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Is the two-state solution just a pipe dream?

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A Jewish settlement in the West Bank. (Hadas Parush/Flash90 photo)

The two-state solution: is the notion of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state co-existing side by side in peace and security still viable, or a nothing more than a pipe dream?

Will it indeed be two states for two peoples? Or does the distant future hold one state for two distinct peoples? Or, most remotely, a single country not defined by ethnicity or faith?

Those who back the notion of “two nations for two peoples” envisage an independent state of Palestine existing alongside Israel, with the countries divided along the pre-1967 border and Jerusalem as a shared capital.

Long a staple of Middle East hopes and dreams, the two-state solution has the backing of most of the international community, including the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union, Canada, Russia, the U.K. and, theoretically, the United States. (More than 70 per cent of the UN’s 193 member countries already recognize Palestine as a sovereign entity).

But in the region itself, support for two states has reached historic lows.

According to a new poll conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, only 43 per cent of Israeli Jews and Palestinians favour such a negotiated end to the conflict, a decline of nine and eight points, respectively, since 2016.

As with previous polls, the results showed that neither side believes the other will move forward in good faith.

Giving it time doesn’t seem to help: nearly three-quarters of Palestinians and 81 per cent of Israeli Jews said they don’t expect it to happen within the next five years.

Some observers have warned that time and demographics are not on Israel’s side. The UN’s Population Fund has predicted a sharp increase in Gaza’s population, from nearly two million today, to 4.8 million by 2050, outpacing that of the West Bank, where the number of Palestinians is predicted to rise from 2.9 million to 4.7 million in the next 30 years.

Based on the trends of the last five years, the number of Jewish residents in the West Bank is projected to grow to nearly 500,000 in 2020 and surpass one million by 2040.

But today, in the combined areas of Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Jews already no longer represent the majority.

As then-deputy Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert warned back in 2003, “We don’t have unlimited time. More and more Palestinians are uninterested in a negotiated two-state solution, because they want to change the essence of the conflict … to a struggle for one man, one vote.… For us, it would mean the end of the Jewish state.”

Regardless, a ballooning Palestinian population will undoubtedly put a strain on Israel, as more resources and a larger security apparatus will be needed to meet their needs and keep Israelis safe. So one would think there would be pressure on Israel to turn the two-state solution into a reality.

But first, Palestinians “need to get their house in order. They are divided,” said Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto.

The Hamas-led government in Gaza is not about to knuckle under to rival Fatah in the West Bank, so, Braun asked, will it be a two- or a three-state solution?

“That complicates matters significantly,” he argued. “Can you reach a deal with an independent West Bank? But then, Gaza is another entity. It remains an enclave that is run by a vicious terrorist organization that tortures its own people and threatens people.”

A two-state solution should encompass Gaza and the West Bank “as one unit,” argued Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s ambassador to Canada. But Israel “is not in a position to dictate the internal arrangements of Palestinian society.”

From Israel’s perspective, “the two-state solution is our position vis-à-vis final status arrangements that should be negotiated between us and the Palestinians,” he said.

Barkan is blunt about which side is stymying progress.

“We believe the PLO is not willing at this stage to enter into serious negotiations, or any negotiations with Israel, on the question (of reaching) an agreement over the implementation of the two-state solution.…

“We regret that and we are eager to enter negotiations with them whenever they are willing,” Barkan said, explaining that it is the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, with which Israel officially negotiates, not the Palestinian Authority, for a variety of legal reasons.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated his preference for a “state-minus,” which falls somewhere between one state and two.

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Under this proposal, Palestinians would get a limited degree of self-rule and, Netanyahu has hinted, symbols of statehood, such as a flag and a national anthem.

However, Jewish settlements in the territories would remain in place and be protected by the Israel Defence Forces.

Some have disparaged this as the “status-quo option,” and while it’s not Israel’s official stance, the state-minus “may very well be the position from which we come to negotiations,” Barkan said.

In the meantime, Israel waits for a move by the PLO, which is in the midst of “a generational transition,” and, of course, for the United States. “Nobody will move before we hear what the Americans will say.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has issued an opinion, of sorts, on the file, but it unleashed concern that he muddied the traditional American policy of support for a two-state solution. “I’m looking at two states and one state and I like the one that both parties like,” he said last year.

Canada’s official stance is to support policies that “contribute to the goal of a negotiated two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and address fairly and constructively the obligations and responsibilities of all parties to the conflict,” according to a government website.

Canada’s Representative Office to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah offers a slightly different wording: Ottawa aims “to uphold and promote the two-state solution by helping to establish a law-based, peaceful and prosperous (Palestinian) society that can ultimately become a state for the Palestinians, and a stable and secure neighbour for Israel.”

Even so, the governments of prime ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau have voted against a spate of anti-Israel UN resolutions that have been introduced every year by Arab states, including one that called for self-determination for Palestinians and a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 border.

Why the disconnect between policy and UN measures? Trudeau hinted at an answer at a town hall on foreign policy in 2016: “The demonization, the de-legitimization, or the double standard that’s often applied to Israel is not helping reach the two-state solution of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state alongside a peaceful, democratic Israel.”

The two-state scenario is “the only truly viable Middle East solution,” believes McGill University historian and CJN columnist Gil Troy – but only once Palestinians “get over their desire to destroy Israel and, frankly, the Jewish people – physically and conceptually.”

Palestinians, Troy said, “need to undergo a serious democratization process,” accept that Israel is a legitimate state, and “need a Nelson Mandela, not a Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas.”

At the same time, some Israeli extremists have to accept that with two states, Israel will be both more Jewish and more democratic because it will have fewer hostile Palestinians under its control, Troy said.

Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister from 1999 to 2001 and who made what were described as major concessions to then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the 2000 Camp David summit, still believes that a two-state solution is achievable. With “the right cocktail of circumstances (and) followers and leadership on both sides, it could be solved,” Barak told The CJN in a recent interview during his stop in Toronto. Indeed, 20 years after its implemented, he added bluntly, “you wouldn’t understand why the hell it took such a long time.”

JSpace Canada is also sanguine. For the progressive Zionist organization, it’s not a question of whether a two-state solution will be achieved, but when.

It will likely require another generation of Palestinian leadership to arise before the two sides can begin serious negotiations, stated JSpace Canada chair Karen Mock.

For Israel’s part, “continuing to allow settlements to expand in the West Bank makes it harder for the Palestinian side to accept adjustments and make concessions in other areas, such as Jerusalem and the ‘right of return,’ ” Mock said.

But, she added, “it is not for us in the Diaspora to suggest that Israel makes concessions that compromise its security.”

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs supports “two states for two peoples living in peace and security. We believe the only path to that outcome is direct negotiations between the two parties.”

And then there’s the map.

As reported in a recent issue of The New Yorker, maps of the West Bank circulating in the U.S. State Department typically made Jewish settlements and outposts look small compared to the areas where Palestinians lived.

But this map was different.

Vetted by U.S. intelligence and reportedly unchallenged by Israel, the map, which came to light late in President Barack Obama’s second term, showed that when the settlement zones, unauthorized outposts and other areas that are off limits to Palestinian development were consolidated, they covered almost 60 per cent of the West Bank.

Obama was reportedly shocked. To him, this was evidence that Netanyahu was not serious about achieving a Palestinian state.

“It looked like a brain tumour,” The New Yorker quoted one State Department official as saying of the splotchy map. “No matter what metric you’re using – existing blocs, new settlements, illegal outposts – you’re confronting the end of the two-state solution.”

The history of negotiations over two states is not encouraging, Prof. Braun believes, pointing to far-reaching concessions Israel has made in the past, and does not bode well for future talks.

“It’s almost a case where the Palestinian leadership has been so corrupt, so detached from the interests of their own people, that they appear to be much more interested in a kind of continuous conflict as a way of keeping power.”

The Hamas rallying cry, “From the river to the sea” – meaning the elimination of Israel – and speeches by President Abbas that deny Jewish ties to Israel, “shake one’s confidence in the notion that the Palestinians want a two-state solution,” Braun noted.

Can Israel, he wondered, “continue to play one-dimensional chess?”