The intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over land, rights and safety has entered a new phase, one plumbing new depths of hatred and radical intransigence that the U.S. government no longer seems in a position to resolve or even mitigate.
Now, an increasing number of experts are sounding the death knell for the two-state solution.
Dennis Ross, the former special envoy who has negotiated Middle East peace issues for both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations, says Israelis and Palestinians have reached “the lowest ebb” he has ever seen.
“There’s a complete loss of hope on both sides,” Ross recently told a television interviewer.
Three of the administration’s most senior officials — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, CIA Director William Burns and White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan — made urgent trips to the region in recent days in a bid to deescalate rising violence and find common ground on which to build peace. But they came away unable to offer any reason to be less pessimistic than Ross.
They spoke of a “shrinking horizon” of possibility, bad governance on both sides and the likelihood of major outbreaks of deadly fighting.
During Blinken’s trip to the Middle East last month, the repeated mantra from Israelis and Palestinians, and the left and right, was that the two-state solution — the proposed creation of sovereign Palestinian and Israeli states that for decades had consensus support internationally and locally — was dead.
Some in the new, far-right Israeli government — the most extreme and religiously conservative in the nation’s history — want to see the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, expulsion of many Palestinians and confiscation of most West Bank land, where the Palestinian state would have been created.
Many Palestinians see their government as weak and useless — President Mahmoud Abbas has overstayed his term by a decade and refused to hold elections — and have watched as Jewish settlers have expanded their occupation. The heavily guarded settlements have effectively made the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible.
Meanwhile, Abbas has lost control over a northern swath of the West Bank, including cities such as Jenin and Nablus, giving rise to armed militant groups, which in turn has led to regular, deadly incursions by Israeli troops.
And yet the Biden administration, like most U.S. governments except for that led by former President Trump, continues to promote the two-state solution as the way to resolve the Middle East’s most stubborn and complex conflict.
“The United States is committed to working toward our enduring goal of ensuring that the Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, justice and dignity,” Blinken said on his last day in the Middle East after zipping through Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah in late January. “The only way to achieve that goal is through preserving and then realizing the vision of two states for two peoples.”
U.S. officials “keep talking about their desire for a two-state solution, but they do nothing to implement it,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian attorney who once advised the Palestinian Authority. Implementation, she said, would have to include blocking settlement expansion along with the confiscations, demolitions, and evictions of Palestinians by Israel that have become routine.
“It is a fantasy,” Buttu said from her home in Haifa, Israel. “ ‘It will happen, it will happen,’ they say. In reality, it is as dead as a dodo bird.”
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Middle East special envoy, said the administration cannot declare the two-state solution dead because there is no viable alternative.
One oft-mentioned option is a single state of Israelis and Palestinians with equal rights. Some polling of Palestinians has shown growing support for the arrangement.
But the prospects for that happening are perhaps even dimmer than for the two-state solution. What would such a state be called? Who would be in charge of security?
It would be neither Israeli nor Palestinian and wouldn’t satisfy the nationalist aspirations of either side. And because of higher birth rates among Palestinians, Israeli Jews might be a minority in such a state.
“Once you have equal rights, it’s not a Jewish state anymore,” said Indyk, now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What Israeli prime minister is going to hand the keys over to the Palestinians?
“Neither side is ready for the other side to rule.”
A new poll of Israelis and Palestinians released last month found what the pollsters called disturbing trends of intolerance and hatred exacerbated by separation, collapsed diplomacy and dehumanization, with each side less willing to recognize the other.
The survey was conducted by Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and Dahlia Scheindlin, a fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Century International, a liberal think tank, and sponsored in part by the U.S. Institute for Peace. They focused on surveying a younger-than-usual cohort, Israelis and Palestinians aged 15 and older. The median age in Israel is 30, and is 21 in the Palestinian territories.
The poll showed support at an all-time low for the two-state solution: 20% among Israeli Jews aged 18-34 and around 30% for Palestinians in the same age group. The survey also found that, for the first time, support in Israel for a nondemocratic regime — unequal rights between Israelis and Palestinians — is stronger than that for a two-state solution.
According to the poll, a majority on each side rejects the other‘s historical connection to the land and believes that violence is the only way to resolve the conflict.
“It’s become a zero-sum game that has left room only for people with maximalist positions, extremists on both sides,” said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the United States Institute of Peace’s program for Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The new Israeli government is led by returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who formed a coalition with some of the country’s most radical, anti-Arab parties that were once taboo in Israeli politics. The Cabinet, which is predominantly male with several ultra-Orthodox officials, includes supporters of Meir Kahane, a radical rabbi branded a terrorist by the United States who was assassinated in 1990.
The Biden administration is hoping Netanyahu will curb some of his colleagues’ more radical, precedent-breaking tendencies as he tries to further Israel’s acceptance in the region among Arab and Gulf states. Seizing more Palestinian-claimed land or excessive repression would jeopardize such efforts.
“I’ve got my two hands on the steering wheel,” Netanyahu has told foreign media on several occasions, insisting he, not his allies, will call the shots.
But Netanyahu also needs his Cabinet to support fundamental changes to the judiciary that could dash his own trial on corruption charges. He has denied that his challenge to the court system is self-motivated.
On the Palestinian side, youth militias have sprung up that carry out attacks, particularly on settlers, and Abbas is said to be reluctant to crack down on them.
The Palestinian Authority has also pursued an international campaign, attempting to carry its grievances to forums including the International Criminal Court to obtain judgments against Israel. The moves have infuriated Israel, and have also been condemned by the U.S.
In his trip to the region, Blinken subtly chided both Netanyahu and Abbas for straying from democracy, urging that free expression, civil rights and “values” be respected in their respective countries.
At the same time, however, the Biden administration would like to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the top of its to-do list, preferring to focus on China and Ukraine. U.S. officials acknowledge the dynamic in the Middle East is too volatile and the diplomatic distances too great to make progress. And Blinken and other senior U.S. officials have repeatedly told Israelis and Palestinians that it is incumbent on them to resolve their own problems.
“You need leadership in three places, and you don’t have it,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “Israel thinks it can destroy the Palestinians’ violence infrastructure. The Palestinians think they can stop Israeli settlement and confiscation of land. Both have failed. There is no political outcome — just killing.”
When CIA director Burns returned from his trip to the Middle East, he gave a troubling assessment to a group of foreign service students at Georgetown University.
He warned of “even greater fragility, even greater violence” between Israelis and Palestinians, saying conditions resembled the eve of the second intifada. The Palestinian uprising that began in the year 2000 left nearly 5,000 people dead and is widely regarded as the end of the peace process.