In an Al-Jazeera Op-ed, Mark LeVine of UC Irvine picks up where Mickey Bergman and Amjad Atallah left off a few months ago in Foreign Policy magazine. LaVine discusses the zero-sum nature of a traditional two-state solution, and what needs to happen in order to move beyond the barriers it presents.

LaVine correctly points out that both nations (Palestinian and Israeli) lay claim to the entirety of a single piece of land. With a modern and traditional understanding of sovereignty, this conflict is nearly impossible to reconcile while simultaneously satisfying the national needs of both peoples. Rejecting the idea of a one-state, bi-national solution, LaVine suggests re-thinking the contemporary concept of sovereignty.

The world’s concept of state sovereignty has remained fairly static since the Treaties of Westphalia, signed over 350 years ago. In a time of fiefdoms, kingdoms, and the Holy Roman Empire, it was actually a fairly new concept that a sovereign (a king, for all intents and purposes) should recognize the exclusive sovereignty of other kings over their territory and population. The concept of sovereignty was recognition, by kings, of the property and subjects of other kings. But I regress. The modern definition of a state was most recently codified into international law with the 1933 Montevideo Convention.

The modern definition of a state has four prerequisites:

View from Ramallah: Beit El

View from Ramallah with Jewish settlement of Beit El in background - © Michael Omer-Man

1. a permanent population;
2. a defined territory [commonly understood to include control over that territory];
3. a government; and
4. the capacity to enter into relations with other states.

It is not much of a stretch to say that many, if not all of these requirements are difficult to apply to the current state of reality in Israel and Palestine. Both have a permanent population, but both also grant (in theory, at least) citizenship to a population outside of their territory that is larger than those actually residing inside their undefined borders. Both lack any recognized permanent borders, falling short of the requirement for defined territory. Israel certainly has a legitimate government in the land it claims sovereignty over, but the other lands it controls are ruled by the military’s “Civil Authority” – not exactly a government. Furthermore, areas like the Gaza Strip are ruled in some aspects by the Israeli government, but it doesn’t make any attempt to actually govern it. The Palestinians have governmental institutions, but no government. Israel certainly has the capacity to enter into relations with other states, but the Palestinians are very much limited in their capacity to do so.

I am certainly not trying to say that Israel is not a state. I am merely echoing the official position of the government: Israel does not claim sovereignty over the Palestinian territories. In its rhetoric, however, Israel carefully blurs its claims to the same land (Eretz Yisrael vs. State of Israel). Compromise on this point has only occurred when Israel’s claims over the much-wider biblical definitions of the land threaten its modern vision of a Jewish and democratic state (within the paradigm of the Treaties of Westphalia and Montenegro Convention).

The Palestinians also – although recently in more ambiguous terminology – make some claim to the entire land, including where the modern state of Israel exists today. One legitimate, yet often-sidelined Israeli argument against a two-state solution is that the Palestinians will never be satisfied by the sliver of a state they are (and have been) offered. In reality, this is probably correct. Many Israelis, however, suffer from the same problem. They are also unlikely to be satisfied with a state in pre-1967 borders. Their reasons are founded on principles of physical (military) security and religion.

As a student of conflict resolution, one of the most basic concepts I learned was that a forced compromise, which doesn’t satisfy the needs (as opposed to “wants”) of both parties, is unsustainable. The solution to this is to think outside the box and find a way to shift a zero-sum game into a win-win situation. By imagining an alternative concept of sovereignty in the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this is exactly what LaVine is doing.

LaVine dutifuly notes that the “much abused phrase,” “two sovereign states living side by side,” is simply not the only option. It is merely the “in-the-box” option.

Yet a two-state solution based on the Oslo-style land-for-peace formula is practically impossible, as Israel has achieved such a deep presence in the West Bank-one that it continues to expand, despite itself-that territorial separation is (and has been for a generation) all but impossible.

The conundrum for those working for peace, then, is how to design a solution that would retain two-states while moving beyond the zero-sum problematic (sic) that has always dragged down the two-state solution.

LaVine points to the conclusions of the “Parallel States Project” (a joint Palestinian-Israeli working group that includes Israeli settlers): “A wholesale reimagining of Israeli and Palestinian identities in a manner that moved beyond territorial sovereignty while allowing each community to identify and remain loyal to its own state and identity would lift the impasse that has for so long doomed negotiations.”

The core component of a Parallel States solution is the move from a two-dimensional notion of sovereignty based on fixed borders, to parallel, or better, overlapping notions of sovereignty, in which Israeli and Palestinian states could each claim sovereignty over the whole territory in a manner that would not infringe on the rights and claims of the other state, or its citizens.

How to pull off such a seemingly impossible magic trick? The answer is as simple as it is profound: Disassemble the triangle linking the citizen to her or his state through the particular piece of territory – Tel Aviv or Nablus, Ariel or Jaffa – on which he or she lives, and replace it with a direct link between the individual citizen and her or his respective state that would holds firm regardless of whether one is a Palestinian living in Herzliyya or a Jewish Israeli living in Gaza.

Specifically, the two most important implications of a parallel states solution are that settlements are no longer an obstacle to peace and Palestinians could implement the Right of Return because. Enabling both is the ability of Jews and Palestinians to live anywhere in the space of historical Palestine/Eretz Yisrael in a parallel states scenario.

This is not an entirely revolutionary idea, but it does fall outside the box that today’s leaders (Israeli, Palestinian and other) are stuck in. Being that the two-state solution seems to have been dead in the water for some years now, isn’t it time we start brainstorming instead of rehashing the same failed ideas over and over again?

I am not advocating shelving the concept of modern statehood , nor am I advocating anything less than a Jewish and democratic state called Israel. In fact, all I am calling for is more creativity in a process that is so vital for the continued survival of two nations, in a land that holds great importance to the entire world.