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Skepticism Grows Over Two-State Mideast Solution

Israeli soldiers inspect cars at a checkpoint near the northern West Bank village of Beit Furik.
Eric Westervelt/NPR
Israeli soldiers inspect cars at a checkpoint near the northern West Bank village of Beit Furik.
Palestinian Ayesha Abdul Karim passes through the checkpoint near Beit Furik.
Eric Westervelt/NPR
Palestinian Ayesha Abdul Karim passes through the checkpoint near Beit Furik.

Even as President Bush tries to boost prospects for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, optimism on both sides is dwindling.

Many, including a growing number of moderate Palestinians, are now questioning the basis of the process — the idea of Israel and Palestine living side by side — and the two-state ideal is increasingly slipping away.

President Bush is in Jerusalem, where he addressed parliament Thursday at ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence. He is trying to boost peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. But a majority on both sides now views the peace process with enormous skepticism.


The Daily Checkpoint Grind

Near the northern West Bank village of Beit Furik, an Israeli military checkpoint blocks a road into the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Israel says these checkpoints are vital for state security. Ayesha Abdul Karim, a farmer's wife, calls it "the daily checkpoint grind."

"Some days are easy, some days difficult. Other days are very difficult. It all really depends on the temperament and mood of the soldiers," she says.

Forty-one years after Israel captured the West Bank of the Jordan River in the Six Day War, the banal routine of occupation is ingrained. Abdul Karim, who is on her way to visit a relative near Nablus, seems resigned, defeated.


"We've been living under occupation for the last 40 years. What can we do? We've gotten used to it," she says.

Nearby, Israeli Naomi Levitay, a retired schoolteacher, watches every interaction at the checkpoint and jots down any delays or problems in a notebook.

"Occupation feeds the hate," she says.

Levitay is a member of Checkpoint Watch, a group of Israeli female peace activists who volunteer to monitor some of what United Nations officials here say are now more than 600 Israeli obstacles to movement in the West Bank: checkpoints, roadblocks, road barriers, earthen walls and mounds.

Levitay says she monitors the checkpoints to protest, to document and to try to reach out to even one Palestinian who may only know Israelis through the heavily armed soldiers at the checkpoints.

She's not sure what effect her actions will have, but she feels compelled to act nonetheless. "What can I do? I'm an old woman and I feel I have to do something," she says.

Villages Cut Off, Palestinians Isolated

It's not just the checkpoints. Palestinians and U.N. officials complain that continued expansion of Jewish settlements, the wall and barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank — what Israel calls the security fence — and the checkpoints continue to slice the West Bank and villages around Jerusalem into separate cantons that undermine chances for a viable two-state solution.

Ismail Khadaan is the council president of Biddo, a Palestinian village on the northwest outskirts of Jerusalem. He points to a new Israeli tunnel road that Palestinians in nine villages around Biddo now must use to get to and from Jerusalem. Palestinians from the area are not allowed on sections of a nearby Israeli highway.

"This is a great example how villages ... are cut off from the main cities and how the whole homeland is being cut into isolated areas," he says.

This Palestinian bypass tunnel road is the subject of several lawsuits suing for unimpeded access to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem and for access to the nearby Israeli highway. The cases are currently making their way through the Israeli courts.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says its extensive surveys show that Israeli infrastructure in the West Bank today — including settlements, restricted roads, military posts, closed military areas and more — now take up nearly 40 percent of the West Bank and put those areas largely off limits to Palestinians.

Abdul Nasr al Najar, the managing editor of the Palestinian newspaper Al Ayam, says all this fragmentation of the West Bank, combined with the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, has put the peace process on "life support."

"There is no basis for the two states now. Gaza is divided from the West Bank. The wall, the settlements and the economic situation here means there is no opportunity for the two states to live together," he says.

New Life for an Old Idea: 'One-State Solution'

Add to those fears the conundrum of Gaza, controlled by the militant Islamists of Hamas, who are firmly opposed to a two-state solution and dedicated to Israel's destruction. All these gloomy facts have some Palestinian moderates trying to give new life to a very old idea: a single state for Jews and Arabs in historic Palestine.

As Hazem Kawasmi, an economist and former Palestinian Authority official, puts it: "The one-state solution is the solution, and the two-state solution is a dream."

For years, Kawasmi promoted the two-state goal: one Jewish, one Palestinian, living side by side in peace.

But after the failure of the Oslo accords, two Palestinian uprisings and the Hamas takeover over of Gaza, Kawasmi has thrown in the towel.

"My conclusion after 15 years working with the Israelis is that the two-state solution is not going to happen. If you talk about the two-state solution on the Palestinian streets today, you will look [like] an idiot," he says.

Kawasmi recently founded a new group in Ramallah, in the West Bank, called the One State Forum. Reviving the one-state idea is somewhat radical. After all, militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have their own "one-state" goals — using force to create an Islamist state with an Arab majority reclaiming historic Palestine from the Jews.

But Kawasmi says he is promoting a progressive, secular version of one state. A unified, binational democracy, Kawasmi insists, will attract Israelis eager to shed the weight and trouble of occupation and fend off rising Islamist radicalism in the region.

"We're talking about democracy — one person, one vote, equal economic and political rights. We're talking about equal rights, we're talking about no difference between Jew, Muslim or Christian in one democratic state," he says.

Obstacles to 'One-State Solution'

Israeli officials have long dismissed the one-state idea as demographic suicide that would undermine the Jewish majority and character of the country. As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz earlier this year: "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, the state of Israel is finished."

Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli political studies professor, says Palestinian leaders were never enthusiastic about a two-state solution. No Palestinian leader, he notes, has ever relinquished the demand for the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war.

"Palestinians have to say, 'We accept the right of the Jews to have sovereignty in part of this land,' something that was never accepted 60 years ago and that's been the core of the conflict since then," Steinberg explains.

"That change has not taken place in Palestinian society. Since there was never really an acceptance of a two-state solution, now talking about missing the window for a two-state solution is really a self-fulfilling prophecy," he says.

Two states will happen, Steinberg predicts, only when there is "ripeness," or recognition by both Palestinians and Israelis that all other options are far worse. And despite the fanfare of President Bush's current visit, he says, "We're just not there yet."

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