The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
In rapid succession, in its final months in office, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump negotiated agreements establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and, finally, Morocco. Though the Abraham Accords—as the Arab-Israeli normalization deals were grandiosely titled—were touted as historic steps toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they were brokered without any Palestinian involvement. With their focus on delaying Israel’s plans to formally annex Palestinian territory, the deals implicitly legitimized Israel’s expanding occupation of the West Bank, in flagrant violation of international law.
According to an internal U.S. State Department memo that was first reported by The National, an Abu Dhabi–based daily, on March 17, President Joe Biden’s administration is devising plans to rebuild Washington’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority and resuscitate negotiations toward a two-state solution. The draft memo, “The U.S.-Palestinian Reset and the Path Forward,” laid out efforts to provide $15 million in pandemic aid to Palestinians and to take a firmer stand against Israeli settlement activities.
On April 7, the Biden administration announced plans to restore hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Palestinians, earmarked to support a variety of economic development projects, humanitarian programs, and peace-building efforts. That same day, in a call with Jordanian King Abdullah II, Biden explicitly “affirmed that the United States supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
While the new administration’s efforts to repair U.S.-Palestinian ties are welcome, this moment requires Biden and his team to go beyond their comfort zone in envisioning a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The old approach of advocating for a two-state solution, and supporting seemingly endless negotiations, no longer fits with reality on the ground. Though the Biden administration might wish to simply erase Trump’s legacy and revive the moribund Oslo accords, the facts on the ground have changed. As my colleagues and I argue in a new Carnegie Endowment report, “Breaking the Israel-Palestine Status Quo,” the current moment demands not misguided idealism but bold thinking—and policymaking based on a clear-eyed understanding of today’s demographic and political realities.
It’s time for the international community to face a stark truth that, polls show, a majority of Palestinians have already come to understand: a two-state solution is no longer feasible. The conflict has reached a turning point, and the path forward requires a new peacemaking paradigm—one focused not on separating the Israeli and Palestinian communities but on equality, freedom, and justice for both populations within a single democratic state.
So far, the Biden administration appears to be pursuing the safe option of adhering to a negotiations framework aimed at a two-state solution, as John Kerry did as U.S. secretary of state. Many in the international community will likely welcome such an effort. Yet they would be wise to remember Kerry’s warning to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the window of opportunity for creating a viable Palestinian state would close within two years—a warning issued in 2013, eight years ago. Now, the chances that traditional American diplomacy can successfully reopen that window are nonexistent.
A two-state solution should have been attainable. The idea enjoyed overwhelming support in the UN General Assembly starting in the 1970s. Numerous plans have been introduced over the years, and though all have had their weaknesses, they have offered a variety of logical approaches to separating the two communities, meeting their most important needs, and negotiating final status issues. Yet since 1991, at Madrid, Oslo, Camp David, Taba, and Annapolis, intensive diplomatic efforts to get the two sides to negotiate an acceptable outcome have repeatedly failed. The world’s major powers and multilateral organizations paid lip service to the two-state solution for decades—but stood passively by while Israel created facts on the ground in direct opposition to the principles it pretended to accept.
Today the two communities are so intertwined that to fully separate them has become unrealistic, if not actually impossible. More than 700,000 settlers already live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—making up nearly a quarter of the areas’ total population—and settlement building has accelerated in recent months, despite opposition from the Biden administration. Palestinians in the West Bank are increasingly forced to live in disconnected enclaves surrounded by 30-foot walls and razor wire, while Jewish-only communities multiply around them. In December, the Associated Press reported that Israel has begun a vast road-building project in the West Bank—designed, activists say, to enable faster and more efficient settlement construction even deeper into occupied territory.
For years, the global community has tended to avoid acknowledging Israel’s actions, no doubt hoping that a two-state solution would materialize in time to preclude awkward discussions of international law and accountability. Now it is too late. Any potential for a two-state solution has been engulfed by a one-state reality with two separate and unequal legal regimes—a textbook definition of apartheid.
Israel will soon find Palestinians’ calls for civil rights protections impossible to ignore.
Though Palestinians did not choose the one-state reality in which they now find themselves, they are compelled to try to shape that reality in a way that allows them to live with dignity. Recent polling shows that young Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are far more interested in obtaining basic rights, freedoms, and higher living standards than in their elders’ long-cherished dream of statehood—particularly if that statehood is nominal and unsustainable. A 2017 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that Palestinian activists were increasingly focused on securing legal protections via instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Those protections are unlikely to come easily, or even peacefully: Palestinian equality may never be accepted by an extreme Israeli right that insists on the state’s religious and ethnic purity. But the sheer size of the Palestinian population living within areas under Israel’s control means that these demands for equality and justice will inevitably grow stronger over time.
Today, more than 7.3 million Palestinian Arabs live—either as citizens in Israel or as noncitizens in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem—alongside nearly 6.8 million Israeli Jews. Palestinian Arab fertility rates (4.3 children per woman in the West Bank and 4.5 children per woman in Gaza) far outstrip the Israeli Jewish average of 3.1 children per woman. Equal rights would be a moral imperative even if Palestinian Arabs were a clear minority. But the demographics suggest that Israel will soon find Palestinians’ calls for civil rights protections impossible to ignore.
Palestinian leaders should present the international community with two options: either come up with a credible plan for achieving a two-state solution within a realistic and short time frame or vigorously support the Palestinian struggle for equality within one democratic state. Though a two-state solution is no longer plausible, Palestinian leaders would be wiser not to publicly abandon it altogether. As they search for alternatives, they should continue advocating for a two-state solution, challenging the international community one last time; even though a growing number of Palestinians assume that such advocacy is doomed, they cannot afford to be blamed for its ultimate failure. Meanwhile, Biden and other world leaders can no longer allow a theoretical two-state solution to blind them to Israel’s systematic repression of Palestinians. Recognizing this reality will not mean immediately abandoning all efforts toward a two-state solution; such a dramatic shift in policy will not happen overnight. But U.S. policymakers must unequivocally reject open-ended occupation. If they do not, they will likely face increasing pressure from their own citizens: a 2018 University of Maryland poll found that if a two-state solution were to prove impossible, 64 percent of Americans would choose full equality for Palestinians over Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state. A new, rights-based approach, one that focuses on equal rights rather than the shape of the solution, is more likely to attract the attention and support of the international community than nominally insisting on an outcome that has become impossible.
How can the international community help ensure a one-state outcome that satisfies the aspirations of both communities and does not entrench apartheid? Several academic and Track II diplomacy exercises have already suggested models for a single state—from a liberal, one-person-one-vote model that Israel is sure to reject, to a binational, federal model such as Belgium’s, in which different ethnic groups share power while maintaining some degree of political autonomy. Either way, many Palestinians remain wary of becoming Israeli citizens, fearing that they will never have equal rights within a Jewish state. Israel will need to evolve, they argue, into a secular state that protects the rights of all citizens, regardless of religion or origin.
None of the proposed solutions are ideal. But the United Nations urgently needs to open a serious debate about the alternatives and to center that discussion on equal rights. A General Assembly resolution recognizing the need for a rights-based approach to resolving the conflict would lend significant moral support to Palestinians’ calls for dignity. It would also open the door to discussing alternatives to the two-state solution. The Biden administration, too, must make clear that it will not accept apartheid by default. If Biden can abandon decades of failed U.S. policy and conventional wisdom, he would force the rest of the world to pay attention. The United States can repeat the mistakes of the past, or it can take the lead in envisaging new pathways for peace—inspired by a new generation of Palestinian and Israeli activists who are trying to secure equal rights for all.
With Tough Diplomacy, Washington Can Stop the Spiral of Escalation