Too Late for Two States: The Benefits of Pivoting to a One-state Solution for Israel and Palestine

As a result of the 70-year conflict between Israel and Palestine, the United States should reconsider its support for a two-state solution and instead pivot to a one-state solution. Policymakers have assumed that deep hatreds can only be settled through separation. However, this policy has caused a stalemate and does not take into account fluctuating developments in the region. A more adaptive strategy is necessary. Using theories of ripeness and conflict mediation, this bold flip in policy can pave the path towards lasting peace. Exercising the instability created from Syria’s civil war, the United States. can ripen the Israel-Palestine conflict by exposing the mutual security benefits gained from uniting against a common enemy: ISIS. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria offers the parties a unique opportunity for peace as a rallying cause. As a close ally of Israel, the United States is in the ideal position to lead mediations centering around talks of permanent ceasefires, economic integration, and eventually political power sharing of a unified, binational state. In conjunction with Qatar acting as the Arab broker for Palestine, the United States should leverage its power to get the parties to the table in order to create the framework for a pocket of peace in an ever-rickety Middle East.

Sama Habib
June 06, 2016


Almost everywhere one looks, tension and violence rage across the Middle East. Whether it is Iran and Saudi Arabia’s proxy war via Syria, the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, or the domestic struggles between Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government and the resentful Muslim Brotherhood, conflict permeates the region. Cue the collapse of Iraq and Syria and enter ISIS stage left. International officials are left watching as the Middle East begins to resemble a modern-day soap opera. However, the one storyline that has remained consistent is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, if the United States could take advantage of the region’s new players, they could steal the show and become the real star, instead of its haughty director.


It has been the United States’ stand that a two-state solution will ensure the greatest long-term peace for the territorial disputes between Israel and Palestine. This is based on the premise that the sectarian and religious divides are too entrenched for the different populations to coexist within one state. However, given the discontinuous nature of the territory under the current proposal for the state of Palestine, a two-state solution is doomed to fail. Would a Palestinian citizen need to pass through an entirely separate and hostile state to reach one part of her country from another? What security precautions would be taken to ensure that Palestinians traveling from Gaza to the West Bank would be safe in “foreign” Israel? Essentially, the clouds of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza, combined with persistent Palestinian attacks against Israeli security forces and civilians, along with the unrealistic territory propositions, clog any drives toward a two-state solution.

Advocates for the two-state solution claim the need to separate hostile parties. A recent RAND study estimated the economic costs and benefits of a two-state solution based on present trends, and found that over a decade with a two-state solution, Israel’s gross domestic product would be $123 billion larger than it would otherwise  be (a 5 percent increase), and that the Palestinian economy of the West Bank and Gaza would be $50 billion (49 percent) larger.1 While there are clear economic advantages to a two-state solution, the study considers the volatility of a two-state relationship and includes an estimated cost of an all-too-possible violent uprising. Such a conflict would cost Israeli GDP some $250 billion (equivalent to 10 percent), and the West Bank and Gaza $46 billion (46 percent).2 Without knowing these figures, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said that the establishment of a Palestinian state is no longer a valid matter and is not beneficial. Rather, he believes it is harmful in light of the fragmentation of Arab countries that have been established for decades and centuries, as well as ISIS’s control of areas within such countries.3

Thus, the premise of a two-state solution is damaging to the peace process itself whereas a one-state solution allows for a more preventive response to future conflicts. Moreover, if Palestine obtains statehood, any attacks against its neighbor can provide Israel with a casus belli. Without learning how to coexist with Israelis first, a two-state solution may put the region in even more peril. Any acts traced to Hamas will threaten the safety of a new state from its inauguration and cause even more grievances. Without including Hamas in the political process, the organization will continue to be a thorn in the side of both Israel and Palestine. Hamas has shown clear political clout in Gaza and has a functioning military wing to support its political agenda.4 By continuing to disregard Hamas in elections and peace negotiations, mediators are perpetuating the cycle of violence, most recently seen in the October 2015 knife intifada. This exclusion only prolongs the peace stalemate as it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to destroy Hamas, because it is so deeply rooted.5


Although the Oslo Accords purported to lay the groundwork for a new Palestinian state, in reality, neither party remained faithful to the agreement—Israeli forces redeployed to the occupied areas and in retaliation, Hamas attacked Israeli officers. Today 1.8 million Palestinians, including 1.2 million refugees, are crammed into Gaza, just 25 miles long and eight miles at its widest.6 Israeli settlers continue to move into the West Bank, and there are no signs of construction halting. Most recently, in January 2016, Israel confirmed 153 new housing constructions in several illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.7 Around 500,000 settlers currently live in more than 100 communities built since Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967.8

As a result, United States secretary of state John Kerry has openly warned Israel that without a peace deal, Israel could become “an apartheid state.”9 Although his words angered officials in Jerusalem and members of the organized Jewish community in the United States, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, among others, regularly sounds a similar warning.10 Similarly, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog declared that the two-state solution was not feasible.11 Moreover, even Prime Minister Netanyahu has acknowledged that under his leadership, a fully sovereign Palestine is simply out of the question.12 Evidently the plausibility of a two-state solution continues to decline as neither political will nor on-the-ground reality favor it. Furthermore, the Israeli leadership is well aware of the threat that a Palestinian state would bring Israel to the International Criminal Court for war crimes, a risk few Israelis are willing to take.13

Moreover, Palestinian support is divided between their own parties. For example, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is generally regarded as a weak government that deals poorly with opposing parties, such as Fatah. If given statehood status, the PA shows little promise of conducting itself according to democratic norms. It is internally divided by corruption and competition over political gains, and displays fickle leadership. A two-state solution could magnify the pre-existing flaws of PA-Fatah-Hamas relations. In 2010, Netanyahu publically acknowledged that peace cannot exist without Hamas supporting PA president Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate on its behalf. That is why Hamas’ support—if not its inclusion—in creating a solution will be imperative for the successes of any sustainable peace. These realities outline how a two-state solution begins to look more and more like opening Pandora’s box, rather than a peaceful end to the conflict. For now, Netanyahu is doing his best to sit happily on the box.


A one-state solution will not be an easy pill to swallow for either party. There are deeply rooted hatreds, mistrust, and ugly losses on both sides. Yet, should ISIS creep closer to Israel’s borders, cooperating even more closely with the Palestinian security apparatus and, indeed, Hamas will become inevitable. ISIS has already captured Palmyra in south central Syria, which poses a serious threat to Israel and the West Bank regardless of who controls it.14 Although Gazans want to see a country over a caliphate, the more probable a caliphate looks, the more they might be inclined to settle for one. Therefore, Israeli and Palestinian leadership should be concerned that ISIS is taking root among Gaza’s disillusioned youth.15

Luckily for Israel, ISIS sees Hamas members as apostates, since they place the nationalist battle for a Palestinian state before the campaign for a caliphate.16 Seeing how they could quickly become irrelevant, Hamas has arrested ISIS supporters and says that as many as 100, possibly many more, were rounded up in a recent crackdown.17 But the biggest obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the emergence of Hamas as the de facto government of the Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million Palestinians reside.18

Ironically, uniting against a common enemy might be the missing link to get these hostile parties on a road to serious peace changes and provide the ripeness needed to begin conflict resolution.


A policy of engagement would require a major mentality shift within the current administration, but it holds the highest possible return on investment in the short and long run. Israeli relations with the PA may be further strained because of a policy of engagement with Hamas, but if peace is ever to be established within the area, Israeli and Palestinian leadership must recognize the clout Hamas holds over its population. Essentially, Hamas is viewed as the political equal to the PA.19 It may be difficult for PA officials to accept this, but they stand to gain from increasing the support and loyalty of Gazans by incorporating moderate members of Hamas into the PA. Israel should work with the PA to accept engagement in order to leverage Hamas’ power over its belligerents.

The hardest test will be convincing Israel to covertly engage with Hamas and vice-versa. Israeli leadership has often referenced Hamas’s ultimate goal, as declared in its charter, to destroy the state of Israel and establish a Palestinian Arab state based on Sharia law. However, Hamas leaders are fully aware that attaining this goal is not feasible for now, and that they must first achieve domination of the Palestinian nation as a whole.20 Israel’s current policy of punishing Hamas “enough to hurt it, but not enough so that it loses control” still does not address the root causes of violence, and instead, perpetuates carnage.21 Ethical concerns aside, the “mowing the grass” method has been tried and failed, specifically in 2008, 2012, and 2014.22 However, Hamas’ medium-term political goal is to defeat rival Palestinian factions, not destroy Israel.23

Proposing security cooperation between the PA and Israel is not unrealistic. In 2009, Palestinian and Israeli forces took part in 1,297 coordinated activities, many of them against militant Palestinian groups (a 72 percent increase over the previous year).24 Together they largely disbanded the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a principal Fatah militia, attacked Islamic jihad cells, and all but eliminated Hamas’ social institutions, financial arrangements, and military activities in the West Bank.25 With United States support, a coordinated security victory against ISIS could overcome traditional fears of coexistence and pave the path towards constructive dialogue regarding a one-state solution. Beginning a dialogue with terrorists is often a necessary first step on the road toward a political settlement and an end to the violence.26


As of now, the conflict is not ripe for resolution. Ripeness theory helps us define the conditions needed for a successful mediation process. The first condition relies on the idea that parties resolve their conflict only when they are ready to do so. This is usually when the parties find themselves locked in a conflict from which they cannot escalate to victory. This deadlock is painful to both parties, such that they will then seek an alterative policy, which increases their willingness to negotiate.27 Zartman calls this the “mutually hurting stalemate.”28 If one applies this theory to Israel-Palestine, she will find this condition unmet, as neither side feels that it has more to gain by coming to the table. Civilian exhaustion is no different than it was 70 years ago; in fact, both parties have taken on even more conservative views. The current Israeli administration shows no intent to even entertain the idea of a one-state solution and instead is fixated on maintaining and even expanding its occupation.29 Israeli security forces are superior in capabilities, and may see no advantage in acquiring help from the Palestinians. Therefore, Israel has delayed any real strides in negotiations, seeing little value in joining talks and certainly less in granting Palestine statehood.

As a result, Hamas fighters have limited incentives to end their violence. Even more, Egypt’s President Sisi has cut off a steady stream of Hamas funding from tunnel smugglers, and Iran’s shifting priorities to Syria leaves Hamas in a financial chokehold.30 This threatens its ability to organize effectively and raises questions of its legitimacy among its supporters. Feeling economically captive but needing to remain relevant, Hamas will resort to violence in order to gain back supporters who see them as able to effectively destabilize Israel. Continuing actions against Israel seem to be a main factor of their popular support and without formal political representation, Hamas will be reluctant to succumb to a permanent ceasefire.

On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority, as previously explained, is losing support in its struggle for independence. Due to a lack of real and significant changes for its constituents through diplomatic processes, the PA has hardened its stance against cooperation and negotiations with Israel, instead opting for alternative routes.31 Thus, neither party feels that they can gain more by coming to the table.

The second level of ripeness occurs with the presence of a valid spokesman. The presence of strong leadership that is recognized as representative of each party and that can deliver that party’s compliance to the agreement is a necessary condition for productive negotiations to begin, or end, successfully.32 This conflict has no valid spokesperson to take steps toward mediation. Although many Arab leaders have tried to play an active role in mediating the conflict, the PA finds itself scrambling for a respectable spokesperson that the Israelis will accept. For example, Egypt has tried but was unsuccessful in passing favorable conditions for a long-term agreement.33 Likewise, the PA is exasperated by continual Western-inspired talks that include limited movement on issues such as land reform, or simply provide economic aid. In Rashid Khalidi’s words, to Palestine, the United States is Israel’s lawyer, not a mediator.34

Since neither party has an incentive to change its behavior, nor the ability to offer effective brokers, this conflict needs the last quality for ripeness: an external enticement. If ISIS continues to make gains in Syria and begins approaching Lebanon, the parties might have to reconsider their positions. ISIS would pose grave threats to Israeli security, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas. Israel would be extremely vulnerable to attacks on its borders. Instead of fighting on two fronts, alleviating threats from Hamas by engaging in talks would become necessary. ISIS would place pressure on Israel and Palestine to resolve their differences for the security of the territory, regardless of rule. The United States must highlight this to Israeli leadership and leverage its relations with Qatar to do the same for Palestine. This would allow for the beginning of talks to parallel security cooperation missions that, in turn, become the bases for trust-building needed to reenter negotiations and ensure a higher chance
of success.35


Prior to direct talks, the United States must actively engage Israel in shuttle talks using military cooperation as a premise. Ultimately, following ripeness theory, a unified military victory against ISIS could plant the seeds in Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ minds for cessation of hostilities and could establish small gains in trust-building. This would essentially create the space needed for direct talks that lead to cessation of hostilities and a preliminary agreement. The United States can create a sense of urgency to combat the impending threat of ISIS, in order to expedite the process for Israeli agreement.36 As an incentive to cooperate with the PA, the United States should offer to increase funding for Israel.

The United States should lead negotiations between the PA, Hamas, and Israel because it is the only power capable of getting Israel to the table.37 The U.S. has personal relationships with key Israeli decisionmakers and can leverage its special relationship to encourage them to cooperate. Accordingly, the United States should frame unification as a long-term security benefit in order to convince the Israelis that future military cooperation will be essential to protecting their territory. Seasoned U.S. diplomats will be eager to establish some sort of peace in the region, and the United States would happily provide the logistics, finances, and time needed for this project. A hierarchical mediation structure will be necessary as the United States leads negotiations with the help of Qatar.

Qatar’s role will be crucial as it has friendly relations with Hamas, and is thus much more likely to endorse conditions that are favorable to the people of Gaza.38 This will be a main concern for Hamas leadership and could ensure the political inclusion for which they have been waiting. Qatar should meet separately with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to encourage a unified Palestinian power-sharing stance. An agreement can help to defend the Arabs against Israeli attempts to discredit Palestinian political capacity. Securing a separate peace with Hamas will ease political hostilities and provide Hamas economic advantages, such as access to advanced capabilities. Making Hamas a stakeholder in the Palestinian political process will allow for the space needed for internal power-sharing and lead to a unified Palestinian stance in the direct talks.

In order for this to happen, Hamas must not only commit to but also convince Israel that they are willing to end their violence against Jews and Israeli leadership. A strong notion of reconciliation must be prevalent in order for Israel to reassure its citizens of this new relationship. Unification poses an opportunity for political leaders in Hamas to gain more recognition and clout by accepting positions in a unified government than continuing to play the role of a spoiler. In creating a power-sharing coalition and a single military, the territory can be better preserved against external hostilities.

Moreover, the United States can use the looming threat of ISIS to push for initial talks in a covert manner. Emphasizing the benefits to Israeli security by not having to fight both ISIS and Hamas, the United States ensures that the parties will be productive during talks and a ceasefire will become a natural solution that both parties should readily accept. As a result, the United States should take the opportunity to maneuver the conversation towards ending hostilities so that a permanent ceasefire becomes feasible. A skillful mediator should capitalize on this and begin outlining a transitional agreement towards a one-state solution, using cooperation as an example that parties have more to gain when they work together. Harnessing the support from civil society through local and regional media like Al-Jazeera, the United States and Qatar are well suited to facilitate direct talks.39

Since coordinating security is a complex state matter, a military victory can promote a sense of nationalism among the parties and their inhabitants. Convincing Israeli leadership of the plausibility of coexistence with a successful military campaign can aid in trust-building between the parties. Thus, the priorities of the agreement should be political unification. At the core of the negotiations will be setting up a joint government that includes members of all religions. Once political issues, which will surely be hairy and taxing , are outlined, a move towards refugee and social issues can be addressed in order to finally reach a comprehensive agreement. These are seemingly wide leaps from issue to issue, but with the help of a mobilized civil society supporting the mediation, the situation will ripen and allow for a natural transition to unification.

Having established both immediate security by means of a ceasefire, and long-term security through joint security sector reform, the issue of power-sharing becomes the next hurdle. Details establishing a unified political system should be reached collectively, including necessary elections and constitutional reforms to include Palestinian legal and political rights in a newfound state. These should be up to the parties but can include a wide range of possibilities, such as a confessional system or a political party system. Through constitutional reforms, the outline should address short-term justice issues, such as policing and rule of law. In addition, humanitarian and social issues, including the right of return and refugees, should be discussed on a second track so as not to overload the political agreement.40 In these parallel tracks, it will be important to identify looming deal-breakers that could jeopardize the political agreement. Control over religious sites will be controversial, but in creating a national government, compromises can be made accordingly. The United States should consider advocating international sanctions on the entire unified state if the parties fail to comply with the agreement. This will be critical to preventing the state from relapsing into hostilities.


By redirecting negotiations to a one-state solution, the United States can give the Israel-Palestine conflict a chance at peace. Encouraging cooperation, coexistence and interdependence, the United States can play a key role in a new agreement. A two-state solution has long passed its feasibility date. A one-state solution is the breakthrough this conflict has needed all along.

The security threat of ISIS advancing into Lebanon will stimulate collaboration between the parties to protect the territory of their inhabitants and eventually lead them to military cooperation. Much to Israel’s chagrin, including Hamas will be crucial to this process, as it poses the next largest security threat to Israel. Stressing that military cooperation against ISIS forces enhances the benefits and ability of Israeli and Palestinian security to work together, the United States and Qatar can steer each of the parties to come together.

A one-state solution does not aim to force populations and governments to live with those they loathe, but rather to offer them an opportunity to make peace with the enemy and ultimately lead the region into stability. It is an opportunity worth seizing should the leadership have the wisdom to see the long-term benefits of a single political, security, and business system in a unified state. A more liberal Israeli administration will be needed to grasp the economic, social, and security benefits of a one-state solution. Once they do, a Nobel Peace Prize will be at their doorstep.


1 “The Costs of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” RAND Corporation, (accessed 10 March 2016).

2 Ibid.

3 Adel Shadeed al Ray, “Two-State Solution Failed, Now What?” International Middle East Media Center, January 10, 2016.

4 Scott Wilson, “Hamas Sweeps Palestinian Elections, Complicating Peace Efforts in Mideast,” Washington Post, January 27, 2006.

5 J. Gunning, “Peace with Hamas? The Transforming Potential of Political Participation,” International Affairs, Royal Institute of International Affairs (2004), 233-55.

6 Sarah Helm, “ISIS in Gaza,” New York Review of Books, January 14, 2016.

7 “Turkey Condemns New Israeli Settlements,” World Bulletin, January 28, 2016.

8 Ibid.

9 Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon, “The Death and Life of the Two-State Solution,” Foreign Affairs, August 2015.

10 Ibid.

11 Efrat Forsher, “Report: Israel began work on 1,800 settlement homes in 2015,” Hayom Israel, February 15, 2016.

12 David Horovitz, “Netanyahu finally speaks his mind,” Times of Israel, July 13, 2014.

13 Nitsan Keidar, “What is Israel’s Official Policy on the Two State Solution?” Arutz Sheva, May 22, 2015.

14 Anne Barnard, “ISIS Fighters Seize Control of Syrian City of Palmyra, and Ancient Ruins,” New York Times, May 20, 2015.

15 Sarah Helm, “ISIS in Gaza,” New York Review of Books, January 14, 2016.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Daniel Byman, “How to Handle Hamas,” Foreign Affairs 89, no. 4 (September/October 2010), 1-6.

19 Glenn Robinson, “The Strategic Logic of Hamas’ Military Grammar,” Parameters 44, no. 4 (Winter 2014/2015), 92.

20 Eitan Shamir and Eado Hecht, “Gaza 2014: Israel’s Attrition vs Hamas’ Exhaustion,” Parameters 44, no. 4 (Winter 2014/2015), 83.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid., 82.

24 Report of the Government of Israel to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, April 13, 2010.

25 Nathan Thrall, “Our Man in Palestine,” New York Review of Books, October 14, 2010.

26 Daniel Byman, “The Decision to Begin Talks with Terrorists: Lessons for Policymakers,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 29, no. 5 (2006), 403.

27 William Zartman, “The Timing of Peace Initiatives: Hurting Stalemates and Ripe Moments,” Global Review of Ethnopolitics 1, no. 1 (September 2001), 8-18.

28 Ibid.

29 Daoud Kuttab, “Israelis Lean Right Toward One-State Solution,” Al-Monitor, August 10, 2015.

30 Diaa Hadid and Wissam Nassar, “As Egypt Floods Gaza Tunnels, Smugglers Fear an End to Their Trade,” New York Times, October 7, 2015.

31 AFP and Times of Israel staff, “PA: Palestinians to ‘Never’ Again Negotiate Directly with Israel,” Times of Israel, February 15, 2016.

32 William Zartman, “The Timing of Peace Initiatives: Hurting Stalemates and Ripe Moments,” Global Review of Ethnopolitics 1, no. 1 (September 2001), 8-18.

33 Ben Lynfield and Kim Sengupta, “Israel-Gaza conflict: Hostilities Resume as Egypt’s Mediation Fails and Ceasefire Expires,” Independent UK, July 17, 2014.

34 “US Mediation Made Israeli-Palestinian Problem Even Worse,” RT, April 29, 2013.

35 Katia Papagianni, “Mediation, Political Engagement, and Peacebuilding,” Global Governance 16 (2010), 243- 263.

36 Isak Svensson, “Who Brings Which Peace? Neutral Versus Biased Mediation and Institutional Peace Arrangements in Civil Wars,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 53, no. 3 (June 2009), 446-469.

37 Ibid.

38 Khaled Abu Toameh, “Abbas, Mashaal, emir of Qatar hold ‘positive’ talks in Doha, Palestinians report,” Jerusalem Post, August 21, 2014.

39  Celia McKeon, “Civil Society: Participating in Peace Processes,” in People Building Peace II, Paul van Tongeren, Malin Brenk, Marte Hellema and Juliette Verhoeven eds., (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005).

40 M. J. Zuckerman, “Track II Diplomacy,” Carnegie Reporter 3, no. 3 (Fall 2005).