Is the Israel-Gaza war killing the two-state solution?

The conflict has brought renewed calls for a lasting solution but pushed Israelis and Palestinians farther apart

Smoke billows over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza strip during Israeli bombardment on December 17, 2023. AFP
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The war in Gaza has emboldened Israeli hardliners to reject outright the two-state solution, long seen as the only way to end the decades-long conflict, but it has also shown that there were no concrete steps to move towards that objective even before October 7.

Now that the war has claimed the lives of thousands, the international community is refocusing its attention on the broader Palestinian-Israeli conflict, hoping to revive the goal of having two states that exist side by side in peace – a goal seemingly already defeated by Israel's continuous annexation and occupation of land.

Under the principle of two states – an unrealised goal of the Oslo Accords, which were signed in the White House in 1993 – the Palestinians would be able to establish their own country on land occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The last major push towards this goal was under US President Barack Obama. But Israel's hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also head of the country then, refused to negotiate with President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, citing the existence of the militant group Hamas.

On Saturday, Mr Netanyahu boasted about what he described as his role in undercutting Oslo. He told reporters in Tel Aviv that the accords were a “fatal mistake” and that they had allowed Hamas to develop the ability to attack Israel from Gaza.

His government has continued to reject the two-state solution since the outbreak of the war.

“Israel's government is doubling down on the rejection of the two-state solution,” said Muriel Asseburg, a scholar on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

“For Israelis, it would be more rational after the October 7 massacres to say, let us finally separate from the Palestinians.”

Last month, a survey commissioned by Israel's Mitvim Institute found that 52 per cent of Israelis support “political measures at the end of the military campaign that entails a degree of recognition of independent Palestinian sovereignty”. A quarter of Israelis favour “unilateral separation” from the Palestinians, while 27 per cent back a two-state deal if the normalisation process with Arab countries continues.

In the West Bank and Gaza, a survey conducted at the beginning of December by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that post-October 7, support for Hamas had more than tripled in the West Bank, while rising slightly in the Gaza Strip.

Despite “the lack of confidence in the seriousness” of western powers in reviving the two-state solution, support for it remained steady at 34 per cent.

Although the Mitvim Institute survey indicates sizeable support for Palestinian independence, more Israeli politicians are arguing that a deal, even a unilateral withdrawal from occupied territory similar to Gaza in 2005, could make Israel more vulnerable to large-scale militant attacks from the West Bank.

Last week, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, a perceived moderate, joined extremist politicians in playing down the possibility of a two-state solution.

A western official who was on a fact-finding mission in the Middle East told The National that his Israeli counterparts kept telling him that Israel could no longer retreat from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the essential step to achieving the two-state goal.

“They kept saying that Israel would come under attack, although their belief in their security apparatus and their technology has been shattered,” the official said during a stop in Amman.

“They don't want to admit the contradiction.”

But in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority under Mr Abbas remains keen on a two-state solution because it wants to re-amass political capital and be seen as being able to deliver for its people, the western official said.

“They want to play an interlocutor role between Hamas and the international community and regain their footing as a relevant player.”

Meanwhile, the international push for a two-state solution is not backed by concrete steps.

Despite more vocal calls by US President Joe Biden and European countries for a two-state solution, they “are not preparing concrete steps to move toward that objective”, said Ms Asseburg.

Another problem has been Israel's “step-by-step, de facto annexing more of land”, she added.

In Cairo, one of the few Arab countries with leverage over Hamas, an Egyptian official said that even if Israel agrees to work in good faith with the Palestinians and mediators to reach the two-state goal, the negotiating process is likely to take many years.

“That’s if it ever comes to fruition,” explained the official, who has direct knowledge of regional negotiations between Israel and Arab countries regarding Gaza.

The source said it would take years to rebuild the coastal enclave, especially if Israel goes ahead with its reported plan to pump seawater into Hamas’s underground tunnels, which could render farmlands in Gaza unfit for cultivation.

Updated: December 19, 2023, 4:20 AM