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In February, U.S. President Donald Trump famously announced he could “live with” either a one- or two-state solution, which many analysts declared meant the demise of the two-state outcome. Yet after six months of talks, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s recent diplomatic trip to the region, U.S. officials have not even publicly hinted at an alternative to a two-state end state. In the face of a U.S. president’s rejection, the idea of two states has again proven its resilience.
This should not come as a surprise. Ever since it was embraced by the parties, the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been said to be “stillborn,” “terminally ill,” and plain old “dead.” The policy was supposed to meet its demise in 1995, 2001, 2007, and 2016. And yet the policy lives. The idea is that former Mandatory Palestine should consist of two self-governed entities, one Jewish and one Arab. The United Nations’ 1947 partition plan attempted but failed to enact this vision because Palestinians and Arab states rejected it, and war soon broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Ever since, the United States has been involved in negotiating peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians. This engagement has included Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s post-1973 disengagement negotiations, President Jimmy Carter’s 1978 brokering of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that nearly included Palestinians at Camp David, and near-continuous U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestinian talks since the early 1990s.
Disagreement and distrust between the parties have complicated the creation of a Palestinian state. Negotiations have aimed for a deal that protects Israel’s security while ensuring Palestinian sovereignty, deals with Jewish settlements to make the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state possible, and shares Jerusalem between the two states, among other objectives. But realizing an agreement has been difficult. Finding leaders with the public backing, courage, and mutual respect to put their names on such a deal has been harder still. Why then, despite 20 years of inconclusive talks and worsening conditions for a deal, does the two-state outcome remain the de facto, if not official, U.S. policy and continue to have the broad support of the American Jewish community?
First, it has always been difficult to determine whether circumstances have truly made a two-state outcome no longer possible. There are plenty of indications that it would be extremely difficult to achieve, but nothing that says it could never be. Take the construction of settlements, which the Barack Obama administration frequently warned could foreclose the possibility of two states. Continued unrestricted Israeli settlement building makes it harder to carve out land for a Palestinian state, increases the number of Israeli settlers who may violently resist evacuation, and signals poor intentions to the Palestinians. Yet it is not possible to tell whether any one new instance of settlement construction will render a two-state solution unworkable. After all, creative map-drawing can compensate Palestinians territorially, settlements can be torn down and construction ceased, and a surprising number of settlers are willing to evacuate.
In the same way, it is impossible to say with certainty if other impediments to peace have taken an agreement permanently off the table. Negotiations have produced workable deals on the major issues in the past, and they could again in the future. It is always possible for bold leaders with public support to emerge. After all, settlement godfather and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew from Gaza. The distrust on both sides is real, but it can be reduced. Simply put, without a death certificate, the two-state solution lives on.
The second factor keeping the two-state solution alive is that there are no real policy alternatives. Neither side is enthusiastic about being a permanent minority in a state dominated by the other, and the United States supports both peoples’ aspirations, or at least what “both parties like.” There are limited ways to solve such a conflict.
Analysts used to hope neighboring countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Syria would absorb and govern Palestinians, but Palestinians have asserted their right to self-determination and the Arab states have formally declined to rule them. Meanwhile, some right-wing Israelis such as Naftali Bennett think that the world will adjust to a perpetual occupation under which Israeli citizens enjoy better legal rights, infrastructure, and protection than their Palestinian counterparts. If Israel continues down this path, however, it would likely face international isolation, including a drop-off in American Jewish support. Some would counter that Israel has sustained the status quo and managed to avoid isolation, but it is noteworthy that Israeli governments, including the current one, have consciously avoided annexing parts of the West Bank for fear of the international repercussions.
Palestinian activists such as Linda Sarsour hope for an alternative: namely, to pressure Israel into granting Palestinians full rights in a single binational state. Yet Israeli leaders would not willingly give up the country’s Jewish majority. Additionally, mutual distrust and a history of violence would make forming such a state dangerous.
Analysts have cited the new Republican Party platform, which did not endorse the two-state solution, and Trump’s subsequent equivocation about a two-state solution as a change in U.S. posture and policy. Indeed, Trump’s negotiating team has not reaffirmed support for a two-state policy, although United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and others have. This hesitancy has annoyed Palestinian officials and produced odd-sounding official statements. Yet to date, Trump’s negotiators have not articulated an alternative to two states, just an idea for the role Arab nations should play in that process. Unless policymakers are willing to choose a side and deal with the international and domestic fallout, two states will remain the end goal.
Oddly, the control that Hamas—which does not endorse the two-state solution and is officially considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States, and the European Union—exercises over the Gaza Strip demonstrates the importance of committing to the policy. Without the two-state solution, a diminished but important source of legitimacy for the Palestinian Authority would be eliminated. And without the PA, the refusal of the United States and Israel to engage with Hamas would make them seem unwilling to deal with Palestinian concerns.
The third reason sustaining support for the two-state outcome is that it makes for good politics. The American Jewish community and its mainstay organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Anti-Defamation League, and American Jewish Committee—the constituency most engaged on Israel issues—has maintained institutional support for two states despite some Republican wavering encouraged by far-right Jewish organizations. Most American Jews support the two-state policy as a way to deal with the discomforting moral and security implications of continual Israeli occupation. Jewish organizations’ insistence on maintaining a bipartisan approach to Israel-linked issues has furthered the adoption of a two-state policy.
As for individual politicians, they risk losing mainstream Jewish political and financial support if they reject the two-state solution. Right-wing groups linked to donors such as Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate close to Israel’s prime minister, however, have created an alternative base of political funding for Republicans interested in supporting Israel’s claim to all Mandatory Palestine. The questionable viability of their implied policies—U.S.-backed occupation—would likely prevent these Republicans’ promises from becoming actual policy. No notable donors have backed non-two-state views on the left.
Without good policy alternatives and given the political risk, few politicians have rejected the two-state solution. Further, centrist voices and champions of bipartisan support for Israel have massive incentives to maintain a two-state consensus, given that its breakdown would likely result in a hyperpolarized debate over Israel’s future. Maintaining consistent U.S. support for Israel would be difficult in this environment.
None of these factors—the absence of good death indicators, lack of viable policy alternatives, and politics—is inviolable or unchangeable. But in combination they make U.S. endorsement of the two-state outcome a robust and resilient one. Neither policymakers nor politicians have come up with a workable alternative.
Neither policymakers nor politicians have come up with a workable alternative to the two-state solution.
Still, there are several threats to this policy. The ongoing efforts of some U.S. Republican donors to turn support for Israel into a partisan issue could push more Republicans further right and out of the mainstream consensus. In addition, many young progressives sympathize with the Palestinian cause, which could make it harder for Democrats to hold centrist positions on the issue. A future president, or the current one, could deem the situation so hopeless that the United States walks back from its mediating role, leaving the parties to manage their own tumult. These outcomes would sentence Israelis and Palestinians to a dangerous political future. Without a two-state framework, managing minor disputes will become increasingly difficult, as the sides would lack the incentives to pull punches.
Policymakers and politicians can work to avoid this outcome. Bureaucrats and analysts can develop ways to manage the conflict and gradually improve conditions for talks, rather than jump into continual high-stakes, high-variance rounds of negotiations. They can, for instance, set realistic short-term expectations and attempt gradual expansion of the PA’s administrative or Palestinian Security Forces’ security responsibilities. They can also argue for policies that extend the horizon of two-state viability, such as ceasing Israeli settlement construction east of the security barrier or improving the Palestinian economy. In the political realm, activists and politicians will have to push back against the strong tides of polarization and manage the boundaries of debate. Of course, this discussion is moot if there are no signs of commitment to peace from the parties themselves. But for the foreseeable future, the two-state solution is here to stay.