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Why The two-state Solution Is Still The Only Path To Peace

Staff writer Douglas Gibb argues that calls for a one state solution are misguided and that a separate Israeli and Palestinian State are needed.

There are people who seem to think that prior to the UN partition of Mandatory Palestine in 1947, everything was just hunky dory. This is quite far from the truth. Throughout the mandate’s existence, there was near-constant violence. The Jaffa riots in 1921 saw 95 deaths, the riots in 1929 saw 243 and the Arab general strike in 1936 saw 277 (“Ormsby Gore”, p. 7). It’s because of this inter-communal conflict that the Peel Commission concluded that the mandate should be partitioned. So what reason is there to think that a one-state solution would work? What is there to stop a return to the sort of violence seen before 1949, when the first Arab-Israeli War ended?

It’s true, of course, there’s been more than enough violence since then. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a West Bank settler originally from the United States shot 125 worshippers at a mosque in Hebron, killing 29. Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli Prime Minister, described Goldstein as a “degenerate murderer”. On the first night of Passover in 2002, Abdel-Basset Odeh, a Palestinian member of Hamas, walked into the dining hall of the Park Hotel and detonated an explosive vest. This killed 30 diners and injured another 140. The hatred that exists on each side is by no means universal, but there is good reason to question whether forcing Israelis and Palestinians to live together would lead to peace.

A further issue is that of the constitutional arrangement that would exist in a hypothetical one-state. Melanie Phillips made the astonishing claim on Times Radio that a two-state solution is “a final solution”. Besides the rather questionable use of that phrase, we’ve got to ask ourselves what Phillips’ conception of a one-state solution is. We know that annexation would, in the absence of “population transfers” (a crime against humanity, Rome Statute, Article 7, 1b), lead to about 5 million Palestinians becoming Israelis. We know she’s of the view that anti-Zionism is antisemitism, so we can safely assume she wants Israel to remain Jewish (whatever that looks like). However, the demographic changes mean that there wouldn’t be a Jewish majority. This leaves two options: the first, to give everyone equal rights, even if that means Jews will be a minority voting bloc in elections. This means that, while Israel (or whatever the single state would be called) would continue to have a large Jewish population, the state itself, the institutions that hold a monopology on the arbitration of legitimate violence, would not be Jewish. But, this is something the vast majority of Israelis oppose. The second option is to deprive Arab citizens of the franchise, so that there is no risk of the state losing its Jewish character. Again, we have a problem: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 21, 3) obliges all states to hold “periodic and genuine” elections which respect “universal and equal suffrage”.

These challenges could be avoided if each group abandoned nationalism, but that’s a pipe dream. Both sides have had national aspirations for over a century and there’s no sign they’re willing to abandon them. Even if these aspirations softened enough to permit a one-state solution, the best-case scenario is a Lebanese-style confessional system: major government posts must be held by someone from a specific community (e.g. the president must be Maronite Christian) and parliament is divided along religious lines (ibid.). The National Pact which enshrined these divisions led to a civil war that lasted more than 15 years and saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The Taif Agreement, which brought the civil war to a conclusion in 1989, has not been implemented in full (e.g. there is still no Senate, ibid.). Few would doubt that sectarian divisions continued (and continue) well past this point, even to the extent that Lebanon has come close to civil war. It ought to be evident, then, why confessionalism is not an example that people should look to as something to emulate.

Declining support for two states

While the international consensus is firmly in favour of a two-state solution, support for this in Israel is decreasing day-by-day. The Jewish Virtual Library has collected various polls of the Israeli public, and some of the results should be quite worrying. For example, in July 2023 (note that this was before 7 October), Israelis were asked what the political strategy of the next government should be on the Palestinian issue. 36% said a two-state solution, 28% said annexation of the West Bank with privileged status for Jews (one form of the one-state solution), 11% said annexation but with full equality, and 25% said they didn’t know. (Presumably Gaza would be left untouched by the annexation.)

Perhaps more worrying yet is the poll at the top, taken over 27-30 November. The Israeli public was asked if, given Biden’s statements in favour of a two-state solution, Israel should pursue steps in this direction following the war. 39% said yes, 47% said no and 14% said they didn’t know. As troubling as these numbers are, the fact that roughly half of Israelis don’t want a two-state solution in the aftermath of 7 October shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Another issue is a decline in support among politicians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never really supported a two-state solution in the first place, despite what one might have thought after listening to his Bar Ilan speech in 2009 (transcript). The limits on Palestinian sovereignty were so restrictive that the terms would be wholly unacceptable to any Palestinian delegation. Since 2009, his views have become even less ambiguous, saying in 2019 that

Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas… This is part of our strategy — to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.

And we know that money was transferred to Hamas. While the Israeli government intended to keep the local government running, they were also imposing a blockade on the region and its allies assessed that Hamas was using the money to fund its military wings. Further from this, the Israeli spy agency itself concluded that Qatar was secretly financing Hamas’ military wing, according to the New York Times.

Further, in September 2023 he used a map during a speech at the UN that showed the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) as part of Israel. If there was any doubt left, he said only a few weeks ago that he was “proud” of stopping a Palestinian state from being established. Simply put, it is delusional to act as if Netanyahu is even remotely interested in a two-state solution.

What about the would-be prime ministers? Naftali Bennett opposes a two-state solution unambiguously. Yair Lapid supports a two-state solution but wants to keep Jerusalem in its entirety as the capital of Israel, which would be unacceptable to Palestinians and is squarely against international consensus. Finally, there is Benny Gantz, the man the polls say is most likely to win the next election. He is not committed to a Palestinian state, but rather an “entity” with limited independence.

State or entity?

The reason Gantz says he wants an entity instead of a state is security (ibid.). However, limiting Palestinian sovereignty in this way is grossly unfair. With the exception of some obscure fringes within the movement, zionism rests on the idea of there being a Jewish nation-state, and the argument goes that without a state Jews cannot be safe and neither can they exercise self-determination. Why is it fundamentally different for the Palestinians? Those living in the OPT haven’t been able to exercise self-determination for more than five decades, and states are supposed to be the way of doing that (without getting into radical – and again obscure – alternatives like democratic confederalism).

Rather than forcing Palestinians to forego their sovereignty, it would be better for any peace agreement to give the State of Palestine the same rights that all other states enjoy. There would be nothing stopping Palestine from choosing to have no standing army, with Jordan providing military protection and receiving aid from the US and/or EU in return. The crucial point is that any disarmament should be voluntary, or at least coerced with a carrot rather than a stick. The mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles must not be repeated. Humiliating an “enemy” is unlikely to help, especially if they’re prone to nationalism. (I use scarequotes because, as Nelson Mandela said, people make the mistake of thinking our enemies should be our enemies.)

One might argue that Arab states already exist. Obviously this is true. But are we really going to ask millions of Palestinian Arabs to leave Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus or wherever else they might live because “other Arab states already exist”? The Palestinians would be given the options of (a) accepting greatly constrained autonomy where they live now, and (b) packing up and moving hundreds or even thousands of miles away to a country they have never lived in before, in which Arabic is spoken but might be unintelligible due to a difference in dialect. Do either of these options sound at all reasonable? Palestinians are Arabs, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that they have a distinct national identity. That is, I believe, sufficient grounds for them to be regarded as a distinct nation by the rest of the world. Neither should we ignore the fact that Arab states have shown extreme reluctance to accept Palestinian refugees as “their problem”. Returning to Lebanon, the vast majority of Palestinian refugees in its borders (totalling more than 200,000) are stateless and struggle to access basic services like life-saving medical care. This is all because the Lebanese refuse to upset the demography that underpins the confessional system. In all, there are over five million Palestinians condemned to this purgatory. If Arab states were interested in accepting these people as citizens, they would have done something about the refugee issue decades ago.

Another counter is that the Palestinian population would elect Hamas or some other extremist sect. This is a very legitimate concern. Polling by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that 43% of Palestinians support Hamas, whereas just 17% support Fatah. There is nothing stopping the international community (including Israel) establishing an authority like the Allied High Commission to oversee a period of de-Hamasification (cf. de-Nazification, de-Baathification). It should not be overlooked that Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945, but elections weren’t held in West Germany until August 1949 and the Occupation Statute didn’t expire until 1955. Notably, the Nazi Party was banned in October 1945, 24 of the highest ranking Nazis (and their collaborators) were tried at the International Military Tribunal, and many more were tried by the US after the tribunal concluded in October 1946 (see “Subsequent Nuremberg trials”). So while the transition from occupation to independence should be gradual, Palestine should enjoy full sovereignty.

The word “no”

There is a word in the English language and it’s called “no”.

Tony Blair

Given everything above, I submit a two-state solution is not only possible but preferable. How do we get there? As the Blair quote suggests, Western politicians and diplomats must begin to use the word “no”. Our leaders need to accept that the appointment of racists like Tzipi Hotovely is indicative of a (far-)right, maximalist government intent on destroying any hope of Palestinian self-determination and as such, our government needs to consider expelling her. Equally, progressives need to acknowledge the levels of corruption in the Palestinian Authority, that this is a stumbling block towards the establishment of a state and that antisemitism is endemic in the OPT, best exemplified by Mahmoud Abbas, a Holocaust revisionist.

While many have lost faith in the two-state solution, we must acknowledge that a one-state solution carries with it a significant risk of sectarianism and civil war. Neither should we pretend that the road to a two-state solution is smooth. Despite the existence of many barriers, it is possible to identify and remove them. The two-state solution is, therefore, the path to peace.


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