Growing US-Israeli tension over continued East Jerusalem settlement construction – which the White House appears unable to stop – underscores a deeper reality: The two-state solution is no longer possible.
The occupied territories are politically, economically, and geographically so deeply integrated into Israel that there is no practical way to transfer them to Palestinian sovereignty within the framework of a two-state solution.
Israeli scholars have been warning of this to anyone who would listen for over two decades.
While they cannot say so publicly, given the events that have transpired since Vice President Biden’s visit to Jerusalem in March, President Obama, Mr. Biden, Secretary of State Clinton and the rest of the Washington foreign-policy establishment may be slowly waking up to the reality that it is simply not possible to establish a viable Palestinian state in the occupied territories.
With almost two decades invested in the Oslo process, the thought of its demise, and with it that of the two-state solution as currently envisioned, is disheartening and frightening. Yet Oslo was always an impossible peace, doomed to fail precisely because it was premised not merely on the notion of two antagonistic, exclusivist nationalist movements peacefully dividing a pint-sized territory, but on doing so while the balance of power – and thus the conflict’s resolution – remained severely skewed toward the stronger side.
As long as the US won’t force Israel to chose between the settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem and unquestioning American support, Israel has no reason to make painful concessions to an ever-weaker Palestinian side.
The situation has come to a deadlock. It is time for a rethink.
As the two-state solution seems increasingly implausible, voices for a one-state or binational solution become stronger. But a one-state solution is equally unrealistic – the whole raison d’être for the state of Israel is to provide a Jewish state for the Jews. And there are no signs or prospects of change in this basic Israeli position as long as it holds most of the cards.
What are the alternatives?
For the past few years, we have been participating in numerous meetings with high-level Israeli and Palestinian policymakers, scholars, and commentators, discussing alternative scenarios, including one that we describe as a “parallel states” structure.
Essentially, the idea suggests the creation of two-state structures on the same land, both covering the whole territory, both providing the freedom for their citizens – Israelis and Palestinians – to live between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
The most important innovation of a parallel state structure is that state sovereignty would be linked primarily with the individual citizen, and only in a secondary way with territory. Separating the territorial and citizenship/identity dimensions of sovereignty would allow Israelis and Palestinians to retain their national symbols, have political and legislative bodies that are responsible to their own electorate, and retain a high degree of political independence.
Precisely by no longer defining sovereignty through exclusive control over territory, this structure would enable the creation of an independent Palestinian state while preserving the state of Israel, both Jewish and democratic. The contours of political authority and security would be shared by the two states in a manner that guarantees the long-term secure existence of each community. It would be guaranteed by international treaty and, if necessary, a strong international monitoring presence.
Legal, educational, and other functions that pertain to each state’s relationship with citizens would be exercised separately, while those that necessarily encompass the whole territory would be shared or in common.
Why a parallel-state structure would work
A parallel state structure would allow Israelis and Palestinians to live anywhere in the territory of Israel/Palestine, yet retain citizenship in their ethnic homeland. Jews could live throughout their biblical heartland, the West Bank, while Palestinians could return in significant numbers to Israel without upsetting the demographic balance that guarantees Jewish control of the Israeli state.
Bringing an end to Israeli military occupation and opening up for free movement of people, would address both the issue of the right of return and of West Bank and Jerusalem settlements, the most intractable elements of the conflict. Both people’s aspirations to have Jerusalem as their capital would also be addressed without infringing on the national or religious rights of either side, while the economic integration promised by Oslo could finally be achieved.
Also important, this scenario offers a way to bring an end to intercommunal conflict by meeting both communities’ need for territory, sovereignty and security in the fullest, and fairest, way possible.
Incentives on both sides to resort to violence would thus be significantly reduced, while strong interstate institutions would ensure the protection of citizens regardless of whether they live in Jewish or Palestinian majority zones. And with the core issues resolved, a new and less confrontational regional geopolitical reality would finally be given room to emerge.
A parallel states scenario is certainly a radical departure from the territorially based, zero-sum notion of sovereignty that has grounded the nation-state for at least three centuries. But such a notion has not proved workable in Israel/Palestine, and its utility in the globalized era is even less apparent.
Of course, such an enterprise would pose unprecedented political challenges. But the difficulties entailed in establishing a parallel state structure would be far less than those posed by the two-state solution as presently conceived, or the alternative offered by its critics.
Indeed, parallel states offer benefits that other scenarios do not offer. It avoid the pitfalls of a single or binational state solution, in which Jews would lose political power as soon as Palestinians became the majority in the country, while eliminating the problem of creating a viable Palestinian state on the minimal territory currently left to them.
Is this a bold vision? Certainly. The question is whether it is less realistic than attempts at territorial division based on borders, whether those of 1967 or 1948, that have proved unable to bring real peace, security, or freedom for Israelis or Palestinians alike.
With other conceivable options fatally compromised, it’s time to think outside the box and work toward a new, more-holistic paradigm for resolving one of the world’s longest ongoing ethno-national conflicts.
Mathias Mossberg is a former Swedish ambassador who has served in the Middle East. He currently directs the Parallel States Project at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, a visiting senior researcher at Lund, and the author of several books on Israel’s history, most recently “Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989.”