The terrorist attack against Israel showed that the status quo in the Middle East is as dangerous as it is unsustainable. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians, based on a two-state solution, is not just a lofty diplomatic dream; it is a practical political necessity.
Hamas’s terrorist attack on October 7 has disabused many of us of our preconceived notions about the conditions for peace in the Middle East and the wider world. We are still reeling from the horrors of that day. In launching its attack, Hamas easily overcame Israel’s high-tech border security barriers without encountering any organized resistance. Its militants were able to slaughter more than 1,200 Israelis (mostly civilians) and take more than 200 hostages back to Gaza – broadcasting much of the carnage on social media.
How could this have happened? With the strongest army and the best intelligence services in the Middle East, Israel presumably tracks all terrorist activities and threats on both sides of its borders. Yet it was caught off guard by a group operating strictly from the isolated and closely monitored enclave of Gaza.
The events of October 7 shattered many illusions. Outside observers and participants alike had come to believe that the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was irresolvable, and thus only manageable. The new hope was that Israel could make peace and establish diplomatic relations with neighboring Arab countries without resolving or even paying attention to the Palestine question. Peace in the Middle East would be achieved without involving the Palestinians or creating a Palestinian state. We now know that this was an illusory goal.
In 1947, as the British Mandate for Palestine was approaching its end, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181, which sought to partition the territory into two states – one Jewish, and the other Arab. But as soon as Israel declared independence, in 1948, five neighboring Arab countries invaded, starting a war that has continued in one form or another to this day.
The options for ending the conflict have barely changed. In theory, one side could prevail by conquering all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and by expelling the defeated side. But that outcome would never pass muster with the international community in the twenty-first century. The only option, then, is for both sides to accept a compromise by establishing two states with close economic interconnections – just as the majority at the UN envisioned three-quarters of a century ago.
Since October 7, this almost-forgotten two-state solution has re-emerged in debates about ending the current war in Gaza and resolving the region’s perennial – and perennially bloody – conflict once and for all. But is this renewed interest merely an expression of desperation in the face of an insurmountable dilemma, or does it represent a serious commitment to pursuing the only – albeit extremely difficult – solution?
The two-state option was last treated seriously immediately after the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, when many thought that it might be within striking distance. But that moment ended abruptly with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli nationalist in 1995. Though there was an attempt to save the Oslo roadmap, only a shadow of it remained. After Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat made the historic mistake of believing that he could bring Israel to its knees with a terror campaign – the Second Intifada – the process was doomed.
Since then, the Oslo process has been nothing but a tragic reminder of what could have been. The solution it once offered now seems further away than ever. Under the weight of terror and occupation, and prodded along by extreme factions within their own ranks, both sides have moved increasingly toward violence and confrontation – culminating in the horrific massacre of Israeli civilians on October 7.
How might a two-state solution work now? For starters, both sides would have to accept the other’s legitimate claims. Israel cannot be asked to compromise on its security; and the Palestinians cannot be expected to renounce an independent state within secure borders, or to accept land grabs in the West Bank by Israeli settlers.
Once the war in Gaza ends, the most urgent tasks will be to develop new parameters for a revitalized peace process; to reform the dysfunctional Palestinian National Authority; and to reshuffle the Israeli leadership. If Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right government remains, any effort to restart the peace process will be dead on arrival.
Moreover, a renewed peace process will require massive military, political, and financial assistance from a credible external party. But since the region and the world have changed radically since the Oslo days, the West (the United States and the European Union) can no longer shoulder the task alone. China, too, will need to be involved. Without this wider constellation of mediators, it will not be possible to neutralize Iran’s region-wide network of radical terror-based “rejectionists.”
Only with new ideas, new personnel, a mutual willingness toward peaceful compromise, and a new “external party” that reflects current geopolitical realities will the dream of peace in the Middle East have a fresh chance. October 7 showed that the status quo in the Middle East is as dangerous as it is unsustainable. The conflict could still escalate at any time, with terrible consequences for the entire world. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not just a lofty diplomatic vision. For the sake of global peace and stability in the twenty-first century, it is a practical political necessity.
This article first appeared on Project Syndicate on December 5, 2023. We are republishing it here with kind permission.