U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has joined the legions of diplomats who have warned that the current situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unsustainable. Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair is now part of the chorus of those who say that the window for a solution is closing. But the many observers who slip without conscious irony into saying that the situation “continues to be unsustainable” (as, for instance, a World Bank report described the state of Palestinian institution building three years ago) may be far closer to the mark.

All paths forward for Palestinians—from a domestic focus on institutions to the diplomatic effort to revive the peace process to armed resistance—appear thoroughly blocked. Far from fragile, current realities seem to be deeply entrenched.

Nathan J. Brown
Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.
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It is not that anything about the current situation serves the long-term interests of most actors in the conflict. Even those who gleefully rather than ruefully proclaim the end of the two-state solution will pay a high price if they are correct. But all parties seem to lack either the interest or the ability to disrupt existing trends. The result has been termed a “one-state solution emerging in fact,” though “solution” is a misnomer. The phrase that is now increasingly deployed, a “one-state reality,” more nearly fits current realities.

During a recent trip to the West Bank, the only new trend I discovered was that it has become nearly impossible to find anyone who expects much new anytime soon.

Seeds of Stasis

For Palestinians, the 1993 construction of the Palestinian Authority—which they quickly renamed the Palestinian National Authority (PNA)—was supposed to be the kernel (or more) of a Palestinian state. And for a few years, that is precisely what it seemed to be, for good or ill. Ministries, courts, social services, and security apparatuses were quickly established in the West Bank and Gaza, inefficient, corrupt, and authoritarian though they often were. Palestine in the 1990s seemed to be becoming a state indeed, though one a bit too much like its neighbors.

There were critical missing elements, to be sure, especially related to security matters and international standing—Palestine did not control its borders, acceded to Israeli-determined tax rates and revenue collection, lacked external security capabilities, found itself circumscribed in internal security, and received no recognition as a sovereign actor. But other building blocks of statehood were there: The PNA educated Palestine’s pupils, licensed NGOs, administered and regulated the healthcare system, adjudicated disputes, held presidential and parliamentary elections, and wrote laws and regulations on everything from the civil service to the rights of the disabled. It also steadily pushed any symbolic issue it could to assert a claim to statehood, which sometimes earned it stiff opposition from Israel and stony unfriendliness from the United States.

Today, the situation is reversed. International support for statehood has grown as domestic enthusiasm has waned. In the 1990s, those Israeli leaders who favored Palestinian statehood dared not speak of it, both because it was domestically risky and because they saw it as a bargaining chip that could command a high price. Now, even the Israeli leadership has lost its allergic reaction to the term “Palestinian state.” In 2013 (and, indeed, for some years before), international endorsement of a two-state solution has been reiterated so often that it has become virtually a banality in diplomatic discourse. Those who care little for the idea in practice still mouth the term in order to avoid alienating powerful international actors.

By the time the United Nations General Assembly recognized Palestine as a nonmember state in November 2012, the step provided only an ephemeral domestic boost for those Palestinian leaders who had worked so hard to achieve it. The recognition brought no tangible change.

Indeed, for Palestinians, the dream of statehood is receding. Few Palestinians see any practical trend in that direction. The PNA no longer seems connected to any viable statehood project, even from the vantage point of most of the individuals staffing its various offices. And the idea that statehood is the best path to realize Palestinian rights no longer dominates Palestinian political debates. Talk of dissolving the PNA or of its collapse has grown extremely common. Neither path seems likely anytime soon in the institutional sense.

But if the PNA is viewed not as a set of bureaucratic structures but instead as a body with a clear purpose and a hold on the Palestinian national movement, it collapsed long ago. The crowning achievement of the last two generations—the creation of a national movement that bound the West Bank and Gaza together, complete with a deeply engrained sense of national identity and a set of authoritative structures to represent Palestinians externally and (to a much lesser extent) govern them internally—has been broken into two warring halves.

Structures Without Purpose

At present, Palestinians face stagnation and aimlessness. Society is not disintegrating. Many areas of Palestinian life, such as schools, universities, and the healthcare system, continue to function as they always have. But there are few structures capable of leading Palestinians in any particular direction.

Throughout the West Bank, both inside and outside the PNA, some structures limp along while others have decayed. Political, social, and economic institutions are either barely managing or slowly decaying. Palestinians have found ways to manage on a daily basis with the resulting patchwork of institutions, rules, and restrictions. Yet nothing in the environment suggests a path out of the current situation, and the various structures of Palestinian society seem bereft of mission or direction.

The political party scene in the West Bank has dwindled since the creation of the PNA to one fractured party—Fatah, headed by PNA President Mahmoud Abbas. Fatah, which runs the government in the West Bank from Ramallah, has made some credible attempts to revive itself at the grassroots level. But it remains so deeply divided at the top that it is unclear if it will be able to coalesce around new leadership when Abbas’s rule eventually ends as it did after the death of former PNA president Yasser Arafat.

Fatah’s main opponent, the Islamist Hamas, has been driven underground in the West Bank, though it continues to govern the Gaza Strip. Smaller factions and movements show little viable presence. And an effort to promote youth mobilization outside of the old parties seems to have fizzled, at least for now.

Civil society in the PNA was once fairly robust and diverse. In the 1990s, it was strong enough to serve the function of political opposition and reached from the Far Left to the religious Right. Professional associations—which constitute an important set of structures in many Arab societies—were carefully knit together from bodies that had emerged in various places (the West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian diaspora). Some activists attempted to convert these organizations from instruments of nationalist mobilization, as they were often created to be, to associations for promoting professionalism and the interests of members.

Now, the Islamic side of the civil-society spectrum has been decimated in the West Bank as part of a crackdown on Hamas. Other parts of civil society have been comparatively unscathed but seem to have lost some of their political clout. And most professional associations have relapsed into division and partisanship.

The economy remains dependent on aid and factors beyond its control, such as Israeli policies on movement and access, revenue transfers, and the economic terms of the Paris Protocol that governs economic relations between the Israelis and Palestinians. These factors combine to rob the PNA of the ability to make policy in many critical areas.

Official institutions still exist, but development has been frozen in many of them since 2007. Some, such as the parliament, have simply ceased functioning altogether. The legislative process is ad hoc, and top leaders are nervous about bringing new laws and bodies into being that might deepen the institutional division between the West Bank and Gaza. Abbas recently decided to form a constitutional court, following through on a legislative change made over seven years ago. But he balked after signing the decree, persuaded that the move was inappropriate in the current setting. The signed decree remains unpublished and therefore cannot be put into effect.

A society with governance bodies that lack the capacity to make laws or reform courts hardly seems to be moving toward any clear political future.

In Gaza, meanwhile, the difficulties are different but just as real. Palestinian institutions function a bit more smoothly and with more coordination than in the West Bank. But that is precisely the problem: the heavy hand of Hamas constrains almost all actors, institutions, and structures, yet the movement no longer seems able to move in any direction. Instead, it is entrenching itself more deeply in governance of the tiny, crowded enclave.

Many of the signs of this process are subtle, but they have picked up dramatically in the past few months. Local NGO leaders, for instance, report increased pressure from the Hamas government to register locally or include Gaza officials in any activity in which Ramallah officials are somehow involved. International NGOs have sensed a less friendly environment as well.

Hamas leaders in Gaza have not repudiated reconciliation with the West Bank and Fatah, but they have begun to abandon any pretense that their rule in Gaza is temporary.

Flailing for Alternatives: All Options Off the Table

When Palestinians look about for political options to dig their way out of the current impasse, no credible solution surfaces.


Almost any internal Palestinian political discussion begins with the division between the West Bank and Gaza. With the national movement shattered, stressing reconciliation is even more compulsory for Palestinian leaders than stressing the two-state solution has become for international actors.

But it is no more effectual. In the West Bank, there are signs of disagreement or indecision on the subject. On any fundamental matter, Fatah seems to see Hamas as a more immediate adversary than Israel. The necessity to toe the verbal line on reconciliation has placed real constraints on officials—Abbas’s decision not to implement the constitutional court, for example, was a direct response to pressure from those concerned that the court would deepen the existing institutional division between the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas, by contrast, seems to be shedding such qualms. Indeed, since March it has reached a remarkable, even audacious, level of legislative activity. Individual pieces of legislation, such as a new education law that enforces gender segregation, have attracted some international attention, but observers have missed the institutional significance of the moves. Hamas has used its legislative structures—a bureau for drafting legislation attached to the Ministry of Justice, an ad hoc set of mechanisms for consulting interested groups, and a rump parliament—to make fundamental changes in the legal order undergirding education, real estate, and economic activity, which it targeted with a new, investor-friendly companies law.

The precise motivations for this burst of legislative energy are unclear. It is possible that Hamas has been emboldened by either Qatari assistance or the more general rise of Islamist movements. But there are also signs that a once-postponed Islamic agenda is back. The education law, for instance, greatly increased the (admittedly general) emphasis on religious values as a purpose of the educational system. And one of the most noteworthy areas of activity has been a decadelong, on-again, off-again attempt to write a comprehensive criminal code that draws more heavily on Islamic sources. Hamas has apparently decided to postpone the effort yet again because of the intense controversy any move toward Islamization provokes and the desire to avoid appearing to deepen the West Bank–Gaza divide.

Whatever is motivating the Hamas leadership, the overall effect is clear: the rift between the West Bank and Gaza is deepening, and the sleepy process of negotiating reconciliation merely papers over the growing divide in a way that persuades only a handful of people. One of the few areas of institutional coordination—education and the curriculum—is now threatened. Not only does Hamas’s new education law differ from the one in the West Bank, the Gaza government has also proudly announced a decision to replace some of the national education textbooks. Until this point, texts and exams were identical in the West Bank and Gaza and coordinated by the two ministries of education.

New Forces

The deepening West Bank–Gaza division suggests one of the critical reasons why no third force is emerging in Palestinian politics. In the current atmosphere, the warring halves of the Palestinian leadership are entrenching themselves deeply, providing little political space for new initiatives.

The more traditional alternatives to Fatah and Hamas—the welter of factions present in the Palestinian national movement for decades—have lost most of their vitality. No new force seems to be taking their place.

For all their flaws, Fatah and Hamas were built up slowly on a network of local branches and linked to all kinds of structures, grassroots organizations, and local chapters in a manner that embedded them in Palestinian society. It is of course difficult to construct such a movement overnight, but there are few signs of any such efforts even beginning. The telltale places to see new organizations arise, such as student associations, professional associations, camps, and various neighborhoods, still seem to be dominated by the old factions—or occasionally by lethargy.

Factional Revival

There is a possibility that Hamas and Fatah could reemerge as actors capable of doing more than simply entrenching themselves in domestic governance. Indeed, there have been rare signs of vitality from both movements in the past year. Fatah has tried with mixed results to reestablish itself in Gaza, and Hamas ran credibly in student-association elections in the West Bank.

Opinions in the West Bank on how quickly Hamas could reemerge vary greatly, but there seems to be a sense that the movement has been dealt a series of severe blows in the territory over the past six years. When Hamas ran for parliamentary elections in 2006, there were plenty of institutions and locations not affiliated with the movement that still provided friendly spaces for it to reach Palestinians: NGOs, schools, mosques, and universities, for instance. Those entities have now been shut down or are policed extremely heavily. The Ministry of Religious Affairs has dismissed all mosque leaders that seem to have links to Hamas and has directed their replacements on what to preach. The West Bank has become a far less liberal environment in that sense, and there are signs that the remaining Hamas cadres not imprisoned are more than just quiet—they are resentful of being abandoned by a movement now focused largely on Gaza.

Fatah’s prospects in Gaza bear strong similarities to those of Hamas in the West Bank.

It is not impossible that a major crisis or a significant shift in the political situation will deal a strong blow to one group or persuade the other to adopt a far bolder approach. Indeed, Hamas shows signs of waiting for Fatah to fail. But neither side seems inclined to precipitate action barring such an external jolt, nor does either seem well prepared to take advantage of an opportunity if one arises.

Reviving the PLO?

There is one structure that claims to speak for all Palestinians throughout the world—the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But the creation of the PNA sidelined the PLO. Fatah, which had come to dominate the PLO, transferred its energies from the PLO to the PNA, and, as a result, the PLO atrophied.

It is relatively unlikely that the PLO can be revived. The chief mechanism discussed—both within Fatah and among some independent grassroots activists—for doing so involves holding elections to the Palestinian National Council, the ghostly organization intended to represent all Palestinians throughout the world and the constituting body for the PLO. Indeed, an election law for the council has been drawn up within the Fatah-dominated PLO leadership.

But elections in most places would be logistically impractical, and most Palestinians living outside of the West Bank and Gaza would likely be too fearful of endangering whatever status they have earned with their host countries to cast a ballot. Even beyond these practical issues, it is difficult to see Fatah engaging in any process that would allow the PLO to escape from its grasp.

Popular Resistance

For the past few years, a consensus has been growing in Palestinian society about the need to find new means of resisting Israeli occupation, ones that might succeed where past efforts failed. The means, it is argued, must involve large parts of the population in broad campaigns rather than small groups in armed struggles. Advocates of this approach differ on issues such as nonviolence and the relationship between popular resistance and armed struggle, but the idea has resonated sufficiently to garner support from most existing movements (and even parts of Hamas).

Earlier this month, a large conference was held in Bethlehem for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. It attracted significant domestic attendance—noteworthy because BDS has often been seen as a movement for those outside of Palestine—as well as official participation (though the attending minister was subjected to sharp questioning). A Fatah bereft of any unifying approach might latch on to the BDS and related initiatives designed to isolate Israel internationally, and some individual members are clearly entertaining such thoughts.

Yet the power of popular resistance as a slogan cannot obscure the difficulties in its application. Not only does the meaning of the term shift from user to user, but any sustained campaign would require levels of organization, tactical adroitness, and strategic vision that Palestinians now lack, as demonstrated by the nature of the BDS movement itself and the attempts to organize campaigns supporting Palestinian claims in places like Bilin or to mobilize marches on checkpoints and the separation wall. It is also likely to engender great bitterness and acrimony internationally.


Bilateral Palestinian-Israeli negotiations inspire much cynicism and no hope. I have not met a single Palestinian who took seriously the recent U.S. effort to revive the peace process by getting all parties to agree to a new round of direct talks. For most, the U.S. language and approach seemed so familiar that it was less like reinventing the wheel and more like reinventing a flat tire. Many Palestinians ascribed malevolent intentions to the United States, suspecting that the entire effort was designed only to distract them. But even those more charitably inclined were completely baffled by the American insistence that there is any opportunity for negotiating a two-state solution at present.


What appears to be the power of positive thinking to outsiders often appears deeply delusional to those on the inside. It is rare to hear forced optimism from either Palestinians or Israelis, except perhaps from those on political extremes who see existing trends as vindication of their maximalist positions.

The main criticism of the generally bleak understanding of the current moment is that giving in to defeatist thinking offers no alternative solution. It is difficult to respond except to say that such alternatives may have existed—such as taking Palestinian reconciliation seriously—but even they may be losing whatever promise they once had. There is too much in the way of entrenched interests, weak leaders, and short-term thinking to avoid the conclusion that it is unlikely that any one of the parties to the dispute or any external diplomatic effort will offer a realistic possibility of change.

With so much turmoil in every neighboring country, it seems more likely that any new opportunities—for good or ill—will emerge from some unanticipated change in a regional environment that is very much in flux. If such an unexpected shock does not occur, then it may well be that the current unsustainable situation will outlive many of those now describing it as such.