In January, the United States government announced its latest peace plan to resolve the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Upon committing to the plan, Israel was authorized to extend its sovereignty over 30 percent of Judea and Samaria (“the West Bank”), primarily over areas where Israelis are clustered and in the majority. Upon meeting certain criteria, such as renouncing violence and terrorism, the Palestinians would commence negotiations to establish a state for themselves in the remaining 70 percent of the territory where they are in the majority.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas immediately rejected the plan, stating, “We say 1,000 times: No, no and no to the ‘deal of the century.’ ”
Israel accepted the plan and immediately began preparations to extend sovereignty over (or, as some call it, to “annex”) the designated area. For various reasons, including Knesset elections, the coronavirus pandemic and coordination between Jerusalem and Washington on mapping the proposed annexed land, there was some delay in Israel’s extension of sovereignty.
In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to form a national-unity government and move forward on sovereignty. Since then, he has repeatedly proclaimed that it would begin on July 1. However, July 1 has come and gone without any steps in that direction and any announcement about the status of the plan. It is anticipated that the plan will move forward at some point, but its contours remain unclear.
A main argument on the part of many of those who strongly oppose the proposed application of sovereignty is that it would mean the end of the long-discussed “two-state solution,” according to which a newly created state of Palestine would live side-by-side in peace next to the Jewish state. The problem with this argument is that the two-state solution has long been dormant or, as some would contend, dead.
After all, throughout the past century, the Palestinians have rejected proposals for their own independent state on at least six separate occasions (in 1937, 1948, 1967, 2000, 2008 and 2013). The 2000 and 2008 proposals consisted of virtually the entire West Bank, up to the 1967 Green Line, which the Palestinians repeatedly have insisted must comprise their new state. And yet, the Palestinians rejected these offers out of hand.
Indeed, a strong case can be made that the Palestinians themselves put an end to any notion of a two-state solution with their repeated rejections of such proposals. An even stronger case can be made that the Palestinians never really sought an independent state living in peace next to the Jewish state, but rather have always aimed for “liberating” all of “historic Palestine”—”from the river to the sea”—in other words: Israel.
Nevertheless, some critics of Israel still persist in their improbable hope that a two-state solution remains viable, maybe not today or tomorrow, but perhaps in 20 years, when a new generation of “moderate” Palestinians suddenly arises. These critics, who advocate an eventual two-state solution and presently oppose Israel’s plan to extend its sovereignty, should think again. This might well be the last chance for the two-state solution that they seek.
At present, there are two paths forward—applying sovereignty or the status quo. Which path preserves the chance of a two-state solution in the future?
Under the proposed plan, 70 percent of the West Bank, including all the major Palestinian population centers, would remain reserved for a future Palestinian state for at least four years, in the hope that the Palestinian leadership will come to the negotiating table during that time to settle this conflict and create their own independent state.
In addition, and more importantly, if Israel moves forward with its plan to apply sovereignty, it would also agree to freeze further settlement activity within Area C for four years. At present, Israel controls all of Area C under the Oslo Accords but plans to annex only half of that area.
Israel potentially is agreeing that the annexed 30 percent of the West Bank constitutes its final borders without further settlement in the territory reserved for the proposed Palestinian state. This freeze is precisely why many right-wing settlers oppose the plan, as they would prefer to settle the rest of Area C or even the entire West Bank.
If the plan is abandoned, as its critics desire, that leaves the status quo in place indefinitely. Under the status quo, the number of settlers in the West Bank has grown to almost 500,000, and there is no reason to think that this number could not easily exceed 1 million in the next decade. Should that occur, the two-state solution would almost certainly be off the table, as that size of a population would likely encroach upon any planned Palestinian state, making any such state unrealistic (especially given the Palestinians’ demand that any Palestinian state be Judenrein (“free of Jews”).
Critics of expanding Israel sovereignty undoubtedly will respond that they don’t like this plan either. Even if Israel does not move forward, they will insist upon a settlement freeze to preserve the possibility of the two-state solution. They will demand that in this carrot (expanded sovereignty) and stick (settlement freeze) situation, Israel take the stick but forgo the carrot. Of course, this will not happen. Critics can jump up and down and hold their breath until they are blue in the face, write copious op-eds, pass any number of United Nations resolutions and even boycott Sabra hummus. It just won’t happen.
What most likely will happen if Israel does not extend its sovereignty is that the status quo will continue, settlement activity will progress and any remaining hope for a two-state solution (assuming that the Palestinians even want such a solution) will die a natural death, if it is not already defunct.
In short, to critics of the proposed plan who remain wedded to a two-state solution to the conflict, get on board with Israeli sovereignty before it’s too late. It’s your last chance.
Steve Frank is retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in publications such as “The Washington Post,” “The Chicago Tribune,” “The Baltimore Sun,” “The Jerusalem Post,” “The Times of Israel” and “Moment” magazine.