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OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

What does the return of the ‘two-state solution’ mean?

The term has become a useful slogan, a political declaration by leaders in the international community, and is often mere lip-service.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2016. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2016. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.
Alan Baker (JCPA)
Alan Baker
Amb. Alan Baker is director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Since the Biden administration’s inauguration in January, leading officials have repeatedly advocated the “two-state solution” as the only means to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

Immediately after taking office and in his first interview as secretary of state, Antony Blinken told CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer on Feb. 8 that President Joe Biden strongly supports the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since “it is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and the only way to give the Palestinians a state to which they’re entitled.”

Three days later, on Feb. 11, State Department spokesman Ned Price repeated this message during the daily State Department press briefing, saying, “We believe it’s critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution.

On Feb. 23, Price repeated and strengthened the message:

“When it comes to the two-state solution, the Biden administration believes that the two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state while living in peace alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state. That is precisely why the two-state solution continues to be the crux of how we view the conflict and where we believe—and how we believe the conflict should be resolved,” he said.

In response to an additional question, he continued: “Again, we believe in the centrality and the premise of a two-state solution. We don’t want to see either side take a step that would put that further out of reach.”

Similar references were made in further daily press briefings by both Price and his deputy Jalina Porter, on March 1, March 18, March 23, March 31, April 1 and April 21.

On April 21, Price added a warning:

“We have been consistent in our condemnation of any steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution, and that includes settlement activity and violence. Again, a two-state solution remains at the center of our approach to this issue, and anything that sets that back is something that we will speak out against and do so consistently,” he said.

This position echoes and even parrots similar views expressed by Obama administration officials prior to 2016.

For instance, in her explanation of the U.S. vote to abstain on Security Council Resolution 2334 of Dec. 23, 2016, condemning Israel’s settlement activity, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power, referred to the “two-state solution” 12 times.

Similarly, in his parting speech on the Middle East dispute on Dec. 28, 2016, Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, advocated the “two-state solution” no fewer than 24 times.

In other formal international documentation emanating from international bodies and other sources, the “two-state solution” was advocated 15 times in the July 1, 2016 statement by the principal members of the Middle East Quartet (United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations), and nine times in the Jan. 15, 2017 Joint Closing Declaration of the Paris Peace Conference.

Recitation by the ‘pro-peace’ lobby, J Street

At J Street’s April 18-19 annual conference, the “two-state” refrain figured high among the stated priorities of the participants.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, invited by J Street as a keynote speaker at the conference, affirmed the P.A.’s belief in “the two-state solution based on pre-June 1967 borders based on international law” with “East Jerusalem as its capital.” Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed his own firm belief in the importance of a two-state resolution to the conflict.

Similar calls supporting the two-state solution were expressed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.

Mechanical, habitual recitation

The term “two-state solution” seems to be a form of lingua franca within the international community and especially within the new U.S. administration—a magic panacea for all the ills of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the broader problems of the Middle East.

Not a day goes by without some leading politician, journal, or international body mentioning it as the “buzzword” for the ultimate outcome, while in many cases, accusing Israel—and only Israel—of “undermining the two-state solution.”

Indeed, the “two-state solution” is considered by virtually all major international actors associated with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to be the only way to achieve an enduring peace that, in their view, meets Israeli security needs and Palestinian aspirations for statehood and sovereignty.

However, the question remains whether such glib and pre-judgmental officials and international actors fully understand the terms, implications and the outcome of the dispute by advocating the “two-state solution,” in light of the history and realities of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

‘Two-state solution’ has no formal and binding basis in international documentation

From the start, the “two states” vision was based on the premise that a Palestinian state will only result from direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. This premise included the requirement that such a state be demilitarized and limited in its military and security capabilities and other sovereign prerogatives.

Similarly, the border between it and Israel would be the result of bilateral negotiations between them, and would not be determined by the pre-1967 armistice lines, that were expressly not intended to serve as an international border.

This is borne out by the following international documents:

• The formal Middle East peace process documentation, including U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), as well as the Oslo Accords and related documents signed by Israel and the PLO (1993-9), make no reference to a two-state solution and specifically leave the issue of the final, permanent status of the territories to be negotiated between the parties.

• By the same token, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat committed the Palestinians, in his letter to Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin, dated Sept. 9, 1993, that “all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiation.”

• Rabin’s vision of the permanent status, as stated in his last speech to the Knesset, in October 1995, referred to the establishment of “a Palestinian entity which will be a home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.” He added that the entity would be “less than a state, and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority.”

• The Clinton Parameters (2000), in referring to a “two-state approach,” expressly referred to a “demilitarized Palestinian state” with limited sovereignty as the “homeland of the Palestinian people,” together with the State of Israel as the “homeland of the Jewish people.”

• The U.N. Security Council, in the preamble to its Resolution 1397 (2002), reaffirmed the necessity, set out in Resolution 242 (1967), for “secure and recognized boundaries.” In referring to its “vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side-by-side within secure and recognized boundaries,” the assumption was that borders need to be negotiated, and the 1967 lines cannot be considered international borders.

• U.S. President George W. Bush, in his 2002 vision of “two states, living side-by-side in peace and security,” also stressed the necessity for a Palestinian state to fight terror and form a new and different Palestinian leadership.

• The U.S.-generated 2003 “Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” referred to “an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors.” It envisioned such a state “with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty,” practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty, and ending all acts of violence and incitement. It stressed the need for a negotiated resolution on the status of Jerusalem and Arab state acceptance of full normal relations with Israel.

• Israel’s acceptance of the 2003 Roadmap was based on the premise that “the provisional [Palestinian] state will have provisional borders and certain aspects of sovereignty; be fully demilitarized, with no military forces but only with police and internal security forces of limited scope and armaments; be without the authority to undertake defense alliances and military cooperation,” with Israel retaining “control over the entry and exit of all persons and cargo, as well as of its airspace and electromagnetic spectrum.”

• President Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Sharon of April 14, 2004, affirming his two-state vision, stressed that “secure and recognized borders” should emerge from negotiations and not involve a return to the “1949 armistice lines.”

• The joint statement issued after the Annapolis Conference, attended by the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, President Bush and other leaders, dated Nov. 27, 2007, referred to “the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security” with an agreement to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues without exception, as specified in previous agreements.”

• In his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated a vision of two peoples living freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect, each with its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government, and neither threatening the security or survival of the other.

This vision foresees a demilitarized Palestinian state that would include a prohibition on importing missiles, maintaining an army, making pacts and alliances with terror elements, and with limited use of airspace. It involves effective security measures to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory. It also includes Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem outside Israel’s borders.

Evolution of the “two-state vision” in international documentation

While the two-state vision has become a standard component of non-binding U.N. political documentation, it has never been part of any formal, binding resolution or agreement between the parties.

The accepted and logical assumption has been that whatever solution is achieved, it will only be through negotiations and agreement between the parties, and not through the imposition of such a solution, whether through prejudgment of the outcome of such negotiation or through glib declarations expressing the hope for a two-state solution.

The “vision of a region where two states, Israel and Palestine, live side-by-side within secure and recognized boundaries” first figured in a preambular provision of Security Council Resolution 1397 (2002), adopted on March 12, 2002, calling for an end to the violence during the second Palestinian intifada. In this context, the reaffirmation of the U.N. Security Council’s call in its 1967 Resolution 242 for “secure and recognized boundaries” clearly implies that borders have to be negotiated, and the 1967 lines cannot be imposed by third parties as if they are international borders.

General Assembly resolution 75/172 of December 2020 on the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination affirmed the right of all states in the region to live in peace within secure and internationally recognized borders and stressed the need for a peace settlement based on the Quartet’s “road map to a permanent two-state solution.”


The term “two-state solution” has become a useful slogan, a political declaration by leaders in the international community, and is often mere lip-service. This glib repetition of the phrase, as if it were capable in and of itself of solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, indicates a lack of understanding of its meaning and historical evolution.

However, no actual two-state solution can materialize without these leaders’ acceptance of several basic realities:

• A Palestinian state would have to be politically and economically stable, and not open to manipulation by terror elements that could constitute a threat to Israel’s security.

• Such a state would have to be demilitarized and limited in its military and security capabilities and other sovereign prerogatives.

• Such a state would have to be based on principles of democracy, liberty and good governance and would be obligated to prevent terror and incitement.

• To bring about such a state, a unified Palestinian leadership must be able to speak in the name of the entire Palestinian people and be capable of entering into and fulfilling commitments. In light of the widening schism between the Palestinian leadership of the West Bank and the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, such a situation does not appear to be on the horizon.

• A Palestinian state will need to commit to solid legal, political and security guarantees that it will not abuse its sovereign prerogatives and international standing to violate or undermine the agreements.

• Issues that are inherently bilateral such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, water and the like, will only be resolved by negotiations, and not by partisan political resolutions or political declarations coming from international leaders, the United Nations, or any other source.

• A Palestinian state must recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

It is hoped that a “two-state solution” will not be a meaningless mantra but will indeed take into account the wide range of serious and genuine issues arising from the long dispute between the parties. Such a solution must be predicated on the acceptance of the principle that any such solution cannot be imposed and can only be achieved through negotiations between the parties.

Alan Baker is director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center and the head of the Global Law Forum. He participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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