Why a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians is closer than you think

As President Trump welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House next week, opinions have never been more dour about the possibility of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The Trump administration says it is working on a plan, but its intended transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and its open criticism of Palestinians’ quest for statehood have driven the Arabs from the bargaining table. Meanwhile, support for a two-state solution has slipped to 46 percent among Israelis and Palestinians, and each population votes for politicians who oppose a deal. Likud, the party leading Israel, says it is uninterested in negotiating. (Indeed, many of its members and their coalition partners say they prefer various schemes to annex substantial parts of the West Bank.) Netanyahu is facing corruption allegations that could remove him from office, but a successor would probably commit to the same positions.

Yet things are not as hopeless as they seem. A survey last month by Tel Aviv University’s Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, suggests that the Trump administration could devise a plan both publics could support. For those committed to Israel’s security and character as a Jewish and democratic state, the survey’s finding that “both sides prefer the two-state solution to all other conflict resolution options” gives several reasons for optimism.

The poll identifies concrete policy incentives that, if added to the basic terms of plans put forward over the past 18 years, would dramatically increase support for a new proposal. For example, 44 percent of Israeli Jews who oppose a two-state solution would change their minds if the Palestinian government commits to maintaining Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, including sharing intelligence with Israeli security forces, preventing attacks and arresting terrorism suspects. Adding this element to a peace plan would increase Israeli support from 46 to 59 percent.

Among Palestinians who are opposed, 39 percent would change their minds and support an agreement if Israel recognized the “Nakba,” the exodus of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948 during what Israel calls its War of Independence, as well as the suffering of these refugees, and if Israel provides compensation to them. (This does not require Israel to grant the refugees a right of return to Israel, a justifiable dealbreaker for Israelis.) Including this provision in a plan would boost Palestinian backing to 62 percent.

Some incentives appeal to both sides. The most noteworthy ones, which would also advance U.S. interests, involve a regional approach. Making the Israeli-Palestinian agreement part of the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative would change the minds of 37 percent of Israelis and 24 percent of Palestinians who originally opposed an agreement. And including formal guarantees by the United States, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which would create a joint commission to ensure proper implementation by both sides, would induce 39 percent of Israeli Jews who initially opposed the agreement to support it and 27 percent of Palestinians to do likewise.

A third component that appeals to both sides: ensuring that Palestine would be a democracy. This would change the minds of 4o percent of Israeli Jews and 37 percent of Palestinians to support an agreement.

In a Catch-22 finding, the most significant reason people oppose a two-state solution is their perception that it is not feasible. So, if the Trump administration’s plan is demonstrably realistic and feasible, Palestinians and Israelis will support it.

These findings demonstrate that flexibility and open attitudes still exist on both sides and that the right policies can reverse rejection of a two-state package by Israelis and Palestinians. Both sides have shown a complete absence of political courage for a decade, and if the Trump administration hopes to surmount this cowardice, it will need proposals that allow the leaders to attract popular support while still making hard choices.

Still, progress is unlikely until the White House rehabilitates relations with the Palestinian leadership and repairs the damage caused by the Jerusalem declaration. That requires a fair and balanced plan, including terms referring to the Jerusalem area as hosting capitals of both states with a special regime over the Old City.

If Trump’s team uses the survey’s findings to carefully craft a plan that will garner the support of a majority of people on both sides, and regionally, the administration may well find that the people will drag their recalcitrant, spineless leaders into a process gradually leading to two states for two peoples. Even if it does not result in an ultimate, final-status deal, that would still be a historic achievement.