Since the Israel-Hamas war erupted in Gaza, leaders of the great and middle powers not directly involved in the armed conflict have consistently stated that the only way out is to create two states—one for the Israelis and another for the Palestinians. U.S. President Joe Biden has made this idea the mantra of his strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; leaders worldwide, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, French President Emmanuel Macron, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have echoed this idea. This choir was (and still is) so unanimous that Netanyahu’s explicit rejection of the two-state solution last week has sparked widespread expressions of apparent surprise and even outrage. However, such reactions are themselves surprising: The Israeli prime minister could be charged with various misdeeds, but no one can accuse him of inconsistency regarding a position that he has steadily upheld since the signing of the first Oslo Accord in 1993.
At that time, the Israeli parliament narrowly approved these accords after a bitter debate and faced eruptions of violence, the most famous victim of which was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin—killed by a Jewish extremist in 1995. But the undeniable sign that the political will to create two states was lacking was the exponential growth of the colonization of the West Bank: More than three-quarters
of today’s settlers there have arrived
since the Oslo Accords, progressively reducing Areas A and B (inhabited by Palestinians and partially controlled by the Palestinian Authority) to a shrinking archipelago
, surrounded by the sea of Area C (under exclusive Israeli control and forbidden to Palestinians).
Meanwhile, none of the Arab and Muslim countries that had built their legitimacy by supposedly supporting the Palestinian cause since 1948 could afford for that cause to disappear. In short, the so-called two-state solution did not die in a failed attempt to implement it; it was stillborn. And it was never a solution.
So the unanimity with which world leaders today insist on reviving it is striking. Usually, when great and middle powers make a show of unanimity, it is because they either have little (or no) interest at stake or they are powerless to do anything: They are thus free to make principled proposals that, however impractical, have the virtue of appearing simple, understandable, and reasonable.
In the present case, global and regional powers have huge interests at stake—as disruptions to shipping in the Red Sea and the growing risk of a major regional war show—suggesting that they simply don’t know what else to do.
The United States seems cornered, to the point of being unable to compel Israel to comply; China and Russia, each with varying degrees of involvement and interests, appear to be capitalizing on the situation by twisting the knife in the U.S. wound; local sponsors of the Palestinian cause wish for the cause to persist; and Europe, including Britain, has nothing to say because, since the Oslo Accords, it has been sidelined from the equation.
The undeniable reality is that the more powerless that Washington appears, the more protracted the conflict is likely to be, and this poses a global concern with the potential for increased international disorder.
In this context, the relentless appeal of the two-state solution is alarming—for two reasons: First, because the two-state hypothesis, triumphantly launched by the United States more than three decades ago, has long been considered dead and buried, and exhuming its corpse now highlights the inability of world leaders to propose—and impose—a more credible response. Second, and far more worryingly, the two-state solution, were it ever to be imposed, would certainly result in a new Nakba
, or “catastrophe,” that would make the 1948 Nakba and the one occurring today appear minor in comparison.
It would be a catastrophe, this time, not only for the Palestinians but also for the Israelis and for the entire Middle East. History provides us with eloquent—and bloody—examples to support this.
Ever since nationhood became a political goal in the 19th century, the romantic dream has almost always translated into a nightmare marked by forced assimilation or ethnic cleansing. Almost always, state apparatuses, private militias, or even willing and improvised executioners have taken this process upon themselves. From the Russian Jews starting around 1881 to Myanmar’s Rohingya in 2017, the belief that “others,” with a different language or religion, have no right to remain on “our” lands has left behind a long trail of blood that continues to lengthen before it has even had time to clot.
While there have been instances where the division of two communities into separate states stemmed from a deliberate political choice, hardly any of them can be equated to the current situation between the Palestinians and Israelis. This is mainly true because such decisions almost always applied to situations where ethnic cleansing had already occurred, either entirely (such as in Cyprus in 1974 and Kosovo in 1999) or partially (as in the case of Greece and Turkey in 1922).
The only comparable case to the scenario that many wish for Israelis and Palestinians today is the Partition of India. The shortsighted British decision to divide Muslims and Hindus in 1947 demonstrates that desk-planning the creation of two contiguous states for populations that had coexisted for decades or centuries inevitably leads to carnage on a colossal scale.
The number of people slaughtered or expelled at the time of the creation of the Indian Union and Pakistan is literally incalculable. After the Punjab—a relatively linguistically homogeneous region, but one that was home to four major religions—was Solomonically split in half between India and Pakistan, some 6.5 million Muslims and 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs were thrown out, and intercommunal butchery saw the slaughter of what is estimated
to be between 500,000 (according to the province’s governor) and 800,000 people (as the British High Commissioner in Karachi estimated) out of a total population of less than 35 million.
In Delhi, between 20,000 and 25,000 Muslims were killed
, largely by Hindu refugees who had fled Pakistan, and their share of the population fell from one-third in 1941 to 5 percent in 1951. The total numbers of murders, rapes, and other violent attacks, or of refugees forced to leave their homes, have never been accounted for because neither Indians nor Pakistanis want to acknowledge that their countries were born out of a bloodbath, much less to acknowledge their own responsibility in that carnage.
But again, besides the immense humanitarian catastrophe, the case of the 1947 partition also foreshadows the inevitable long-term fate that awaits two states separated by a bloody border: For the three-quarters of a century since then, India and Pakistan have cultivated a hostility punctuated by periodic clashes, terror attacks, and at least four official wars, exploited and exacerbated by the great powers for their own games on the international chessboard.
And were a two-state solution somehow applied to formally create the state of Palestine, it could have even more serious consequences than the Indian case. In India there was not, as there is today in the Middle East, such a long history of hostility and even mutual hatred, nurtured for decades and fueled by expulsions, deportations, humiliation, racism, revenge, indiscriminate acts of terrorism, and shameless historical falsifications, all multiplied by the exploitation of tensions by local and international powers and the growing internal tribalism within the two camps.
When political tensions erupted in Dhaka, Bangladesh, recalls Amartya Sen, then a teenager, peaceful citizens who had for years lived together in the same neighborhoods and buildings, rendering each other visits and favors, discovered that they were now exclusively Hindus or Muslims and turned “into dedicated thugs,” murdering each other “on behalf of what they respectively called ‘our people,’” he wrote in his book Identity and Violence
In the Middle East, a climate conducive to assassinations on behalf of what the killers call “our people” has been prepared and practiced for 75 years.
The horrors of the recent months have acted somehow as a catalyst for this entire history, shattering the remaining taboos: from the Oct. 7, 2023, pogrom, reminiscent in brutality to Germany’s Kristallnacht of 1938, to Israel’s indiscriminate retaliation against the people of Gaza; from the increasingly explicit proclamations of an exclusive supposed divine right of Jews over the entire land, to the resurgence of the Palestinian demand for the expulsion of all Jews from the region.
It would be naive, to say the least, to hope that Arabs with Israeli citizenship in such a climate would be allowed to remain peacefully in an ethnically pure Israel, and that Jewish settlers would be allowed to remain peacefully in an ethnically pure West Bank. Moreover, the density of the Israeli presence in the West Bank and the military protection that is offered to the settlers leaves no doubt as to the frightening dimensions that intercommunal carnage could take. The peaceful coexistence of two states born into such an ocean of blood would be unimaginable, and Israel would definitively cease to be the “safe haven” for the world’s Jews that the fathers of Zionism had dreamed of.
To assert that a partition of Israel and Palestine today could represent a model of a peaceful exchange of populations is either impudent cynicism or, more simply, a stark display of ignorance: not only because the byproduct of past partitions was the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people, but also because the population exchanges themselves led to the deaths of numerous refugees.
Beyond the toll of death and destruction, one must remember that ethnic cleansing has always
impoverished the countries involved, stripping them of irreplaceable human resources. The expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain around the 16th century triggered a prolonged economic crisis believed by some to be connected to the country’s subsequent decline. During the formation of so-called nation-states, instances of such ethnic self-mutilation became almost commonplace.
The Armenians, Greeks, and Jews—all pillars of the Ottoman Empire for centuries—were almost entirely removed from Turkish territory between 1915 and 1922, as was the Muslim population of the Balkans between 1878 and 1913. After 1945, 13 million Germans were expelled from Central and Eastern Europe—all of them carried out under the deceptive idea of establishing purported nation-states.
The tragedy in which Israelis and Palestinians are imprisoned today is exacerbated by the fact that the only
solution that external actors have proposed would simply make their situation worse, plunging them into what philosopher Thomas Hobbes called the “state of nature”—that is, a permanent “war of every man against every man.”
It remains perplexing why other potential solutions, which do exist, are neither explored nor considered. To be sure, none of these alternatives—from confederations to single-state models—could be easily implemented: All are exceedingly challenging, require long-term commitment, and entail concessions that both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are presently unwilling or unable to make. But the same challenges loom over the two-state solution, and it risks resulting in considerably more disastrous consequences both in the immediate and in the foreseeable future.
In the name of a better future for Israelis and Palestinians (or at least one that is less bad), the idea of a two-state solution should be withdrawn once and for all from the vocabulary of Middle East politics and buried in the archives of the worst—and most dangerous—political gimmicks of all time.