"Two states, living side by side in peace and security." This, in the words of President Barack Obama, is the solution to the century-long conflict between Jews and Palestinian Arabs in the Middle East. Washington is fully and determinedly on board. So are the Europeans. The UN and the "international community" vociferously agree. Successive governments of the state of Israel have shown their support for the idea. So far, there is—just as there has always been—only one holdout.
The story begins a long time ago. In April 1920, the newly formed League of Nations appointed Britain as the mandatory power in Palestine. The British were committed, via the Balfour Declaration, to facilitating the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. But they were repeatedly confronted with violent Arab opposition, which they just as repeatedly tried to appease. As early as March 1921, they severed the vast and sparsely populated territory east of the Jordan River ("Transjordan") from the prospective Jewish national home and made Abdullah, the emir of Mecca, its effective ruler. In 1922 and 1930, two British White Papers limited Jewish immigration to Palestine and imposed harsh restrictions on land sales to Jews.
But the violence mounted, and in July 1937 it reaped its greatest reward when a British commission of inquiry, headed by Lord Peel, recommended repudiating the terms of the mandate altogether. In its stead, the commission now proposed a two-state solution: the partitioning of Palestine into an Arab state, united with Transjordan, that would occupy some 85 percent of the mandate territory west of the Jordan river, and a Jewish state in the remainder. "Half a loaf is better than no bread," the commission wrote in its report, hoping that "on reflection both parties will come to realize that the drawbacks of partition are outweighed by its advantages."
But partition did not happen. While the Zionist leadership gave the plan its halfhearted support, Arab governments and the Palestinian Arab leadership (with the sole exception of Abdullah, who viewed partition as a steppingstone to the vast Arab empire he was striving to create) dismissed it out of hand.
The same thing happened in November 1947 when, in the face of the imminent expiration of the British mandate, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine. Rejecting the plan altogether, the Arab nations attempted to gain the whole by destroying the state of Israel at birth. This time, however, Arab violence backfired. In the ensuing war, not only did Israel confirm its sovereign independence and assert control over somewhat wider territories than those assigned to it by the UN, but the Palestinian Arab community was profoundly shattered, with about half of its members fleeing to other parts of Palestine and to neighboring Arab states.
But the results hardly won the Arabs over to the merits of the two-state solution. Rather, the Arab states continued to manipulate the Palestinian cause to their own several ends. Neither Egypt nor Jordan permitted Palestinian self-determination in the parts of Palestine they had occupied during the 1948 war. Jordan annexed the West Bank in April 1950, while Egypt kept the Gaza Strip under oppressive military rule. No new Palestinian leadership was allowed to emerge. Only after the conquest of these territories by Israel during the June 1967 Six-Day war, and the passage five months later of UN Security Council Resolution 242, would their political future become a question of the first order.
At the time, though, nobody envisaged a return to the two-state solution. To the contrary: Palestinian nationhood was rejected by the entire international community, including the western democracies, the Soviet Union (then the foremost supporter of radical Arabism), and the Arab world itself (as late as 1974, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad openly referred to Palestine as "a basic part of southern Syria"). Instead, under Resolutions 242's "land for peace" terms, it was assumed that any territories evacuated by Israel would be returned to their pre-1967 Arab occupiers: Gaza to Egypt, and the West Bank to Jordan. The resolution did not even mention the Palestinians by name, affirming instead the necessity "for achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem"—a clause that applied not just to Arabs but to the hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab states following the 1948 war.
What, then, about the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), established in 1964 at the initiative of Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser? Through a sustained terror campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most notably including the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the September 1972 Munich Olympics, the PLO would gradually establish itself as a key international player. In October 1974 it was designated by the Arab League as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people, and in the following month PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat became the first non-state leader ever to address the UN General Assembly. Soon afterward, the UN granted observer status to the PLO despite that organization's open commitment to the destruction of Israel, a UN member state; within a few years, it was allowed to open offices in most west European capitals.
The PLO's ascendance, coupled with Jordan's renunciation of its claim to the West Bank, led to a reinterpretation of Resolution 242 as in fact implying a two-state solution: namely, Israel and a Palestinian state governed by the PLO in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Conveniently ignored was one glaring fact: the PLO rejected any such solution. In June 1974, the organization adopted a "phased strategy," according to whose terms it would seize whatever territory Israel was prepared or compelled to cede and use it as a springboard for further territorial gains until achieving, in its phrase, the "complete liberation of Palestine."
It is true that, in November 1988, more than two decades after the passage of 242, the PLO made a pretense of accepting the resolution; but this was little more than a ploy to open a dialogue with Washington. Shortly after that move, Salah Khalaf, Arafat's second-in-command (better known by his nom de guerre of Abu Iyad), declared: "The establishment of a Palestinian state on any part of Palestine is but a step toward the whole of Palestine." Two years later, following the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait (which the PLO endorsed), he reiterated the point at a public rally in Amman, pledging "to liberate Palestine inch by inch from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river."
Despite all this, Israel's Labor government, which had backed the "land for peace" formula in the immediate wake of the 1967 war, decided to enter into its own peace negotiations with the PLO. In 1993 it signed the "Oslo Accords" providing for Palestinian self-rule in the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip for a transitional period not to exceed five years, during which time Israel and the Palestinians would negotiate a permanent settlement. Although the Oslo accords were not based explicitly on a two-state solution, they signaled an implicit Israeli readiness to acquiesce in the establishment of a Palestinian state.
But once again the PLO had other plans. In its judgment, the Oslo "peace process" offered a path not to a two-state but to a one-state solution. Arafat admitted as much five days before signing the accords in Washington when he told an Israeli journalist that "In the future, Israel and Palestine will be one united state in which Israelis and Palestinians will live together"—that is, Israel would cease to exist. And even as he shook Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's hand on the White House lawn, Arafat was assuring the Palestinians in a pre-recorded Arabic-language message that the agreement was merely an implementation of the PLO's phased strategy.
The next ten years offered a recapitulation, over and over again, of the same story. In addressing Israeli or Western audiences, Arafat would laud the "peace" he had signed with "my partner Yitzhak Rabin." To his Palestinian constituents, he depicted the accords as transient arrangements required by the needs of the moment, made constant allusion to the "phased strategy," and repeatedly insisted on the "right of return," a euphemism for Israel's destruction through demographic subversion.
And that was the least of it. Further discrediting the idea of "two states living side by side in peace and security," Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) launched a sustained campaign of racial hatred and political incitement. Israelis, and Jews more generally, were portrayed as the source of all evil and responsible for every problem, real or imagined, in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians were indoctrinated in the illegitimacy of the state of Israel and the lack of any Jewish connection to the land, supplemented with tales of Israeli plots to corrupt and ruin them.
Nor did it stop there. Embracing violence as the defining characteristic of his rule, Arafat set out to build an extensive terrorist infrastructure in the territories—in flagrant violation of the accords and in total defiance of the overriding official reason for his presence there: namely, to lay the groundwork for Palestinian independence. Israeli concessions had no effect, or worse. In 1997, Jerusalem gave the PA full control over virtually the entire Arab population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as some 40 percent of the land, as a prelude to final-status negotiations. But Israel's civilian casualties only mounted. At the American-convened peace summit in Camp David (July 2000), Ehud Barak offered Arafat a complete end to the Israeli presence, ceding virtually the entire territory of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the nascent Palestinian state and making breathtaking concessions with respect to Jerusalem. Arafat's response was war, at a level of local violence unmatched in scope and intensity since the attempt to abort the creation of a Jewish state in 1948.
Although it had become abundantly evident by then that the PLO had no interest whatsoever in statehood, the international community responded by condemning Israel's defensive measures against the Palestinian intifada and urging it to accelerate the "peace process." It also maintained the massive influx of international aid to the Palestinian Authority, making the Palestinians the largest recipients of foreign aid per-capita in the world—though most of the funds were promptly siphoned off to the personal bank accounts of Arafat and his cronies and/or channeled to terror operations. Even after Arafat's death in late 2004 and the landslide victory of the militant Islamist group Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections twelve months later, Western governments insistently maintained the façade of a "peace process," now embracing Mahmoud Abbas and his defeated Fatah as the epitome of moderation.
But is there in fact a fundamental distinction between Hamas and Fatah when it comes to a two-state solution? Neither faction formally accepts Israel's right to exist; both are formally committed to its eventual destruction. Moreover, for all the admittedly sharp differences between Arafat and his successor Abbas both in personality and in political style, the two are warp and woof of the same dogmatic PLO fabric.
In a televised speech on May 15, 2005, Abbas described the establishment of Israel as an unprecedented historic injustice and vowed his unwavering resolve never to accept it. Two-and-a-half years later, at a U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, he rejected Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's proposal of a Palestinian Arab state in 97 percent of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip, and categorically dismissed the request to recognize Israel as a Jewish state alongside the would-be Palestinian state, insisting instead on full implementation of the "right of return."
In June 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke with longstanding Likud precept by publicly accepting a two-state solution and agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state, provided the Palestinian leadership responded in kind and recognized Israel's Jewish nature. The Arab world exploded in rage. Egyptian President Husni Mubarak, whose country had been at peace with the Jewish state for 30 years, deplored Netanyahu's statement as "scuppering the possibilities for peace." Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat warned that Netanyahu "will have to wait 1,000 years before he finds one Palestinian who will go along with him."
At Fatah's sixth general congress, convened in Bethlehem in August last year, the delegates reaffirmed their longstanding commitment to "armed struggle" as "a strategy, not a tactic . . . . This struggle will not stop until the Zionist entity is eliminated and Palestine is liberated." More recently, even as Abbas has publicly mouthed the Obama formula for "two states living side by side in peace and security," he pointedly insists on preconditions impossible for Israel to accept.
The Peel Commission had the principle right. While a two-state solution "offers neither party all it wants, it offers each what it wants most, namely, freedom and security." It is a great historical irony that this "half-a-loaf" solution should have been repeatedly advanced as a response by others—Europeans, Americans, Israelis—to the actions of its most implacable opponents, who have then repeatedly proceeded to repudiate it in word and deed. On the Palestinian side, not a single leader has ever evinced any true liking for the idea or acted in a way signifying an unqualified embrace of it. The same is true, with the partial exceptions of Egypt and Jordan, for the larger Arab world.
Nearly two decades and thousands of deaths after the launch of the "peace process," one might hope that Western policy makers would at last begin to take the measure of what the Palestinian leadership tells its own people and wider Arab audiences. For the lesson of history remains: so long as things on the Arab side are permitted, or encouraged, to remain as they are, there will be no two-state solution, and therefore no solution at all.
Efraim Karsh, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and author most recently of Palestine Betrayed (Yale), is professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College, University of London.