It was a good idea at the time

Later this week I’ll preview the main elections expected in 2020, but you can already put one on your calendar. Israel goes back to the polls on 2 March for its third election in the space of 12 months, after the previous two both failed to produce a majority government.

My last report, from September, sets out the basic arithmetic. None of the main players have altered their incompatible positions since then; just last week, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party rejected an attempt to replace him as leader, ensuring that his fate will again be the dominating issue in the campaign.

Much less at issue will be the main thing that outsiders think of when they consider Israel, namely the future of its relationship with the Palestinians and its occupation of Palestinian territory. For that, you should turn to Noam Sheizaf in +972 Magazine, on the death of the two-state solution.

The two-state solution – the idea of an independent Palestinian state existing peaceably beside Israel – made sense at the time. About 20 years ago it seemed close to achievement, although observers differ about just how close. But its time has come and gone. As Sheizaf puts it:

To the outsider, it seems that the past decade has changed very little about the conflict. But the truth is that something very substantial did, indeed, occur. This was the decade of the one-state solution. The ideological argument between one staters and two staters, which continues to this day, disguises the fact that in practice we are all one staters. Other ideas are completely hypothetical.

I think Sheizaf is a little coy in putting all the blame for this state of affairs on Israeli policy: Palestinian mistakes and short-sightedness have played a part as well. But the trajectory of how we got here is less important than the fact of the matter. The two-state solution has ceased to be a serious option, and the various actors in the drama need to plan on the basis that for the foreseeable future there will be only a single state.

The Israeli government seems to understand this, if not always on a conscious level. The Palestinian leadership does not – although the fact that there is no single coherent Palestinian leadership is a major part of the problem.

Israel and its supporters, however, are reluctant to spell out just how they see things developing from here. As I pointed out three years ago, the logic of Likud’s position pushes it towards apartheid at best and ethnic cleansing at worst. Those goals cannot be made explicit, but no more moderate alternative has suggested itself.

But that gives the Palestinians a rhetorical opportunity. If they can find themselves some leadership, it needs to address Israel in something like the following terms:

OK, we give in. You won this round. We accept there’s not going to be a Palestinian state. We’re willing to become loyal citizens of Israel, to live in peace alongside the settlers and work together to build a just and prosperous society.

In return, we expect to be treated fairly and given the same rights as other citizens.

That’s not what most Palestinians ideally want, but it’s now the best practical way forward. Whereas the two-state solution involved a binary decision point – either there’s a Palestinian state or there isn’t – the fight for civil rights within a single state is a matter of degree. Progress can be made gradually, one step at a time.

More importantly, it’s also not at all what the Israeli government wants: what it wants is for the Palestinians to somehow go away, or failing that to remain permanently as second-class citizens. But making the demand, and formally taking the two-state solution off the table, might force it to enunciate that position openly.






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