The Two-State Solution for Palestine Has Long Been a “Joke” Even In United Nations Circles

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

For decades, the most widely touted solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has been based on the idea of two independent states — one Israeli and one Palestinian — encompassing separate parts of the historic land of Palestine. Known as the “two-state solution,” it has long been the agreed-upon framework by the United Nations (UN), most of the world’s countries, and regional organizations such as the European Union (EU). The UN General Assembly frequently votes on resolutions calling for a settlement to the conflict based on two states. These resolutions usually receive the support of all the world’s nations except for Israel, the United States, and a handful of others (often tiny US-dependent Pacific island nations).

Support for the two-state solution has also enjoyed support from across the establishment political spectrum in the West. In 2002, then-US President George W. Bush (a Republican) became the first president to publicly endorse it. On the other end of the truncated spectrum that represents establishment political thought, independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (a self-described democratic socialist) has also pledged his support for the two-state framework. Even some “radical professors” in the academic world have said they think it’s the most realistic option. This includes the linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky and political scientist Norman Finkelstein.

Now, however, a high-ranking UN human rights official has issued a damning condemnation of both the viability and morality of the two-state solution. In a letter resigning from his post as director of the New York office of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Craig Mokhiber slammed the two-state solution as no longer possible nor desirable. And he’s far from being the first high-profile person to do this volte face. Numerous high-profile supporters of the two-state solution have in recent years openly repudiated it and come out in favor of the rival “one-state solution.”

Previously considered a fringe proposal within Western countries, a settlement based on a single democratic, non-sectarian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea is now looking more and more mainstream. Receiving support from a former senior UN official surely represents a seminal chapter in the long struggle one-state supporters have been waging to bring this solution to greater public attention.

“An Open Joke in the Corridors of the UN”

Mokhiber’s letter states: “The mantra of the “two-state solution” has become an open joke in the corridors of the UN, both for its utter impossibility in fact, and for its total failure to account for the inalienable human rights of the Palestinian people.” During an interview with Al-Jazeera English, Mokhiber elaborated: “When people are not talking from official talking points, you hear increasingly about a one-state solution. And what that means is beginning to advocate for the principle of equality, of human rights instead of these old political taglines. That would mean a state in which you have equal rights for Christians, Muslims and Jews based upon human rights and based upon the rule of law.”

The idea of a single democratic state with equal rights for all people who live in historic Palestine is far from a new idea. In fact, it was the official goal of all the major Palestinian nationalist parties until comparatively recently. It was only in 1993 that Fatah, the largest party within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), agreed to settle for a Palestinian state in a partitioned part of historic Palestine, which it did in exchange for Israel recognizing the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

More left-leaning factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) retained support for the one-state solution and have suffered marginalization from Fatah as a consequence. Hamas, meanwhile, has historically been committed in principle to an Islamic republic encompassing all of historic Palestine, but in 2017 revised its charter by indicating pragmatic support for two states.

Two-state Solution “Destroyed By Israel”

Fatah officials have largely held to the two-state line since 1993. But recently even some of its senior figures have come out against it and instead pledged their support for a one-state solution. Hanan Ashrawi, for example, was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council and appointed as Minister of Higher Education for the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1996. In 2009 she became the first woman to be elected to the Executive Committee of the PLO. In 2017 during a television segment on Al-Jazeera English, Ashrawi saidthat the two-state solution is “a solution that the Palestinians had agreed to as a result of a long, painful discussion, internal debate, and a painstaking debate to agree to the principle of partition and to accepting two states on the historical land of Palestine.” She added: “We made this compromise in order to prepare the ground for a new relationship, for peace and stability within the region.”

However, in May 2021 — during Israel’s most recent periodic massacre in Gaza before the current one — Ashrawi said during an interview with RT: “I think the two-state solution is dead. That agenda has been destroyed by Israel — by Israeli actions — because Israel did not comply with any of its obligations.” She added: “I don’t think a one-state solution has become an agenda, but it is the outcome.” Ashrawi also pointed to the effect that the two-state discourse has had on Israel’s actions and the international community’s inaction in holding it to account. She said: “Israel felt that it can just say, ‘we are in the middle of talks’, or ‘we are negotiating’, or whatever, and at the same time continue to steal more land, more resources, build more settlements… and [it] continues to kill and demolish and carry out a comprehensive ethnic cleansing plan.”

“A Transparent Sleight of Hand”

This idea that the two-state solution has provided a smokescreen to embolden Israel’s actions and allowed it to endlessly delay any kind of resolution has become a common criticism amongst one-state supporters. As Palestinian-American activist Yousef Munayyer puts it: “You have this constant conversation around the two-state solution being a goal and that keeps open this idea of negotiations. And these negotiations, as we have seen, have only resulted in an opportunity for Israel to say to the world, ‘look, this is a temporary condition.’” He added: “And at the same time, [Israel is] creating realities on the ground that make that impossible.”

Mokhiber alludes to exactly this phenomenon in his resignation letter, stating: “The (US-scripted) deference to ‘agreements between the parties themselves’ (in place of international law) was always a transparent slight-of-hand, designed to reinforce the power of Israel over the rights of the occupied and dispossessed Palestinians.” He pointed in particular to the role of the so-called “Quartet” (the group of self-appointed mediators to the conflict made up of the UN, the United States, the EU and Russia), which he argues “has become nothing more than a fig leaf for inaction and for subservience to a brutal status quo.”

“Embrace the Goal of Jewish–Palestinian Equality”

In addition to Ashrawi, other prominent former supporters of the two-state solution have changed tack in favor of one state. This includes the former editor of the arch-Zionist magazine The New Republic, Peter Beinart. In an essay published at Jewish Currents in July 2020, he stated:

“The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades — a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews — has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It risks becoming, instead, a way of camouflaging and enabling that path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality.”

In a similar vein, former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher, saidduring a forum hosted by the Carnegie Council for International Peace: “We are already in a one-state reality. The question is becoming increasingly: Is this reality going to turn into an apartheid state or a democratic state?” Others who are casting doubt on the viability of the two-state solution include none other than the aforementioned George W. Bush. He stated in May 2021 that the two-state solution would be “very difficult at this stage.”

Shifting the Focus From 1967 to 1948

Clearly, the two-state solution is increasingly looking like a dinosaur that not only fails to offer a viable framework for resolving the conflict but also provides a smokescreen for Israel’s endless stalling and undermining of peace. But there is a more fundamental problem with the two-state solution. Because it calls for the dividing line between Israel and a Palestinian state to be based on Israel’s border before the June 1967 war. During this war, Israel invaded the West Bank and Gaza Strip and has occupied them ever since. (It withdrew from Gaza in 2005 though still maintains a siege via control of its border, coast, and airspace.) The two-state solution entails returning these areas to the Palestinians in order for them to establish a state on these lands.

The problem with this, however, is that these lands constitute only 22% of historic Palestine. A fairer division of the land in a two-state scenario would be something like 50–50. But this aside, the major crime that was committed against the Palestinian people was not the 1967 invasion and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Rather, the major crime was the ethnic cleansing that occurred in 1947 and 1948, which has come to be known as “al-Nakba.” During this time, at least half of Palestine’s non-Jewish population was forced out of its home and pushed as refugees into the West Bank and Gaza or into neighboring Arab countries.

Given this history, Palestinians have a right to return to their country, which encompasses all of historic Palestine. And therefore, Palestinians have never been under any obligation whatsoever to accept partition. Indeed, though a central tenet of Zionist propaganda is the notion that Palestinians deserve their fate for having rejected the November 1947 partition plan set out in UN Resolution 181, the reality is that the UN had no right to partition the country in the first place. Indeed, doing so was in violation of the UN’s own charter. In any case, the Palestinians were not even under any legal obligation, let alone moral obligation, to accept it given that Resolution 181 was a non-binding resolution and the UN Security Council didn’t ever officially adopt it.

Finally to consider is comparison with the political solutions that have been proposed, and in some cases implemented, in other countries around the world. And this seems to point overwhelmingly to the single democratic, nonsectarian state vision based on equal rights proffered by supporters of the one-state solution. The UN never proposed, for example, the formation of separate states in South Africa for each of its ethnic groups as a way of resolving the conflict in that country. As Mokhiber puts it: “It is what we call for in every other circumstance around the world. And the question is, ‘why is the United Nations not calling for that in Israel-Palestine as well?’”