The Future of the Two-state Solution in the Middle East

Reviving a Fata Morgana?

US President Barack Obama is currently in the Middle East and is generally expected to canvas for a revival of the two-state solution. Bettina Marx investigates whether this concept still has a future or not

Israeli and Palestinian flag (image: AP Graphics)
Dire prospects for a two-state solution: soon after its election, the new Israeli government officially distanced itself from the vision of a Palestinian state

​​Over the course of the past decade, professing one's faith in the two-state solution has become something of a creed in European politics. Politicians recited this creed like a mantra whenever the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arose. Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, and foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, spoke out in favour of the principle in their speeches on the region.

Only the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, they argued, would guarantee the permanent, safe existence of the Jewish state and the free self-determination of the Palestinians.

But while German and European politicians were paying lip service to the concept, the two-state solution increasingly began to lose support in the Middle East itself. It has all but disappeared from the Israeli discourse on the situation. Moreover, soon after its election, the new Israeli government officially distanced itself from the vision of a Palestinian state, the establishment of which all previous governments had worked hard to prevent.

The nail in the coffin of the two-state solution?

Mustafa Barghouthi (photo: dpa)
Mustafa Barghouthi: "Because of the settlements the settlers are destroying any prospect of peace for both peoples"

​​Palestinians have quite simply lost faith in the belief that the two states will ever become reality. The Palestinian doctor and politician Mustafa Barghouthi told the American television channel CBS that his heart still wanted to believe in it, but his head told him that there was no longer any hope of an independent, viable Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. "Because of the settlements," says Barghouthi, "these settlers are destroying any prospect of peace for both peoples, a prospect that existed when two states were still a possibility."

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem and a Palestinian peace activist, wrote an article for the American Newsweek in September 2008 in which he warned that support for the two-state solution was dwindling in Palestinian society:

"Yet the 15 years of negotiations that have followed have produced little," he wrote. "The lack of progress, as well as the unmistakably expansionist reality on the ground and the growth in popularity of Hamas, have left little room for anyone seeking a positive future for Palestine."

Nusseibeh concluded that what remains is the revival of the old idea of a binational, secular, democratic state in which Jewish and Arab citizens could live side by side.

Barack Obama wants the two-state solution

Now, however, the new American president, Barack Obama, has put the two-state solution back on the agenda. The Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper is torn between hope and scepticism. Halper, a US-born professor of ethnology and co-founder of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, is optimistic that the peace process can now once again be turned around and put back on track, among other things because Obama considers the matter a high priority.

Israeli settlement (photo: AP)
Heavy burden for the peace process: George Bush did not to insist on the clearing of the large Israeli settlements in the West Bank

​​Halper believes that for the new leadership in Washington, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a prerequisite for the country's reconciliation with the Arab-Muslim world. "A few years ago, James Baker said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the epicentre of the instability that rocks the entire Muslim world," says the peace activist.

Moreover, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Immanuel, himself of Israeli origin, has declared that the USA can only address the issue of the threat of Iranian nuclear armament once the conflict in the Middle East is settled.

Despite these positive developments, he emphasises, one must not be naïve and one should not expect progress to be overly swift. "We peace activists have to be alert and examine the American peace plan very closely," advises Halper. The reason being that he is afraid that Obama might feel obliged to keep the promise made by his predecessor, George Bush, not to insist on the clearing of the large Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The West Bank, perforated like a Swiss cheese

Halper removes a map from his briefcase. "Do you see this map?" he says, unfolding it and spreading it out. "This is the only existing map of the settlement blocks. I drew it up myself. The Israeli public has never seen a map of the settlement blocks. And yet the settlement blocks are a key element in Israel's plan for the future."

Jeff Halper (photo: GNU)
Torn between hope and scepticism: the Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper

​​The map shows the West Bank, perforated like a Swiss cheese. Hundreds of settlements are scattered around the territory that it was hoped would one day become a Palestinian state. Several large settlement blocks have carved up the territory and make it impossible for the Palestinians in the West Bank to move around freely or even spread out.

"The settlement blocks have divided the West Bank into three cantons: the North, the Centre and the South," explains Halper. "In these areas, the Palestinians can hold a majority of the territory, perhaps 80 per cent. But it is not a coherent stretch of land. A state like that would not be able to survive."

Israel, he believes, would like to create so-called "Bantustans" in the West Bank, small isolated Palestinian enclaves where the Palestinians would live like the black population in South Africa during the Apartheid regime. The Palestinians and Israeli peace activists hope that Obama understands this and will try to explore new avenues that would lead to a viable two-state solution. Before it is too late.

Bettina Marx

© Deutsche Welle 2009

Bettina Marx has been the ARD's Middle East correspondent for many years.

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