Half-Way There:
A History of the Two-State Solution

By Aliza Becker, Deputy Director

There is a danger of saying something so often that we forget its history. A "two-state solution”? Where did it come from?
What does it mean?

Two States Round One: 1937-1949

It’s often forgotten that the birth of Israel was in fact predicated on the notion of two states for two peoples. The United Nations voted on November 29, 1947 to establish two states, one Arab, the other Jewish, in mandatory Palestine. The sensitive nature of Jerusalem – revered by Jews, Muslims, and Christians worldwide – led the UN to call for it to be internationalized.

The leadership of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in mandatory Palestine, voted to accept the UN’s plan, a decade after rejecting the first partition proposal made by the 1937 Peel Commission, which had called for a very small Jewish state federated with an Arab state under British control. The Arabs rejected the 1947 UN partition plan, confident in their understanding that the land in question was entirely theirs, and that the surrounding Arab nations would quash the nascent Jewish state.

Israel, however, survived and gained land that it had not been granted in the original partition plan (including almost all of Jewish Jerusalem, but not the Old City), equaling some 78% of mandatory Palestine. In 1949 Israel signed a series of ceasefire agreements with the neighboring Arab countries that had taken what remained of 1947 Palestine.  The West Bank and East Jerusalem went to Jordan, the Gaza Strip to Egypt, and a small strip of territory in the north to Syria.  The agreements created armistice lines, which have since become known as the “green line.”

The 1967 War and the Beginning of the Two-State Revival
It wasn't until well after the 1967 war when Israel conquered the whole of 1947 Palestine that the two-state solution regained prominence. For years, both regional and international peace efforts bypassed the Palestinians in an attempt to achieve reconciliation between Israel and the larger Arab world. 

In the wake of the 1967 war, the UN passed Security Council Resolution 242, calling for the establishment of “a just and lasting peace in the Middle East” including the return of "territories occupied” in the West Bank, Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, and  “respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State”. The resolution was initially rejected by the PLO, both because it included recognition of Israel and because it neglected Palestinian self-determination, but was later used to legitimate the proposed borders of a Palestinian state. The reference to return of “territories” leaving out the article “the” was intentionally ambiguous leaving open the question of whether all of the territories or merely some of the territories was meant.

The notion of a two-state solution was, in fact, little mentioned until the aftermath of the 1973 war, when PLO leaders began to float the idea of recognizing Israel and establishing a provisional state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Similarly, several Israeli Knesset members and activists from the Zionist left, including Marcia Freedman, founding president of Brit Tzedek, publicly espoused the position of “two states for two peoples.” Interestingly, the first organized effort to support two states came in 1973 from the U.S.-based Breira (meaning alternative, or choice, in Hebrew), whose founders included many rabbis and Jewish professionals, a number of whom were threatened with dismissal for their “radical” politics.

The idea of two states continued to be unthinkable, however, to the majority of Israelis, Palestinians, and U.S. Jews for many more years. The 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt were very carefully crafted to avoid any semblance of supporting a sovereign Palestinian state, instead calling for a period of autonomy for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, after which an “elected self-governing authority” was to be established. The treaty with Egypt that led to the Sinai withdrawal has held to this day, but clauses referring to “the resolution of the Palestinian problem” were never implemented.

Turning Point for Two States

The real turning point – on both the international diplomatic stage, and in Israeli and Palestinian discourse – came in the course of the first Intifada, which exploded in December 1987. The fury that was unleashed in those years served for many in Israel as a wake-up call: The occupation, long considered by Israelis as “enlightened” and generally referred to as an “administration,” was politically oppressive for the Palestinian people  and corrosive of Israeli society.

As a result, there was real growth and development among Israeli peace organizations, and co-existence was pursued in new bi-national groups as well. The Palestinian leadership had begun to draft political plans which presumed equality between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators and were aimed at establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. 

These developments within the territories had a significant impact on the Tunis-based "official” PLO, which had had very little to do with the first Intifada during its first two years. In 1988 the PLO officially renounced terrorism and amended its charter, eliminating the traditional demand for one secular state in all of Palestine and replacing it with the call for a two-state solution based on the 1949 armistice lines or “green line.”

In 1993, Israel implicitly endorsed the two-state solution when it signed the Oslo Accords as a result of the first direct negotiations between Israel and the PLO. Although the Accords did not specifically call for two states, the assumption behind them was that the final status negotiations would lead to a two-state solution.

Two States Becomes the Status Quo

The ensuing 15 years have seen the idea of a two-state solution widely accepted. The establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure and peaceful Israel remains the end goal of all international diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the conflict, as well as the majority of Israelis and Palestinians. The Clinton Parameters, established in the course of negotiations in late 2000, are geared toward this resolution; the Geneva Accord, an unofficial draft agreement achieved by Israeli and Palestinian diplomats and leading intellectuals, provides the outline for a two-state solution; President Bush has said clearly that this is the goal of American diplomacy; the Arab League has twice approved the Arab Peace Initiative unanimously, calling for an end of Arab-Israeli hostilities in exchange for a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Among U.S. Jewish organizations, support for a two-state solution has been more tepid.  AIPAC reluctantly came to support two states only after it became official Israeli policy during the Oslo period, and the organization also supports the Israeli government’s call for a unified Jerusalem – a position that the Palestinian leadership has unequivocally rejected.

In February 2008 the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA) recognized the two-state solution at its national conference. JCPA is a national Jewish umbrella organization consisting of local Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRCs), the major religious denominations, and 13 prominent American Jewish organizations. The other major U.S. Jewish umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, representing fifty American Zionist groups, does not have an official position on two states.

Most of the world – although not necessarily all of the parties most closely involved in the conflict – have a consensus regarding the parameters of a viable Palestinian state and its position vis-à-vis Israel: For a two-state agreement to work, it will have to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in their entireties, allowing for certain small, negotiated adjustments, based on the 1967 borders, and the city of Jerusalem would be shared as the joint capital of both peoples. Moreover, the Palestinian refugee issue will also have to be resolved in a manner which, while acceptable to Israel, is also acceptable to the Palestinians. While some have suggested that Israel may determine the borders of the two states unilaterally, a two state solution that does not involve arriving at mutually acceptable borders for a viable Palestinian state will not in itself bring an end to the conflict.

The most recent major effort to achieve a peace agreement was launched at the Annapolis conference, in November 2007. While negotiations have resumed, the rhetoric has yet to match action on the ground that could lead the talks to substantive results.

Next Steps
In order to create a viable Palestinian state after Israel’s 41 years of systematic carving up the West Bank and East Jerusalem through settlement and road building, it will be necessary not only to have land swaps, but also to relocate many Jewish settlers living within the Green Line, and to dismantle an infrastructure that divides Palestinian communities from settlements and from one another. These are not easy steps, but as we saw in Gaza, such a scenario is possible.

Just as humans are capable of imagining and implementing policies that quash human potential, they are also capable of tremendous creativity to resolve seemingly intractable problems.  The RAND Corporation's study, The Arc: A Formal Structure for a Palestinian State, is an example of the latter. Recommendations include a high speed inter-urban rail line linking the main cities of Gaza and the West Bank and preservation of open land for agriculture, parks, and nature reserves. A companion study addresses governance, internal security, economic development, water supply, health, and education.

Ultimately, the end-game remains the very same solution which was called for in 1947: two states for two peoples. What remains now is to make bold decisions and difficult compromises. The longer the present destructive policies remain in place, the greater the damage to both sides; however, one of the unique attributes of humanity is our resilience, our ability to adapt to change.

It is unlikely, however, that our political leaders will make courageous moves unless they know they have solid support from the people. American Jewish peace activists can play that role in the U.S. by demonstrating their support for a negotiated two-state solution, allowing the next president to step up to the job upon taking office.

By choosing action over paralysis and honesty over convenient myths, we can demonstrate to the U.S. government, and through it to the peoples in the Middle East, that the time for peace is now. Israel was born as one-half of a two-state solution; we can complete the picture.

Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
11 E. Adams Street, Suite 707
Chicago, IL 60603
Phone: (312) 341-1205
Fax: (312) 341-1206


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