The Two-State Option is Dead: Time for New Thinking

by Emile Nakhleh*

The recent suspension of the U.S.-engineered Israeli-Palestinian talks signals a much deeper reality than the immediate factors that caused it. The peace process and the two-state solution, which for years were on life support, are now dead.

It is time for the United States and the rest of the international community to stop the 20-year old quixotic effort to resurrect a dead “process” and to seriously begin exploring other avenues for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The two-state solution has been a convenient policy position that allowed negotiations to go on and on, prompted primarily by the argument that no credible alternatives existed. Many governments, diplomats, negotiators, politicians, academics, NGOs, and consultants on both sides of the Atlantic and in the region have staked their life-long careers on the two-state paradigm.

Dozens of international agreements and declarations and thousands of meetings have been held all around the globe on the so-called modalities of a two-state solution. Unfortunately, all have come to naught.

Whenever the two-state approach was questioned over the years, its defenders would quickly ask, “What’s the alternative?” and would dismiss the “one-state” suggestion and similar options as non-starters. The retort has always been that no Israeli government would dare contemplate any proposal that involves Israelis and Palestinians living together in one political entity.

Palestinian nationalists and ruling economic and political elites, who benefited from their association with the PLO power structure, whether in Ramallah or elsewhere, supported the two-state formula despite their belief that Oslo was a hollow victory that would never lead to statehood. They went along because in the view of one Palestinian at the time, “It was the only game in town.”

The Arab states that advocated this approach drew comfort from the rhetoric because it appealed to Western countries, especially the United States. Yet, these states have failed to commit the necessary resources and political capital and seriously pursue their “Arab Peace Initiative” to its intended conclusion.

Official Arab leaders’ rhetoric continued to extol their unwavering commitment to Palestine, but they gave priority to their separate national interests, which often included unofficial economic, political, and intelligence contacts with Israel.

Successive Israeli governments played a similar game. Whenever the discussions of establishing a Palestinian state got serious, they advanced new conditions and “redlines”, which made it more difficult for Palestinian leaders to accept. The entire negotiating enterprise was reduced to talks about talks, resulting in decoupling the negotiation “process” from the envisioned “peace”.

The pro-Israeli lobby in Washington has successfully erected a solid pro-Israeli stand in the United States Congress. Such support, which has always been identified with right-wing policies in Israel, has severely constrained the diplomatic flexibility of the executive branch of the U.S. government.

In lieu of a political settlement, Western countries and the United Nations provided massive aid programs to Palestinians, and Palestinian leaders and ruling elites benefited disproportionately from the largesse, resulting in newfound wealth and rampant corruption. In the absence of government accountability and transparency, it’s not clear where the huge chunks of the money went.

While rhetorically committed to a two-state solution, high-level PA officials have not been uncomfortable with this arrangement of the political status quo under Israeli occupation. So much so, in fact, that a Palestinian intellectual has described the situation as “The National Sell-out of a Homeland.”

I have supported the two-state solution for almost five decades. Based on my field research in the Occupied Territories in the late 1970s, I published a short book, “The West Bank and Gaza: Toward the Making of a Palestinian State,” which argued for the creation of a Palestinian state in those parts of Palestine.

In reaction, self-proclaimed Palestinian nationalists, including the current Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, attacked me publicly for “advocating an American position.” Some pro-Palestinian newspapers in the Gulf derisively described me as a “Palestinian American Sadatist”, a reference to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel.

Of course, 10 years later, the PLO formally supported the two-state approach and proceeded with the Oslo agreement.

Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that the two-state option is simply no longer viable. The two parties and the international community must search for other options that could accommodate the two peoples living together.

I reached this position fully cognizant of the realities on the ground — Israeli occupation, Palestinian factionalism, and rising poverty and frustration among Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel — and the lack of credible alternatives to the two-state approach.

As more and more Palestinians search for alternatives, they are transforming their confrontation with the Israeli occupation and anti-Arab discrimination in Israel to a peaceful struggle for human rights, justice, and economic self-sufficiency. BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) has become the global rallying cry against Israeli occupation and continued settlement construction.

Some members of the Israeli cabinet, on the other hand, have begun talking publicly about taking “unilateral actions” on the West Bank, including annexing Area C and the major settlement blocs. Meanwhile, Israeli security forces continue to enter Area A, which is nominally ruled by the PA, at their whim.

In the absence of a Palestinian state, the Israeli government will be faced with a growing Palestinian population in Gaza, the West Bank, and in Israel, which, taken together, constitutes almost 50 percent of the total population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

Perpetuating Israeli rule over half the population through military occupation and without granting them citizenship or equal rights would in the foreseeable future deprive Israel of its Jewish majority, negate its democratic political culture, and ultimately lead to apartheid-like conditions.

The international community and the two peoples should begin a serious exploration of new modalities based on justice, fairness, and equality. These could range from a unitary state to confederal arrangements that guarantee Palestinians equal rights, privileges and responsibilities. But all of them require an end to the occupation.

Some critics might consider this approach Pollyannaish, but it’s not unthinkable in light of the demonstrated failure of the two-state approach.

The work of renowned graffiti artist, “Banksy”, on the Israeli-built “separation barrier” extending across the West Bank.

*This article was first published by IPS News and was reprinted here with permission.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Your logic is impeccable; and I hope that there are workable modalities as I agree that the occupation must end.

    But my understanding is that neither side really wants a bi-national state. I certainly doubt if Palestinians want the Caroline Glick version. :)

    I am curious to know more about what you are thinking about…maybe a proposed state of Israel with a Palestinian-governed (one person one vote) province in the West Bank. Does that make any sense at all?

  2. Due to the continuous failure of negotiations for a two-state solution, many people of goodwill, such as Professor Nakhleh, have come to the conclusion that one-state solution may be more feasible. However, with the Israeli insistence to be recognized as a Jewish state, and in view of the way that Israel has been treating African immigrants and others, can one imagine how they will treat the Palestinians, especially when international public opinion has regarded the matter settled and washed its hands off the Palestinians!

    There will be no just and lasting settlement between Israel and Palestine until Washington quits arming one side to the teeth and putting pressure on the other to compromise further. The road has been long, but even now world public opinion demands the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, and US public opinion too is moving that way. After a while when hostilities between the two states have diminished it is possible that they may move towards a single state, but pushing for a one state, with all the walls, discrimination and a feeling of superiority and impunity on the part of the Israelis will only result in a number of Bantustans in a single state of Israel/Palestine.

  3. Very brave man! Gutsy & Truth, Who else can join him? Not too many are at the end of their carrier’s, because they do not say the truth till the end, read all the books & comments from former Generals!

  4. Running out of feel good motions, is a bitter pill to swallow, especially for the neocons in the west and the U.S. How many times we’ve heard this song before, yet nothing is done to change it, only to give it a new paint job. Indeed, where have all those $$$Billions gone, into the pockets of those who control the purse strings. And who has been the biggest recipient and who has gotten the chump change? House cleaning time is here, unless this deadly “KABUKI”continues, even the possibility of mutually destructing the immediate area, if not the whole of the M.E. After all, what’s the sense of having all those Nuclear WMD’s unless you’re going to use them? Considering that the planners continually stir the pot in all the various countries, resulting in the killing and destruction of infrastructure, which is left to rot for eons.

  5. This is an excellent article. Maybe it is time for the Israelis and Americans- and the U.N with a unanimous voice- to recognize and acknowledge the reality of the facts on the ground and declare that the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians (which is ongoing)- or of any other population- or discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity will not be tolerated.

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