Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrive for a joint press conference in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021, days after an Egypt-brokered truce halted fighting between the Jewish state and the Gaza Strip's rulers Hamas. Photo: AFP / Menahem Kahana

After the latest Israeli-Palestinian mini-war ended, US President Joe Biden declared flatly that to end long-running hostilities, “we still need a two-state solution. It is the only answer. The only answer.”

But is the two-state solution – one for Israel, the other for the Palestinians – really on the table? It was once the magic formula that guided US peace diplomacy, but has been emptied of meaning over several decades.

Ex-president Donald Trump, for instance, paid lip service to it while he unabashedly accepted the long-running Israeli project that makes a Palestinian state a physical impossibility: expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.

In fairness, he only made explicit what other administrations had tolerated for five decades. 

In advance of a trip to the region beginning on Tuesday, Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken tamped down his boss’s urgent two-state solution call. To dampen expectations, he leaned on an old standby to avoid moving quickly toward the goal: Let’s start with confidence-building.

“I don’t think [it] is something necessarily for today,” he said of the two-state solution. “We have to start putting in place the conditions that would allow both sides to engage in a meaningful and positive way toward two states.”

During his visit, hastily arranged in the wake of the 11-day bomb- and rocket-fest between Israel, on the one hand, and Hamas, the Islamist rulers of the Gaza Strip, Blinken will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestine Liberation Organization head Mahmoud Abbas, who rules Palestinians in the West Bank, and the leaders of Jordan and Egypt.

No meeting with Hamas is on the menu.

A history of failures

If the formula for creating trust and good feeling between Israelis and Palestinians sounds familiar, it should. Every US administration since President Bill Clinton’s in the 1990s has stressed the need for confidence-building measures before two-state borders can be negotiated.

Time after time, such measures never took root. Sometimes they were waylaid by Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israelis. Often, they were crushed by Israel’s repeated unwillingness to curtail settlement projects. 

Early in Clinton’s term in office, the Oslo peace accords, signed by both Israel and the Palestinians, called for unspecified confidence-building measures. Whatever they were supposed to be, never got off the ground.

Later, Clinton’s ill-prepared Camp David peace talks ran afoul of a Palestinian uprising that featured numerous suicide bomb attacks on Israeli civilians.

Palestinians attend a rally marking the 32nd anniversary of the founding of the Islamist movement Hamas in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on December 13, 2019. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Majdi Fathi

President George W Bush’s administration signed off on plans that called for dual confidence boosting programs:

  • for the Palestinians, a call to halt violence against Israelis and embark on democratic reforms;
  • for Israel, to stop settlement construction and show military restraint in territories it occupied.

Bush also tried to negotiate a “roadmap to peace” involving measures to make life easier for Palestinians. The roadmap led to a cul-de-sac. Even laborious talks over establishing a bus connection between Gaza and the West Bank ended without Israel authorizing a single trip.

Then-president Barack Obama’s own confidence-building campaign centered on getting Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop settlement construction. Netanyahu responded with a new construction project in East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s unwillingness to consider even a temporary settlement moratorium also helped sink later efforts by Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, to set up peace talks. Rounds of Hamas rocket attacks versus Israeli bombs also made Kerry’s project moot.

No high hopes in US team

So, Biden’s team has reason not to raise hopes. He would prefer not to spend time on losing efforts. Biden has made clear that he has other priorities – China, Russia and nuclear proliferation issues in Iran and North Korea.

And anyway, there is really no one on the ground in Israel or the Palestinian territories willing and/or capable of pushing for a two-state solution.

Netanyahu, who has always opposed the land-for-for-peace formula, is fighting for his political life after four inconclusive elections. Sacrificing hard line anti-Palestinian state factions from his past coalitions in the name of giving Palestinians a state is a non-starter.

He has long calculated that the downside of Israel’s occupation and gobbling up of West Bank land – budgetary costs and international opprobrium – are far outweighed by his view of national security and keeping political support from religious nationalists intact.

Abbas, the PLO’s geriatric leader, is weak and offers no outlet for Palestinian frustrations. He focuses mainly on staying in power; his reign has gone on for 16 years without elections of any sort.

He has bowed to all US demands for inaction – for instance, acceding to American pressure not to declare a Palestinian state and to restrain his citizens from physically protesting their restrictive conditions under occupation. 

Hamas, meanwhile, is sticking to a one-Islamic-state solution, using rocket eruptions to remind Israel that Gaza still exists while inviting Israeli bombardments that do vast damage to Gaza’s population.

Biden appears to be following the advice of wizened US diplomatic veterans and observers of past policy failures who say the US should focus on managing the conflict rather than resolving it.

Rockets launched towards Israel from the southern Gaza Strip on May 17, 2021. Photo: AFP/Said Khatib

No roadmap for peace

An article in the journal Foreign Affairs this month, written by Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador and a peace talks envoy under Obama, advised that: “Washington must actively manage a dispute it can’t resolve.” Indyk suggested just going for a freeze on Israeli settlement growth and an end to evictions of Palestinians from their homes. 

The Brookings Institute, an influential think tank in Washington, offered much the same counsel: “Practical steps are more important than grand visions,” a recent article intoned. Brookings called for actions to “improve freedom, security, and prosperity” for both Israelis and Palestinians. Brookings didn’t bother to call it a roadmap to peace.

One possible step toward a two-state solution would require the Biden administration to foster the supremacy of international law as a basis for dealing with the conflict. There are plenty of United Nations resolutions the US could follow, chief among them, Security Council Resolution 242.

It was passed in 1967 at the end of the Middle East War that put the West Bank, Gaza and all of Jerusalem into Israeli hands, along with the Syrian Golan Heights – situations that all persist today.

But it would certainly be a surprise to hear Biden or Blinken refer to Resolution 242, which called for Israel to “withdraw from territories” occupied during the war. Or to call for the return of the pre-1980 US position on Israeli settlements held by President Jimmy Carter’s administration and then canceled by Ronald Reagan: that Israeli settlements are illegal under rules of the Geneva Convention.

Any of that would commit Biden to take steps to change the tacit support the US provides to the settlements – and in the case of Geneva Convention breaches, would put the occupation in the hands of an international war crimes courts.  

A ball of fire erupts from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, on May 15, 2021. Photo: AFP / Mahmud Hams

None of that will happen. Expect Blinken to express sympathy for Israeli and Palestinian suffering, and intone that peace – or calm, in currently favored diplomatic usage – is needed. 

There are, after all, plenty of international conflicts that are managed rather than resolved: the division of Cyprus, with Turkey holding the northeastern edge of the island; the longer Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan; the China-Taiwan separation, although Beijing makes noises about ending the divorce by force. 

Israel-Palestine has fallen into the category of simmering if sometimes explosive conflicts and will remain so, regardless of Biden’s two-state rhetoric.

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.