big clusters will be evacuated.
- The Palestinian state will have no military, but it will have internal security forces.
- An international force will be stationed on the interim borders of the Palestinian state. The IDF will protect Israel from the Israeli side of the border, and anti-terrorism collaboration between Israel and the PA will continue and expand.
- Saudi Arabia and Jordan, backed up by the entire Arab League, will provide security guarantees to the Palestinian state.
- Israel will be invited to join NATO or sign a defense agreement with the United States. This will be done at the beginning of the process.
- The US will increase its security funding for Israel, and most of the additional funding will be spent on anti-rocket defense.
- An international coalition force will take necessary measures to deter Iran and Hezbollah, who will likely oppose Arab normalization with Israel.
- A massive investment of international money and technologies will build civil infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza (including a civil airport and seaport).
- A significant portion of the international funding to the PA will help to develop stable governmental institutions, reduce corruption, and support democratization.
- An underground tunnel for vehicle traffic will connect the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with both ends secured by the IDF and UN observers.
- During the end-of-hostilities process, the government of Palestine will remain in Ramallah. The location of the permanent Palestinian capital and the status of East Jerusalem will be discussed after hostilities end (see point 20).
- Palestinians will continue to have safe access to the Temple Mount. Israelis will be allowed to visit the Temple Mount on designated days and times.
- Refugees from the 2023 war will be allowed to go back to Gaza. Refugees who prefer to leave Gaza will be invited to resettle in the West Bank or other countries.
- An international fund will be founded to provide reparations for 1948 refugees. The allocation method will be decided in the negotiations following the end of hostilities (see point 20).
- After hostilities end, regional negotiations will address core issues the end-of-hostilities arrangements did not cover. In particular, the borders of the Palestinian state, the status of East Jerusalem, control over the Temple Mount and visiting arrangements, reparations for 1948 refugees, and resource sharing between Israel and Palestine and joint development projects.
The plan I outlined above is not the solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict I have been yearning for, nor has anyone whose moral compass is guided by humanistic values and who hopes to see the barriers that separate communities fall. However, my plan marks the most promising path to stable end-of-hostilities arrangements, which in the distant future should give peacebuilding and reconciliation a chance to succeed.
The time has come to end an endless conflict!