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A three-state solution is the only viable future for Israel and the Palestinians
Ethnic cleansing is off the table, and non-contiguous states just don't work.
I’ve doggedly avoided commenting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict up until now. This conflict is one where the amount of emotion, ideology, and media attention in the U.S. and the West in general is far out of proportion to how much it actually affects American strategic interests. The Middle East is rapidly decreasing in global importance, and the U.S. has wisely begun to disentangle ourselves from the region, so our interest in this conflict is mostly humanitarian in nature. And while wars like the one that just erupted between Israel and Hamas are brutal and nasty, neither side seems likely to destroy the other; the cycle of violence will simply continue, accompanied by endless rounds of bitter but ineffectual screeching in the Western media.
But I do think it’s useful to try to see through to a realistic endpoint for this conflict, even if that end is unlikely to come anytime soon.
The last endpoint that people tried to envision was the “two-state solution”, represented by the Oslo Accords. This envisioned a single Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, in addition to the state of Israel within its current internationally-recognized borders. Every time Hamas attacks Israel or there’s a new story about Israeli settlement in the West Bank, people declare that the two-state solution is dead:
They are correct, for reasons I’ll lay out in a bit. The two-state solution has been dead for a while. But the alternative that these people probably have in mind is a one-state solution, encompassing Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Some commentators actually want a one-state solution, and are not simply using the rhetoric to push Israel toward a two-state solution. Some dream of a plurinational state in which Israelis and Palestinians live together as members of one nation. Others dream of ethnic cleansing, in which either the Israelis or the Palestinians are driven out of their current lands to live elsewhere. Both of those dreams are completely unrealistic, for reasons I’ll explain below.
So what is realistic, other than the eternal persistence of the current unhappy equilibrium? The only answer I can think of is a three-state solution. By this I don’t mean giving the West Bank to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt, which is an old idea that people used to call “the three-state solution” and which unfortunately still occupies the Wikipedia page for that term. Jordan and Egypt have no desire to re-annex Palestinian lands, and the Palestinians have no desire to be annexed by them. Instead, what I mean by a “three-state solution” is three internationally recognized nation-states — the state of Israel within its currently recognized borders, and two independent Palestinian states, one in Gaza and the other in the West Bank.
I arrive at this conclusion by looking at the current situation and applying three basic principles:
Large-scale ethnic cleansing will be minimized.
Israelis and Palestinians will not want to share a state.
Non-contiguous states aren’t viable.
Those principles lead me to think that a formalization of the current situation on the ground, with only minor modifications to territorial control and population location, is the only solution that’s going to stick. Though as I’ll explain, by “stick” I don’t mean that hostilities will end or that irredentist claims will be abandoned.
Why a one-state solution is unworkable
There are basically two visions of a “one-state solution”. These are:
A Palestinian state where Israelis have been expelled
A Greater Israel from which Palestinians have been expelled
A plurinational Israeli-Palestinian state where Israelis and Palestinians live in the same country and consider themselves part of one people
First, there’s the idea of ethnically cleansing Israelis and establishing a Palestinian state on the current territory of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. When you see the term “from the river to the sea”, that’s what that means. This is the explicit and stated aim of Hamas, and it’s also a popular position among Palestinians in general:
Less than 40 percent of the Palestinian public—in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem—supports it over one-state alternatives. Support for a two-state solution has declined steadily since 2018.
Further, most Palestinians believe that a two-state solution is unlikely to emerge from the conflict. Instead, a majority of them say they prefer to reclaim all of historic Palestine, including the pre-1967 Israel. A one-state solution with Arabs and Jews holding equal rights comes in second.
The original poll makes it extremely clear that this means ethnic cleansing of Jews rather than simple political domination by Palestinians:
Moreover, even larger majorities deny that Jews have any connection or rights to any land in historic Palestine…The third option, achieving “a one-state solution in all of the land, in which Arabs and Jews would have equal rights in one state from the river to the sea,” has proven a distant third in popularity[.]
This goal of ethnic cleansing is supported by a surprising number of leftists in the West, who see the death or expulsion of Israelis from the region as justice — the reversal of what they consider to be “settler colonization”.
The old name for this attitude is irredentism.
This “solution” wouldn’t be a solution at all, but a mass atrocity — the expulsion or slaughter of millions. The fact that some Western leftists believe that that outcome would represent justice is a stern indictment of Western leftism. Also, this outcome would flagrantly violate the principle of national sovereignty; Israel is internationally recognized, and to accept it being wiped off the map would be a massive blow to any semblance of global order.
In any case, Israelis themselves do not view themselves as a transient population who just happens to be living in the Middle East right now; they were born in Israel, it’s their homeland, and they’ll fight to the hilt against mass expulsion or extermination, using all weapons available to them (including nukes). And countries like the U.S. will support that struggle.
So ethnic cleansing of Israel to make a single Palestinian state is off the table, both morally and practically. Likewise, the idea of Israel ethnically cleansing the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza is both unconscionable and exceedingly unlikely to happen.
Let’s move on to the other “one-state solution”. The idea of a plurinational Israeli-Palestinian state is favored by some liberals in the West. The precedent is Israel itself, where Jews and Arabs live together as one people — largely peacefully, despite pervasive racial discrimination, inequality, and Israel’s formal identity as a “Jewish state”. In this view, the West Bank and (maybe) Gaza are already de facto part of the Israeli state, and what looks like national separation is actually just an apartheid regime. Under this view, all that would be necessary to implement a one-state solution is for Israel to end its apartheid policies and give Palestinians full rights as citizens of the state they already belong to.
This is completely unworkable, because neither side wants this. Palestinians don’t want this, as evidenced by the poll above, which found majority support for irredentism and ethnic cleansing, and only modest levels of support for a shared democratic state with equal rights. And Israelis don’t want this, because they know that it would lead to their attempted ethnic cleansing and/or genocide, which would lead to a bloody civil war, re-partition, and ethnic cleansing of both sides, similar to what happened in 1948.
The simple fact is that Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting each other for too long to become citizens of a shared nation anytime soon. We can wish it were otherwise, but wishing will not make it so. Thus, any kind of “one-state solution” is off the table completely. It will not happen, no matter how much Palestinian irredentists are egged on by Western leftists, Iran, or miscellaneous creeps on social media.
Why a two-state solution is unworkable
A two-state solution, of the type specified in the Oslo Accords, is unworkable because Gaza and the West Bank won’t form part of a single state. First of all, and most importantly, they’re non-contiguous. Non-contiguous states have a very poor historical track record, as evidenced by the fate of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Alaska is an exception of course, but Alaska is mostly empty wilderness; I suspect that if Alaska became more populous, it would try to secede. Gaza and the West Bank, in contrast, have roughly comparable populations — about 2 million to 3 million.
Consider transportation. Unlike Alaska or Kaliningrad or even Bangladesh, the West Bank is landlocked. For Gazans and West Bank Palestinians to visit each other’s territories, they would thus have to travel across Israel along a land corridor that Israel could choose to close at any time; this would totally compromise Palestinian sovereignty. The Palestinian state would be at the mercy of Israel because Israel could always threaten to sever it in two.
Even more important is the fact that political control is built locally, through in-person relationships, social services, infrastructure building, etc. This means that Gaza and the West Bank will naturally tend toward being controlled by two different political leaderships. And in fact this is exactly what has happened. Hamas and Fatah, two Palestinian political parties with armed militias, fought each other in 2007; the former prevailed in Gaza and the latter prevailed in the West Bank.
This means that Gaza and the West Bank are part of a single “nation” only in the sense that they both think of themselves as Palestinian, they both dream of a united Palestinian state, and the international community thinks of them as part of one people. But geographically, economically, politically, and militarily, they are already separate entities. And since Israel is unlikely to be wiped off the map, they will remain separate entities in any foreseeable “solution”.
Thus, a two-state solution is really off the table, and always has been — not because of Israel’s actions or Palestinian irredentism, but simply because it’s not practically possible for Gaza and the West Bank to stay united.
What a three-state solution would look like
A three-state solution is what we might loosely call a “Westphalian” solution — dividing up all available land and population into internationally recognized nation-states with full local self-determination. In plain language, everyone gets to keep living where they’re living and everyone gets to have a country of their own.
I’m not the first to have proposed this idea, of course — it’s way too obvious. You can read articles about it by Kaveh Afrasiabi, Benjamin Kerstein, Jacob Savage, and others. But the idea doesn’t get nearly the attention or support it deserves.
A three-state solution would require international recognition of Gaza and the West Bank as independent nations, with all the benefits that that entails. Israel’s control of Gaza’s borders, waters, and airspace would then be seen as an act of war rather than as an occupation — not “apartheid”, but a blockade similar to any other military blockade. If Gaza and Israel bombed or raided each other, these would be seen as border wars rather than as police actions or terrorism.
That war might go on for a long time, but it probably wouldn’t go on forever. Over the decades, the nation-state system has proven pretty adept at ending border wars, via a combination of international pressure and mutual military exhaustion. The fact that military technology is shifting toward the defense, as demonstrated in Ukraine, also means that eventually both Israel and Gaza would have an incentive to just stop fighting.
Economics would be another powerful incentive. Right now, cut off from seaborne trade, Gaza isn’t able to build wealth. Its per capita GDP is estimated at just $1257, making it one of the most impoverished places on Earth. If it were independent and could carry out seaborne trade, this number would undoubtedly shoot up — Lebanon’s per capita GDP is about 3x as high. The easiest industry to spin up would simply be tourism — Gaza has a lot of nice beaches, plenty of historical sites, etc. In the future it would be a destination for investment from Turkey and possibly the Gulf states and Europe.
All of that would require an independent Gaza to sign a durable armistice with Israel. That would put pressure on the Hamas leadership to accept what would look to some Palestinians like a humiliating compromise. It would not force them to end their irredentist rhetoric; they could and would continue to talk about a Palestine “from the river to the sea”, and declare their intent to destroy Israel…someday. But someday is not today.
The West Bank would have a more difficult time transitioning to an independent nation-state, for two reasons. First of all, it’s landlocked, which would cut it off from seaborne trade and impair its economic development somewhat. But more importantly, the West Bank is home to about 450,000 Israeli settlers, thanks to Israel’s support for an illegal settler movement over the past few decades. That means that if the West Bank is to become an independent nation, those settlers will have to either A) live as a religious minority within that nation, or B) move.
Obviously, either of those options will violate one of the three principles I outlined above. Palestinians are unlikely to treat Jewish settlers in their country with equal rights, and there will probably be intercommunal violence and eventual civil war, with Israel backing the settlers and Hamas and Iran backing the Palestinians, and atrocities and ethnic cleansing on both sides. On the other hand, Israeli settlers being forced to move off of their settlements is ethnic cleansing. So no matter what happens with the settlers, it’s going to be something bad. The colonialist behavior of the Israeli governments that encouraged the settler movement have guaranteed that this will not end happily; the goal now should be to end it with a minimum of tragedy.
The minimum-tragedy solution would probably be for most of the settlers to move to a few geographically small settlement areas near the Israeli border, and for Israel to annex these areas. Here’s a map showing that this is pretty feasible:
This solution will make a lot of people very mad, because it’ll solidify some Israeli conquests — including, importantly, East Jerusalem. Palestinians will not tolerate that — but, as polls show, they don’t tolerate Israel’s existence at all, so not much will change there. Like with Gaza, a three-state solution would not spell the end of irredentist rhetoric from the Palestinian side.
As for the international community, they could recognize the independence of a West Bank Palestinian state without recognizing Israel’s territorial conquests. There are already lots of cases where we do this — for example, we recognize both Russia and Ukraine, but we don’t recognize Crimea as part of Russia. The West Bank settlements would thus become a “frozen conflict”, like many of those in East Europe and the Caucasus. But the “frozen” part is really the key — with recognition of the West Bank as an independent nation-state, along with an armistice with Israel, the West Bank would be able to develop peacefully and enjoy security. Bits of territory would be lost, and hatred and irredentism wouldn’t vanish, but the “apartheid” regime would be completely gone. And Israel would no longer be involved in an eternal occupation, allowing it to develop more securely and more peacefully within more stable borders.
So that’s the three-state solution. It’s obviously not perfect, and would involve tons of bitterness and anger, along with some continued violence. But the “Westphalian” system of sovereign, internationally recognized, independent nation-states is the best system yet devised for organizing the distribution of land among peoples, and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be the best option for the Israelis and Palestinians as well.
In other words, (almost) everybody should just keep living where they’re living, and have a country.
The harder question, of course, is how to get from here to there. Gazan and West Bank Palestinians are unlikely to simply declare independence for the territories they currently control. Israel would have to unilaterally withdraw its forces and its settlers and declare that the West Bank and Gaza are independent. That would then give Gazans and West Bank Palestinians a choice between formal recognition, with all of the associated economic and security benefits, or eschewing recognition in order to demonstrate a commitment to irredentism. My bet is that they would choose the former, though it might take a while to come around. In any case, it’s not clear how Israel could be motivated to do something like this, given the short-term security risks and the ideological commitment of its right wing to the settler movement.
But it seems to me that something like this three-state solution simply has to be the long-term endgame for Israel/Palestine, simply every other solution seems far less workable. If you have a better idea that doesn’t involve massive ethnic cleansing or unrealistic assumptions about Israelis and Palestinians joining together as one people, I’d love to hear it.
Note: The original version of this post didn’t consider the option of Israel expelling the Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. Needless to say, that is not a viable “one-state solution”.