The ‘two states’ idea remains as a barrier to building an anti-apartheid movement, as is our duty under international law to dismantle a racist regime, just as was done in South Africa.
- The suggestion of ‘two states’ was raised as a recommendation at the United Nations in 1948 but no Israeli regime ever really supported it. (Al Mayadeen English; Illustrated by Zeinab ElHajj)
The persistent myth of a ‘two-state’ solution for Israeli-occupied Palestine is a cruel, 75-year-old lie which has provided cover for the construction of a monstrous and genocidal apartheid regime. It blinds the international community to both the current reality and to the way forward.
UN resolutions on Palestine are badly outdated, frozen in a time where the ‘two states’ myth was more plausible and locked into a wording acceptable to the colony’s chief sponsors. Yet the only practical way forward, today, is the South African road: dismantling the apartheid regime.
That road is obscured by the ‘two states’ myth, as two former Israeli leaders have observed. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (2007) recognised that “if the day comes when the [idea of a] two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights”, then we will face an “apartheid-like struggle … [and] the State of Israel is finished” (McCarthy, 2007). Similarly, in 2017, another former Israeli PM, Ehud Barak, warned that the regime was “on a slippery slope” towards apartheid (Kaplan, 2017).
Although the idea of ‘two states’ is embedded in UNSC resolutions – beginning with UNSC Resolution 242 of 1967 – that fact only highlights the failure of international resolutions to recognise changing realities. The Israelis have breached their obligations under Resolution 242 and there are now multiple independent reports branding the Israeli regime an apartheid state (CCHS, 2022) and therefore a crime against humanity, which the international community has a responsibility to dismantle (Falk and Tilley, 2017). Those reports are not yet recognised at the UN because key sponsors of the Israeli regime maintain veto power.
Fuller understandings are needed of this intractable conflict, which has serious regional and international repercussions. Without such understandings, practical efforts at resolution will be misguided. This paper aims to contribute to those understanding, in particular by putting to rest the ‘two state’ myth.
It is argued here that the “two-state solution” and the idea of a “return to 1967 borders” is misleading and obscures the current reality and the likely future of Palestine, for these reasons:
• The ‘two-state’ notion holds a fig leaf over the reality of a single apartheid regime;
• All the conditions set up by the UNSC (res. 242 and its successors) for a “return to 1967 borders” have been destroyed by the Israeli regime;
• The apartheid Israeli regime must be dismantled, because a predatory, ethnic cleansing regime cannot co-exist with an independent Palestine.
Yet, as Washington and the Israelis understand very well, the distraction of ‘two states’ hides apartheid and prevents the construction of a broad anti-apartheid movement.
Any remaining possibility of ‘two states’ was finally destroyed by the constant Israeli theft of Palestinian land and the refusal to vacate annexed Lebanese and Syrian land. The idea of a “return to 1967 borders” simply hides the reality of an illegitimate apartheid regime.
A fig leaf to cover apartheid
The ‘two states’ idea covers this apartheid reality. The suggestion of ‘two states’ was raised as a recommendation at the United Nations in 1948 but no Israeli regime ever really supported it. The theory is still raised by some Israeli factions and by the US government, while other liberal Israelis have shifted to some version of a single democratic state (e.g Beinart, 2020; Levy, 2023).
The founders of the Zionist colony wanted all of historic Palestine, or as much as they could seize. Zionist pioneer, the Austrian Theodor Herzl, said the Jewish colony would be part of “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence” (Herzl 1896).
The majority view of a UN report on the ‘Future Government of Palestine’ (which did not include any Palestinians) formed the basis of UNGA resolution 181, which recommended the creation of an Arab state, a Jewish state and a ‘Special Regime’ of international status for Jerusalem (UNGA,1947). The population of Palestine in 1946 was 65% Arab and 33% Jewish, but the committee recommended that the area for the Jewish state be 55.5% of the total area of Palestine.
Resolution 181 passed on 29 November 1947 with 33 votes in favour, 13 against and 10 abstentions (Hammond 2010; UNGA 1947), and the British and the UN left the Zionist groups to carry out their ethnic cleansing (Pappe 2006). Contrary to popular myth, the UN did not “create” an Israeli state; UN members simply stood back and allowed the Zionists to seize land and purge entire populations.
In 1947-48, David Ben Gurion and his disciples were very clear that in creating their entity they would destroy entire villages, wipe out all resistance and expel the Arab populations “beyond the borders of the state” (Pappe 2006: Ch.4). Ben Gurion believed 80-90% of the British mandatory territory was needed, and in 1947 declared that ‘only a state with at least 80% Jews’ would be ‘a viable and stable [Jewish] state’. His plans called for the killing of Palestinian political leaders, senior officials, inciters and financial supporters, the damaging of transport, water wells, mills, villages, clubs and cafes and expulsion of remaining Arab populations (Pappe 2006: xii-xiii, 26, 28, 48).
In 1988, as the first Intifada (uprising) was raging, Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat announced the PLO had accepted UN Resolutions 242 and 338, which seemed to grant “Israel” (actually “every state in the area”) an opportunity to “secure and recognised boundaries”, effectively recognising an Israeli state, so long as it withdrew its occupation of Arab lands (Damen 2022).
The Oslo Accords of the 1990s, based on resolution 242 (UNIP, 1993: Art 1), raised hopes, but what followed showed that the Israelis had used these agreements as a cover for the expansion of illegal “settlements” in the occupied territories (Damen 2022). The Palestinian Authority (PA), set up as a temporary body, pending the establishment of a Palestinian state (PASSIA, 2014: 4-5), then became effectively a municipality of the Israeli regime.
Yet the annexation of Palestinian land on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem actually increased under the Oslo regime (Damen 2022). Despite Israeli PM Rabin’s claim to ‘freeze’ the ‘settlements’, they grew due to a burst of investment in infrastructure (Helm, 1993; Ogram, 1995; Ofran, 2020). Palestinians actually lost more land after recognition of the expanding Israeli regime and the creation of the PA.
The Trump ‘peace plan’ of 2020 held onto the two-state myth while supporting the illegal annexations and trying to ‘normalise’ all other breaches of international agreements made by the Israelis, including attempts to permanently annex the occupied Syrian Golan, the destruction and theft of Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem, and the unending construction of colonies across the West Bank (TWH, 2020). In recent years these ‘settlements’ have grown so that there are more than 700,000 Israeli colonists on the West Bank. Despite muted international protests, Tel Aviv’s backing for this process makes it unlikely that the ‘settlers’ might (as was done in Gaza) simply be persuaded to pack up and go home.
Dissident but self-described “Israeli patriot” Gideon Levy (2023) says the Netanyahu regime, by its constant colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, has destroyed any possibility of two states. He observes there is a single apartheid state. “Not a single Israeli Prime Minister worked seriously to realize the [two-state] solution … even the Oslo Accords turned out to be an empty promise … [we now have] one state with two regimes, a liberal democratic one in Israel [sic], which includes a discriminatory regime towards Palestinian citizens … and a South African style apartheid regime in the West Bank … the struggle [now is] over the nature of the regime in this one state” (Levy, 2019). On that last part, he is right.
International law? Conditions for a ‘return to 1967 borders’ have been destroyed by the Israelis
International law (Res. 242 and its successors) is often cited to justify the right of the Israeli regime to exist, ignoring the Israeli breaches of its obligations to withdraw from occupied land and ignoring the fact that they have never defined borders. All conditions set up by Res 242 (1967) for a “return to 1967 borders” have been systematically destroyed by successive Israeli regimes, with the support of their Anglo-American and European sponsors.
After the Zionist surprise attack on Arab states in 1967, and the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Syrian Golan, parts of South Lebanon and the Egyptian Sinai, UN resolution 242 (1967) was passed with Israeli support because, while it called for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, it also called on the Arab states to recognize an Israeli regime, under certain conditions.
The relevant text of UNSC resolution 242 called for:
“(i) Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
“(ii) Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force” (UNSC, 1967).
Since that time, the Zionist entity (as it is called by the many Arab and Muslim states which do not recognise this entity as a state) only withdrew from the Egyptian Sinai (after a bilateral peace deal), then invaded Lebanon to destroy the PLO. Even after the Israelis were expelled from Lebanon (in 2000 and 2006) by the resistance group Hezbollah, they held onto some Lebanese lands, the Syrian Golan, and then proceeded to consolidate their annexation of large parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The Israeli regime has violated the conditions of Res 242 so severely that it is arguable their suggested “right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries” has been abrogated; they never even tried to declared borders on their several frontier extensions. They similarly ignored UNGA Resolution 194 (1948) to allow Palestinian refugees a right to return. More importantly, the international branding of the Israeli state as an apartheid regime threatens to remove any state ‘rights’, other than the duty to dismantle apartheid (Falk and Tilley, 2017).
Though there was some internal debate, the Israelis never intended to vacate the lands they occupied in 1967. The liberal side debated whether they should permanently seize between 40% and 80% of the West Bank, while the openly fascist faction, led by Likud and Netanyahu, always wanted it all. The latter argument is often referred to as the ‘Yinon Plan’ (Yinon, 1982), a reiteration of older Zionist ambitions to create a ‘Greater Israel’, from “from the Brook of Egypt [the Nile River] to the Euphrates” (Herzl 1960: 711). This implies annexation of much more Syrian territory, beyond the Golan.
On the liberal side, Labor Minister Yigal Allon argued that “Israel” carve the West Bank into an Israeli-controlled strip along the Jordan River, with permanent Jewish colonies (‘settlements’) and army bases strategically placed across all the Palestinian territories. He added, “the last thing we must do is to return one inch of the West Bank” (Auerbach 1991; Shlaim 2001). However, negotiation might be opened for a separate and subordinate Palestinian entity (Pedatzur, 2007). In other words, both major Israeli factions were committed to the rejection of most of Res 242 and to any notion of “1967 borders”.
Based on successive UNSC resolutions, the UN has not shifted from its position that the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, since 1967, are under belligerent occupation and are therefore protected by the 4th Geneva Convention (AIC 2011: 5-6). But this has not prevented their ongoing dispossession. Resolution 242 emphasised ‘the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war’ (UNISPAL, 1967). Disregarding this resolution, successive Israeli governments seized land using a range of methods: purchase under duress, seizure for state purposes, and penal confiscations. The large number of feeder roads, military bases, fences and buffer zones also consumed more and more Arab land.
Confronting a predatory apartheid regime: Illegal and incapable of co-existence
No expansionary, ethnic cleansing apartheid regime can be considered a legitimate state, nor can it co-exist with an independent Palestinian state, the substance of which it has tried to devour. There are now six independent reports branding “Tel Aviv” an apartheid regime, meaning a crime against humanity which must be dismantled (CCHS, 2022).
Formally speaking, while the Fatah-dominated PA and PLO maintain allegiance to the Oslo Accords and to the recognition of “Israel” as a state, that position was always conditional on the Israelis complying with their commitments (withdrawal from all occupied lands). It was always a position opposed by ‘rejectionist’ sections of the PLO (e.g. the PFLP), by the leadership of the Intifada movements, and by the non-PLO resistance groups (Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad) which sprung up in the 1980s. Accepting 1967 boundaries implies abandoning those Palestinians who were dispossessed before 1967.
Nevertheless, at a popular level, the ‘two-state’ idea has been popular amongst Palestinians, because it suggests independence from the occupying power. However, in recent years West Bank Palestinians have turned away from two states towards the one single state, equal citizenship idea, probably because they are most intensely subject to the day-to-day realities of apartheid (JMCC, 2021).
On the Israeli side, the Likud-led faction never had any intention of not seizing all historic Palestine, while the Labour side debated how much of the West Bank they wanted to annex. In other words, they used Res. 242 to cover their expansionism. Yet Israeli and Jewish dissidents, alongside many Palestinians, now speak of the need for some version of a single democratic state (e.g. LFA, 2023); that is, the South African path towards a post-apartheid single state.
The key problem for a legalist approach which stresses ‘two states’ and outdated UNSC resolutions is that the reality of an apartheid regime has been documented. The most authoritative report, prepared for the United Nations in 2017, but sidelined under political pressure, was written by US lawyers Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley. They spoke of an international duty to not recognise an apartheid regime and a positive duty to dismantle it.
Relevant excerpts from that report:
“Overwhelming evidence [shows] that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid. However, only a ruling by an international tribunal … would make such an assessment truly authoritative … any delay compounds the crime by prolonging the subjugation of Palestinians to the active practice of apartheid by Israel. Prompt action is accordingly imperative to … end a crime against humanity that is being committed now” (Falk and Tilley 2017: s.3).
They called for an international tribunal to examine and rule on the matters subject of their findings. But they stressed these duties:
“States have a separate and collective duty (a) not to recognise an apartheid regime as lawful; (b) not to aid or assist a state in maintaining a apartheid regime; and (c) to cooperate with the United Nations and other states in bringing apartheid regimes to an end” (Falk and Tilley 2017: s.3).
Their report was preceded by one South African report, and followed by reports from Britain (Amnesty), the USA (Human Rights Watch), and two from Palestine-“Israel” (CCHS, 2022). The question of not providing aid to an apartheid regime undermines the assertion that the Israeli regime has some right to exist under international law. Many of the conditions studied in these reports (such as the ever-expanding apartheid walls and fences in the West Bank) did not exist at the time of Resolution 242.
The Trump Peace Plan of 2020, which also sought to maintain the ‘two-state’ myth, showed the awful reality of such a proposal in current circumstances. In what has been called “a monumental shift away from the already compromised international consensus” (Procter, 2020), this proposal, which had zero Palestinian participation, spoke of “land swaps” where a Palestinian statelet would be offered parts of the Negev desert (south of Gaza) in exchange for the colonised parts of the West Bank. On top of this, the Israeli regime would take the Jordan Valley, control all the borders and territorial waters, maintain security barriers, restrict even the Palestinian education system, continue to use the Palestinian Authority as a municipal agency, and severely limit any return of Palestinian refugees (TWH, 2020; JVL, 2020; Procter, 2020).
In short, it was a plan for what apartheid South Africa had envisioned, called Bantustans (tribal homelands), under the apartheid administration. That dismal plan was rejected by the Palestinians, yet it is what is on offer to ‘two states’ supporters today.
And what about those states which refuse to recognise “Israel”? First there are the 20 or so Arab and Muslim states which have never recognised the Israeli regime. Then there are another 15 or so which broke relations, mostly after various massacres of Palestinians (WPR, 2023). Three Arab states (UAE, Bahrain and Morocco) have since ‘normalised’ under US pressure. Saudi Arabia was talking about normalization but ended talks after the Palestinian Resistance offensive of October 2023.
Occupation and annexation, the construction of an apartheid regime, and genocidal massacres, have worn down the dream that there can be a simple division of land and “return” to borders and conditions that are not accepted by either side.
Those who continue argue the “legal” force of a “two-state solution”, because of Resolution 242 and its successors, will have to explain how and why they ignore the Israeli contempt for and rejection of the conditions of Res. 242, and how they will then proceed to recognise a regime which is widely branded as a crime against humanity, as one of those two states.
We have been reminded that it is a crime to recognise an apartheid regime and to provide it with assistance (Falk and Tilley 2017). Although the apartheid brand is not yet embedded in UNSC resolutions, due to the UN influence of the regime’s sponsors, the legal implications of apartheid cannot be ignored.
In the meantime, the ‘two states’ idea remains as a barrier to building an anti-apartheid movement, as is our duty under international law to dismantle a racist regime, just as was done in South Africa, with equal citizenship for all alongside a just settlement on the matters of land and refugees.
You can order Tim Anderson’s new book, West Asia After Washington: Dismantling the Colonized Middle East, from here.
AIC (2011) ‘Jerusalem: facts and figures’, Alternative Information Center, December, Jerusalem and Beit Sahour, Palestine
Auerbach, Yehudit (1991) ‘Attitudes to an Existence Conflict: Allon and Peres on the Palestinian Issue, 1967-1987’, in Conflict Resolution, Vol 35 Issue 3, pp. 519-54, DOI: 10.1177/0022002791035003006
Pappe, Ilan (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld, Oxford
Shlaim, Avi (2001) The Iron Wall, W. W. Norton Company, New York
The opinions mentioned in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Al mayadeen & LASNET, but rather express the opinion of its writer exclusively.