Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- With the advent of the new Biden administration in the United States, the phrase “two-state solution” appears to have returned to the forefront in the new U.S. administration’s “reset” of its policy priorities regarding the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.2
- The phrase is repeated daily by administration officials as well as by international leaders and organizations, as it was during the Obama and previous administrations.
- However, as in the past, the phrase is again being bandied about as a form of collective and generalized “wishful thinking,” as the only panacea to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, but without a full awareness of its history, its practical implications, and the feasibility of its implementation amidst the realities of that dispute.
- It is repeated despite the fact that the “two-state solution” has never been accepted by the parties to the dispute as the agreed solution, and despite the fact that the permanent status of the territories, as agreed in the Oslo Accords, remains an open negotiating issue between the parties. As such, repetition of the call for a “two-state solution” would appear to be an attempt to prejudge the outcome of that negotiating process.
- Clearly, any concept of a “two-state solution” that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel could only emanate from direct negotiations between Israel and a unified Palestinian leadership. This would not be a result of a partisan political resolution issued by the UN or any other source, or from vague and generalized calls from international leaders for a “two-state solution” as a form of collective wishful thinking.
- Any such outcome must include the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people by a Palestinian state, in the same manner in which Israel would recognize a Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people.
Since the inauguration of the Biden administration in January 2021, leading officials repeatedly advocate the “two-state solution” as the only means to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.
Immediately after taking office and in his first interview as Secretary of State, Antony Blinken told Wolf Blitzer on CNN on February 8, 2021, that President Biden strongly supports the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since:
…it is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and the only way to give the Palestinians a state to which they’re entitled.3
Three days later, on February 11, 2021, the State Department spokesman Ned Price repeated this message during the daily State Department press briefing:
We believe it’s critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution.4
On February 23, 2021, Price repeated and strengthened the message:
When it comes to the two-state solution, the Biden administration believes that the two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state while living in peace alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state. That is precisely why the two-state solution continues to be the crux of how we view the conflict and where we believe – and how we believe the conflict should be resolved.5
In response to an additional question, he continued:
Again, we believe in the centrality and the premise of a two-state solution. We don’t want to see either side take a step that would put that further out of reach.
On March 1, 2021, he repeated the mantra:
You have heard in many different forms this administration endorse its vision and the longstanding, bipartisan vision of a two-state solution. Any steps that put that two-state solution further out of reach, we have opposed, and we continue to do so.
Our focus is on encouraging Israel and the Palestinians to avoid, as I said before, unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and that make it more difficult to preserve the viability of a two-state solution.”6
Similar references were made in further daily press briefings by both spokesman Ned Price and by his deputy Jalina Porter on March 18, March 23, March 31, April 1, and April 21, 2021.7
In the April 1 briefing, Price amplified the administration’s position, stressing:
We intend to do everything we can to advance the prospects for a two-state solution. We intend to do that with the knowledge that it is in the interests of – consistent with the interest and values of the United States, but importantly, consistent with the values and the interests of Israelis and also Palestinians. This is something that successive administrations have sought to do; it’s something that we will seek to do.
What we are calling for – and this really gets to the root of this challenge – is that two-state solution.
The two-state solution is precisely what will allow Israelis and Palestinians to live side-by-side in dignity and security, securing the interests – in the interests of Israelis, in the interests of Palestinians together. That’s precisely why are we are supporting this two-state solution, just as previous administrations of both political stripes have.
On April 8, spokesman Ned Price again repeated the refrain:
There is consensus, certainly, that supporting a two-state solution is consistent with our values. It’s consistent with our interests, that’s supporting the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people. It’s consistent with our values. It’s consistent with our interest in supporting the security and providing the security assistance, which in turn redounds positively on the security of our ally, Israel.”8
On April 21, Price added a warning:
We have been consistent in our condemnation of any steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution, and that includes settlement activity and violence. Again, a two-state solution remains at the center of our approach to this issue, and anything that sets that back is something that we will speak out against and do so consistently.”9
This position by the Biden administration echoes and even parrots similar views expressed by officials of the Obama administration prior to 2016.
For instance, in her explanation of the U.S. vote to abstain in the voting for Security Council Resolution 2334 of December 23, 2016, condemning Israel’s settlement activity,10 the U.S. permanent representative to the UN Samantha Power referred to the “two-state solution” twelve times.11
Similarly, in his parting speech on the Middle East dispute on December 28, 2016, Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry advocated the “two-state solution” no less than 24 times!
In other formal international documentation emanating from international bodies and other sources, the “two-state solution” was advocated fifteen times in the July 1, 2016 statement by the principal members of the Middle East Quartet (United States, Russia, EU, and UN),12 and nine times in the January 15, 2017, Joint Closing Declaration of the Paris Peace Conference.13
Recitation by the “Pro-Peace” Lobby, J Street
At the April 18-19, 2021, “J-Street” annual virtual conference, the “two-state” refrain figured high among the stated priorities of the participants.14
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmud Abbas, invited by J Street as a keynote speaker at their conference, affirmed the belief by the PA in “the two-state solution based on pre-June 1967 borders based on international law” with “East Jerusalem as its capital.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed his own firm belief in the importance of a two-state resolution to the conflict.
Similar calls supporting the two-state solution were expressed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.
Mechanical and Habitual Recitation by Rote
The term “two-state solution” seems to be a form of “lingua franca” within the international community and especially within the new U.S. administration – a magic panacea for all the ills of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the broader problems of the Middle East.
Not a day goes by without some leading politician, journal, or international body mentioning it as the “buzzword” for the ultimate outcome, while in many cases, accusing Israel – and only Israel – of “undermining the two-state solution.”
Indeed, the “two-state solution” is considered by virtually all major international actors associated with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to be the only way to achieve an enduring peace that, in their view, meets Israeli security needs and Palestinian aspirations for statehood and sovereignty.
However, the question remains whether such glib and pre-judgmental officials and international actors, fully understand the terms, implications, and the outcome of the dispute by advocating the “two-state solution,” in light of the history and realities of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle?
The “Two-State Solution” Has No Formal and Binding Basis in International Documentation
The evolvement of the vision of “two states” was, from the start, hinged on the inherent realities of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and based on the premise that a Palestinian state will only emanate from direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. This premise included the requirement that it be demilitarized and limited in its military and security capabilities and other sovereign prerogatives.
Similarly, the border between it and Israel would be the result of bilateral negotiations between them and not the pre-1967 armistice delimitation lines that were distinctly not intended to serve as an international border.
This is borne out by the following international documents:
- The formal Middle East peace process documentation, including UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), as well as the Oslo Accords and related documents signed by Israel and the PLO (1993-9), make no reference to a two-state solution and specifically leave the issue of the final, permanent status of the territories to be negotiated between them.
- By the same token, PLO Chairman Arafat committed the Palestinians, in his letter to Israel Prime Minister Rabin dated September 9, 1993, that “all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiation.”
- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s vision of the permanent status, as stated in his last speech to the Knesset in October 1995, prior to his assassination, referred to the establishment of “a Palestinian entity which will be a home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.” He added that the entity would be “less than a state, and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority.”
- The Clinton Parameters (2000), in referring to a “two-state approach,” expressly referred to a “demilitarized Palestinian state” with limited sovereignty, as the “homeland of the Palestinian people” together with the State of Israel as the “homeland of the Jewish people.”
- The UN Security Council, in the preamble to its Resolution 1397 (2002), reaffirmed the necessity, set out in its previous Resolution 242 (1967), for “secure and recognized boundaries.” In referring to its “vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side-by-side within secure and recognized boundaries,” the assumption was that borders need to be negotiated, and the 1967 lines cannot be considered international borders.
- U.S. President George W. Bush, in his 2002 vision of “two states, living side-by-side in peace and security,” also stressed the necessity for a Palestinian state to fight terror and form a new and different Palestinian leadership.
- The U.S.-generated 2003 “Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” referred to “an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors.” It envisioned such a state “with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty,” practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty, and ending all acts of violence and incitement. It stressed the need for a negotiated resolution on the status of Jerusalem and Arab state acceptance of full normal relations with Israel.
- Israel’s acceptance of the 2003 Roadmap was on the premise that “the provisional [Palestinian] state will have provisional borders and certain aspects of sovereignty; be fully demilitarized with no military forces but only with police and internal security forces of limited scope and armaments; be without the authority to undertake defense alliances and military cooperation; and Israeli control over the entry and exit of all persons and cargo as well as of its airspace and electromagnetic spectrum.”
- President Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Sharon of April 14, 2004, affirming his two-state vision, stressed that “secure and recognized borders” should emerge from negotiations and not involve a return to the “1949 armistice lines.”
- The joint statement issued after the Annapolis Conference, attended by the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, President Bush, and other leaders, dated November 27, 2007, referred to “the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security” with agreement to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception, as specified in previous agreements.”15
- In his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated a vision of two peoples living freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect, each with its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government, and neither threatening the security or survival of the other.16
This vision foresees a demilitarized Palestinian state that would include a prohibition on importing missiles, maintaining an army, making pacts and alliances with terror elements, and limited use of airspace. It involves effective security measures to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory. It also includes Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem outside Israel’s borders.
Evolution of the “Two-State Vision” in International Documentation
While the two-state vision has become a standard component of non-binding UN political documentation, it has never been part of any formal, binding resolution or agreement between the parties.
The accepted and logical assumption has been that whatever solution will be achieved, it will only be through negotiations and agreement between the parties, and not through the imposition of such a solution, through prejudgment of the outcome of such negotiation, or through glib declarations expressing the hope for a two-state solution.
The “vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side-by-side within secure and recognized boundaries” first figured in a preambular provision of Security Council Resolution 1397 (2002) adopted on March 12, 2002, calling for an end to the violence during the second Palestinian intifada.17 In this context, the reaffirmation of the UN Security Council’s call in its 1967 Resolution 242 for “secure and recognized boundaries” clearly implies that borders have to be negotiated, and the 1967 lines cannot be imposed by third parties as if they are international borders.
General Assembly resolution 75/172 of December 2020 on the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination affirmed the right of all States in the region to live in peace within secure and internationally recognized borders and stressed the need for a peace settlement based on the Quartet’s “road map to a permanent two-state solution.”18
The question arises whether the massive, liberal, effusive, and generally “off-the-cuff” usage of the term “two-state solution” by all and sundry has any relation to the historical and substantive context in the Israeli-Palestinian realities and whether it takes into account the complex and practical aspects of its realization.
The term “two-state solution” has become a useful slogan and political declaration by leaders in the international community, often as the result of “political correctness” and lip-service to a growing international trend.
This liberal and glib repetition of the phrase “two-state solution” as if, in and of itself, it can solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute indicates a lack of understanding of its meaning and historical evolvement in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
However, no such two-state solution could materialize without cognizance of the inherent realities of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a basis for acceptance by the parties, as well as by the international community, of several basic assumptions:
- A Palestinian state would have to be politically and economically stable. It could not open itself to manipulation by terror elements that could constitute a threat to Israel’s security.
- A Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized and limited in its military and security capabilities and other sovereign prerogatives.
- Such a state would have to be based on principles of democracy, liberty, and good governance and would be obligated to prevent terror and incitement.
- A unified Palestinian leadership must be able to speak in the name of the entire Palestinian people and be capable of entering into and fulfilling commitments. In light of the widening schism between the Palestinian leadership of the West Bank and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, such a situation does not exist at present.
- A Palestinian state will need to commit to solid legal, political, and security guarantees that it will not abuse its sovereign prerogatives and international standing in order to violate or undermine the agreements.
- Issues that are inherently bilateral such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, water, and the like, will only be resolved by negotiations and not by partisan political resolutions or political declarations coming from international leaders, the UN, or any other source.
- Any such state must recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, in the same manner in which Israel would recognize a Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people.
It is hoped that the vision of a “two-state solution” will not be a meaningless mantra but will indeed take into account the wide range of serious and genuine issues arising from the long dispute between the parties. Such a solution must be predicated on the acceptance of the principle that any such solution cannot be imposed and can only be achieved through negotiations between the parties concerned.
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2 Based on a previous article by the author published in February 2017 https://jcpa.org/article/two-state-solution-really-mean/
7 https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-march-18-2021/#post-227157-ISRAEL , https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-march-23-2021/#post-228243-ISRAEL, https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-march-31-2021/#post-231554-Israel, https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-april-1-2021/#post-232014-ispal