The most faithful believer of all time in the viability of a two-state solution is Minister Bezalel Smotrich.
This was apparent on May 1st, when he stressed the strategic importance of Khan Al-Akhmar as a critical deciding factor in the future of the territories.
“Khan El-Akhmar won’t be evacuated because it is illegal,” he explained. “That’s not the point. Khan El-Akhmar is located in a strategic area, the Edomim area, E1, Route 1, from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. This is the area that will determine if, God forbid, there will be Arab territorial contiguity from north to south that will connect Bethlehem to Nablus, Ramallah, etc., God forbid, a terrorist state next to the state of Israel, or the opposite: Israeli Jewish territorial contiguity from Jerusalem, from east to west, which will slice that Arab territorial contiguity. That’s the reason why Arabs invest in this area, and that’s the reason why we invest there.”
Putting aside terminology that highlights Smotrich’s tendency to see Palestinian self-determination as the end of the world, few peace policy advocates could phrase the issues at stake better. These days, it can seem like the hard right appreciates the viability and power of the two-state solution more than the traditional left. Khan Al-Akhmar, Givat Hamatos, Atarot, and half a dozen other battleground building sites raise an international maelstrom each time construction permits are issued despite the fact that very few Israelis can even locate them on a map because they represent the possibility of a negotiated solution: a Palestinian state with control over its own territory and unimpeded access to East Jerusalem.
Smotrich and the ideological settler movement that he represents appear to understand this better than any political leadership on the left. The settler enterprise has failed to make significant demographic inroads deep within the West Bank. The vast majority of the Jewish population in the territories still lives in blocks immediately adjacent to the Green Line, leaving open a future border agreement that relies on land swaps. East Jerusalem neighborhoods remain predominantly Palestinian, with a growing population of residents who feel little loyalty to a state that annexed their land 56 years ago without extending them full and equal citizenship.
Given the demographic and geographic failures of the settler movement, cutting off East Jerusalem from major Palestinian cities and splitting the territory of the West Bank in half with a settler corridor are the best means that the extreme right in Israel has of preventing a future peace agreement. Their efforts in that direction indicate how much credence they give to the possibility of such an agreement.
Israeli society is exposed to a never-ending stream of skepticism about the two-state solution from the media, political echelons, and increasingly from the international community as well. After all, no good faith bilateral effort at negotiations has been attempted since 2008, Palestinian leadership is deeply divided, and Israeli leadership over the past few years has either been hamstrung by an unstable coalition or vehemently opposed to peace talks.
In light of the above, left-wing politicians make excuses for deprioritizing peace policy. Diplomats ask if there are any new, out-of-the-box options on the table. In the frustration over a stagnated peace process, originality has become more attractive than viability. The fact that the conflict has not yet been solved, however, is not evidence of some fundamental flaw in the proposed solution. It’s a straightforward failure of leadership.
There is only one real alternative to the two-state solution: a one-state reality, in which the Palestinian population is denied full citizenship and any fulfillment of national aspirations. This plan was published by Smotrich in 2017. It lays out the groundwork for “encouraged emigration” of Palestinians, and includes the right’s favorite fall-back option: Palestinians voting in Jordanian parliamentary elections, as if either of these parties has ever indicated any kind of willingness to consider an arrangement that both consider to be a danger to their own collective existence.
Smotrich’s plan for “deciding” the conflict is currently a much closer reflection of the reality on the ground than any of the policy plans supported by the pragmatic majorities in both societies. That said, its success relies upon a fundamentally unsound premise: that Palestinians will give up all national ambitions. He does acknowledge that some will resist the unilateral annexation of the territories, and proposes to deal with this militarily. In short, this is the unoriginal plan of achieving peace through conquest and the annihilation of a national identity.
As de facto annexation of the territories deepens and the levels of distrust between the populations rise with each successive round of violence, those who maintain the dream of a Jewish and democratic state can look to Smotrich for hope. While much of the political leadership of the center and left appears to have given up, he adamantly maintains that a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel is still possible. When mainstream decision-makers finally internalize that the alternative to this outcome is precisely the one-state undemocratic reality that Smotrich has openly described for us, perhaps they will find the political courage to work as hard as he does towards implementing what the settlement movement is still trying so hard to kill.
Tehila Wenger is Deputy Director of the Geneva Initiative