The end of the two-state solution

Hamas’s spectacular terrorism will push back Palestinian statehood by a generation

Published - October 10, 2023 12:15 am IST

Destruction made by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip is seen in Ashkelon, Israel, on October 9, 2023,

Destruction made by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip is seen in Ashkelon, Israel, on October 9, 2023, | Photo Credit: AP

The answer was always known; it was the question that had been unclear. From the very beginning of the Jewish-Arab conflict, the only viable long-term solution has been to divide the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea by creating two countries for two people.

Both the Arabs and Jews have had strong self-conceptions of nationhood tied to the same land — self-conceptions that did not reckon for the other. But for much of this 100-year war, Jews accepted the inevitability of partition while the Arabs rejected it. For the last few decades, however, the situation seems to have been reversed. One section of the Palestinian leadership, much of the Arab world, and all of the West seem to have agreed on a two-state solution, while it is Israel that is balking at creating a sovereign Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Understanding its reason is central to predicting the consequences of Hamas’s recent terror attacks on Israel, one that has killed more than 700 Israelis and provoked the Israeli response.

At first glance, there seem to be many stakeholders to this never-ending conflict such as the Palestinian people, the multiple Palestinian leaderships of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli voters, the Israeli government with its many coalition partners, the Arab countries, Iran, the West led by the U.S., and now even China. From a position of justice, one could argue that the only two stakeholders who should matter are the Palestinian and Israeli people.

But as a matter of realpolitik, the key stakeholder has always been the Israeli public. This is because, without the acquiescence of the more powerful Israel, no solution is possible. And since Israel is a democracy, without the agreement of the Israeli public no Israeli acquiescence is possible. So, the only question to ask is: will Hamas’s attacks push the Israeli public into creating a sovereign Palestinian state?

Some opinion-makers think so. They feel that Israel’s trauma from Hamas’s strikes will finally make the people understand that a sovereign Palestinian state is a prerequisite for peace. But it is more likely that Israelis will come to the opposite conclusion: that a two-state solution — one where a Palestinian state will have its own Army and security — will empower Palestinians to attack Israel even more effectively. They fear that an independent Palestine will behave as Hamas has been doing all along.

Hamas’s stance

Hamas does not accept Israel’s right to exist in any shape. It attacked Israel on its southern borders that will remain with Israel in any eventual peace deal, and killed and abducted innocent civilians, not religious settlers occupying the West Bank. The attack was directed at the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state. That the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has supported Hamas will only heighten Israeli fears that an end to the conflict will not be a Palestinian and Jewish state living side by side, but a single Palestinian state between the river and the sea. This is not a semantic difference. A citizen may accept the division of her country under some circumstances, but in no circumstances will she accept its annihilation.

The central obstruction to a two-state solution has not been the Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza — there was after all a murderous conflict between the two sides even before the occupation in 1967. The main roadblock has been the inability of the Palestinians to convince Israeli voters that if given sovereignty in some part of the land, they would leave the Jews alone in the other.

There has always been a radical Israeli fringe unwilling to see the Palestinians as a people deserving a state. These religious bigots had historically been on the margins of Israeli politics. Today, they are key members of the ruling coalition, reflecting a widening distrust among Israeli voters of Palestinians as partners in any eventual peace.

Lesson gleaned

The lesson Palestinians have learnt from their decades-long occupation and daily humiliations has been that Israeli civilians need to share their pain to force them to reduce it. But from the Israeli perspective, every wave of violence against their civilian community has made them less likely to risk ending the occupation of Palestinians. The recent terror attacks will further Israeli suspicions that if this is what Hamas can do with a tiny bit of power, what would they do to Israel with sovereign state power?

Hamas’ unprecedented attack will reinforce among Israelis the only two options they feel they have: they can either endure the continuing moral shame of ruling over another people or they can risk their very existence by creating a sovereign Palestinian state that might then wipe out Israel as a Jewish state.

Given the power imbalance between Israel and the rest of the Arab world, there is only one way for Palestinians to get their sovereign state. That will be to convince Israeli voters that an eventual Palestine will live peaceably next to Israel. But for this generation of Israelis who are scarred by images of a kidnapped 84-year-old grandmother being paraded in a golf cart by Hamas, the immorality of occupying another people will be preferable to risking the annihilation of one’s own people. The only way forward is for a Palestinian leadership that can credibly signal to the Israeli people that it will not use the freedoms it gains from any peace deal to hurt Israel. The prospects for that seem dim.

Vinay Sitapati is a professor of law and politics, and author of ‘Half-Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India’ and ‘Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi’

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