The Two-State Mirage

How to Break the Cycle of Violence in a One-State Reality

Israel’s devastating response to Hamas’s shocking October 7 attack has produced a humanitarian catastrophe. During the first 100 days of war alone, Israel dropped the kiloton equivalent of three nuclear bombs on the Gaza Strip, killing some 24,000 Palestinians, including more than 10,000 children; wounding tens of thousands more; destroying or damaging 70 percent of Gaza’s homes; and displacing 1.9 million people—about 85 percent of the territory’s inhabitants. By this point, an estimated 400,000 Gazans were at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations, and infectious disease was spreading rapidly. During the same period in the West Bank, hundreds of Palestinians were killed by Israeli settlers or Israeli troops, and more than 3,000 Palestinians were arrested, many without charges.

Almost from the outset, it was clear that Israel did not have an endgame for its war in Gaza, prompting the United States to fall back on a familiar formula. On October 29, just as Israel’s ground invasion was getting underway, U.S. President Joe Biden said, “There has to be a vision for what comes next. And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution.” Three weeks later, after the extraordinary devastation of northern Gaza, the president said again, “I don’t think it ultimately ends until there is a two-state solution.” And on January 9, after more than three months of war, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took up the refrain again, telling the Israeli government that a lasting solution “can only come through a regional approach that includes a pathway to a Palestinian state.”

These calls to revive the two-state solution may come from good intentions. For years, a two-state solution has been the avowed goal of U.S.-led diplomacy, and it is still widely seen as the only arrangement that could plausibly meet the national aspirations of two peoples living in a single land. Establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel is also the principal demand of most Arab and Western governments, as well as the United Nations and other international bodies. U.S. officials have therefore fallen back on the rhetoric and concepts of previous decades to find some silver lining in the carnage. With the unspeakable horrors of the October 7 attack and of the ongoing war on Gaza making clear that the status quo is unsustainable, they argue that there is now a window to achieve a larger settlement: Washington can both push the Israelis and the Palestinians to finally embrace the elusive goal of two states coexisting peacefully side by side and at the same time secure normalization between Israel and the Arab world.

But the idea of a Palestinian state emerging from the rubble of Gaza has no basis in reality. Long before October 7, it was clear that the basic elements needed for a two-state solution no longer existed. Israel had elected a right-wing government that included officials who were openly opposed to two states. The Palestinian leadership recognized by the West—the Palestinian Authority (PA)—had become deeply unpopular among Palestinians. And Israeli settlements had grown to the extent that creating a viable, contiguous Palestinian state had become almost impossible. For nearly a quarter century, there had also been no serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and no major constituency in Israeli politics supported resuming them. Hamas’s shocking attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent months-long obliteration of Gaza have only exacerbated and accelerated those trends.

The principal effect of talking again about two states is to mask a one-state reality that will almost surely become even more entrenched in the war’s aftermath. It would be good if the Israelis and the Palestinians could negotiate a peaceful division of land and people into two sovereign states. But they cannot. In repeated public statements in January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear not just that he opposes a Palestinian state but also that there will continue to be, as he put it, “full Israeli security control over all of the territory west of the Jordan [River]”—land that would include East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. In other words, Israel seems likely to continue to rule over millions of Palestinian noncitizens through an apartheid-like governance structure in which those Palestinians are denied full rights in perpetuity.

Israel’s politicians bear most of the responsibility for this grim reality as it developed over decades, aided by weak Palestinian leaders and indifferent Arab governments. But no external party shares more blame than the United States, which has enabled and defended the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. The Biden administration cannot create peace just by calling for it. But it could recognize that its rhetoric about a two-state future has failed and shift toward an approach focused on dealing with the situation as it is. This would entail making sure that Israel adheres to international law and liberal norms for all people in the territories under its control, upholding Biden’s pledge to promote “equal measures of freedom, justice, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.” Such an approach, which would bring U.S. policy more in line with its avowed aspirations, would be far more likely to protect and serve both the Israelis and the Palestinians—and support global U.S. interests.

Hamas’s horrific October 7 attack has sometimes been described as an “invasion” in which militants breached the “border” between Israel and Gaza. But there is no border between the territory and Israel, any more than there is a border between Israel and the West Bank. Borders demarcate lines of sovereignty between states—and the Palestinians do not have a state.

The Gaza Strip came under Egyptian control during the 1948 war, when the state of Israel was established. In 1967, Israel conquered Gaza, along with the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. Over the next 26 years, Israel directly governed the small, densely packed strip, introducing Jewish settlements as it did in the other territories it captured. In 1993, following the Oslo accords, Israel handed over some daily management of Gaza to the PA but retained effective domination with a permanent military presence, control over its land perimeter and airspace, and oversight of its finances and tax revenues.

Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza did not change the realities of occupation.
In 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and dismantle Israeli settlements there. But that did not change the fundamental realities of occupation. Although the Palestinians were left to determine the internal governance of the strip, Israel retained absolute power over shared boundaries, shorelines, and airspace, with Egypt policing Gaza’s sole border along the Sinai Peninsula, closely coordinating with Israel. As a result, Israel, with Egyptian assistance, controlled everything that went in or out of Gaza—food, building supplies, medicine, people.

After Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2006 and then consolidated power there in 2007, the Israeli government found it useful for the Islamist organization to police the strip indefinitely, thus leaving the Palestinians with divided leadership and defusing international pressure on Israel to negotiate. Meanwhile, Israel imposed a blockade on the territory, effectively cutting it off from the rest of the world. Hamas, in turn, significantly expanded the system of underground tunnels it had inherited from Israel to circumvent the blockade, strengthen its hold on Gaza’s economy and politics, and build its military capabilities. Episodic eruptions of conflict—usually involving rocket barrages by Hamas followed by retaliatory strikes by Israel—allowed Hamas to demonstrate its resistance credentials and Israel to show that it was “mowing the grass,” degrading Hamas’s military capabilities and infrastructure and often killing hundreds of civilians without challenging the organization’s internal control. Gaza’s young population suffered under the blockade and the intermittent violence, but Hamas maintained a lock on power.

In the years leading up to October 7, this status quo in Gaza—and the parallel administration of the West Bank by an enfeebled PA—seemed deplorable but sustainable to many observers in both the region and the West. Thus, the Biden administration could simply set aside the Palestinian issue in its push for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia; Israeli politicians could bicker over antidemocratic judicial reforms and Netanyahu’s power grabs, even as a sustained Israeli protest movement largely overlooked the government’s creeping annexation of the West Bank. The shock and outrage provoked by Hamas’s brutal attack and Israel’s extraordinary retaliation shattered that illusion, making clear that ignoring a demonstrably unjust situation was not only unsustainable but highly dangerous and that the regional order could not be remade without acknowledging the plight of the Palestinians.

As the war in Gaza has unfolded, many Israelis have argued that there can be no return to the status quo, by which they mean no cease-fire without the total “destruction” of Hamas. But the alternatives to Hamas rule that Israeli leaders have proposed are very much a continuation of the existing situation. Israel is not suddenly conquering Gaza: it never ceased controlling it, a reality that is all too present for Gazans who have suffered for 17 years under the Israeli blockade. It is more accurate to say that Israel, which has been the sovereign occupying power in Gaza for 56 years under a variety of political configurations, is once again attempting to rewrite the rules of its domination. And as the Israeli government has made clear, it has no intention of pursuing a renewed quest for a Palestinian state.

Israelis had soured on a two-state solution long before October 7. Over the past decade, the Israeli peace camp, represented by the Meretz Party, had declined electorally to the point of near elimination; in 2022, it failed to cross the electoral threshold for Knesset representation. The current Israeli government had all but disavowed a two-state outcome and included right-wing members who openly aspired to full annexation of Gaza and the West Bank. October 7 accelerated the trend. The Israeli public has overwhelmingly lost what little faith remained in a two-state outcome, as a settler movement intent on dominating all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has relentlessly risen to power.

Some would argue that those settlers wield such influence only because Netanyahu relies on them to stay in power. But the problem is much greater. Most Israelis today are similarly uninterested in either a two-state solution or a one-state solution based on equality for all residents in the territory under Israeli control; many also feel that the October 7 attack confirmed their worst fears about the Palestinians. Whether acknowledged or not, the rejection of both a two-state outcome and a single state based on equality for all leaves two possibilities: the further entrenching of Jewish supremacy and apartheid-like controls over a non-Jewish population that will soon outnumber Jewish Israelis, or the large-scale transfer of Palestinians from the land, as some Israeli cabinet ministers have openly called for.

On the Palestinian side, the stature of the PA, which has been key to Washington’s thinking about postwar Gaza, has crumbled. Along with its inability to stem Israeli policies, it is plagued by perceptions of corruption and the lack of an electoral mandate. Today, hardly any Palestinians still support PA President Mahmoud Abbas. (One poll conducted in late November during the brief cease-fire in Gaza placed his support at seven percent.) Meanwhile, Hamas’s popularity among the Palestinians, particularly in the West Bank, has risen. Recent polling shows that there is still some support for a two-state solution among the Palestinians but virtually no confidence in the United States to deliver it.

This is the stark political reality that those who push for a two-state negotiating framework will face. Neither the leadership nor the public on either side supports such a process. The facts on the ground—a vast and ever-growing Israeli security and road infrastructure designed to connect and protect Jewish settlements across the West Bank, combined with the near-complete destruction of Gaza—make a viable Palestinian state almost inconceivable. And the United States has given no sign that it is willing to exert the power necessary to overcome those obstacles.

Some now lament that October 7 struck mortal blows to both the two-state solution and a just and peaceful one-state alternative. But neither had been on offer. The main effect of the war thus far has been to lay bare and dramatically increase the injustices of a single state based on the economic, legal, and military subjugation of one group by another—a situation that violates international law and offends liberal values. This is the situation that must be confronted before the question of two states can be broached. And it is here that the United States could make a significant difference.

Instead of pushing for a two-state outcome that has almost no prospect of materializing, Washington should recognize the current reality and use its influence to enforce adherence to international laws and norms by all parties. The United States has long avoided holding Israel to those standards; the Biden administration has gone further, shielding Israel from the United States’ own laws. (In January, an investigation by The Guardian found that since 2020, the U.S. State Department had used “special mechanisms” to continue providing weapons to Israel despite a U.S. law prohibiting assistance to foreign military units involved in gross human rights violations.) That needs to change. Simply by upholding the rules-based liberal international order, Washington could do much to mitigate the darkest injustices of the present situation. Such an approach would not be about Washington dictating what the Israelis and the Palestinians should do. Rather, it is about ending the anomalous practice of using significant U.S. resources to empower behavior that the U.S. finds objectionable and that even conflicts with U.S. interests.

A rules-based approach to managing the postwar situation in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem would need to involve several components. First, the United States should abandon its refusal (at least as of this writing) to call for a cease-fire and seek an end to the war in Gaza and the return of Israeli hostages as quickly as possible. A cease-fire would stop the daily killing of hundreds of Palestinians and allow for humanitarian assistance to enter the territory, forestalling the rapid spread of famine and infectious disease. It would also end Hamas’s rocket fire at Israel, de-escalate tensions with Hezbollah on the Israeli-Lebanese border, and allow displaced Israelis to return to their border towns. And it might even lead Yemen’s Houthis to end their campaign against Red Sea shipping, which has perilously widened the war. (Both Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and members of the Houthis have said in public statements that they would stop attacks in the event of a cease-fire, and Nasrallah has asserted that attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militias would also end.)

By failing to call for a cease-fire throughout the fall of 2023 and into 2024, the Biden administration not only allowed the war to spread dangerously but also emboldened Israel’s far-right government to significantly augment its repression and destruction of Palestinian communities, including in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. If Biden is unable to demand an end to the war at a time when there is near-global unanimity on the need for a cease-fire, and a clear majority of Americans—some three in five according to a late December poll—support such a step, he will hardly be able to position the United States to provide bold leadership for the so-called day after.

But a cease-fire alone is not enough to end deeply unlawful conduct. The excesses of the war on Gaza have been so extreme that to many international observers, they have left international law in tatters. One outcome has been to isolate Washington and undermine its claim of defending international norms and the liberal international order. The fact that South Africa, one of the leaders of the global South, has accused Israel of the extraordinary charge of genocide before the International Court of Justice suggests the extent to which many parts of the world are no longer in line with Washington and its Western allies, undermining U.S. leadership in international institutions. In a preliminary ruling on January 26, the court determined that some alleged Israeli actions in Gaza plausibly constitute violations of the UN Genocide Convention. Although the court did not demand a cease-fire, it ordered a sweeping set of measures Israel must undertake to limit harm to Palestinian civilians. If Washington continues unconditional support for Israel in Gaza without demanding adherence to those measures, it may appear even more complicit in the war. It is imperative that the United States support international accountability for alleged war crimes on all sides.

A cease-fire alone is not enough to end deeply unlawful conduct.
Following a cease-fire, the United States must get serious about pushing Israel to shift course. So far, U.S. policymakers’ efforts to outline a postwar plan for Gaza have been repeatedly rebuffed by Israeli officials. Israel has dismissed the idea of returning the PA to Gaza, which is a cornerstone of current U.S. strategy. Instead, Israeli politicians talk openly about restoring illegal settlements and creating a buffer zone in northern Gaza and seem intent on forcing large numbers of Palestinians out of the territory—notions that flout explicit American redlines. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s government has systematically ignored even the most anodyne requests to minimize the killing of civilians, allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid, plan for a postwar Gaza, and help rebuild the PA. Israel’s current strategy seems likely to end in either the mass expulsion of Gazans or a perpetual, costly, and violent counterinsurgency. The United States has actively opposed the former, in line with the forcefully expressed positions of its allies in Jordan and Egypt, and the latter would only be made worse the longer Israeli troops remain in Gaza. But the Biden administration has refused to impose any consequences to attempt to compel Israel to accept those demands.

To overcome Israeli intransigence, the United States must stop shielding Israel from the consequences of severe violations of international law and norms at the United Nations and other international organizations. Such a step in itself could start an essential policy debate within Israel and among the Palestinians, which could open up new possibilities. At the same time, the White House should condition further aid to Israel on adherence to U.S. law and international norms and should encourage similar efforts in Congress instead of opposing them. It should also instruct U.S. government agencies to follow the law and international rules in providing assistance to Israel rather than seeking creative ways to subvert them.

Indeed, Biden’s reluctance to tie military aid to Israel to human rights or even to U.S. law has already led to extraordinary moves by members of his own party. Consider the resolution proposed in December by Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, and 12 of his colleagues to condition supplemental military aid to Israel and Ukraine on the requirement that weapons are used in accordance with U.S. law, international humanitarian law, and the law of armed conflict. Similarly, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, proposed a resolution that would make military aid to Israel contingent on a U.S. State Department review of possible human rights violations in the war. But as has already been shown with the defeat of Sanders’s proposal in January, such efforts are unlikely to succeed without presidential leadership, especially in an election year in which congressional Democrats are reluctant to undermine the electoral prospects of their already unpopular president. Only the White House can successfully lead on this issue.

Paradoxically, the traumas experienced by the Palestinians and the Israelis since October 7 have demonstrated both the urgent need for a two-state solution and the improbability of establishing one. The White House could still try, if it were willing to use American muscle to reopen a path to a Palestinian state. But nothing in its current approach suggests it will do more than continue to offer lip service to the goal while enabling the horrific reality.

The pain and shock of war for both the Israelis and the Palestinians could propel internal reassessments—and new leadership—on both sides at a time when no other good outcome is in view. Perhaps Biden may be able to rally Arab states to normalize relations with Israel, as the White House so desperately wants, on the condition that Israel agree to a two-state process. But few Palestinians, or other parties that might be involved in such a plan, seem likely to trust U.S. leadership, given the administration’s record during and preceding the war. American credibility in the Middle East is at an all-time low.

At this juncture, any two-state initiative would need to deliver concrete, upfront results to have even a chance of success. Those tangible benefits would need to be weighted more heavily toward the Palestinians, given the extremity of their circumstances. For example, Biden could immediately recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, commit to no longer defending Israeli settlements at the United Nations, and make military aid to Israel conditional on Israel adhering to international law and refraining from any actions that undermine a Palestinian state. The United States could also pledge to guarantee Israeli security within Israel’s internationally agreed-on borders. But it is highly unlikely that Israel would accept any of these terms, and there is nothing in Biden’s history to suggest he is capable of applying the necessary pressure to carry them out.

Advocates of a renewed push for a two-state solution will claim that it is the most realistic option. It manifestly is not. No matter how the war in Gaza ends, it is improbable that a two-state solution—or an equitable one-state solution, for that matter—will be on offer. Indeed, there is no immediate path forward without first coming to terms with the darker one-state reality that Israel has consolidated. U.S. policy, therefore, should be centered not on implausible efforts to revive talks of unachievable outcomes but on forcefully spelling out the legal and human rights standards it expects to be met. Washington can use its power to oppose conditions and policies it will not support, whether that is the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, the continued seizure of Palestinian land in the West Bank, or the continuation and deepening of an apartheid-like system of military administration in Palestinian areas. Those limits must be made clear, and they must be enforced. The United States should back international justice mechanisms and accountability for war crimes by all parties. It should demand adherence to international human rights law and norms in the treatment of all people under Israel’s effective control, whether or not they are Israeli citizens. And it must refuse to continue business as usual with any government that violates these standards.

In setting concrete legal boundaries for the present situation, the United States would regain some of the credibility it has lost in the Middle East and the global South. By bringing the current reality more in line with international law, Washington could begin to create the conditions in which a better political landscape could one day emerge. It’s time for the U.S. government to take responsibility for the failed approach that has led to this devastating war. Decades of exempting Israel from international standards while pursuing empty and toothless talk of an unattainable two-state future has severely undermined the United States’ standing in the world. Washington should stop using its power to enable blatant violations of international rights and norms. Until it does so, a profoundly unjust and illiberal status quo will continue, and the United States will be perpetuating the problem rather than solving it.

Check Also

Iraq Needs a New Kind of Partnership With the United States

The Path to Sustainable Cooperation Two decades ago, the United States assisted the Iraqi people …