Study: Two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict strained

As Kerry heads to the Middle East for renewed peace talks, a European study finds prospects for peace are low

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Dec. 12, 2013.

Ahead of Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest round of peace negotiations with Israelis and Palestinians on Friday, a European think tank marshaled evidence suggesting that the realization of a two-state solution – the default negotiating position of the United States and the international community since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 – has become increasingly unlikely.

The findings, based off a Two State Stress Test (TSST) conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), were published on Wednesday. The goal was to test whether dynamics surrounding seven key indicators — including such thorny issues as Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees — were “straining or sustaining a possible two-state outcome.”

“The stress test is predicated on the idea that, without judging it – without saying it’s good or bad – there is an international consensus around the broad set of parameters of two states,” explained Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at ECFR and a former Israeli peace negotiator, who oversaw the project.

Despite the current U.S. diplomatic push, researchers found that existing obstacles, absent of any significant changes, make a final agreement unlikely — an assessment shared by many Israelis and Palestinians.

Strain or sustain

European Council on Foreign Relations

Middle East experts at ECFR collaborated with a six-person advisory committee of Palestinian, Israeli and international experts to determine the seven indicators assessed. The indicators were: territory, Jerusalem, security, refugees, diplomacy, the Israeli political debate and Palestinian political debate.

The first four indicators — considered “final-status issues” — were deferred at the beginning of the Oslo process in the hope that mutual confidence established by implementing the agreement would create conditions more conducive to resolving intractable differences, although the opposite has occurred. The latter three indicators assessed the political contexts in which the two sides approached core issues.

According to researchers, the two factors found to place the most strain on a two-state solution were the “territorial issue” and “the dynamics of the Israeli political and public debate.”

Researchers noted strain added by the decreasing physical space available to establish a territorially contiguous Palestinian state, as a result of ongoing Israeli settlement growth. They noted that as of July 2013, there were 367,000 Israeli settlers in the Israeli occupied West Bank, whereas the total had been a little over 100,000 at the beginning of the Oslo process 20 years ago.

Israeli discourse also strained the likelihood of realizing two states. Levy said the “indifference of the Israeli public” to the Palestinian issue and “a government that includes – something that is relatively new – a significant cohort opposed to two states, and who say that there are other options” has weakened the appeal of the two-state paradigm in Israel.

Palestinian public opinion also added strain, though somewhat less. While a bare majority of Palestinians still supported the two-state solution, researchers found that only 47 percent believed a deal would ever be struck.

Researchers also found that the ongoing schism between rival Palestinian polities in Gaza, run by Hamas, and the West Bank, run by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party; as well as the failure to hold national and legislative elections, made the prospect of rallying national legitimacy for any deal nearly impossible. 

Diplomatic success?

Diplomacy was the only indicator assessed by ECFR researchers to be currently sustaining a two-state solution, albeit just barely, referencing the Obama administration's efforts to keep the prospect alive.

Kerry, who has been America’s top diplomat for less than 10 months, made his ninth trip – and second in seven days – to the region this week. Despite intense diplomatic efforts, Kerry’s difficult balancing act was palpable in back-to-back press conferences held with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Dec. 5.

In public remarks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Kerry emphasized the vital role of Israel’s security in securing a peace deal, partly to win support for negotiations from skeptical leaders and the Israeli public.

Standing alongside President Abbas in Ramallah shortly after, Kerry acknowledged the difficulty of keeping Palestinians in the process altogether. They had abandoned negotiations early on in the Obama administration due to Israel’s refusal to halt settlement building.

“Let me begin by thanking President Abbas for his steadfast commitment to stay at these negotiations despite difficulties that he and the Palestinians have perceived in the process,” he said.

Still, researchers are only cautiously optimistic.

“It’s positive that we’re beginning to see an upswing in the intensity of diplomatic efforts by Kerry,” Levy said.

However, the recent flurry of diplomatic activity will struggle on its own to overcome concurrent developments on the ground, he added.

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