It is time to admit what most observers already know: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that diplomats have been dealing with for half a century is over. It is not that a solution has been found. Just the opposite: all the injustices and insecurities that afflict inhabitants of the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are now so deeply ingrained in daily life that no diplomatic framework can address them now. This leaves some people far better off than others, of course—and it leaves many quite satisfied. But even the smug have cause for worry—less about their own lives and livelihood and more about the world to be inhabited by their children and grandchildren. And many others are left stateless, restricted in movement, harshly policed, and pondering how to provide for their family’s needs now rather than for future generations.

Taking a Better Look at Some Bad History

It no longer makes sense to talk about a “peace process” as though it might be fruitful to gather Israeli and Palestinian leaders one more time at Camp David or Taba. Instead, it is more useful to understand that the deep social and political divisions among the people of the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River have metastasized into intractable troubles akin to those of other times and places: the American South as the era of Reconstruction faded and Jim Crow laws were gradually imposed; the Indian subcontinent as the British Empire emerged too weak from World War II to sustain itself, giving way to violent conflicts and some outcomes that remain contentious today; and South Africa in the first half of the twentieth century with its racialized and ethnic divisions very deeply entrenched in law and practice but not yet formally systematized as apartheid.

Is this really the conclusion that most observers have come to? No, it is not a conclusion; instead, it is actually a starting point for most discussions—among Israelis and Palestinians, of course, who live these realities. But increasingly, scholars, analysts, and diplomats also frankly acknowledge the conflict’s transformation, at least behind closed doors. The extent of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is frequently cited as the reason for this change, and indeed, government-sponsored population movements contributed in an essential manner. But the one-state outcome has broad roots in the networks of internal and external control within the territory, the security regime, and the systems of laws and institutions that work in varying ways for different categories of inhabitants. Some of the practices are so deeply entrenched that they seem to be part of the natural landscape rather than political outcomes based on the accretion of decisions and policies, many of which are older than the people they govern.

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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There are understandable reasons for experts’ reticence to acknowledge that transformation openly. First, if the old diplomacy is dead, what is to be done? And second, does describing a situation as intractable mean accepting it and turning to problems that are more amenable to available diplomatic tools? Today, privileging the second objection has made it impossible to confront the first. It may be time to stop whistling past the graveyard of diplomacy.

Narrowly Averting a 1948 Moment

Former U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration was happy to embrace the conflict’s transformation—and implicitly treat it as a virtue. Trump administration officials flirted with Israeli annexation of the West Bank (encouraging it in practice but stopping short of endorsing formal annexation), dismissed the Palestinian leadership as irrelevant, embraced Israeli settlements, avoided any mention of Palestinian national identity, and even attempted to render international law on the subject illegal. They treated the absence of a negotiated solution as something to perpetuate, not overcome.

Under Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the situation seemed to be nearing a “1948 moment”—referring not to the end of the British Mandate in Palestine but to the victory of the National Party in South Africa and its adoption of apartheid as an ideology and policy—one designed to systematize, deepen, and render into a comprehensive legal form the unequal arrangements that had arisen over time. While Israel drew back from any full formal move, the term “apartheid” is used increasingly seriously as a description for what had only been called occupation.

Back to a More Realistic Future? Or Not?

The new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has adopted a different stance. Incoming officials openly acknowledge part of the closed-door consensus: a two-state solution is not just one summit away. But they advocate a long-term goal of moving things back in that direction. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the general approach the day before Biden took office: “The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution. . . . [I]t’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that. What would be important is to make sure that neither party takes steps that make the already difficult process even more challenging.”

While the Biden approach seems like the only practical one to hardened veterans still hoping for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, it has two significant flaws: it is illegal and impossible. And that is not all; even if it were executed, over the long term it would deliver the precise opposite of what it promises.

The policy’s illegality lies in large part in U.S. legislation written over two generations. Congress has been loquacious and detailed in laying out its objections to aspects of a Palestinian state. Its laws instruct U.S. officials on how to manage terrorism, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the place of international organizations, international assistance, the Palestinian National Authority, Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem, international law, and Hamas. This effectively gives a protective envelope for certain policies and measures, many of them encoded in Israeli legal practices too, while insulating them from international law.

To be sure, some legal obstacles can be circumvented; indeed, that process has already begun. But doing so is routing the Biden team through a labyrinthine world of prohibitions, loopholes, dead ends, waivers, and workarounds. Administration officials may spend more time negotiating with Capitol Hill than with Israelis or Palestinians. The experts who could find their way in the legal thicket would probably fit on a single Zoom screen (if they could be induced to speak to each other at all). Much of this legal effort aimed not only to close diplomatic doors in Palestinians’ faces but also to hamstring U.S. officials. It is working.

The politics is what makes the two-state solution impossible. The domestic environments in Israel, Palestine, and the United States mean moving forward on one element of the approach of reviving the two-state solution will not be possible without tripping on another.

A prospective Israeli leader who really wished to revive rather than undermine a two-state approach would sound to most potential voters as a naïve anachronism at best. Palestinian domestic politics poses its own challenges; the current leadership is weak in part because it is seen as pointlessly striving to jump through every hoop the United States holds up, sullenly ignoring the fact that the current hoop was raised precisely when it prepared to hop through the last one. It is unthinkable that the Biden administration would spend political capital fending off its own domestic adversaries by trying to change the Israeli calculus or drop some U.S. legislative or diplomatic hoops for Palestinians.

It is not merely domestic politics that is a problem for two-state diplomacy. Regional winds have also shifted away from encouraging two-state diplomacy to rendering it irrelevant. A generation ago, some Israeli leaders feared that unrest among Palestinians might ignite a new round of conflict with regional states. The prospect of conflict with an increasingly assertive Iran taking up the Palestinian cause, for example, proved a major impetus to an Israeli effort in the 1990s to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinian national movement as represented by the PLO. The subsequent Oslo Accord agreements gave Jordan the political space to sign a peace treaty with Israel and other states to establish ties of various sorts, whereas in 2020, ties with other Arab states (the Abraham Accords) have progressed with their leaders giving only the most routine and sometimes even vacuous statements of support for the two-state solution or Saudi Arabia’s 2002 Arab Peace initiative. Nor does one hear many Israelis arguing any more that the best way to manage any Iranian challenge is peace with the Palestinians.

These are the realities the Biden team will wrestle with. Practical people pursuing what they see as the only practical path will find something practical to do—and that means coloring within the lines imposed by law and politics without having much salutary long-term effect. Some mechanism will be devised that inefficiently takes advantage of legal gaps to funnel assistance in a manner that obtains Israeli acquiescence and only mildly humiliates Palestinian leaders. Tremendous and sustained diplomatic energy may obtain important improvements—but only in such niche areas as Palestinian cellular telephone networks. Some formal diplomatic relationship with the Palestinian leadership will be set up that does not undercut the status of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, avoids the unspeakable term “State of Palestine,” and complies with the necessary strictures about who diplomats can speak with and how. Perhaps new congressional initiatives, such as those related to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, will be fended off or watered down. But it is difficult to make any serious argument that these steps are milestones along the road to a two-state solution.

When in a Hole, Dig Deeper

And this leads to the real problem. The Biden team’s downgrading of a short-term focus on conflict-ending diplomacy in favor of fostering salutary long-term trends is a laudable shift—but tying the approach to the corpse of the two-state solution and focusing on superficial palliatives will dig the existing hole deeper. Efforts to manage the current situation will involve meeting all sorts of absurd conditions dictated by legal and political constraints with admirable ingenuity, but the Biden administration’s bandwidth for the problem will be narrow. And no wonder: nobody really believes that such steps can advance the two-state solution.

To refer to the solution as a corpse may seem too strong. There may indeed by a possible path to a two-state solution, but U.S. officials treat it as even more unspeakable in public than the death of the peace process. Were the United States to recognize the state of Palestine; support international diplomacy on the application of the Geneva Conventions to the occupied Palestinian territories (a geographic term no current United States official is permitted to use); take firm action to hold accountable those acting in violation; offer to support negotiations between any leaders of Israel and Palestine willing to accept all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions; and condition all economic, diplomatic, and security cooperation with both states to a commitment to those resolutions and to disarming any groups undermining them—well, then it is possible to imagine a revival of two-state diplomacy. But currently, U.S. officials, as much as they tighten their grip on the slogan of the two-state solution, do not merely fail to take such positions; they actively denounce and prevent them, chiefly by obstructing international diplomacy.

The developments that killed the two-state solution—walls, cities, and laws; deep shifts in Israeli domestic politics; the Palestinian political schism and weakness; and profound mistrust—are largely unaddressed under the emerging approach. The United States has long fallen into a pattern of picking an occasional battle while it has lost the war against Israeli annexation. The oft-intoned (though fairly recent) claim by many within the United States foreign policy community that “the two-state solution is the only viable option” is now deployed to invoke a mythical—and likely unattainable—future in order to avoid acknowledging the current one-state reality.

Assessing Policy Ideas

When I first wrote that “The Peace Process Has No Clothes” a decade and a half ago, I was reluctantly entering a room of skeptics bereft of any mainstream policy actors. But now, with honest words increasingly seeping into public discussion, is there any way to avoid despair in policy circles?

There are constructive steps that outside actors can take, but in order to explore them, it is necessary to stop asking “Will this revive the peace process?” and instead ask two new questions about prospective steps. First, “Does this step help ameliorate suffering today or decrease violence today?” And second, “Will this step foster development of institutions and practices that are likely to make a more systematic solution possible at a much later time?”

A number of policies would provide positive answers to these questions. But it will be necessary to be bold. It is not hard to think of ways to clear goods through Gaza’s borders a bit more quickly or promote technology education in Palestinian schools. Such initiatives would be worthwhile—but far more significant would be an economic opening of Gaza or greater political and economic rights for the enormous number of stateless refugees.

Less dramatically, I have argued elsewhere that the generous international assistance programs for Palestinians should be repurposed: they will not aid in producing a two-state solution in the short term, but they can greatly aid in shoring up the resilience of Palestinian society and institutions both at the national and local level, if designed properly.

To address the second question, possible initiatives would be greater international recognition for the State of Palestine—an uncertain entity to be sure, but it is the best starting point for finding an effective and authoritative voice for the Palestinian national community. People-to-people diplomacy, as it has been understood, has led to thoughtful analyses but has lost credibility among most Israelis and become suspect in the eyes of most Palestinians (because deploying postconflict techniques in this way obscures the power imbalances and sources of conflict). More helpful are genuine attempts to listen to broader sets of voices in both societies (but especially the Palestinian one, only because their debates have been less audible in international policy circles)—far broader than the familiar but narrow group of negotiators or public figures generally heard. In that respect, a recent RAND report based on discussions of alternative futures with Israeli and Palestinian focus groups is a welcome step in bringing real debates to the attention of the policy community. A new generation of polling—that goes beyond past questioning on the “peace process” and treats the area as a single entity with a deeply divided population—is also extremely helpful for informing policy analysis.

Beginning a Journey of a Thousand Miles

Most of these proposals would be seen in policy circles in Washington (and perhaps in Europe as well) as both unrealistic and pro-Palestinian, but those are not the most significant problems. They are certainly unrealistic in terms of current U.S. policy discussions, but those discussions have become so divorced from the region’s political realities that it hardly seems a meaningful criticism. And with the status quo so deeply troubling for Palestinians, it is not surprising that efforts to steer things in a different direction might seem to work in their favor.

U.S. policy discussions have become divorced from the region’s political realities.

But the real problem with this set of ideas is that each element can pull in a different direction. Any attempt to ameliorate current conditions can provoke suspicions that it will—in effect, perhaps even in intent—become a way of entrenching the present and avoiding any long-term solution. Several generations of Palestinian refugees have lived this dilemma very poignantly.

But there are some paths that can be both ameliorative and conducive to the emergence of long-term alternatives. Talk among Palestinians about shifting to a “rights-based approach”—one that focuses less on statehood and more on securing individual and collective rights regardless of the governing political framework—has grown stronger as the dream of Palestinian statehood has receded. Such talk should be taken seriously by international actors.

The effect would not be to render the conflict soluble but to change the strategic calculus of leaders: to persuade Israelis that there are costs to the one-state reality and to offer Palestinians a path between despair and what they have come to call “armed struggle.”

A good first step would be for the United States to end its conscious and consistent policy for half a century to carve out Palestine as a place where even citing relevant international legal instruments (some of them fostered by United States diplomacy) is provocative. After several decades of attempts, it has become improbable that ripping diplomacy out of any legal framework in a situation of gross power imbalance will lead to a successful outcome.

If introducing talk of rights and law is viewed as partisan, radical, or unrealistic, that may be an indication of how deeply intractable a conflict has become. It is time to take a much longer-range perspective. Deep-seated divisions are not likely to be resolved in a burst of diplomacy or even in a decade of hard work. All the more reason to start now.