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2-state solution reemerges as the only way to Israel-Palestine peace

One of the most stunning consequences of the Hamas attack on Israel has been the revival of the “two-state solution” concept as a framework for ending the war in Gaza.

“Stunning” because, before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the idea of a peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel, in the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem, appeared deader than Methuselah. Although the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization enshrined the concept, decades of peace negotiations had failed. As I wrote from the West Bank in July, massive Israeli settlement and settler road expansion were creating a “one-state reality.”

Moreover, since Oct. 7, key members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government have been promoting the annexation of the West Bank and Jewish resettlement of Gaza. Meantime, Hamas supporters and pro-Palestine demonstrators around the globe demand one Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.” In other words, both sides seem to be rushing toward a one-state reality that ensures endless conflict.

Yet, according to the White House and moderate Arab leaders, the best prospect for ending the disastrous Israel-Hamas war requires offering the Palestinians a “political horizon” — which could open the door to Saudi recognition of Israel and the end of Hamas power in Gaza. “It can be done … and not years down the road, but in the near term,” President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 16.

I agree with the concept. But a bracing dose of reality about prerequisites and timing is required to prevent the two-state solution from dying a second — and final — death.

The White House is in a hurry for a Gaza deal before election season heats up. This is not just to prevent the awful humanitarian situation in Gaza from being a drag on Arab American and youthful voters. The last thing Biden needs is for the Gaza disaster to spark a wider Mideast war before Election Day.

But no two-state deal can advance beyond words so long as current Palestinian and Israeli leaders want the war to continue, and so long as there is no clear path to replacing them before it is too late.

Right now, Hamas remains the dominant force in Gaza; its leaders dug in deep below the ground and declared openly they seek the end of Israel. With 1.8 million Gazans driven from their homes by Israeli bombs and struggling to survive without food, water or shelter, there is little short-term prospect for new leadership in Gaza.

Netanyahu opposes any viable variant of a Palestinian state — a stand he has taken his entire career. In 1996 — in an interview before he began his first term as prime minister — Netanyahu told me a Palestinian state would lack most of the elements of a normal, sovereign state beyond passports, an anthem and stamps. That is basically the position he has taken since, using the phrase “state-minus.”

Equally dangerous, messianic and extreme nationalist Israeli cabinet ministers are agitating to drive Palestinians out of Gaza and bring Israeli settlers back in. Thousands of far-right activists attended a conference in Jerusalem last week urging “voluntary emigration” of Palestinian civilians from Gaza. Ministers made clear that means forcing Palestinians to leave, a goal advanced by the massive Israeli bombing in Gaza, including the razing of whole neighborhoods after Hamas tunnels have been destroyed.

If these firebrands are allowed to proceed unchecked, the danger extends far beyond Gaza. One of the most frightening prospects is that they would organize violent provocations at contested holy sites such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, known as the Temple Mount to Jews. That would provoke anti-Israel violence across the Muslim world.

Yet, Netanyahu will not fire his radical ministers because they could bring down his coalition government. Indeed, he has every incentive to extend the latest war between Israel and Hamas, since, if it ends, he will be under pressure to call new elections. Polls show 80% of Israelis believe he must shoulder the blame for the Hamas attack.

So before talking up the two-state solution, the White House must squeeze Netanyahu harder to halt Israeli government efforts to cement a one-state reality by annexation and ethnic cleansing. Biden’s executive order sanctioning four West Bank settlers who have committed violence against Palestinians is an embarrassing slap on the wrist. Nor does it affect the many U.S. citizen settlers who have joined violent settler youth.

The administration is on the right track in pushing for a weekslong “humanitarian pause” in Gaza, during which more Israeli hostages would be released and, supposedly, massive humanitarian aid delivered to civilians. Ideally, this pause would pave the way to a broader political solution, including a “political horizon” for Palestinians.

The pause won’t work, however, unless Israel is forced to end its continued blockage of aid by delaying it at the border. Nor can the White House afford to let terrorism charges against a dozen U.N. aid workers prevent food aid that is vital to preventing famine in Gaza.

Without these building blocks in place — a hostage deal, a long humanitarian pause, and delivery of aid, combined with real pressure on Netanyahu to reign in messianic extremists — no Palestinian “political horizon” can even be considered. Yet, without a two-state prospect, the war in Gaza will continue, with Israel getting sucked into reoccupying the strip indefinitely.

Perhaps U.S. pressure will cause Netanyahu’s government to collapse and lead to new elections, which are in Israel’s best interest. Or it might push him to fire his dangerous ministers and strive for a true coalition government. But if the Israeli leader stonewalls, Jerusalem is headed toward a one-state reality that will cause disaster for Israelis, Palestinians and the region in the months and years ahead.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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