Resolutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be reached either by agreement or evolution.
As the peace talks stumble toward their formal end point, there are essentially four scenarios for political developments between the river and the sea, excluding resurgent violence: two states by agreement, two states by evolution, one state by agreement, or one sovereign entity by evolution.
Policymakers should acknowledge these scenarios openly to assess what each one will mean for the future of the region.
I recently proposed using basic values as a guideline to assess the desirability of such scenarios: reducing violence, realizing human and civil rights, providing for collective rights, and doing so in a sustainable way. It’s also worth considering the feasibility and consequences of each possibility.
Two states by agreement. This scenario looks increasingly unlikely, largely for political reasons. Likud essentially doesn’t want it; its other half, Israel-Beitenu, claims to want it but only under unacceptable conditions, including unilateral disenfranchisement of Israeli citizenship. Jewish Home, is steadfastly opposed. Palestinians have become so disillusioned about statehood as Israel defines it that PA President Mahmoud Abbas lacks the legitimacy to make major concessions on their behalf.
Another reason is physical: land, population and infrastructure developments over the last two decades mean that a Palestinian state will be chopped up by settlements too entrenched to be vacated. Therefore, “statehood” won’t offer much greater mobility or economic freedom for Palestinians; sovereign borders might even replace military checkpoints posing much greater bureaucratic obstacles.
However, this solution could theoretically reduce violence by establishing representative political frameworks for each society, to guarantee discrete collective and civil rights. Whether that means more human rights for Palestinians than today depends on how the Fatah and Hamas authorities rule; their current record does not bode well. An agreement over two states with borders and finalized political status is probably relatively sustainable. But the lack of feasibility makes most of this assessment moot.
Two states by evolution. The lack of a negotiated agreement could make this more attractive to Palestinians. If they are to suffer the constraints of highly circumscribed statehood, at least they will not also be forced into concessions they resent as the price.
States can be defined as entities with a people, territory, government and the ability to enter into foreign relations. The Palestinians are making strong progress on that last one. Compared to other disputed states, Palestine enjoys far more recognition from sovereign countries. Even Kosovo, now generally accepted in the family of nations, has 106 recognitions and no standing at the UN, compared to the 138 UN-member countries who voted to accept Palestine as a “non-member observer state” in that body. Most of that number had extended formal recognition to Palestine long before. Abbas recently expanded efforts at international integration by applying to 15 international treaties; recognition in various forms seems likely to increase.
But the evolving two-state scenario erodes other statehood aspects. The Palestinian government remains divided. Israel will see no need to relinquish its military and settlement grip on the territory, and will justify expansion on the grounds that there is no agreement. Even the people may be increasingly divided, politically, economically and culturally between Gaza and the West Bank, as I’ve argued here.
If the Palestinians as nation pull together and embrace a total commitment to unified statehood, they could undertake massive efforts to unify their government, democratize their political life (including improving human rights) and leverage their improving foreign relations to advance their economic life. That’s what some other aspiring states – Kosovo, Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Cyprus – have done to prove their worth and their unresolved status has been surprisingly sustainable. A genuine sense of purpose and progress can help contain violence.
But in the local reality, that ‘sense’ will be flimsy, and peaceful streaks are easily broken. Cycles of violence will justify Israeli intervention, which is likely to deteriorate into more, not less, Israeli control – and perpetuate the current reality.
One state by evolution. This is not a scenario but the current reality. Israel is the one sovereign between the river and the sea. The Palestinians are subject to Israel’s military sovereignty, but have no political representation in the state.
There is no indication that this scenario will provide civil or collective rights for Palestinians. Since Israel does not acknowledge its political rule, it also absolves itself of responsibility for human rights except for the oxymoronic goal of being an ‘enlightened occupier.’
Israeli military authority can continue to contain violence in this scenario, especially if it entices the Palestinians to maintain security cooperation. But the security status quo favors Israelis, not Palestinians.
And one state by evolution is only sustainable according to warped terms: two people under one sovereign, with different laws and different rights by virtue of identity.
One state by agreement. As long as “one state” is based on the foolish notion that people would scrap boundaries and identity, this was either a fantasy or a nightmare, depending on one’s perspective.
The idea that two peoples in two overlapping but roughly defined territories may choose to be jointly managed in a federal or confederated system, is a little more mouthy but much less fantastic.
If there is an agreement, leaders on both sides may be motivated to avoid violence, to prove they are capable of implementing a policy they led. Of course Oslo quickly deteriorated, but the security cooperation at present could continue. The public appetite for violence has changed: both sides are embittered by its effects. An agreement would hammer out the thorny issue of collective rights, while civil rights would be a given.
Human rights for Palestinians would improve with removal of military law and establishment of shared courts and common laws at least in some aspects. It would be easier for human rights advocates on both sides to form alliances and lobbies against oppressive institutions such as Hamas, rather than fighting occupation.
Is it sustainable? Bosnia, Belgium, Lebanon and Canada show that these systems are flawed, threatened and shaky but possible. Do they need to be reformed and revised over time? Probably. Will violence periodically threaten to derail such an arrangement? Definitely. But that is the case now anyway.
The bottom line is that the most realistic development right now appears to be the non-agreement-based scenarios. But they are also the least sustainable and the most unfair. If a classic two-state agreement is not possible, there’s no point in denying that a modified, mouthy form of joint authority over two separate people is.