The White House Path to Mideast Peace Travels Through a Single State

Ryan Bohl
Middle East and North Africa Analyst, Stratfor
11 MINS READJun 25, 2019 | 17:08 GMT
Demonstrators opposed to the U.S.-led plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace march through Ramallah in the West Bank on June 24.

Palestinian demonstrators in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Ramallah carry banners during a protest against the U.S.-led Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain, June 24. The peace conference on the Palestinian economy could present Washington with a new opportunity to push Gulf allies and Israel closer together as tensions with common foe Iran rise.

  • The United States is pursuing a radically different peace plan process that increases the likelihood that there will be no Palestinian state formed in the West Bank
  • The failure to form a viable Palestinian state will have demographic, economic, social, and strategic consequences not just for the Israelis and Palestinians but neighbors like Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
  • Beyond the immediate regional consequences, the trend will also further undermine the post-war consensus that penalized attaining territory through military means, potentially inspiring aggressive imitators.

For more than a century, the quest to settle the dispute between Jews and Arabs in the Levant has led to one dead end after another. Mutual hostility between Israelis and Palestinians has defied the various approaches undertaken by successive failed peace processes to foster a firm settlement. Those proposals, including plans put forth by a succession of White House administrations, have ended up on the ash heap of history, a destination that the plan currently governing Israeli-Palestinian relations, the 1993 Oslo Accords, appears to be headed. For decades, most peace settlements have envisioned a land-for-peace framework: Israel would trade away captured territory to its Arab neighbors in exchange for peace treaties.  But while that worked most famously with Egypt in 1979, the formula has foundered when it comes to the immediate issue of the Palestinians. Divided Palestinian politics and increasingly disinterested Israeli governments have steadily undermined the popularity of "land for peace" — and today, there appears to be no going back. 

The Big PIcture

The unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict has dominated the Middle East conversation for over a century, driving major wars, terrorism and instability. Each U.S. president since Jimmy Carter in the 1970s has attempted to end the Arab-Israeli deadlock; now it’s President Donald Trump’s turn. But this administration is breaking with the traditional American diplomatic path, undermining the chances that there will ever be a Palestinian state — forcing the region's powers to adjust their strategies surrounding the Palestinian national cause.

With the demographic and political power of Israel's settlers and nationalists in ascendance, the Israelis will have little reason to give up conquered ground, especially as diplomatic compromises with Palestinian authorities yield less and less fruit. The Palestinians, for their part, are more divided than ever, with Hamas in Gaza still ideologically committed to destroying Israel but isolated in an economically crippled strip of land. Fatah in the West Bank is still technically committed to the Oslo plan, which for all practical purposes is now defunct. As other priorities have supplanted the focus of some of the states that championed the Palestinian cause, and economic and political realities have sidelined others, a path has emerged that favors a one-state answer to the Palestinian question, a sea change from more than 70 years of international efforts at creating two states.

Enter U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration is now taking its turn at solving the challenge that has bedeviled so many predecessors. This week, delegates from the Gulf Arab states and regional business interests are gathering in Bahrain to pledge economic support for Palestine — an event marking the first step of the Trump White House's much-vaunted plan to settle the decadeslong dispute between Jews and Arabs in the Levant. Although it's unlikely that the conference will produce much forward progress in settling the conflict, it does mark a step on an ever-clearer road for the future of Palestine and Israel — one that increasingly looks as if it could end with a one-state solution, albeit an incomplete and unstable solution replete with economic, security, and political consequence for Israelis, Palestinians and much of the region.

A map showing the different zones of control derived from the Oslo Accords of 1993.

As compromises continue to be heaped upon impartial solutions, the picture of the emerging one-state plan is incomplete, and what can be seen doesn't seem to make any one party entirely happy. The economic aspects of the plan, revealed on the eve of the conference, call for lowering trade barriers between the Palestinian areas and outside states, plus providing more money for education, improving border crossings and implementing a plan to increase tourism income, amongst other economically-centered platforms. But it does not include a political component, and it is not the one-state solution, for instance, preferred by some Israelis and Americans, wherein Israel controls wholly the West Bank. Nor is it the one that some Palestinians favor, in which they take back the entirety of Israel. But right now, the future looks increasingly like one that would leave Israel to dominate much of the West Bank through a steady string of annexations, with remaining Palestinian enclaves, too disconnected to form a state, left to fend for themselves.

A Return to History

In a manner, this one-state road leans back into history. The infamous single-sentenced Balfour Declaration of 1917 once envisioned a national home for the Jewish people shared by the indigenous Arabs of Palestine. "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine," Lord Balfour wrote in 1917.

In that time, Balfour's plan represented an aspirational, incomplete blueprint for a state built on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, the Trump peace plan is, at least now, just as aspirational and incomplete, erected on the ruins of the 1993 Oslo peace process, the last major, successful diplomatic push to resolve the conflict. Even some Arab leaders acknowledge the likelihood of a one-state solution, as encapsulated in a statement by Anwar Gargash, foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, who in March said, "I think the conversation in 15 years' time will be about equal rights in one state."

That reflects the changing regional sentiment, transformed by the geopolitical place of the two-state solution and the Palestinian cause in both the Middle East and the world. At one time, commitment to the goal of a separate Palestinian state was an essential plank of legitimacy for many Arab leaders. Israel served as a boogeyman to distract domestic audiences from state failures or strategic setbacks. But after decades, messages demonizing Israel have lost their power to placate citizens of many Arab states, especially younger ones.

Today, some of those states have turned inward, putting their own development and prosperity ahead of the aspirations of a Palestinian homeland. Other onetime two-state stalwarts, like Egypt and Jordan, have become bound by treaty with Israel and rely on the United States for economic and security aid, making them reluctant to rock the boat. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf may often surface rhetorical support for the dual-state solution, but they also hunger for trade with Israel, one of the region's most dynamic economies. Furthermore, mutual antipathy toward Iran — a position shared by the Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Israelis — draws them yet closer. Some states still hostile to the one-state solution, like Lebanon and Syria, are in no position to champion the Palestinian cause; others, like Turkey and Iran, are both distant. Although Iran's proxies could wage war on Israel, they have neither the strength nor the backing to fulfill promises made by the likes of Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's president from 1952-1970, to drive the Israelis back into the sea.

The New Plan Unveiled

Under the Trump White House, the United States has begun scuttling much of the diplomatic progress made by former administrations, choosing to embolden Israel's annexationist impulses. In part, the close relationship between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is driving the U.S. strategy, but so, too, is the current ideological alignment between the allies, which both see Iran as the greatest threat to regional stability and Israel as a reliable force for steadying it. That alignment will not last: All presidencies end and the rumblings of discontent within the United States toward Trump's Israel policy are clear to see. But for now, at least, they will push momentum toward an incomplete, unstable one-state solution. The road to that destination is coming into focus, statement by statement.

"I think the conversation in 15 years' time will be about equal rights in one state." – Emirates Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash

The one-state solution, as it is emerging, is unlikely to fully unify the old mandate's borders under the singular flag of Israel. Instead, it is increasingly likely that the plan will result in a partial solution, with Israel annexing long-coveted Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan River Valley — both which make up much of what the Oslo Accords designate as "Area C," zones in which Israel maintains security control, but are destined for eventual Palestinian sovereignty. Such cuts into the West Bank will render a future Palestinian state unviable, as pockets of Palestinian-controlled territory would remain isolated from trade routes, sliced by Israeli control and virtually impossible to govern. They will also leave Hamas-governed Gaza a turbulent and confined locale whose well-being Israel will seek to push off onto neighboring Egypt, Qatar (which sees value in sponsoring Gaza) and the international community. 

The politics of both Israel and the United States will ultimately govern the extent of the one-state solution. Israel faces another election in September. To govern, the winner will depend on the support of nationalists, many of whom favor at least partial annexation. The Americans, led by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, must factor in next year's presidential election — and the prospect that Trump may not win a second term. These politics will not necessarily define the one-state trend, but they will influence its timing and scope.

Regardless of how far and how fast it goes, the groundswell for a one-state solution will create a fundamental shift in the balances that previous peace processes have made familiar. The Israelis will be increasingly faced with the prospect of annexing not just territory but also people. Necessarily, as Israel incorporates more territory, its government will be forced to make a calculated choice. Will the Palestinians who live there become Israeli citizens, thus risking the ire of Israeli nationalists and extremists who jealously guard the country's Jewish demographic majority, or will they be left permanently stateless, cut adrift from the international community? Israeli leaders will weigh whether the military occupation of these territories is to be a permanent way of life, diverting national treasure that might otherwise be used to pay for infrastructure, education and housing improvements. And Israel's politicians will have to find domestic partners who will support annexation: Once pariah-status right-wing extremists, like Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), will hear their phones ring more often with the calls of premiers looking for coalition allies.

For the Palestinians, the one-state trend will force them to reconcile the potential failure of their own national project. This national endeavor has been pursued for decades, through both violence and diplomacy, with the distant goal of a future Palestinian state somewhere along the borders of pre-1967 Israel. But deep cuts into the West Bank by annexationist policies would make that virtually impossible, leaving Palestinians to grapple not only with the failures of their leaders but also with the unfulfilled promises of their nationalism. In that abject situation, some will turn to greater extremism, while others will focus on Gargash's suggestion and agitate for equal rights within Israel.

The Reverberations Beyond Israel

Beyond the West Bank and Gaza, countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and, to a lesser extent, Syria, will no longer be able to cling to the fiction that the Palestinian refugees long under their care might one day return to the old mandate. Such as they are, the refugee camps in those countries are already rather permanent, yet fragile, social contracts, propped up by international aid. They enforce on the Palestinians who live there the status of refugees, even though many of them only know their host countries. Greater development of a one-state solution will force them and their host governments to grapple with their indeterminate status. Those displaced Palestinians, too, will push for greater inclusion in the social and political fabrics of the countries where they are ostensibly guests, potentially intensifying unrest, and certainly changing the bodies politic of those places should they achieve their goals.

As the trend evolves, global opinion will gradually cohere. The Middle East may be less interested in the answer to the Palestinian question than it once was, but in Europe and the United States, there remain powerful forces invested in a two-state solution. They could yet attain power and influence enough to change their countries' relationships with this annexationist Israel.

Even beyond that, the wider rules of the international community will necessarily change. Military force and occupation can, it will appear, eventually bear fruit. Norms that penalize the use of force to change borders will be yet again undermined. The world will move just a bit further away from the rules set up after World War II to prevent territorial aggrandizement — and minimize the chances of great conflicts emerging from them. As future historians look back upon the early 21st century, they may see the one-state solution as just one facet of a wider trend in which the internationalist, institutional-based world order that had emerged from the great wars of the 20th century slowly eroded away.

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