December 6, 2017

What’s Next in the Middle East

Tsafrir Cohen

No end in sight, indeed. Diplomats and politicians the world over envision a two-state solution as “the only game in town,” while US President Donald Trump casually promises a final “peace deal,” yet makes it conditional on the flimsy goodwill of the two parties involved in the conflict. Both regnant approaches appear as mere idle talk, treading water, without any concrete steps taken to move the conflict towards resolution. In the meantime, Israeli government policy plows speedily ahead, cementing the reality of an Israeli dominated one-state solution without equal civil rights for all its inhabitants. On both sides of the fence/wall, public support for a two-state decline as hopelessness becomes the everyday state of affairs. Is the two-state-solution still even a realistic option for resolving the conflict at this point?

As the two-state solution seemingly evaporates from the realm of the possible, various actors quietly explore new creative alternatives that spring from the point where a two-state solution stumbles, namely the balanced consideration of collective identities and individual liberties, with such models like a binational state, one state for all or a confederation arising as plausible alternatives. Public support for such visions, though limited, nonetheless grows.

While the fragile political imagination for a future more equitable and quiet, less violent and threatening continues to endure, it has become increasingly clear that the top priority must be the generation of an actionable political will among the parties and stakeholders to end the occupation.

The One-State Reality

The UN resolution of 1947 which adopted the Partition Plan was already meant to realize a two-state solution, that is, the establishment of two independent states, Israel and Palestine. Ever since, broad sectors of the international community as well as the leading representatives of the two parties to the conflict and their publics have long accepted the two-state solution as the preferred, ultimate resolution. The contours of a two-state solution have already been well-defined in the international arena at nearly every scale of governance. US President Barack Obama explicated them in his first speech at the UN General Assembly; the EU three (France, Germany, and Great Britain) presented them to the UN Security Council; and, the new US administration also ostensibly gestures toward them.

To wit, a two-state solution envisages a territorial arrangement based on: the “borders of 1967”, that is, the borders that existed prior to the war of 1967, in conjunction with a consensual swap of territory; security arrangements that take the needs of both parties into consideration; a solution to the refugee problem acceptable to the conflicting parties and to the primary countries where the refugees currently reside; and finally, with Jerusalem as capital of both states. This conception largely corresponds to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which has the backing of the Arab League as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Even though concrete approaches to arrangements for all problematic issues have been worked out in the negotiations since the 1993 Israeli–Palestinian Oslo Declaration of Principles, the differences between the positions of the two parties regarding all final status matters are currently much greater than they were during previous negotiations. This is a remarkable state of affairs: though the putative solution is known and enumerated, its realization in a mutual accord between the parties remains stymied. In principle, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that he accepts a two-state solution. Yet, he appears to speak out of both sides of his mouth, with the cool language of compliance with the international community and the boiling-hot indignation of the settler movement domestically. During the electoral campaign in 2015 he announced that he would not allow a Palestinian state to be established during his term of office, all the while heading a government that doggedly opposes the internationally-mandated steps toward a two-state solution. Several government ministers, including members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, have even rejected a two-state solution explicitly, on-the-record. By contrast, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) that administers parts of the West Bank is still upholding its support for a two-state solution, while there are signs of a pragmatic trend within Hamas, ruling in the Gaza Strip, toward the acceptance of a two-state solution and de facto coexistence with Israel, as reflected in the organization’s statement of principles published in the beginning of May 2017. For entering peace negotiations, however, the Palestinian leadership could merely draw on limited legitimacy, given the de facto split of the Palestinian territory, not only into two geographical entities (the Gaza Strip and the West Bank), but also into two political ones – a problem further aggravated by the fact that no elections have been held since 2006. This is merely a theoretical issue, however, given that most serious analysis clearly doubts that an acceptable conflict resolution can be reached by bilateral negotiations due to the asymmetrical balance of power between the two parties.

In the interim, a one-state reality came to be established in Israel/Palestine in plain view. Until today, Israeli governments, irrespective of who headed them, have deliberately settled some 350,000 to 400,000 Israeli citizens in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank, an area of some 6,000 square kilometers (about the size of Delaware or a third of that of Slovenia), comprising the major part of the occupied Palestinian territories. The settlements are connected to Israel proper by a highway system cutting through Palestinian territory – roads that the Palestinian population is mostly prevented from using. Military defense is provided by the Israeli army which still administers 60 percent of the West Bank and — in disregard of international law — misuses its power to prevent any development of Palestinian infrastructure, such as building projects and the use of land and resources. The Israeli settlements and the army jointly control vital Palestinian resources and continuously advance an expanding process of expropriation of Palestinians. Hostilities between the settler populations and Palestinian residents are ubiquitous and sometimes lethal. The separation barrier not only separates the West Bank from Israel, but also deprives the former of some three to six percent of its total territory. In addition there is an onerous complex system of checkpoints, separate roads and travel permits. All this leads to a domination over Palestinian lives and an ever-increasing fragmentation of Palestinian areas – and hence, the territory that might be available for a contiguous Palestinian state.

The system of road blocks and barriers, of travel permits and checkpoints, of concrete walls and fenced-in enclaves all work to keep the indigenous population locked in, under permanent surveillance, leaving them free only to deal with their plight on their own. That is what the PA does. Its main function is limited to the internal administration and policing of disconnected enclaves that constitute about 40 percent of the West Bank.

Another 200,000 Israeli citizens have settled in East Jerusalem and surroundings, a territory formally annexed by Israel. The Palestinian quarters of East Jerusalem are today surrounded by Jewish-Israeli quarters, which cut them off from the West Bank. Only a few Palestinians from the West Bank are allowed to travel with special permits to East Jerusalem. Thus, the Palestinians’ largest urban center is actually cordoned off from the other Palestinian territories. In total, Israeli governments (again, irrespective of who headed them) have invested some dozens of billions of Euros in the settlement of more than half a million of Jewish settlers within the 6,000 square kilometers, on which the Palestinian state was meant to be established. (For comparison: Israel proper, i.e. within its internationally-recognized borders, comprises a territory of some 21,000 square kilometers, the size of Slovenia or West Virginia). The number of Israeli settlers continues to rise with an annual growth rate of some 4.4 percent (75 percent of which stems from births, while 25 percent are due to immigration from Israel and abroad). The rising numbers are a logical consequence of a suite of policies that Israeli settlers benefit from, like reduced taxes, better infrastructures and public services than in Israel proper, to subsidies allowing for cheaper local public transport services and more affordable housing, to privileges in the distribution of water.

Palestinians have greater control over their area in the other part of the Occupied Territories, that is the Gaza Strip (in total 360 square kilometers). But the posture of the Hamas government there should not obscure the Gaza Strip’s dependence on Israel in essential respects. In the summer of 2005 the government of Ariel Sharon pushed through the withdrawal of the Israeli army and the evacuation of those fairly-small Israeli settlements (with some 9,000 inhabitants) from the extremely impoverished and densely populated Gaza Strip, which is not seen as part of the historical ancestral territory of the Jewish people. Yet, the Gaza Strip cannot survive on its own, without the West Bank, and Israel continues to control all borders, by land and sea, as well as the air space above all Palestinian territories. The only exception is the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, which is no longer under direct Israeli control since mid-2007. Moreover, Israel completely dominates the Palestinian economy in the Gaza Strip as well as in the West Bank, in particular the currency, the access to resources, and trade.

This glance at the balance sheet reveals that there is only one sovereign power between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, namely the State of Israel. It pursues a dual strategy: For one, it aims at increasingly blurring the borders between Israel and a future Palestine. Thus, for example, Israel’s internationally-recognized borders have long vanished from Israeli school textbooks. The second strategy is reflected in the creation of an intricate system in which the inhabitants have different rights, or lack rights, depending on citizenship, place of residence (Israel, West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem), and ethnic-religious affiliation. This has very tangible consequences, as can be seen by comparing the per capita gross national product (GNP): In 2014 the per capita GNP of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories was $2,960 USD, while it was 13 times as much in Israel, namely $37,731 USD. The rational is obvious: on the one hand, the Israeli government wants to continue controlling Palestinian territories and facilitating an expansion of Israeli settlements, thereby preventing the establishment of a viable independent Palestinian state; and on the other hand, it is afraid of losing power and the privileges of the Jewish population if all inhabitants of the territory under its control were to enjoy equal rights. Already today there is no Jewish majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. There are currently some 12.6 million people living in that area, of whom about 6.2 million are Jewish and 6.3 million Arab (i.e. Palestinians and other Arab minorities) ; the demographic trends seem to favor Arab population increases for the future.

Is a Two-State Solution still a Realistic Option?


It would require an enormous political and financial effort to achieve the disentanglement needed to pave the way for a two-state solution. In Israel there is currently no pressing need felt to resolve the conflict, nor is there any serious political force remotely willing nor able to undertake a project of such historical magnitude. Even a cursory view of the basic data reveals the profound lack of any immediate pressure agitating for fundamental change. The Israeli economy has been thriving for over a decade since the Second Intifada abated in the mid-2000s. Economic growth is above the average in industrialized countries; the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in Israel — once an emerging nation — is by now higher than in Spain or Italy. Israel is today a leading location for research, high-tech and communications, with considerable presence of such international companies like Intel and Microsoft, and with one of the world’s highest concentrations of start-up companies. It has a highly competitive pharmaceutical industry and is one of the globally leading exporters of security products and weapons. Inflation, unemployment and public debts are at very low levels. Also, Israel’s foreign relations are hardly hampered by the continuing occupation (on which, more below).

The costs of the occupation itself are relatively low. Since the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s, the PA is responsible for the Palestinians’ well-being. With its limited powers to administer the misery in the aforementioned, disconnected enclaves, the PA is not able to generate an even remotely self-sustaining economy. Here is where the foreign donors come in, in particular the European Union, the United Nations, the USA, and the Gulf states. Additionally, they finance major parts of the budget, thus preventing a humanitarian crisis and the collapse of the PA.

However, not everyone in Israel has benefitted from its economic upswing. Since the mid-1980s all Israeli governments have pursued a neoliberal policy more stringent than in most other OECD countries, which includes a reduction in government spending, systematic wage cuts in the public sector, waves of privatization and deregulation, the wide-spread introduction of temporary employment agencies, the marginalization of trade unions, and a tax system shifting toward indirect taxation and hence increasing the tax burden for people with low incomes. In these circumstances the high-tech industries and services are flourishing, but a negligible eight percent of the Israeli population is employed in that sector. Israel’s economic policy is accompanied by a process of concentration of capital and power, to a degree hardly found in any other Western country. As a result, the middle class has shrunk empirically: In 2005, 36 percent of all Israeli households belonged to the middle class, compared to 52.4 percent in Germany. Since then, the middle class has kept shrinking, while the poverty rate has almost doubled, rising from 10–12 percent to 19–20.

The huge social protests in 2011 were an expression of the growing public discontent with socially unjust government policies and uneven economic development. In light of the many scandals involving leading politicians, generals and police commanders (the trials in which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was found guilty of corruption and President Moshe Katsav of rape were just the tip of the iceberg), the social protests were also a demonstration against a political elite seen as highly corrupt and detached from the population’s needs. Starting as a protest of the middle class, whose children can no longer afford student housing in Tel Aviv, the uprising was gradually joined by parts of the lower classes. Netanyahu’s right-wing government came under unprecedented pressure, but the established political system turned out to be extremely resilient. The political elite was able to contain the social protests by redirecting the issue of social justice toward a debate over the unfairness in the sharing of the burden of military service, since Ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Palestinian minority in Israel do not serve in the army, and by drawing attention to the tense situation in and around the Gaza Strip. The specter of the external threat neutralized public discontent, preventing the nascent political opposition from escalating and fundamentally challenging existing power structures in a lasting manner.

Conjuring an external threat as salve for internal social friction and consolidating political resistance — the latter of which could hardly be said to have been fostered by the neoliberal social and economic policies of the previous decades —, is particularly effective in an immigrant country like Israel. A fragile Israeli identity competes with a maze of other collective identities related to people’s places of origin. Apart from the large indigenous Palestinian minority (constituting 20 percent of Israeli citizens), the Jewish population is divided into those with European roots (Ashkenazim) and those coming from Arab and/or Muslim countries (Mizrahim); in addition to hundreds of thousands of people socialized in the Soviet Union, as well as the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. These various communities are all the more significant since they are interrelated to actual socio-economic differences, depending on the timing of the group’s immigration to Israel, the way it is perceived by other social groups, and the degree of achieved integration. An acute potential for conflict stems from discrimination against Mizrahim and especially the overt racism, reflected for example in police violence, toward Jewish individuals with dark skin, and from the perpetual “culture war” between secular and religious social groups.

This current constellation is the best possible for Israel’s right-wing under Netanyahu’s lead, given the satisfactory performance of the economy, the limited financial costs of the occupation, and the instrumentalization of external threats for containing protests and strengthening the right-wing’s position. Its grip on power is firm; Israel and its neoliberal economic system flourish; the construction of settlements perdures; and Israel continues to control Palestinian territories and lives. To preserve that state of affairs, the Israeli government takes care to keep the conflict with the Palestinians at a low intensity, as Israeli society seems willing to tolerate a few terror attacks, while it is unclear whether it were prepared or able to cope with a greater number of casualties. Toward that end, the Israeli government employs a complex “carrot-and-stick” policy toward the PA and — underneath the media’s radar — toward Hamas. In addition, the Israeli government also seeks to preserve the current state of affairs by not clarifying the legal status of the occupied Palestinian territories and by refraining from annexation. The limbo that exists already for half a century entails that Israeli Jewish settlers have different rights and enjoy a different legal system from their nearby Palestinian neighbors, who live under military occupation. In light of a situation where different groups within the population are subject to different legal systems, several Israeli, Palestinian and international observers have come to consider the continuation of that system as a form of Apartheid.

It may sound astonishing, but most Israelis show little, if any, interest in the settlements. The almost general public support for the right-wing governments over the last twenty years is also a sign of the weakness of the Israeli left. After determining Israeli politics for almost thirty years since the establishment of the state in 1948, the Labor Party lost its hegemonic role which was taken over by the Israeli right-wing parties. In the last thirty years, the Labor Party has only managed to build a peace coalition for two brief historical moments. The first one culminated in the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians but lost its leading personality when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing extremist. The second occurred at the end of the twentieth century, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak promised to do everything to achieve a peace treaty with the Palestinians. The former Chief of Staff and the peace camp’s beacon of hope returned from failed negotiations and asserted that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. Today we know that he was not at all ready to agree to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and that his Palestinian counterparts in the negotiations could not possibly accept his offer. The Israel peace camp collapsed in the wake of the failure and Barak’s announcement; hope to attain peace was thus lost. Ever since, the once-popular Labor Party, under the leadership of a series of unfortunate party heads, oscillates between imitating the right-wing parties and avoiding clear answers to the country’s existential question. The Labor Party does not base its acceptance of a two-state solution on the wish to achieve peace, but rather on the desire to separate themselves for good from the Palestinians so that Israel will attain greater security. Yet, there is a constant undercurrent, namely the idea that Israel is a Western island in the midst of what is perceived as a barbarian environment and should therefore be fortified. Thus, mistrust is stirred up, perhaps understandable in light of the wars, crises and dictatorships in neighboring countries, but it unfortunately plays into the hands of the right-wing parties, who are much more capable of profiting from the politics of fear. At the same time, the Labor Party’s stand prevents the formation of a necessary alliance with a new major force in Israel that supports a two-state solution, namely the Joint List — including among others the socialist Jewish–Arab Hadash — that represents the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Labor’s stand prevents the emergence of a peace-oriented alliance that could convince Israeli society that a just two-state solution is in Israel’s interest.


Considering the asymmetrical power relations between the parties to the conflict, the PA has made every effort over the past years to comply with the parameters set by the superpowers for the realization of a two-state solution, but its efforts were in vain. Given Israel’s total predominance, the PA holds no cards it could play to realize the two-state solution it prefers. Moreover, its room for maneuver is highly circumscribed due to its dependence on Israel and the international community. Lacking a viable independent economy, most of the PA’s revenues is contingent and comes from abroad, for example in the form of humanitarian and development aid or the transfer of funds by Israel, such as customs dues and VAT payments which Israeli institutions collect and then transfer to the PA – or they don’t. As a result, repression is interwoven with co-optation. As in other rentier systems, patronage becomes a decisive factor in this system, detached from the population that it claims to represent, because the system does not depend financially on the population and can hence ignore their needs with impunity. While most of the population lives in poverty, a social stratum close to the system thrives and is able to afford expensive restaurants or private schools – a stratum including, among others, the al-Masri family, who have become immensely rich billionaires.

The PA’s role in security matters is particularly revealing. Twelve security apparatuses (secret police, gendarmerie, military intelligence, special forces, presidential guards, etc.), funded by the USA and the European Union, operate in the West Bank and make it one of the most heavily-guarded places on earth. The budget for these apparatuses is higher than what is spent on health and education combined. Their competences are strictly limited to the Palestinian population, and they are not allowed to touch Israeli citizens, as for example settlers who regularly damage Palestinian property. For Israel, they constitute a cost-saving substitute for its own troops for keeping order and suppressing violence against Israeli settlements and infrastructure.

After more than twenty years since its establishment, it is high time to consider whether the PA is necessary to the process of establishing a Palestinian state or whether it has become an integral part of the occupation. The PA faces a severe dilemma: There are voices, even among members of Fatah, the predominant organization in the PA, who advocate dissolving the PA and returning to a direct Israeli occupation regime. The PA’s legitimacy does, indeed, depend on its ability to represent the Palestinian national interests. Yet, as long as there are so many people, especially those close to the regime, whose livelihood depends on the PA, many seem to cling to the hope that a Palestinian state will be established, eventually.

Given the failure of direct negotiations with Israel, the Palestinian leadership lately seeks to foster an internationalization of the conflict, by attempting to take the UN, the International Court of Justice, and the international community to task. The Israeli settlements should be ostracized; a Palestinian state should be recognized; and the parameters for a conclusive two-state solution should be determined by the international community. So far the PA’s efforts have only met with moderate success. The Israeli establishment and its allies fight these efforts vehemently, labeling them as warfare by judicial and diplomatic means, and the Western world responds to those efforts with hesitation or even rejection.

Despite the PA’s lack of success, there are nonviolent civil-society movements taking on the struggle against the occupation and the desperate state of eking out a bare existence in isolated enclaves. One of them is a rather low-threshold movement, promoting sumud (steadfast perseverance) and employing passive resistance against the expropriation and expulsion of Palestinians from various parts of the West Bank. For example, demolished buildings are re-built; land is cultivated, even though it has been declared part of a closed military zone; and alternative institutions are established. The second one is the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement founded by Palestinians. It is an international campaign, drawing inspiration from the South African example, that aims at increasing the pressure on Israel to end the occupation. The movement is under heavy attack by pro-Israeli organizations, who claim that the movement’s motives are anti-Semitic. BDS nevertheless is gaining momentum and even drawing support from some Israeli and Jewish peace activists, including renowned ones. The third movement is called nonviolent or popular intifada, which seeks to bring international pressure on Israel by means of demonstrations, strikes and road blocks, to revive the Israeli peace camp and thus to bring about the end of the occupation. However, such an endeavor does not seem realistic today given the mechanisms of oppression employed by the PA and by the Israeli military on the one hand, and the current state of Palestinian society, on the other.

The only other option discussed today is an armed intifada. Hamas, who rules the Gaza Strip with a very heavy hand and employs intimidation and at times torture in order to compensate for its dwindling popularity, still calls for an armed intifada. But that seems to be merely a matter of political expediency considering that Hamas is moving closer to Fatah in its positions. Israel appears much too powerful; and the fear of war and chaos in light of the TV images from Syria and Yemen, not to mention the exhaustion after two intifadas, are all too acute.

The International Community

Between the continuation of Israel’s controversial settlement policy, the fact that the Netanyahu government remorselessly turned its back on the two-state solution, Israel’s anti-liberal domestic policies and laws, and especially Netanyahu’s unprecedented intervention in American internal politics and his resolute Republican partisanship, let alone the decades-old deep political polarization in US American society made more manifest in the 2016 elections — the formerly unconditional unanimous support of Israel by its most important ally, the USA, seems to be crumbling. Left and liberal groups are increasingly distancing themselves from Israel, while the identification with Israel intensifies within extreme right-wing circles, especially in conjunction with the idea of a common enemy, namely Islam. There is a similar situation in the large Jewish communities in the USA: a growing conservative wing in the traditionally progressive Jewish communities enthusiastically sides with Netanyahu, whereas leftists and liberals, in particular younger people, increasingly support either J-Street — an organization established in 2008 as alternative to the powerful conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that is close to the Israeli left and is critical of the occupation — or the Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-occupation organization that explicitly endorses the BDS campaign. The special relations between the USA and Israel are nonetheless based on firm foundations. The USA grants Israel three to four billion US$ of military aid annually, and a special law obliges the USA to ensure that Israel’s military superiority in relation to all other states in the Middle East is upheld. Israel’s nationalist right-wingers were hoping that Donald Trump’s election victory would abruptly end the US administration’s official commitment to a two-state solution, but statements made by Trump and his team since their Middle East tour in May 2017 seem to indicate that the USA is still nominally committed to a two-state solution. Yet, even though the US American President has announced that he wants to broker the ultimate peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, it is unclear how he intends to achieve that. As Trump’s own domestic agenda falters — including the budgeting and building of the so-called “Wall” between the US and Mexico, the replacement and repeal of Obamacare, the “Muslim” travel ban, not to mention the ongoing scandal and investigation regarding his campaign’s relationship to Russia during the 2016 election — vesting any hope in a Trump-brokered peace deal seems more and more unrealistic.

First after Trump’s election victory, then after his blustering two trips to Europe in 2017 so far, there is a growing awareness in Europe that it will alone have to shape and pursue more of its own foreign and security policy independently, although it still expresses close diplomatic cooperation with the USA as conditio sine qua non for any responsible political strategy. Especially with regard to the Middle East, Europe leaves the leading role to the USA and is content to serves as second driver. Europe’s relations to Israel are as complex and diverse as those of the USA. Moreover, European, particularly German, history in itself is a major reason for solidarity with Israel. As a result, Israel is probably the non-European state with the closest relations to the European Union. Many among the political elites in the European capitals have realized that the two parties to the conflict are — on their own — hardly able to reach a mutually acceptable solution because the asymmetry in the power relations between the two parties is much too unbalanced. And yet, the European states are still insisting on resolving the conflict only by direct negotiations between the parties, despite the one-state reality materializing on the ground. Whether out of deference to their more powerful governing partner, the US, or out of a cacophony of approaches and interests by dint of their diverse constituents, Europe remains unprepared to embark on any deeper involvement, such as determining the parameters of a solution as outlined above, or taking concrete steps toward the realization of a two-state solution.

Public opinion in Europe — and the opinion of many European politicians and civil servants speaking off the record — differs a bit from the US American one. At the time of the Oslo Accords, public opinion in Europe was marked by a pro-Israeli euphoria. But in light of the blatant asymmetry in the power relations between two parties, which was illustrated in the Gaza wars, and a growing awareness of the occupation’s harsh reality, it has turned in many circles — in Great Britain, Ireland, Sweden or Spain to a larger extent than in Germany, Hungary or Poland — into an aversion to Israel’s occupation policy, but not always into sympathy for the Palestinians. The growing gap between official policy and public opinion would hardly be manageable if there were no other divergent developments as well. In a process of modernization, the right-wing populists who are on the rise are replacing their traditional anti-Semitic resentments with the idea of an imagined front for the defense of some Jewish-Christian Occident against oriental Islam, and Israel and its hegemonic right-wing are seen as highly important symbolic and strategic allies. At the same time, many opponents of the occupation face accusations of anti-Semitism voiced by pro-Israeli organizations, as happened recently in the British Labour Party, and previously in the parties, The Greens and Die Linke in Germany. At the beginning of 2017 the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee even decided to embark on an investigation in light of reports, according to which the Israeli Foreign Ministry, in collaboration with civil society actors, conducts coordinated campaigns against people criticizing Israel’s occupation policy and interferes with internal party debates.

Considering the controversial and potentially explosive state of affairs, European actors tend to be undecided and, hence, to act half-heartedly. For example, the European Union decided that the few products imported from Israeli settlements should no longer be marked as coming from Israel, since the European Union does not recognize the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories as part of Israel. Yet, the decision was defended as a technical, procedural matter, rather than as a political message. Moreover, the European Union rejected demands to stop the import of such products altogether given that it considers Israeli settlements a contravention of international law. The European parliament and other national parliaments have stated their support in principle for the recognition of a Palestinian state, but until now only Sweden has actually done so. According to Irish sources, it is only a matter of time until Ireland will formally recognize a Palestinian state. By contrast, Emmanuel Macron’s remarks indicate that France is unlikely to follow the example. In Germany, such recognition is not on the agenda, not even after the 2017 general elections.

The optimism generated by the Oslo Accords led to a normalization in Israel’s relations with many formerly non-aligned states such as China and India, as well as with former members of the Warsaw Pact, such as Russia. Despite the continuation of the occupation, Israel’s relations with these countries, the global importance of which is on the rise, have not cooled down, but have rather flourished due to these countries’ increasing demand for trade and know-how. Israel has gained greater economic and military independence from the USA and Europe. In addition, Israel itself produces important technologies, such as drones and network security technology, for which there is a growing demand in Western and non-Western countries since the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. Furthermore, Israel’s position has become stronger in the wake of the US American occupation of Iraq and the failure of the Arab Spring. Its former enemies, such as Syria and Iraq, are falling apart, while Israel increasingly shares similar interests with Egypt under the authoritarian ruler Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and the extreme Islamist monarchy in Saudi Arabia, as for example in their positions toward Hamas and Iran.

In general, the conception of a two-state solution is so firmly established in the international arena that any search for alternative solutions is perceived as unrealistic fantasizing. At the same time, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict that used to be seen as urgently requiring a solution has slipped into the background as newer, more acute conflicts in the Middle East have sprung up. In the past the resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was thought to be the key to peace in the entire Middle East and to a rapprochement between the West and the Arab states. By contrast it seems today that other hot spots (Syria, for example) have to be tackled first, before dealing with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. There is doubt whether this is a suitable time for establishing such a miniature state as the envisaged Palestinian one, which is bound to be unstable and whose chances for development are far from optimal given the circumstances on the ground. For the time being the occupied Palestinian territories will have to join Western Sahara, Kashmir and Northern Cyprus – all long-standing occupations deemed currently unresolvable.

Alternative Options for a Resolution of the Conflict

Given the growing doubts whether a two-state solution is realizable, or perhaps due to an explicit rejection of such a solution, alternative conceptions of a peaceable resolution are gaining currency among both Israelis and Palestinians in recent years. These alternatives include one-state models, with either Jewish or Palestinian dominance, or a bi-national state with complete equality, and models of a confederation of two independent states. In addition, the plan of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank is still in circulation.

One State, with either Jewish or Palestinian Dominance

The majority of the Israeli right-wing under Netanyahu’s lead intentionally refrains from formulating parameters for the future of the two nations, in order to be able to advance the construction of settlements without facing international pressure. Others, however, do demand a formalization of the one-state reality. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the extreme right-wing settler party, The Jewish Home, and member of the security cabinet, calls for the annexation of some 60 percent of the West Bank, including all Israeli settlements. The Palestinians in these areas, tens of thousands, possibly more than 100,000 people, should receive Israeli citizenship, whereas the enclaves currently administered by the PA, where the vast majority of the Palestinian population lives, would be granted limited administrative autonomy. Under the influence of The Jewish Home, the Israeli government drafted the Law for the Regulation of Settlement in Judea and Samaria, which was passed by the Knesset in February 2017. The law enables a gradual extension of Israel’s sovereignty into the West Bank and hence the annexation of parts thereof. By contrast, some more independently-thinking members of Likud, such as Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, favor the annexation of the entire West Bank while granting individual civil rights, but only limited collective political ones to all Palestinians residing there. This does not include the almost two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, otherwise it would be impossible to ensure a Jewish majority. Both models are meant to uphold the country’s Jewish identity and the privileges of the Jewish population.

The settler movement, the strongest lobby in Israel, is the driving force behind these deliberations. Extending to the core of the Israeli consensus, the influence of the settler movement is due to two continuities in Israeli discourse. Firstly, the state of Israel was founded by European Jews, who settled in a country that was already inhabited. The indigenous population had to be pushed out in order to create a safe haven for Jews persecuted in Europe. Settlements were Zionism’s main tool. The settler movement can thus argue that they are finishing the project started by all the venerated founding fathers. Though it was—at least, meant to be—secular in nature, the Zionist movement needed religious symbols to inspire the enthusiasm of the Jewish masses and to unite them. The colonization of the country was termed in Hebrew with the charged expression “the redemption of the land.” Similarly, the settler movement employs religiously charged expressions with regard to the settlements in the West Bank, where there are numerous Jewish sites, such as Hebron, the city of Abraham. That usage has resonance in the Israeli public for whom the discourse is familiar.

The options discussed by Israeli right-wingers resemble those propagated by Hamas in its 1988 Charta, according to which the entire country is considered a religious “endowment” (waqf), a trust of God placed into the hands of the Muslim community. Jews would also be allowed to live there, but they could not have an equal status nor any collective political rights. Yet, it seems that Hamas is moving closer to the positions held by Fatah and other Palestinian parties represented in the PLO, who support a two-state solution.

A Democratic, Bi-national State and Confederation Models

Already prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, there were people who called for a bi-national state. They envisaged a bi-national, democratic and secular state for Jews and Palestinians, safeguarding both collective and minority rights effectively. They saw the partition of the country as an injustice, in particular due to the fact that it always works in Israel’s favor and that the interests of the dispersed Palestinian people are never sufficiently taken into consideration. Already during the 1990s, when a two-state solution seemed to be on the horizon, the leading Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who passed away in 2003, called for the establishment of a bi-national state as alternative to the Oslo peace process. He argued that a separation is not feasible given the multitude of interdependencies between the two sides. In light of the protectorate that is emerging in enclaves, a growing number of Palestinian intellectuals and activists, such as the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh , are currently calling for a bi-national state. They constitute a significant voice of opposition to the parties in the PLO that have a national orientation. Also a few post-Zionist Israelis call for a bi-national state, including among others former Labor Party MK and Speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg, historian Ilan Pappé, and sociologist Yehouda Shenhav. They all share the conviction that a lasting, just solution can only be realized by a bi-national state, regardless of how utopian such a state might seem at the moment. And there is the possibility that a struggle for equal civil rights might be more successful than one for national liberation.

Confederation models offer a compromise that gives greater consideration to collective rights, while assuming that two separate states will not be able to cope effectively with the challenges ahead. The models discussed range from a bi-national federation, as in Belgium, to a confederation of ethnically-delineated cantons. The latest initiative “Two States – One Homeland” was quickly able to recruit hundreds of supporters – an unusual alliance including Palestinian non-conformist thinkers, Israeli peace activists, settlers, and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. They propose to realize the right to self-determination of both peoples by establishing a Palestinian state, alongside Israel, in the territories occupied in 1967. Both states are supposed to be independent, but with open borders for each other’s population. Jewish settlers will thus be able to live as residents in the Palestinian state, while, according to an agreed quota, an equal number of Palestinian refugees will be allowed to reside in Israel. Each population group would have the citizenship of its own state, where they would then participate in the general elections – similarly to a German expat living in France or Spain.

Unilateral Israeli Withdrawal from Parts of the West Bank

The withdrawal from the Gaza Strip could serve as a blue-print for an Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. It could be a first step toward the end of the occupation, but it would probably also result in a unilateral delineation of the definite borders. The idea is that Israel would withdraw from major parts of the West Bank while laying claim to others based on its own strategic considerations. The latter would include for example the territory between the separation barrier and the Green Line as well as the large settlement blocks. This would allow Israel to get rid of the vast majority of the Palestinian population and attain a separation. As in the Gaza Strip, Israel would be able to control the West Bank effectively, with or without direct military presence, into the foreseeable future – possibly in cooperation with Jordan, the other neighbor of the West Bank. The Palestinians would be left with the Gaza Strip and a part of the West Bank without East Jerusalem. This is bound to lead to instability, but it can be expected that the “international community” would continue supporting such an entity and that the PA would prevent a power vacuum for its own sake.

Such a withdrawal would find support among the right-wing of the Labor Party — it corresponds with the rather simplistic Herzog Plan, named after the party’s former chairman — as well as the center parties and moderate right-wing circles. They all reject the territorial arrangement based on the borders of 1967 (in conjunction with a consensual exchange of territory), favored by the international community, or they assume that there would be no majority in Israel to accept such a solution. They also hope that such a withdrawal would ensure a Jewish majority in the country. The idea of a unilateral withdrawal attracts quite a lot of attention among US American and European diplomats and politicians, since it offers a way out of the deadlock reached in the negotiations. There would be no need to exert pressure on Israel if the forces of the Israeli center were to gain the upper hand. Finally, there is the hope that a unilateral withdrawal could calm the situation and avert an anti-Apartheid campaign against Israel. The strongest opposition to a unilateral withdrawal is voiced by the Palestinians and the Israeli left, but the opposition of the settler lobby and the extreme Israeli right-wing currently carries much greater political weight.


Today we are far away from resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, half a century after the beginning of the occupation. Yet, the occupation must end. It enshrines injustice and fosters a further shrinking of democratic spaces in both societies, a demonization of the other side, and the glorification of violence.

All the alternative models as well as the two-state solution are realistic options. All of them can be realized with sufficient political determination. The question is what kind of historical dynamics they are bound to boost.

Any serious political solution has to be based on the principles of equality and self-determination and lead toward a historical reconciliation between the two nations. A continuation of the current limbo is just as devastating as any solution enshrining the dominance of one side. A partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, including the unilateral delineation of the borders, is bound to cause injustice and create an explosive situation. Such a step is unlikely to resolve the conflict. It would leave behind a highly unstable Palestinian polity, still afflicted by many of its current dependencies, with hardly any chances for development and even less potential for emancipation than today. Any solution so disadvantageous for the Palestinians is bound to generate resistance, which means that any government would have to tolerate violence against Israel or suppress its own population by violent means. As the experience since the unilateral Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip indicates, Israeli society would react to the ensuing siege situation with an extremely heightened willingness on its part to resort to violence.

There is no lack of criticism from a progressive perspective of the one-state and the confederation models. For example, Israeli historian Gadi Algazi argues that these would entail a gradual acceptance of the settlements; Palestinians would lose any chance for future development, as these models do not address the question of what should be done about “the legacy of a century of a colonialism, in which the institutions of the Zionist movement continue directly or indirectly to control the key resources; the Jewish collective continues to enjoy the privileges and accumulated spoils from the expropriation of Palestinians, while most Palestinians live under the poverty line – that would constitute liberal Apartheid. It would legitimize the outcome of the colonization process and cover it with a beautiful liberal cloth.”

Even if one does not adopt that criticism, it is obvious that any just one-state or confederation model faces the same obstacles as the two-state solution: Israel’s unwillingness to give up the accumulated privileges of the Jewish population. This is why the primary goal of all sides must be the solidification of an actionable political will to end occupation.
In order to foster the construction of a political will towards ending occupation, the cost-benefit relations among the actors have to change. Three actors are relevant in this respect: For one, the Israeli journalist Amira Hass reminds us that colonial processes are almost always brought to an end by the resistance of the indigenous population, which means the Palestinians need to be able to speak with a strong united voice and conduct effective resistance. In addition, the Israeli opposition has to transform itself into a real alternative to the current government. In particular, it would require that centrist parties, especially the Labor Party tell the truth to a majority in the population that still wants peace and are willing to form a progressive front with the Palestinian minority in Israel, which constitutes almost 20 percent of the Israeli population.

Last, but not least, the international community and in particular Israel’s Western allies have a significant role to play given the extreme asymmetry of the conflict. It is their task to mobilize the necessary political will of the parties to the conflict. Lifeless pleas for a two-state solution are neither pragmatically nor ethically sufficient. In particular countries that have influence on Israel need to take decisive, concrete steps conductive to creating a new dynamic in the peace process. Neither President Trump’s efforts to reach a “peace deal” nor the European aid funds will suffice to reach the goal, if they are not accompanied by a radically different way of dealing with the parties to the conflict. This would include the setting of parameters for the negotiations by the UN Security Council, tough brokerage, security guarantees, as well as concrete steps in case of non-cooperation.

Within EU circles dealing with the issue, many diplomats and civil servants believe it would be of particular importance to intensify and steadfastly implement the policy of differentiating between Israel and the settlements – a policy already introduced in recent years that became binding for all states by UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of December 2016. This would mean taking steps to ensure that neither settlements nor their inhabitants benefit from bi-national or multi-national agreements with Israel; to ostracize investments and involvement in companies that indirectly contribute to settlement activities; and to ban the import of products from settlements. Down-grading bilateral relations are a further option considered.

Finally, the end of the occupation has to be the beginning of a long-term struggle for more just societies. Given the presence of a large Palestinian minority in the country, and in order to facilitate non-Jewish immigration, Israeli society will inevitably need a new self-conception, a conception that allows for a healthier balance between the majority’s Jewish identity and a modern concept of citizenship as well as bi-nationality – be it in one or two states. What is more, it will take a lengthy process to examine and deal with the injuries and scars caused by settling the country at the expense of another people, a legacy shaping every aspect of life — the landscape, the distribution of resources, and the collective imagination. Palestinian society will need to develop an alternative emancipatory model to combat the legacy of the fiefdoms held by Fatah and Hamas. At the same time, it will have to stand up to the Arab world oscillating between autocracy and military tyranny on the one hand, and religiously-colored reaction, on the other. These efforts will be worthwhile.

Tsafrir Cohen serves as head of the Israel office of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Tel Aviv.