A comprehensive solution is not feasible

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As an agreed outcome to the conflict, the two-state solution has not been a genuine option for very long. The Palestine Liberation Organization could conceivably be said to have accepted it back in the late 1980s, but only about a decade has passed since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush became the first Israeli and American leaders, respectively, to officially embrace it. Older solutions, such as one state and a variety of schemes involving Jordan, actually have much more "seniority".

So in terms of the number of years devoted to trying to make it work, the two-state solution is still young. Yet that does not mean it is necessarily still feasible. Between settlement spread on the one hand and, on the other, repeated Palestinian insistence on totally unacceptable formulae for the right of return and the holy places, growing numbers of Israelis, Arabs and others are already pronouncing the two-state solution unachievable. Moreover, unless the current Palestinian reconciliation talks surprise us by succeeding in reuniting the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the best we might conceivably be looking at is, in effect, a three-state solution.

In purely philosophical terms, we might never be able to pronounce the two-state solution "not feasible": it just depends how high a price either side is persuaded, under severe duress, to pay. For Israelis, this would mean dealing with tens of thousands of displaced settlers and their supporters; for Palestinians, risking the fury of millions of disappointed refugees. In this sense, the one irreversible truth in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that, in the long term, nothing is irreversible.

Still, in practical terms, the real purpose of asking how and when we "know" that the two-state solution is no longer feasible should actually be to inquire as to when we are so disheartened over its prospects that we apply our energies to an alternative road to settling or at least alleviating the conflict? In other words, when is the two-state solution as we have come to describe it–the comprehensive end-of-conflict, end-of-claims agreement that resolves all outstanding differences as posited by the Oslo Declaration of Principles–so unlikely in the foreseeable future that we should be seriously discussing alternatives?

That time is now. In recent years, we have been moving away from a comprehensive two-state solution. Two serious efforts at the highest level have failed, in 2000 and 2008, the latter freezing the peace process as we know it. The Arab world is overwhelmed by revolution and the rise of political Islam. The PLO-Hamas split is still not resolved. Settlements are proliferating, while pressures against compromising or even seriously negotiating are high within both Fateh and the Netanyahu government. All this should be understood as a mandate to lay the Oslo model to rest and look for a new format for dealing with the conflict.

The year 2012, by the way, is a good time to be looking for alternatives. The Obama administration’s decision not to sponsor any sort of politically risky process until after US presidential elections gives us a kind of respite, or pause, that should be exploited for rethinking Oslo and the comprehensive two-state solution.

The most obvious direction the rethinking process should adopt–taking PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ appeal to the international community for state recognition as a point of departure–is a partial, territorial solution whereby the United Nations recognizes a Palestinian state and sets the two sides the immediate task of negotiating borders, aspects of sovereignty and security, and two mutually-recognized capitals in Jerusalem. Resolving the territorial conflict on a state-to-state basis could go a long way toward stabilizing the situation, even if resolution of the stubborn "narrative" issues of holy places and the right of return may never be achieved.

Additional issues that might be reconsidered include "three states or two", i.e., the feasibility and advisability of reuniting Gaza/Hamas with the West Bank/Fateh; engaging the Hamas option of a long-term ceasefire or armistice; the possibility of large numbers of Jewish settlers remaining in a West Bank-based Palestinian state as a counter-balance to Israel’s large Palestinian Arab population; and resolution of thorny territorial issues through long-term leasing rather than out-and-out transfer of sovereignty.

Discussing options like these is where we should be. Yet we–Israel, the Palestinians and the international community–are not seriously engaging in any sort of reevaluation process of the kind envisaged here. Virtually everyone seems to understand that Oslo has reached the end of the road, yet no one is doing anything about it. That, and not the abstract discussion of whether a two-state solution is still feasible, is the real problem.

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