Since the early 1990s, every peace agreement between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators envisioned the eventual emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. In The Two-State Delusion, Padraig O'Malley, a professor at the University of Massachusetts who helped resolve the conflicts in Northern Ireland and South Africa, argues very persuasively that the two-state solution is dead.
On the basis of a meticulous research effort that includes interviews with 115 Israeli, Palestinian and American officials and academics, a bibliography spanning over 42 pages, and notes running for almost 100 pages, O'Malley identifies and explains in detail various factors that have turned the quest for a two-state peace into a chimera. Chief among these are the conflicting historical narratives of Israelis and Palestinians that perpetuate mutual distrust and create an "ethos of conflict" resulting in continuous violence that further entrenches each side in its narrative.
According to O'Malley, the Jewish historical narrative starts in the first century, with the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine by the Romans. For the next two millennia, Jews in the Diaspora prayed and hoped for their eventual return to their ancestral home. In response to European anti-Semitism, the first two waves of Jewish immigration into Palestine (Aliyot) took place between 1882 and 1914. After the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which promised the creation of a national home for Jews in Palestine under British auspices, there followed three additional waves of immigration.
On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181, partitioning Mandatory Palestine into two states, one with a Jewish majority and the other with a Palestinian majority. The Zionists reluctantly accepted partition, and on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel. The Palestinians and the Arab states rejected partition and, on May 15, 1948, armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq launched attacks against the new Jewish state with the intent to destroy it. Against all odds, Israel survived and won what Jews commonly refer to as the War of Independence.
According to the Israeli narrative, the vast majority of the 750,000 Palestinians who left those areas that came under Jewish control during the war did so voluntarily, fleeing temporarily with the expectation of eventually returning to their homes and properties after an anticipated Arab victory.
In June 1967, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withstood a coordinated attack by Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and gained control over all of historical Palestine by capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Israel has claimed that these areas should not be considered "occupied territories" because they were never under legal sovereignty of any state before the 1967 war. Jews refer to these areas as Judea and Samaria to legitimize Israel's control over and resettlement of what they regard as lands that had been divinely ordained to them.
The competing Palestinian narrative begins with the claim that Palestinians continuously lived in the area west of the Jordan for 1,500 years. They constituted approximately 90 percent of the population when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration without their consent. During the British Mandate (1920-48), Palestinian nationalists vigorously and violently objected to each wave of Jewish immigration, as well as to land purchases by Zionist organizations in Palestine.
The UN General Assembly lacked the legal authority to approve the partition of the Palestinian homeland into two states in 1947. The 1948 war ended in utter humiliation for the Palestinians, who refer to it as al-Nakba (the Catastrophe). It was Israel that was responsible for the expulsion of the majority of the Palestinians and the expropriation of their properties, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel is also guilty of violating UN Resolution 194, which mandated the right of the Palestinians to return to their homes. Furthermore, Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its annexation of East Jerusalem defy UN Resolution 242, stipulating the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent  conflict."
O'Malley argues convincingly that each of the diametrically opposed narratives generates an ethos inimical to the achievement of a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the realization of the two-state solution. The key component of the Israeli ethos is the widely held belief that the Holocaust could recur and a determination that it must never happen again. Memories of the Holocaust and the West's failure to act thus account for "the belief that in the end Jewish Israelis are on their own, all alone, in a small country surrounded by over 100 million people in hostile Arab states that would wipe it off the face of the earth, given the opportunity."
O'Malley suggests that the memories of past victimhood and the sense of an omnipresent existential threat make it difficult for Israelis to view themselves as victimizers of Palestinians. The deeply held beliefs of "never again" and "we are alone" tend to justify whatever Israel does to protect its national interest and eliminate perceived threats. Not surprisingly, Israelis are addicted to a fear that, in turn, accounts for their nation's frequent reliance on force and on disproportionate military responses to threats. Fear of yet another independent state along its eastern border is widespread.
On the other hand, the Palestinians view the world "through the prism of seemingly permanent humiliation, indignity, dispossession and disrespect." Both the Nakba and almost five decades of Israeli occupation account for the Palestinians' demand for dignity and justice above all else. Yet Palestinian negotiators and their subjects are constantly reminded of the vast asymmetry in power when it comes to dealing with an oppressing Israeli state, aided by the United States. In the Palestinians' ethos, Israel and the United States are to blame for all their grievances; what is required is both an end to the occupation and restorative justice. An independent state alongside Israel is a sine qua non for redressing a historical injustice and gaining national self-respect.
In sum, neither side accepts the legitimacy of the other's narrative; both sides distrust each other's motives; each views itself as the real victim; and each wishes that the other would disappear. Hence, neither Palestinian nor Israeli leaders have done much to convince their constituencies of the sacrifices and compromises a two-state solution would require: for the Palestinians, giving up on the right of return, and for the Israelis, giving up control over East Jerusalem.
O'Malley identifies several other reasons the two-state solution remains illusory. To begin with, each of the antagonists has its own vision of what this solution must entail. The Palestinians insist on a fully independent state, encompassing the West Bank and Gaza along the 1967 lines (with very minor adjustments), with East Jerusalem as its capital. It would be territorially contiguous, with provisions for free movement of people and commerce between the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli leaders envision a Palestinian state that would not be geographically contiguous, with the settler city of Ariel and the settler bloc of Maale Adumim remaining outside its borders. The IDF would be stationed in the Jordan Valley (at least for a period of years), and East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty and accessible to Palestinians only through an indirect route.
There are also fundamental disagreements as to how the process of negotiations should be handled. Israeli negotiators insist on a gradual, step-by-step approach through which accord is reached on a specific issue that is then implemented before another issue is tackled. Such a slow and cautionary approach is intended to build the mutual trust that would presumably enhance further diplomatic progress. Palestinian negotiators have insisted on the "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" model. Such a process encourages constant internal disputes and bargaining within each negotiating team, thereby complicating and prolonging conflict resolution between the two sides. O'Malley maintains that "in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, a 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed' negotiating formula is a recipe for stalemate. Hence interminable deadlocks."
There can be no sustainable two-state solution unless Hamas — in control of Gaza since 2007 — comes on board. O'Malley argues that Israel would never agree to have a Palestinian state on its borders as long as Hamas and other jihadist militia groups could launch increasingly sophisticated weapons against Israel from the West Bank. The likelihood that Hamas and other militant Islamic groups would agree to destroy their military inventories is zero, and the odds that Hamas would abandon its raison d'être by renouncing its goal to liberate "all of Palestine" are also nil.
The ongoing dispute between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority over the right of return of the Palestinian refugees is another major obstacle. O'Malley estimates that there are currently about 5 million registered refugees living in 58 camps throughout the Middle East. Since 1948, Israel has insisted that it will never admit responsibility for the Naqba because, in its view, the Palestinians started the war and must bear its consequences. Other than accepting a very small number of refugees on humanitarian grounds, Israel has adamantly refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return. O'Malley concludes that as long as the Palestinians "maintain their intransigent position on right of return, they are diminishing prospects for their own best future: a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people alongside a Jewish state for the Jewish people."
The presence of some 400,000 Jewish settlers living in six sprawling settlement blocs in the West Bank constitutes yet another major impediment to the two-state solution. So do the roughly 400,000 Jews now residing in Jerusalem neighborhoods across the 1949 armistice lines. Ever since it annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has constructed numerous housing units in disputed areas surrounding Jerusalem, thereby extending the city's municipal boundaries to the east, north and south. As a result, East Jerusalem, the intended capital of a future Palestinian state, has been separated and increasingly sealed off from the rest of the West Bank. In addition, Israel has initiated housing projects east of Jerusalem that will shortly cut the West Bank in half, physically disconnecting Bethlehem in the south from Ramallah in the north. According to O'Malley, these Israeli construction projects collectively ensure "that a Palestinian state would be noncontiguous, an almost fatal blow to its viability and in all likelihood the end of a two-state solution."
Shortly after the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000, Israel began constructing a separation barrier deep in the West Bank, ostensibly to prevent terrorist attacks. In subsequent negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, it became clear that the barrier was also meant to delineate those settlement blocs and areas that Israel intends to annex in any future mutual land swap under a two-state solution. O'Malley estimates that approximately 100,000 settlers would have to be evacuated under any plausible land-swap arrangement. Any plan to evacuate such an enormous number of settlers — many of whom are committed to reside in Judea and Samaria for religious and historical reasons — will encounter severe political and economic problems. Due to vigorous opposition from the Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, Likud and various smaller parties committed to a Greater Israel, no evacuation of such magnitude would garner sufficient support from the Israeli government. Even if they were approved, the costs of the evacuation and compensation for 100,000 settlers would run from $20 billion to $30 billion, a prohibitive sum for a country whose annual budget is around $100 billion.
It is also very likely that any large-scale evacuation of Jewish settlers from the West Bank will lead to bloody confrontations between resisting settlers and the IDF. As O'Malley perceptively notes, "The communities that would be targeted for evacuation in a two-state solution believe that there is nothing the government could give them that would compensate for losing what they have." Undoubtedly, that is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in March 2014 that "there will be no act of evacuation."
O'Malley notes that even if all of the aforementioned obstacles could be overcome one day, a united West Bank/Gaza polity would face insurmountable economic problems threatening its very existence. He concludes, "A West Bank economy that survives on donor assistance and a Gaza economy that is virtually nonexistent hardly suggest that an integrated economy would be anywhere close to being either viable or sustainable."
In a recent review of this volume, Peter Beinart criticized O'Malley for his failure to provide an alternative solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ("Lines in the Sand: Can Israeli and Palestinian States Coexist?" New York Times Book Review, August 23, 2015, p. 19). Such criticism is unfair; O'Malley does in fact discuss two additional options that currently confront Israeli political leaders. First, they could decide not to decide and thereby let the status quo continue into the distant future. This choice, however, does not bode well for Israel; it has been estimated that by 2030, Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will constitute about 56 percent of the population. If Israel then continues to deny the franchise to non-Jews residing in the West Bank, it will become an apartheid state reminiscent of the former South Africa. Alternatively, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza could form a binational state. Such an entity, however, would no longer be a Jewish state.
Despite his prodigious research effort, O'Malley's work can be criticized for three reasons. First, his treatment of what is described as "the Jewish Israeli narrative" is problematic. Contrary to his claim, the Jewish narrative regarding Palestine does not begin with the expulsion of the Jews from Judea by the Romans circa 70 CE, nor do Jews claim their right to Zion solely by virtue of divine right. In fact, the Jewish narrative begins around 1850 BCE, with God's promise to Abraham that he and is his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan. Furthermore, the narrative also includes the claim that at least some Jews had resided continuously in the area that became known as Palestine since around 1250 BCE, at least several centuries before any known Arab Palestinian presence.
The book also contains several factual errors. For example, the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915-16 took place between Britain and the ruler of the Hijaz, not Transjordan (p. xi); the 1939 British White Paper envisioned the creation of an independent Palestine by 1949, not 1939 (p. 15); the Arab invaders in 1947-48 were not "easily repulsed by the Haganah," (p. 16); massive U.S. military assistance began to flow to Israel in the years after the 1967 war, not after 1948 (p.18); and Terje Roed-Larsen was not the "U.S. special envoy to Jerusalem" (p.95) — he served as the UN special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. Finally, more careful editing would have eliminated several irksome spelling mistakes throughout.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, this volume provides valuable and very timely explanations for the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One can only hope that Israeli, Palestinian and American decision makers will absorb the three major lessons taught so very convincingly by O'Malley: that the quest for a two-step solution is futile, that the passage of time endangers the future survival of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, and, most important, that it is very unlikely that that this enduring conflict can ever be resolved peacefully.