Is a two-state solution possible after the Gaza war?

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Read all our coverage of the war between Israel and Hamas

When Israel left Gaza in 2005, uprooting some 8,000 Jewish settlers from a territory it had controlled since 1967, no one knew quite what to make of the decision. Some hoped that Israel’s willingness to cede occupied territory would be a trend, a step towards a final settlement with the Palestinians. Others saw a canny ploy: relinquishing control of Gaza might help Israel entrench its control of the West Bank. The latter view turned out to be correct.

Similar confusion has emerged since October 7th, when Israel began planning a ground invasion of Gaza after Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls the territory, massacred 1,400 Israelis. Palestinians fear the war will lead to a second naqba (“catastrophe”), referring to the mass displacement that accompanied Israel’s birth in 1948. Far-right Israeli ministers hope it will offer a chance to reassert control over Gaza and rebuild the dismantled Jewish settlements. A few hopeful sorts, among them Mr Biden, hope it will provide a chance to revive the comatose Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

For now, that is a far-off dream: Israeli generals expect months of fighting. But both they and many foreign powers hope eventually to transfer control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority (pa), which governs parts of the West Bank, probably with a peacekeeping force brought in to help the transition. And they doubt that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, would return to Gaza without a guarantee of meaningful talks about Palestinian statehood.

Any plan for the “day after” in Gaza, in other words, needs to consider the possibility of a two-state solution. The broad outline has not changed much for decades. A Palestinian state would be formed in Gaza and the West Bank; Israel would swap chunks of its territory for portions of the West Bank where it has built large settlements. Jerusalem would be divided, with some sort of joint control over the old city. A small number of Palestinian refugees could return to Israel, while the rest would settle in either Palestine or their present homes elsewhere. Israel would expect a Palestinian state to be demilitarised.

After two decades of serious talks—from the hopeful era of the Oslo accords in the early 1990s, through a desultory attempt under Barack Obama—the peace process ground to a halt in 2014. There have been no serious negotiations since.

Negotiators cannot quite pick up where they left off. At the end of 2021 there were 465,400 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, up from 116,300 when the Oslo accords were signed in 1993. They are a growing obstacle to peace. Most are concentrated in areas that would probably be ceded to Israel in an agreement, but their political clout (they would oppose surrendering even land that they do not live on) has increased along with their population.

Context is everything

The regional picture is also more complicated. In 2002 the Arab League endorsed a Saudi proposal that promised Israel normal relations with Arab countries after a two-state solution: by ending its conflict with the Palestinians, Israel could end all its regional conflicts. The Arab Peace Initiative was meant to be a powerful inducement. Israel might be more willing to take its boot off the Palestinians if it felt that other threats would then dissipate.

But the region has changed since 2002. Some militias, from Hizbullah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen, are now more powerful than the states they call home. It would not suffice for Arab governments to end their conflicts with Israel: non-state actors would have to agree to do so as well.

Other things could be easier. A two-state solution would be costly. Even before the war, the Palestinians would have expected help to rehabilitate Gaza; the bill will be much higher now. At the failed Camp David summit in 2000 negotiators discussed a $30bn fund to compensate Palestinian refugees for lost property. Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (uae), which have boosted ties with Israel in recent years, might be more willing to stump up the cash to show they have not abandoned the Palestinians.

The biggest problem, however, remains not the details of a solution but the political will to negotiate and implement one. There will be no serious peace process with Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition of far-right and religious politicians. That coalition is unlikely to survive long after the Gaza war, and Mr Netanyahu’s opponents hope that the next government will be more amenable to talks with the Palestinians. “We learned a lesson that we need to separate from them in a good way,” says one centrist Israeli lawmaker. “It’s time to start that discussion.” But Israeli politicians from the centre and left have avoided the issue in public for more than a decade.

On the Palestinian side, Hamas has always been eager to play spoiler. Its first suicide-bombings in the 1990s helped to scuttle the Oslo process, and the carnage it wrought during the second intifada (“uprising”) from 2000 to 2005 turned a generation of Israelis against the idea of compromise. Perhaps Hamas will fade away after the war in Gaza—but another group could take its place.

Ordinary people on both sides have lost faith in the two-state solution. A poll in September 2022 by the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think-tank, found that only 32% of Israeli Jews would support one, down from 47% five years earlier. Israeli Arabs, who make up one-fifth of the population, still endorsed the idea, although their support has also dropped, from 87% in 2017 to 71% in 2022. A plurality of Israeli Jews preferred the status quo.

Support has plummeted even further among Palestinians. A survey in June 2023 by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that just 28% still support a two-state solution. Some 53% of them backed the idea ten years ago, though just 39% thought it feasible.

Optimists hope that these results are squishy: people are unlikely to support something they think impossible. A meaningful peace process could push the poll numbers back up. “I don’t think our people would reject a chance to end the occupation,” says one former Palestinian minister. But the events of recent weeks could just as well harden both sides against the idea of compromise.

As ever in Israel, some of the strongest supporters of ending the occupation are the men tasked with running it. In the wake of the Hamas attack, few Israelis are talking publicly about the two-state solution—or any other solution for the conflict. But defence officials are discussing it in closed rooms. That is partly because the desired end state of the war will shape the war itself and because the Netanyahu government is incapable of holding a serious debate on Israel’s long-term strategy.

Then there is the question of who will play mediator. Though Russia and China both aspire to a role in Middle East peacemaking, neither has much leverage or credibility to assume it. The European Union could position itself as an honest broker but it is not taken seriously.

That leaves America. Mr Biden spent the first three years of his presidency trying to ignore the conflict. He will have other things on his mind in 2024—and neither Israelis nor Palestinians are likely to embark on a peace process with a president who could soon be turfed out. If Mr Biden wins in 2024, he could try to lead efforts.

Donald Trump would be another story. In January 2020, after years of trailing a supposedly serious peace plan devised by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, he finally unveiled it. The plan, almost laughably biased in favour of Israel, was dead on arrival. It would have given the Palestinians just 75% of the occupied West Bank, in three cantons linked by highways. Israel would have kept the Jordan valley, the breadbasket of the territory, and compensated the Palestinians for their loss by ceding a few patches of barren desert in the Negev. Palestine’s capital would have been limited to a few destitute suburbs of east Jerusalem. The Palestinians, unsurprisingly, refused even to discuss the proposal.

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