Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s announced support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has drawn fire from elements of her base. Many activists believe that the two-state solution is dead, and view support for it as a betrayal of Palestinian rights. They would prefer that Ocasio-Cortez advocate a one-state solution to the conflict instead. But this would position her at the fringes of political discourse, beyond the horizon of even progressive public opinion.
In the UN General Assembly, not a single country has endorsed a one-state solution. The European Union, Non-Aligned Movement, League of Arab States and Organization of the Islamic Conference all support two-states. The International Court of Justice has called for “the establishment of a Palestinian State, existing side by side with Israel.” This is also the formal policy of the Palestinian Authority and the de facto position of the Hamas administration in Gaza.
In 2014, a succession of parliaments in Europe—where support for Palestinian rights is greater than in the United States—deliberated whether or not to recognize the State of Palestine. A one-state solution did not feature in this pan-continental debate. Indeed, a two-state consensus prevailed even at its most radical, most “pro-Palestinian” pole. Across seven national parliaments, just two MPs advocated an alternative to two-states.
In the UK—reputedly a “hub” of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement—Labour Party leader and veteran Palestine solidarity campaigner Jeremy Corbyn calls for “a safe and viable Palestinian State alongside a safe and viable Israel” and affirms “the right of the State of Israel to exist.” The UK Green Party, Scottish National Party and Sinn Féin have all backed formal recognition of the State of Palestine and/or a boycott of Israel—in the service of two-states.
In the United States, a transformation in progressive opinion on Palestine enabled Bernie Sanders to break with decades of bipartisan support for Israel’s policies, for instance by condemning Israel’s settlements as “a flagrant violation of international law.” But Sanders carefully framed this criticism as deriving from his support for a “two-state solution” that would secure Israel’s “right to exist.” To do otherwise would have isolated even him.
Ocasio-Cortez is the first candidate for national office to represent a real possibility for a radical voice. She offers the left a precious opportunity to influence public debate and ultimately to shape policy in a truly progressive direction. Before demanding that she commit political suicide, activists have a responsibility to soberly examine the evidence. It is premature to seek to impose upon Ocasio-Cortez a position that has not even been debated by her constituency, especially one that is based more on group-think and posturing than on the facts.
The feasibility of a two-state solution is, in the first place, a technical question. In my edited volume Moment of Truth: Tackling Israel-Palestine’s Toughest Questions, nearly 60 experts from across the political spectrum, and including Israel’s fiercest critics, debated the prospects for ending Israel’s occupation. Authoritative assessments were presented on most of the conflict’s core issues, and then subjected to equally informed critique. A review of this evidence does not support a categorical affirmation that two-states is either alive or dead. Rather, scope remains for legitimate disagreement on this question.
The most commonly cited obstacles to a two-state solution are Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank settlements, the Palestinian refugee problem, and seemingly unwavering US support for Israeli intransigence. But as the following survey of select contributions to the book demonstrates, an informed case can be made that none of these challenges is insurmountable.
Has Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem precluded a partition of the city?
Since it incorporated an expanded East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has sought to integrate the territory into West Jerusalem so as to render a future partition impossible. But according to Daniel Seidemann, founder of the Israeli NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem and a respected authority on the city, this policy has achieved only limited success. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem “is reversible and a viable border achievable.”
Israel propagandizes about a “united Jerusalem,” but the city’s two halves are de facto separate entities. Partitioning Jerusalem in the context of a two-state solution would consecrate into law a division that already exists on the ground: where Jews now live would be annexed by Israel, and where Palestinians now live would become the capital of the State of Palestine. In such a scenario, “almost 210,000 of the roughly 212,000 Israeli Jews currently residing in East Jerusalem would cease to be settlers,” while “none of the 316,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty.” Vital infrastructures, such as electricity and water services, are either separate already or would not require separation in the context of an agreement.
Michael Dumper, an academic expert on Jerusalem based at the University of Exeter, agrees with Seidemann that “the annexation of the city is still reversible.” Rami Nasrallah, who ran the Jerusalem Affairs Department of the Palestinian Prime Minister’s office, likewise argues that Israel’s “extensive infrastructure investment” in East Jerusalem, far from precluding partition, has “exacerbated rather than eroded the divisions within the city.” Nasrallah also notes that Jerusalem’s partition is not necessarily required for a two-state solution. The late Faisal Husseini, a prominent Palestinian political figure and Palestinian Authority Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, advocated an “open-city” model that would see Jerusalem “united physically even as it is divided politically.” Jerusalem researcher Lior Lehrs reports that this “remains the official position of the Palestine Liberation Organization,” and recommends that future negotiations “examine various models along the spectrum between ‘open city’ and ‘closed’.”
Have the settlements made a two-state solution impossible?
It is often imagined that Israel’s illegal settlements have consumed most of the West Bank, and furthermore that a two-state solution would require that every one of Israel’s 600,000 settlers be evacuated. But an important exchange between Shaul Arieli and Jan de Jong—expert advisers on the settlements issue to successive Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, respectively—refutes both these premises.
The vast majority of Israel’s settlers are concentrated in a handful of large settlements located close to the pre-June 1967 border. These settlement blocs take up just 4-5 percent of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Arieli argues that a reciprocal exchange of territory between Israel and Palestine amounting to 3-4 percent of the OPT would permit the establishment of a Palestinian state on territory equivalent in size to 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, while enabling Israel to annex more than four-fifths of its settlers.
Arieli’s land swap percentages may sound trivial. Justice is measured not in abstract percentages, however, but in concrete implications for Palestinian self-determination. Thus, whereas East Jerusalem comprises less than 1 percent of the OPT, a Palestinian state is inconceivable without it. De Jong criticizes Arieli’s proposal as entailing excessive harm to Palestinian contiguity and socioeconomic viability. He favours a land swap of no more than 2 percent of the OPT, along the lines proposed by Palestinian negotiators in 2008.
Establishing a viable and contiguous Palestinian state would therefore require the evacuation of Israeli settlers from all but 2-4 percent of the West Bank. In this scenario, between 125,000 (Arieli) and 250,000 (de Jong) illegal Israeli settlers would have to be uprooted. This is doubtless a formidable obstacle to overcome. But Arieli points to evidence that settler resistance is likely to be minimal, while, if few Israelis would now support a mass evacuation, this might simply reflect the current absence of a Palestinian movement able to impose significant costs on Israel’s occupation.
The upshot is, Israel’s illegal settlements have not rendered a two-state solution physically impossible, while the political options for inducing Israel to evacuate the required 20-40 percent of its settler population have yet to be exhausted.
Are Palestinian refugee rights incompatible with a two-state solution?
The refugees’ internationally validated right of return is a central component of the Palestinian struggle, which any resolution of the conflict will need to address. But the book does not include a chapter on it, because little concrete debate has unfolded about its practical implementation. Pending the formulation of a detailed proposal for realising Palestinian refugee rights, it would seem reasonable for Ocasio-Cortez to withhold judgement.
Is the United States an insuperable obstacle?
The United States has consistently shielded Israel’s occupation from international sanction. Securing Israel’s agreement to a two-state solution would require that the US exert serious pressure to overcome Israel’s recalcitrance or, at the very least, that it allow others to do so. A chapter by leading Israel-Palestine scholar Norman G. Finkelstein considers what conditions might induce such a policy shift. On the basis of President Jimmy Carter’s brokering of Israel-Egypt peace in 1979, Finkelstein concludes that “the amount of force a US administration will bring to bear on Israel is the resultant of two vectors: (1) How vital is the US interest at stake, and (2) How legitimate is Israel’s demurral, for that will determine how effective a public campaign the administration can mount in the face of the lobby’s opposition.” In the case at hand, “Washington will only force Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Palestinian Territory if and when a vital US interest is at stake.”
As the Gulf states align with Israel against Iran, and when the “Palestinian cause no longer reverberates in the Arab world,” this finding poses a daunting challenge to the Palestinians. William B. Quandt, an eminent professor who also served on Carter’s National Security Council, observes in response to Finkelstein that, “it is unlikely that any future president will follow Carter’s example” in pressuring Israel to relinquish occupied territory. But Finkelstein espies a sliver of hope in the Palestinian struggle’s continued global resonance. “If Palestinians can organize mass nonviolent resistance, and mobilize their reserves of support abroad, around a platform firmly anchored in international law and indefeasible principles of justice,” he predicts, “it can capture the imagination of public opinion and galvanize it into action, make life unbearable for the illegal Jewish settlers, and compel the US—shamed in its isolation, outed in its hypocrisy—to either lay down the law with Israel or abstain from sabotaging international action to budge it.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unprecedented victory has inspired a new generation of young people who demand radical change, if only because their future is now so bleak. She will also be in a position to give voice to the victims of US foreign policy, not least the Palestinian people. It would verge on criminal to saddle her with a position that dooms her to political irrelevance, especially as it’s not born of necessity (sometimes principled isolation is the only conscionable option) but instead of ill-informed sloganeering. Close scrutiny of the facts suggests that Ocasio-Cortez can join such stalwarts of Palestinian rights as the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn in fighting the good fight while still reaching broad swaths of actual or potential public opinion.