It has been 25 years since the Oslo Accords envisioned a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but the fundamental challenges for Palestinians remain the same. Oslo required not only that Palestinians reconcile themselves to enormous sacrifice but that they trust Israelis to do the same. Moreover, the demands for sacrifice were far from equal. Palestinians were to permanently abandon claims to 78 percent of their homeland, while much less was asked of Israeli Jews, who would need to abandon the demand for just 22 percent of theirs.
Where the Oslo Accords were successful, it was mostly due to the bold leadership of Yasir Arafat, chair of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel. These leaders were willing to sign letters of mutual recognition in the final moments before signing the accords, which opened a large majority of Palestinians to the idea of relinquishing land claims in pursuit of peace.
Since that time, Israel’s unrelenting construction of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories—the heart of a future Palestinian state—has demonstrated to Palestinians that the other side is unwilling to hold up its end of the deal. One of Oslo’s greatest failures has been its inability to stop Israel’s settlement construction, causing Palestinians to doubt whether they have a viable partner for peace.
Israel’s unrelenting construction of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories has demonstrated to Palestinians that the other side is unwilling to hold up its end of the deal.
The Trust Deficit
Soon after the Oslo Accords were signed, on September 13, 1993, and for many years after that, Palestinian support for a two-state solution was very high, peaking at 80 percent. The agreement, and the peace process it set in motion, changed the psychological environment in Palestine. Along with confidence in diplomacy, it generated public optimism and reduced the appeal of violence and militancy, all the while providing legitimacy and public support to the newly created Palestinian Authority (PA), its leader, Arafat, and the leading party, Fatah.
Twenty-five years later, all that has come undone. Support for the two-state solution is at its lowest level since Oslo, with only 43 percent of Palestinians saying they would accept it. More than half of the public views the PA as a burden on the Palestinian people, and a large majority, ranging from 60 to 70 percent in 2018, demands the resignation of the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas. Public support for Hamas, the largest Islamist faction in Palestine, stands at about one-third, compared to about 40 percent for Fatah, the mainstream nationalist faction. Confidence in diplomacy has plummeted: only 25 percent of Palestinians believe that a Palestinian state will emerge in the next five years. Violence is increasingly popular, particularly among the youth, and on several occasions during the past three years a majority of the public has supported it.
Not coincidentally, during this same period Israeli settlement construction in occupied Palestine has continued unabated. The size of the settlement enterprise today is four times what it was when Oslo was signed: it has grown from around 100,000 settlements in 1993 to more than 400,000 (not including East Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip) today. In the past few years, 55 to 65 percent of Palestinians have said that they believe that settlement construction has expanded so much that the two-state solution is no longer practical or feasible. On average, three-quarters of those who reach this conclusion shift to opposing the two-state solution, while a similar percentage of those who think the two-state solution remains feasible remain in favor of it. In other words, support for the two-state solution is strongly linked to perceptions of feasibility, and settlements are making it seem unfeasible.
The decline in support for the two-state solution among Israeli Jews parallels that among Palestinians, and the level of public support for it—43 percent—is identical to that among Palestinians. On the Israeli Jewish side, too, support is linked to perceptions of feasibility. Today, almost half of Israeli Jews believe that settlement expansion is making the two-state solution impractical. However, this does not equate to a consensus among Israeli Jews that settlements are destructive to peace-making, because unlike most Palestinians, they don’t necessarily see the two-state solution as the only path to peace. Many Israeli Jews view Palestinian self-rule, a slightly modified version of the status quo, as an acceptable solution.
No other development in Israeli-Palestinian relations—not the more than 10,000 Palestinian deaths at the hands of the Israeli army since Oslo; not the failures of Palestinian leadership, state building, and governance; not the rise of Hamas and the Israeli right wing, nor the ineptitude of the international community, nor the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank during the second intifada, nor the repeated election of Netanyahu and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump—has done as much damage to that fundamental concept of partition and mutual recognition as continued settlement construction. While many of these other developments could eventually be reversed or overcome, the settlements are hard to undo, which is why they might permanently doom the prospect of Palestinian-Israeli peace.
Palestinian public opinion is not an impediment to peace in the form of a two-state solution. Neither is Israeli public opinion. Jointly conducted Palestinian-Israeli survey research provides evidence that there is ample support for the two-state solution when the public sees it as feasible and when each side has reason to trust the other. On the Palestinian side, strong and credible leadership, democracy, and good governance are also effective means of building support. Assurances that their future state will be democratic can go a long way in convincing skeptical Palestinian youth to abandon demands for a one-state solution and support a two-state outcome instead. Gestures that demonstrate mutual respect, such as an Israeli acknowledgment of the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948, or an apology for the suffering of Palestinian refugees since that time, could go a long way toward generating the motivation that peace requires.
Most Palestinians do not believe that they have an Israeli partner for peace.
But facts on the ground, including Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land, demolition of Palestinian homes, and building of Jewish settlements, reinforce Palestinian distrust. These practices cause an overwhelming majority of Palestinians—80 percent or more—to believe that Israel’s long-term aspiration is not to make peace but to annex Palestinian land, eventually expelling the Palestinians, or at the very least denying them their civil and political rights. Most Palestinians do not believe that they have an Israeli partner for peace, which makes them understandably reluctant to support a peace process that would require them to make enormous sacrifices.
The Leadership Deficit
These obstacles to the two-state solution are serious, and to overcome them requires strong, credible leadership in Israel, Palestine, and the United States. Unfortunately, all three leaders are failing miserably. By publicly impugning Israel’s national character and core narrative, Abbas is complicating the task for leadership on the other side. By refusing to reconcile with Hamas, he is deepening the divisions in his own camp, and by consolidating authoritarianism in his regime, he is diminishing his own domestic legitimacy. Netanyahu is worse. By expanding settlements, favoring extreme right-wing political positions and coalition partners over more moderate ones, and promoting legislation that destroys the delicate balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic characters, he feeds Palestinians’ worst fears. On top of all of this, through his incendiary handling of the two most sensitive issues under negotiation—Jerusalem and refugees—Trump has done more damage to the prospects of peace in the 20 months of his administration than any U.S. president has done in the past 70 years.
Regional politics are not helping, either. Abbas sees himself as increasingly isolated, having lost the unconditional support of his traditional Sunni Arab partners, who are embroiled in a struggle for regional dominance and need the support of Netanyahu and Trump. Non-Arab regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey, are stepping into the opening, but Abbas is not entirely ready to trust them yet. These powers may not be able to provide the necessary financial and political support to keep the PA alive, and are more closely aligned with Abbas’ rival party, Hamas, than with Fatah.
Seen through the prism of public opinion, the two-state solution is clearly not dead. If Palestinians had reason to trust the feasibility of such a solution and the intentions of the other side, public opinion in favor of it could increase and be harnessed by a strong, capable leader. But other dynamics are interfering. In the short run, poor domestic leadership on both sides is to blame. In the long run, Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land, demolition of Palestinian homes, and settlement building in Palestinian territories remain the most dangerous threats to a two-state solution. Under these conditions, it is naive for Palestinians to hope for salvation in the form of shifting regional dynamics or international support. If anything, these factors are likely to have the opposite effect—to make peace in the form of a two-state solution an even more distant possibility than it already is.
Without support from regional partners or the international community, Palestinians should focus on domestic national reconciliation and the reunification of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, followed soon after by national elections, which could help provide strong and legitimate leadership, a more accountable political system, and, importantly, reasons for hope—all of which are crucial ingredients in the struggle to create an independent Palestinian state. In Israel, only a government coalition that is free of dependence on the support of settlers and extreme national-religious groups will be able to protect the future prospects of a two-state solution.