The Strange Resurrection of the Two-State Solution

How an Unimaginable War Could Bring About the Only Imaginable Peace

For years, the vision of an Israeli state and a Palestinian state existing side by side in peace and security has been derided as hopelessly naive—or worse, as a dangerous illusion. After decades of U.S.-led diplomacy failed to achieve that outcome, it seemed to many observers that the dream had died; all that was left to do was bury it. But it turns out that reports of the death of the two-state solution were greatly exaggerated.

In the wake of the monstrous attack Hamas launched on Israel on October 7 and the grievous war that Israel has waged on the Gaza Strip ever since, the allegedly dead two-state solution has been resurrected. U.S. President Joe Biden and his top national security officials have repeatedly and publicly reaffirmed their belief that it represents the only way to create lasting peace among the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Arab countries of the Middle East. And the United States is hardly alone: the call for a return to the two-state paradigm has been echoed by leaders across the Arab world, the countries of the EU, middle powers such as Australia and Canada, and even Washington’s main rival, China.

The reason for this revival is not complicated. There are, after all, only a few possible alternatives to the two-state solution. There is Hamas’s solution, which is the destruction of Israel. There is the Israeli ultra-right’s
solution, which is the Israeli annexation of the West Bank, the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the deportation of Palestinians to other countries. There is the “conflict management” approach pursued for the last decade or so by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which aimed to maintain the status quo indefinitely—and the world has seen how that worked out. And there is the idea of a binational state in which Jews would become a minority, thus ending Israel’s status as a Jewish state. None of those alternatives would resolve the conflict—at least not without causing even greater calamities. And so if the conflict is to be resolved peacefully, the two-state solution is the only idea left standing.

All that was true before October 7. But a lack of leadership, trust, and interest on both sides—and the repeated failure of American efforts to change those realities—made it impossible to conceive of a credible pathway to a two-state solution. And doing so now has become even more difficult. The Israelis and the Palestinians are angrier and more fearful than at any time since the outbreak of the second intifada in October 2000; the two sides seem less likely than ever to achieve the mutual trust that a two-state solution would require. Meanwhile, in an age of great-power competition abroad and political polarization at home, and after decades of failed diplomatic and military interventions in the Middle East, Washington enjoys far less influence and credibility in the region than it did in the 1990s, when, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S.-led eviction of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, the United States kick-started the process that eventually led to the Oslo accords. And yet, as a result of the war in Gaza, the United States finds itself with a stronger need for a credible process that can eventually lead to an agreement, and stronger leverage to transform the resurrection of the two-state solution from a talking point to a reality. Doing so, however, will take a significant commitment of time and political capital. Biden will have to play an active role in shaping the decisions of a reluctant Israeli ally, an ineffective Palestinian partner, and an impatient international community. And because what he will be pushing for is an incremental approach that would achieve peace only over a lengthy period, the two-state solution needs to be enshrined now as the ultimate objective in a U.S.-sponsored UN Security Council resolution.

The two-state solution dates back to at least 1937, when a British commission suggested a partition of the British mandate territory then known as Palestine into two states. Ten years later, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181, which proposed two states for two peoples: one Arab, one Jewish. Although the resolution’s recommended territorial partition left neither side satisfied, the Jews accepted it—but the Palestinians, encouraged by their Arab state sponsors, rejected it. The ensuing war led to the founding of the state of Israel; millions of Palestinians, meanwhile, became refugees, and their national aspirations languished.

The idea of a Palestinian state lay mostly dormant for decades as Israel and its Arab neighbors became preoccupied with their own conflict, one result of which was the Israeli occupation and settlement of Gaza and the West Bank after the 1967 Six-Day War, which placed millions of Palestinians under direct Israeli control but without the rights accorded to Israeli citizens. Eventually, however, terrorist attacks launched by the Palestine Liberation Organization and an uprising of the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation in the 1980s forced Israel to come to terms with the fact that the situation had become untenable. In 1993, Israel and the PLO signed the American-brokered Oslo accords, recognizing each other and laying the groundwork for a phased, incremental process intended to eventually lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The two-state solution’s moment appeared to have arrived.

By the end of the Clinton administration, the Oslo process had generated a detailed outline of what the two-state solution would look like: a Palestinian state in 97 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with mutually agreed swaps of territory that would compensate the Palestinian state for the three percent of West Bank land that Israel would annex, which at that time contained some 80 percent of all the Jewish settlers on Palestinian lands. The Palestinians would have their capital in East Jerusalem, where predominantly Arab suburbs would come under Palestinian sovereignty and predominantly Jewish suburbs under Israeli sovereignty. The two countries would share control of Jerusalem’s so-called Holy Basin, the site of the most important shrines of the three Abrahamic faiths.

But a final agreement on those terms never materialized. As a member of the Clinton administration’s negotiating team at the time, I came to see that neither side was ready to compromise on the highly emotional question of who would control Jerusalem or on the issue of “the right of return” of Palestinian refugees, which was deeply threatening to the Israelis. In the end, the edifice of peace that so many had labored so hard to construct was consumed in a paroxysm of violence as the Palestinians launched another, more intense uprising and the Israelis expanded their occupation of the West Bank. The ensuing conflict lasted for five years, claiming thousands of lives on both sides and destroying all hopes for reconciliation.

Every subsequent American president has sought to revive the two-state solution, but none of their initiatives proved capable of overcoming the mistrust generated by the Palestinian return to violence and the Israeli settlers’ determination to annex the West Bank. The Israelis became frustrated by the Palestinian leadership’s unwillingness to respond to what they regarded as generous offers for Palestinian statehood, and the Palestinians never believed that the offers were genuine or that Israel would deliver if they dared compromise on their claims. Leaders on both sides preferred to blame each other rather than find a way to lead their people out of the miserable morass that the failed peace process had created.

By the time Biden became U.S. president in 2021, the world had given up on the two-state solution. Netanyahu, who had dominated his country’s politics for the preceding 15 years, had persuaded the Israelis that they had no Palestinian partner for peace and therefore did not need to address the challenge of what to do with the three million Palestinians in the West Bank and the two million in Gaza whom they effectively controlled. Netanyahu sought instead to “manage” the conflict by kneecapping the PA (Israel’s putative partner in the peace process) and taking steps to make it easier for Hamas, which shared his antipathy to the two-state solution, to consolidate its rule in Gaza. At the same time, he gave free rein to the settler movement in the West Bank to make it impossible for a contiguous part of a Palestinian state to ever emerge there.

The Palestinians also lost faith in the two-state solution. Some turned back to armed struggle, while others began to gravitate to the idea of a binational state in which Palestinians would enjoy equal rights with Jews. Hamas’s version of a “one-state solution,” which would do away with Israel altogether, also gained greater traction in the West Bank, where the group’s popularity began to eclipse the geriatric and corrupt leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the PA.

For years, American diplomats had warned that this status quo was unsustainable and that another Palestinian uprising would soon emerge. But it turned out that the Palestinians had no stomach for another intifada and preferred to sit on their land as best they could and wait the Israelis out. This suited the Biden administration. It was determined to deprioritize the Middle East as it addressed more pressing strategic challenges in Asia and Europe. What it wanted in the Middle East was calm. So whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict threatened to flare up, particularly over provocative settler activities, American diplomats would swoop in to reduce the tensions, with support from Egypt and Jordan, which had a common interest in avoiding an explosion.

For his part, Biden paid lip service to the two-state solution but didn’t seem to believe in it. He kept in place policies favorable to the settlers that had been introduced by his predecessor, Donald Trump, such as the labeling of products from West Bank settlements as “made in Israel.” Biden also failed to make good on his campaign promise to reopen the U.S. consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem. (The consulate had been absorbed into the U.S. embassy when Trump moved it to Jerusalem.)

Biden paid lip service to the two-state solution but didn’t seem to believe in it.
Meanwhile, the Arab states had decided to all but abandon the Palestinian cause. They had come to see Israel as a natural ally in countering the Iranian-led “axis of resistance” that had taken root across the Arab world. This new strategic calculation found expression in the Abraham Accords, negotiated by the Trump administration, in which Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) each fully normalized relations with Israel without insisting that Israel do anything that might make the establishment of a Palestinian state more likely.

Biden sought to broaden this Israeli–Sunni Arab compact by seeking normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer and the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites. From a U.S. point of view, there was a compelling strategic logic to normalization: Israel and Saudi Arabia could serve as the anchors for a U.S. “offshore balancing” role that would stabilize the region while freeing up American attention and resources to deal with an assertive China and an aggressive Russia.

Biden found a willing partner in Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MBS, who had embarked on an ambitious effort to modernize his country and diversify its economy. Fearing he would be unable to defend the fruits of that investment with Saudi Arabia’s limited military capabilities, he sought a formal defense treaty with the United States, as well as the right to maintain an independent nuclear fuel cycle and to buy advanced U.S. arms, using the prospect of normalization with Israel to make such an agreement palatable to the heavily pro-Israel U.S. Senate. MBS cared little for the Palestinians and was not willing to condition his deal on progress toward a two-state solution. The Biden administration, however, feared that bypassing the Palestinians completely could lead to a Palestinian uprising, especially because, in 2022, Netanyahu had formed a coalition government with ultranationalist and ultrareligious parties who were bent on annexing the West Bank and toppling the PA. The administration also assessed that it could not secure the necessary Democratic votes in the Senate for a defense treaty with the unpopular Saudis without a substantial Palestinian component in the package. Since the Saudis needed some political cover for their deal with Israel, they were amenable to Biden’s proposal for significant constraints on West Bank settlement activity, the transfer of additional West Bank territory to Palestinian control, and the resumption of Saudi aid to the PA.

By early October 2023, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States were on the brink of a regional realignment. Netanyahu had not yet accepted the Palestinian component of the deal, and his coalition’s opposition to any settlement concessions made it unclear how much of the proposed agreement would survive—as did MBS’s general diffidence. Still, had a breakthrough taken place, the Palestinians would likely have been sidelined yet again, and Netanyahu’s ultra-right government would have gained greater confidence in pursuing its annexation strategy. But then it all came crashing down.

At first glance, it may be hard to see why what happened next would help resurrect the two-state solution. It is difficult to express in words the trauma that all Israelis suffered on October 7: the complete failure of the vaunted military and intelligence capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to protect Israeli citizens; the horrific atrocities committed by Hamas fighters that left some 1,200 Israelis dead and nearly 250 captives in Gaza; the ongoing hostage saga that suffuses every Israeli home with grief and concern; the displacement of border communities in southern and northern Israel. In this context, not surprisingly, Israelis of all stripes have no interest in contemplating reconciliation with their Palestinian neighbors. Before October 7, most Israelis were already convinced that they had no Palestinian partner for peace; today, they have every reason to believe that they were right. And the way that Hamas’s popularity has increased in the West Bank since the war started has only reinforced this assessment. According to polling conducted in November and December by the Palestinian researcher Khalil Shikaki, 75 percent of West Bank Palestinians support Hamas’s continued rule in Gaza, compared with 38 percent of Gazans. The Israelis point to the refusal by the Palestinians—including Abbas—to condemn Hamas’s atrocities, the outright denial on the part of many Arabs that anything of the sort took place, and the newly anti-Semitic dimension of the international support for the Palestinian cause and conclude that the Palestinians want to kill them, not make peace with them.

Most Palestinians have understandably reached a similar conclusion with regard to the Israelis: the assault on Gaza has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians (including more than 5,000 children), destroyed more than 60 percent of the homes in the territory, and displaced nearly all of its 2.2 million residents. On the West Bank, anger over the war is compounded by the systematic violence of Israeli settlers who have assaulted Palestinians, driven some from their homes, and prevented others from harvesting their olives and grazing their sheep. At least some Palestinians, potentially a majority, do not reject the idea of an independent Palestinian state as an eventual solution that could end the Israeli occupation and allow them to live a life of dignity and freedom. (Notably, that remains the official position of the PA, whereas the official position of the Netanyahu government is to adamantly oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state.) But few Palestinians believe that the Israelis will allow them to build a viable state free of military occupation.

For all these reasons, there is a complete disconnection between renewed international calls for a two-state solution and the fears and desires currently shaping Israeli and Palestinian society. Many have argued that the best the United States can do in these circumstances is to try to bring the fighting to an end as soon as possible and then focus on rebuilding the shattered lives of the Israelis and the Palestinians, putting the issue of an ultimate resolution of the conflict aside for the time being until passions cool, new leadership emerges, and circumstances become more conducive to the contemplation of what now seem like far-fetched ideas of peace and reconciliation.

Yet taking a short-term, pragmatic approach has its own dangers: that, after all, is what Washington did after the four rounds of fighting between Hamas and Israel that broke out between 2008 and 2021—and look what that produced. After this round, moreover, Israel will not simply withdraw and leave Hamas in control, as it did in the past. Netanyahu is already speaking about a long-term Israeli security presence in Gaza. This is a recipe for disaster. If Israel remains stuck in Gaza, it will be fighting off a Hamas-led insurgency—just as it fought off an insurgency led by Hezbollah and other groups for 18 years when it was stuck in southern Lebanon after invading in 1982. There is no credible way to bring the war in Gaza to an end without trying to fashion a new, more stable order there. But that cannot be done without also establishing a credible path to a two-state solution. The Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are insisting on that as a condition for their support for the revitalization of the PA and the reconstruction of Gaza, as is the rest of the international community. The PA would need to be able to point to that goal in order to legitimize any role it played in controlling Gaza. And the Biden administration must be able to include the goal of two states as part of the Israeli-Saudi agreement it is still eager to broker.

The first step would be for the Palestinians to establish a credible governing authority in Gaza to fill the vacuum left by the eradication of Hamas rule. This is the opportunity for the PA to expand its writ and unite the divided Palestinian polity. But with its credibility already at a low point, the PA cannot afford to be seen as Israel’s subcontractor, maintaining order for the sake of Israel’s security interests. Fortunately, Netanyahu’s opposition to the PA taking control in Gaza seems to have backfired, serving only to legitimize the idea in the minds of many Palestinians.

But in its current state, the PA is in no position to take responsibility for governing and policing Gaza. As Biden has put it, the PA must be “revitalized.” It needs a new prime minister, a new set of competent technocrats who are not corrupt, a trained security force for Gaza, and reformed institutions that no longer incite against Israel or reward prisoners and “martyrs” for terrorist acts against the Israelis. The United States and the Sunni Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, are already engaged in detailed discussions with the PA about all these steps and seem satisfied that the PA is willing to undertake them. But it will require the active cooperation and support of the Netanyahu government, which adamantly opposes a PA role in Gaza and has so far refused to make any decisions about the “day after” there.

Once the revitalization process got underway, it would probably take around a year to train and deploy PA security and civilian cadres in Gaza. During this period, Israel would likely undertake some military activity against residual Hamas forces. In the meantime, an interim governing body would need to run the territory. That entity would need to be legitimized by a UN Security Council resolution and would oversee the gradual assumption of responsibility by the PA. It would control a peacekeeping force tasked with maintaining order. To prevent friction with the IDF, the force would need to be led by a U.S. general. But there would be no need for American boots on the ground: troops could come from other countries friendly to Israel that have deep experience in peacekeeping operations and would be acceptable to the Palestinians, including Australia, Canada, India, and South Korea. Sunni Arab states should be invited to participate in the force, although it is unlikely that they would want to take responsibility for policing the Palestinians.

But even without contributing troops, the Sunni Arab states would have a critical role to play. Egypt has a considerable interest in securing the stability that would allow millions of Gazans to move away from the Egyptian border, where they pose a continual threat of flooding into Egypt. Egyptian intelligence has good ground knowledge of Gaza, and the Egyptian army can help prevent the smuggling of arms into Gaza from the Sinai Peninsula—although it failed to do so before October 7. Jordan has less influence in Gaza than Egypt does, but the Jordanians have ably trained Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and could do the same for PA forces in Gaza. The oil-rich Gulf Arab states have the necessary resources to rebuild Gaza and fund the revitalization of the PA. But none of them will be suckered into footing the bill unless they can tell their own people that doing so will lead to the end of the Israeli occupation and the eventual emergence of a Palestinian state—which would prevent another round of war that would leave them holding the bag again.

There are, of course, two major obstacles to such a plan, and they are the main combatants in the war. Although its control of northern Gaza is now in doubt, Hamas still maintains its underground strongholds in the southern cities of Khan Younis and Rafah. As of this writing, it still holds around 130 hostages whom it intends to use as bargaining chips; the longer the fighting drags on, the more domestic pressure will build on Netanyahu to agree to a semipermanent cease-fire in exchange for the rest of the hostages, potentially leaving a good part of Hamas’s infrastructure and control mechanisms in place. Washington can try to convince the IDF to shift to a more targeted approach that will produce fewer casualties. But for any postwar order to take shape, Hamas’s command-and-control system must be broken—and that outcome is far from guaranteed.

On the other side, the survival of Netanyahu’s government coalition with ultra-right and ultrareligious parties depends on the rejection of the two-state solution and any return of the PA to Gaza. Although speculation is rife in Israel that Netanyahu will be hounded out of office soon and new elections will bring a moderate, centrist coalition to power, his survival skills are unmatched; he should never be counted out.

Nevertheless, Biden retains considerable leverage over Netanyahu. The IDF is now heavily dependent on military resupply from the United States as it contemplates having to fight a two-front war against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Israel has expended massive amounts of materiel in its campaign in Gaza, requiring two emergency efforts by the Biden administration to expedite resupply by bypassing congressional oversight, much to the chagrin of some of the Senate Democrats whom Biden will need to support an Israeli-Saudi deal. Even if Israel opts for a more targeted campaign in Gaza, it will have to restock its arsenal and be prepared for a resource-intensive war with Hezbollah. Holding up resupplies is something that Biden is reluctant to do because he does not want to look as if he is undermining Israel’s security. But in a standoff with Netanyahu, Biden could drag his feet on certain decisions by tying things up in bureaucratic procedures or asking for congressional reviews. That might lead the IDF to press Netanyahu to give in. Pressure might also come from the decorated military men who serve in his emergency war cabinet: the retired generals Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who lead the main opposition party, and Yoav Gallant, the defense minister.

This dynamic has already begun to play out. Even though it has taken a Herculean effort, the Biden administration has succeeded in convincing the IDF to reshape its strategy and tactics—limiting the scope of its operations against Hamas and restraining it from taking on Hezbollah—and has persuaded it to allow increasing amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza, including opening the Israeli port of Ashdod to supplies. Gallant has even publicly stated his support for the PA to assume a role in Gaza, directly contradicting the prime minister.

In some ways, the United States has become Israel’s first line of defense.
In the long run, the IDF will remain heavily dependent on military support from the United States to rebuild its deterrent power, which took a blow on October 7. This new dependence is best illustrated by the need for the United States to deploy two carrier battle groups to the eastern Mediterranean and a nuclear-powered submarine to the region to deter Iran and Hezbollah from joining the fray at the outset of the war. Before October 7, Israel’s military capabilities alone had served as a sufficient deterrent, and the United States was able to deploy its major forces elsewhere. But according to reporting by Israel’s Channel 12, in January, when U.S. officials decided it was time to withdraw one of the carrier battle groups, the IDF asked them to keep it in place.

This heavy tactical and strategic dependence on the United States is a new phenomenon. Washington has long served as Israel’s second line of defense. But the deployment of the U.S. carrier battle groups signaled that in some ways, the United States has become Israel’s first line of defense. Israel is no longer able to “defend itself by itself,” as Netanyahu was fond of bragging before October 7. He may do his best to ignore this new reality, but the IDF cannot afford to do so.

Meanwhile, Israel is weathering a tsunami of international criticism as its indiscriminate use of force in the early stages of the war, when it was reacting out of rage rather than calculation, caused massive civilian casualties. The United States alone has stood in the breach, repeatedly protecting Israel from international censure and defending its right to continue prosecuting the war against Hamas despite the almost universal demands for a cease-fire. This serves American interests, too, since Hamas’s destruction is a prerequisite for establishing a more peaceful order in Gaza. But Israel is just one American abstention away from UN Security Council resolutions that could invoke sanctions. Like its newly acute military dependence on Washington, this political isolation makes Israel vulnerable to U.S. leverage.

Until now, Netanyahu seemed determined to resist the influence of his only real friend in the international community, using outright public rejections of the two-state solution to shore up his coalition and gain credit with his base for standing up to the United States. But Biden has a number of other sources of leverage beyond potentially dragging his feet on military resupply or letting it be known that he is considering an abstention on a UN resolution critical of Israel. Netanyahu is dependent on the international community to finance the rehabilitation of Gaza. Israel is in no position to pay the $50 billion or so that will be needed to repair the damage its military campaign has wrought. And yet if Netanyahu does not reach an understanding with Biden on a credible pathway to a two-state solution, Israel will be left holding the bag. The oil- and gas-rich Arab states have repeatedly made it clear that they will not pay for Gaza’s reconstruction without a firm commitment to a Palestinian state. And leaving Gaza in ruins will ensure that Hamas returns to power there, in charge of an otherwise failed state on Israel’s borders. He may not recognize it yet, but Netanyahu has no choice but to find a way to accommodate this demand.

Finally, Biden can influence the public debate in Israel by going over Netanyahu’s head to address the Israeli people. They deeply appreciate that he was there for them in their darkest moments after the October 7 attack. His visit to Israel comforted the country when Netanyahu could not. Ever since, Israelis have watched as the president of the United States has defended them, fought for the return of the Israeli hostages, rushed military supplies to the IDF, and vetoed UN resolutions critical of Israel. By contrast, Netanyahu’s standing with the Israeli public was already at a historic low before October 7 because of the divisiveness of the self-serving campaign he had been mounting to reduce the powers of the judiciary. If an election were held today, he would be routed. According to recent opinion polls, over 70 percent of Israelis want him to resign. Meanwhile, over 80 percent of Israelis approve of U.S. leadership in the wake of the war and prefer Biden to Trump by 14 points—the first time in decades that Israelis have preferred the Democratic candidate for U.S. president to the Republican.

If Biden found himself in a showdown with Netanyahu, a speech to the Israeli people could give the American president the edge. The best time to deliver it would be after the United States helped broker another hostages-for-prisoners swap, for which the Israeli public would be profoundly grateful. The point would not be to sell the two-state solution to the Israelis, who are not yet ready to hear that pitch. Rather, the idea would be to offer an avuncular explanation of what the United States is trying to do to ensure a stable “day after” in Gaza that would prevent a repeat of October 7 and also provide a pathway, over time, to end the broader conflict. Biden would explain that he does not want to see his beloved Israel condemned to never-ending war, with each generation sending its children off to fight in the streets of Gaza and the refugee camps of the West Bank. He would offer an alternative that would instead hold out the hope of an enduring peace—as long as Israel’s government followed his lead. He would need to counter Netanyahu’s claim that Israel has to maintain overall security control in the West Bank and Gaza by emphasizing alternative U.S.-supervised security arrangements, including the demilitarization of the Palestinian state, which would reconcile Israeli security needs with Palestinian sovereignty—and keep Israelis safer than would a permanent military occupation.

Caving in to Biden would go against all of Netanyahu’s political instincts. The only way Netanyahu can reliably stay in power now is by maintaining his coalition with the ultranationalists, who adamantly oppose the revitalization of the PA and the two-state solution. If he gave in, he would run the considerable risk of losing power. Normally, when he is backed into the corner, Netanyahu dances: giving in a little to the United States while reassuring his hard-liners that his concessions are not serious. On the issue of Israeli settlements in particular, he has gotten away with that maneuver for 15 years.

But the jig is up. Netanyahu cannot credibly claim to support a two-state solution. He did so before, in 2009, but it has since become obvious that he was lying, as he now boasts of having prevented the emergence of a Palestinian state. But even if Netanyahu maintains his opposition to that outcome, cooperation with a U.S. postwar plan for Gaza would commit him to actions, such as allowing the PA to operate in Gaza and restricting settlement activity in the West Bank, that would constitute a credible pathway to a two-state solution—and would thus doom his fragile coalition and likely end his career.

Biden would clearly prefer to avoid a face-off with Netanyahu, but it seems inevitable. As the president contemplates how to get Netanyahu’s attention, he needs to find a way to change Netanyahu’s calculus—or, if Netanyahu continues to balk, to help win Israeli public support for Biden’s preferred “day after” approach.

Saudi Arabia can lend a significant hand in this effort. Before October 7, Biden thought he was on the cusp of a strategic breakthrough on Israeli-Saudi peace. That opportunity still exists, the Gaza war notwithstanding. MBS is not about to let his ambitious trillion-dollar plan for the development of his country be buried by Hamas. Nor is he happy at the boost that the war has given to Iran and its partners in the “axis of resistance,” which threatens Saudi Arabia as much as Israel. Because the deal he had negotiated with Biden serves the vital interests of his kingdom, he is still interested in forging ahead when things quiet down. But normalization with Israel is now highly unpopular in Saudi Arabia, where public opinion, as elsewhere in the Arab world, has turned even more fiercely against Israel. The only way MBS can square this circle is to insist on the very thing he was indifferent to before October 7: a credible pathway toward a two-state solution.

Biden should make clear the choice facing Israelis. They can continue on the road to a forever war with the Palestinians, or they can embrace the U.S. “day after” plan—and be rewarded with peace with Saudi Arabia and better relations with the broader Arab and Muslim worlds. Netanyahu has already publicly rejected these terms. But he did so after the deal was offered in private. Biden should try again—but this time, he should pitch the deal directly to the Israeli public in a way that would shift its attention from the trauma of October 7.

Biden would clearly prefer to avoid a face-off with Netanyahu, but it seems inevitable.
After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat captured Israelis’ imaginations with a surprise visit to Jerusalem. MBS is unlikely to be as adventurous, but he might be persuaded to join Biden in appealing directly to the Israeli public via an interview with a respected Israeli TV journalist. Working together, Biden and MBS could use the Saudi offer of peace to enhance a message of hope. They could point to the Saudi and Sunni Arab role in promoting PA rule in Gaza and the two-state solution as ways of ensuring that the Palestinians will do their part. Biden would need to add, in nonthreatening terms, that such a breakthrough would serve the vital strategic interests of the United States, as well as bring peace with Saudi Arabia to Israel. He would need to convey that he therefore thinks it’s reasonable to expect Israel to cooperate—and that he would not understand if its government refused to do so.

Biden will face a less acute but similar problem when it comes to persuading the Palestinians and Arab leaders, who have little reason to trust his commitment to a Palestinian state—especially since they know there is a chance that Biden will not be in the White House come 2025. Winning them over will not be easy. Some have suggested that the United States should recognize the Palestinian state now, with its borders negotiated later. But a grand gesture of that sort would put the cart before the horse: the PA must first embark on building credible, accountable, transparent institutions, demonstrating that it is a trustworthy “state in the making,” before it is rewarded with recognition.

There is, however, another way to demonstrate American and international commitment to the two-state solution. The basis for every negotiation among Israel, its Arab neighbors, and the Palestinians is UN Security Council Resolution 242, which was passed and accepted by Israel and the Arab states following the Six-Day War in 1967. (In 1998, the PLO also accepted it as the basis for the negotiations that led to the Oslo accords.) Resolution 242 is silent, however, on the Palestinian issue, except for a passing reference to the need for a just settlement of the refugee issue. It makes no mention of any of the other final-status issues, although it does make an explicit reference to “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and the need for Israeli withdrawal from territories (although not “the territories”) it occupied in the 1967 war.

A new resolution that updated Resolution 242 could enshrine the U.S. and international community’s commitment to the two-state solution in international law. It would invoke UN General Assembly Resolution 181 in calling for two states for two peoples based on mutual recognition of the Jewish state of Israel and the Arab state of Palestine. It could also call on both sides to avoid unilateral actions that would impede the achievement of the two-state solution, including settlement activity, incitement, and terrorism. And it could call for direct negotiations between the parties “at the appropriate time” to resolve all final-status issues and end the conflict and all claims arising from it. If such a resolution were introduced by the United States, endorsed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and passed unanimously, Israel and the PLO would have little choice but to accept it, just as they accepted Resolution 242.

Wars often don’t end until both sides have exhausted themselves and become convinced that they are better off coexisting with their enemies than pursuing a futile effort to destroy them. The Israelis and the Palestinians are a long way from that point. But maybe, after the fighting in Gaza ends and the passions cool, they will begin to think again about how to get there. There are already some reasons for hope. Consider, for example, the fact that Israel’s Arab citizens have so far refused Hamas’s call to rise up. There has been relatively little communal violence in Israel’s mixed Arab-Jewish cities since October 7, and one of the most prominent leaders of the Arab-Israeli community, the politician and Knesset member Mansour Abbas (no relation to the Palestinian prime minister), has given courageous voice to the goal of coexistence. “All of us, Arab and Jewish citizens, must take pains to cooperate in order to maintain peace and calm,” he wrote in The Times of Israel in late October. “We will strengthen the fabric of relations, increasing understanding and tolerance, to overcome this crisis peacefully.” Nor have the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem turned to popular violence (as opposed to isolated terrorist incidents), despite the provocations and predations of extremist settlers; the 150,000 or so Palestinians who live in the West Bank but worked in Israel proper before October 7 may understandably burn with a sense of humiliation, but they would rather return to their jobs than see their children fighting with Israeli soldiers at checkpoints.

Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are ready to make the deep compromises that genuine coexistence would require; indeed, they are far less ready to do so than they were at the end of the Clinton administration, when they failed to close the deal. But the massive costs of refusing to compromise have become much clearer in recent months, and will become clearer still in the years to come. Over time, majorities in both societies may recognize that the only way to secure the future for their children is to separate out of respect rather than engage out of hatred. That realization could be accelerated by responsible, courageous leadership on both sides—should it ever emerge. In the meantime, the process can start with an international commitment to an Arab state of Palestine living alongside a Jewish state of Israel in peace and security—a promise articulated by the United States, endorsed by the Arab states and the international community, and given credibility by a concerted effort to generate a more stable order in Gaza and the West Bank. In the end, the parties to the conflict and the rest of the world may then come to see that decades of destruction, denialism, and deceit did not kill the two-state solution—but only made it stronger.

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