The three-state solution is a theoretical way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The basic idea behind the three-state solution is to formally recognize the de facto political split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and deal with them entirely separately. In the West Bank, Israel would try to encourage the emergence of a Palestinian state with a responsible leadership which could deliver economic growth. Most settlements would be gradually removed and the occupation would be loosened as the political and economic situation progressed. Meanwhile, Gaza - currently ruled by Hamas - would be dealt with entirely on its own terms, with the hope that Gazans would eventually turn on Hamas so they could enjoy a situation similar to the improving one in the West Bank. Alternatively, although more unlikely, pragmatists within Hamas might take over and try to forge a deal.
The need for a radical rethink of the search for a two-state solution stems from the Hamas victory in elections in 2006, and their subsequent invalidation of the constitution by a coup d'etat in Gaza in 2007. Hamas were elected because Fatah, the party which currently rules in the West Bank, was hopelessly corrupt, brutal and ineffective. Because Fatah was viewed as a moderate partner for peace by the West ever since at least 1993, international aid poured into its coffers. However, most of this money found its way into the bank accounts of members of the byzantine network of Fatah security structures and criminal racketeers. When the much-maligned separation wall between the West Bank and Israel was being constructed, senior Fatah members sold Israel cement with which to build it.
After Fatah failed to deliver either a Palestinian state or even a tolerable domestic situation, and after Israel devastated Fatah's security infrastructure in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, the stage was set for the rise of Hamas. Hamas provided grassroots social services to Palestinians with money donated by the Islamic world - rather than Fatah's money from the U.S. and EU, which was tainted in Palestinian eyes - and was steadfast in its commitment to attacking Israel. When Hamas was elected in 2006, the two groups were on a collision course, which culminated in the Hamas coup in Gaza in 2007. Since then, Hamas have absolutely refused to compromise on their commitment to the destruction of Israel, impoverishing the residents of Gaza as a result. Meanwhile, the international community and Israel have begun faltering steps to build up Fatah and the West Bank as an alternative.
The stage was set for the three-state solution.
The three-state solution probably won't work. But thinking about it is an interesting exercise because it illustrates very clearly the obstacles that lie in the way of the achievement of a two-state solution. In fact, the path to the three-state solution and the path to the two-state solution are very similar; the former can be seen as the most plausible way of achieving the latter. The fact that even this route seems incredibly difficult to attain should remind us of the extremely low probability that this conflict will be solved any time soon.
The main reason we turn to the idea of the three-state solution is because, in the short term, the split between Hamas and Fatah seems irreconcilable. The two movements hate each other more than they hate the Israelis, as many members of both groups attest in interviews. In just the latest example, Fatah members helped the Israelis target Hamas installations during Operation Cast Lead, which is no wonder given the murder and torture inflicted on Fatah members by Hamas in recent years. This is not the sort of injury easily forgotten.
Many people who expect Hamas to eventually become moderate and willing to co-operate with Israel and the international community fail to appreciate that Hamas derives its popularity among Palestinians precisely from its refusal to do these things. To begin to take money from the U.S. or to co-operate with the Israelis to stop terrorism would be to commit the sins which Hamas has attributed to Fatah for years; it would remove their claim to uniqueness. That Hamas support is built primarily on these factors and not on their provision of social services is obvious by looking at Gaza right now; as we constantly hear, it is impoverished and social services are run into the ground, and yet support for Hamas remains strong.
The second reason that Hamas is unlikely to become moderate in the near future is because the movement is riding a tide of success that is only buoyed by Israeli military action. Hamas is an ally of Iran, and the latter country's allies have been doing exceedingly well recently; such as in the Second Lebanon War, when Hezbollah inflicted a defeat upon Israel. Israel's inability to stop the rocket fire from Gaza is also considered a coup by Hamas, and whenever they provoke Israel to attack them they only become more popular among Palestinians. They count on the fact that Israel is not willing to undertake the sort of decisive military action which would remove them completely, and so they can simply provoke and absorb Israeli retaliation while constantly proving they are willing to keep on fighting.
So, Hamas cannot be bombed into destruction, and it is inconceivable it will become a partner for peace because its support rests on its "resistance". This means it must be liquidated in some other way before a two-state solution can be achieved. The means to this liquidation is to persuade ordinary Palestinians that there is an alternative to Hamas and thus undercut their support; in other words, as well as showing that the path of violence will not result in gains for the Palestinian people, Israel must also show that the path of co-operation and negotiation will actually lead to concrete gains. At the moment, under Fatah's criminal ineptitude, this has not been the case and so, in despair, Palestinians turn to Hamas.
The idea behind the three-state solution is to turn the West Bank into a model Palestinian society of the sort that Gazans would also want to emulate. This sounds deceptively simple but in fact the problems involved in reaching a settlement vis-a-vis the West Bank seem in themselves insurmountable. The West Bank is much larger than Gaza and was always going to form the core of a Palestinian state anyway. Currently, the West Bank is under heavy Israeli military occupation and home to some 200,000 Israeli settlers; both of these things would need to change for the three-state solution to work. Before they can work, there needs to be a viable Palestinian force to control the West Bank and stop it being immediately overrun by Hamas - which is what would happen if Israel were to withdraw right now.
The first element of a three-state solution would be a thorough housecleaning inside Fatah. Almost all of the group's top leadership are known among Palestinians for their corruption. Young reformers are needed. At the moment, the international community does not have much leverage over Fatah because if Israel or the U.S. says to them, "Clean up your act or we will stop supporting you", then Fatah can instantly point out that if they disappear, Hamas will soon be raining rockets on Tel Aviv from the West Bank. The stick will not work. Instead, Israel and the U.S. need to exercise the carrot, promising vast sums of economic assistance in return for guarantees that the aid will go to the West Bank and not a Swiss bank. Then they need to enforce the implementation of these guarantees with the barrel of a gun.
Promoting economic growth in the West Bank would require loosening some of the aspects of the occupation with a view to maximizing economic efficiency, but not removing it entirely. This would be the last step, once there was a Palestinian leadership with enough popular support to stand up to Hamas. Finding the correct balance between security and freedom in the West Bank would be the most difficult aspect of the three-state solution, and it would probably lead to an uptick in terrorist attacks against Israel.
To hedge against this occurrence, Israel could begin to remove West Bank settlements as part of the three-state solution. The removal of the settlements would not in itself be detrimental to Israeli security (unlike, for instance, the removal of checkpoints); would act as a signal of intent to the Palestinians; and could be accepted by Israeli society as part of a comprehensive plan to move forward. The majority of Israelis favoured the removal of settlements from Gaza when they expected an improvement in security, and despite the disastrous consequences of that move, they could accept it in the West Bank if this time the Israeli military stayed behind - unlike in Gaza - to prevent the emergence of another Hamastan.
This plan does not require West Bankers to like the Israelis. It should be clear that any plan built on the idea of brotherly love between the two peoples is doomed to failure. There can likely be no love in this generation or the next. No, this plan merely requires Palestinians to be scared of the Israelis, and hence to accept a quiet life of increasing prosperity which the Israelis can provide in conjunction with a reformed Fatah - or else. This is the sort of incremental change which anybody who is realistic about improving the situation in the region must concern themselves with.
Meanwhile, Hamas and their supporters in the Gaza would have to be left to their own devices, and Israel should not concede an inch to them unless they likewise make concessions. There are very simple things Hamas could do - recognizing Israel's right to exist, for instance - which would signal their intent. Such things are painless if one's goal is a two-state solution. Yet they are unlikely to do them when they do not face a serious political challenge from a successful moderate Palestinian force. Hamas can only be persuaded to become more moderate themselves when they see it as in their political interest, whereas at the moment the opposite is true.
The devil in the details
As a general roadmap, this is the only viable way to solve this conflict any time soon. Even so, it would probably take decades, and external developments would force adaptations of the plan along the way. As I said at the start, the best way to think about the three-state solution is as a route to the two-state solution: everything that would need to be resolved for the latter to come about is contained in the former. The three most crucial factors here are the reform of Fatah, the elimination or reform of Hamas, and Israeli willingness to implement the plan.
We shall start by considering Israeli willingness. Without this, nothing will happen, for Israel is ultimately the most powerful party here barring the intervention of an external state such as Iran. In recent years, Israeli right-wingers have come to the realization that a Palestinian state is necessary for Israel's continued existence. This is because of the immense security and economic burdens of the occupation, and because Palestinian birthrates vastly outstrip Israeli ones: in not too long, Israelis will be a minority between the Jordan River and the sea. For right-wingers traditionally concerned with maintaining the Jewish character of Israel, this has led to a sea change in thinking which was characterized by the breakaway of the Kadima Party from Likud and the unilateral pullout from Gaza.
However, disengagement from Gaza proved to be a terrible guide to future policy: it led to the hegemony of Hamas in the strip, and was hugely detrimental to Israel's security. The Palestinian side of the bargain - providing Israel with "secure and recognized boundaries" - went unfulfilled. It precluded any similar action in the West Bank until a credible Palestinian political force exists which would not allow the territory to be used as a basis for aggression.
The three-state solution is the only way to address this problem because it seeks to revitalize the moderates while shutting out the extremists - and it would happen incrementally, without demanding Israel make any huge unilateral concessions which would be politically difficult and detrimental to security. Such incremental change is important because although it might sound appealing for Israel to simply leave the West Bank in toto tomorrow, it is clear that they would have to return the next day to suppress rocket fire. What is needed is a sustainable solution, not just a temporary one.
The three-state solution is hence the only plan which provides any sort of hope for Israelis in the near future. However, whether it can be effective or not rests on the other two problems it faces: the problem of reforming Fatah and of undermining Hamas. Almost all of Fatah's top leadership echelon are tainted by corruption and co-operation with Israel, and the threat of Hamas only made Israel and the U.S. all the more willing to support Fatah leaders who really should be out on their ear. The three-state solution will not work unless it is delivered by a Palestinian political force and not Israel directly - the whole thing is based on the premise of decreasing Israel's involvement in the West Bank and convincing Palestinians to trust their own moderate leadership.
Palestinian trust in Fatah could be revitalized by three things. The first is a fundamental rebranding of the organization, including the introduction of internal democracy and leadership elections. If Israel could move forcefully to remove the corrupt top leadership echelon, this would ultimately help convince Palestinians that the Faustian bargain made by these leaders had not paid off - and Israel would appear as an agent of positive change. There would also be Palestinian indignation at the violation of the Palestinian Authority's constitution and political norms, but these institutions are only a decade old anyway, and they have done precious little to serve the Palestinian national cause. If they must be violated to bring about positive change in the long run, then violated they must be. If the alternative is a continuation of the present stagnation in the peace process, this is a price worth paying.
After a new leadership was found, Israel would need to produce trust-building gestures to help legitimize it. The removal of settlements would be at the top of the list, as would economic aid. Palestinians in the West Bank have lived under a crippling occupation for a long time, and will welcome positive change, however gradual.
While doing all this, Israel would only make concessions to Hamas in Gaza in line with Hamas moving to a more moderate position. If Hamas are ever going to become more moderate and accept a two-state solution rather than the destruction of Israel, then theoretically they should do so as the situation improves in the West Bank and Israel moves against the corrupt and criminal Palestinian leaders which Hamas exists to oppose. This tough and uncompromising position vis-a-vis Gaza might seem cruel, but this is the way the future looks anyway: the siege of Gaza will continue until Hamas changes its position on key points like non-violence and recognition of Israel. Yasser Arafat got away with pretending he believed in these things for years while acting to the contrary, whereas Hamas will not even pretend to pretend. The revitalization of moderates seems the only way to persuade Hamas to move in a positive direction.
The success of the three-state solution would then rest on this final detail: whether Hamas ever really will decide to lay down the gun and foreswear their desire to destroy Israel, either through their own choice or under pressure of public opinion. Only if Palestinian desire for a two-state solution is strong enough can it come about, whereas Hamas so far have never expressed any interest in one. Only when their rockets stop can a two-state solution come about, but it is unlikely Palestinians will demand a cessation of rockets until they see an alternative.
Unfortunately, the problems with this plan are massive. The chances that Fatah could be reformed without destabilizing the West Bank are slim; there would likely be an increase in Palestinian and Israeli casualties, civilian and military. Meanwhile, Hamas would be spooked into attempting to derail the process and might resume suicide bombings in Israel. This, in turn, would disillusion Israelis about the prospect of any sort of solution. It is certainly an open question whether any Israeli-directed reform of Fatah can produce an institution that Palestinians consider credible, but on the other hand it is equally clear that Israel has no choice but to deal with Fatah. Removing Fatah would lead to a Hamas takeover.
Palestinian support for Fatah remains surprisingly strong given its co-operation with Israel, and there is reason to believe it could be revitalized if Palestinians could be made to believe that Israel was serious about peace. But every passing month leads to a consolidation of Hamas rule in Gaza, including the basic problem that Palestinians there have little access to independent information about the outside world which is not filtered by Hamas censors. This alone makes it doubtful that the three-state solution could persuade Gazans to turn against the Islamists in favour of Fatah and Israel - the cultural and psychological differences between Gaza and the West Bank, rooted in their very different experiences of Israeli occupation, should also not be underestimated. Things would likely have to get worse in Gaza before they got better.
The most depressing thing to realize of all is that the three-state solution probably represents the shortest available path to any sort of solution at present, even though it is a long and difficult one. There is an abundance of despair on both sides at the moment, but perhaps this despair can be turned to our advantage because it means leaders will contemplate things that were previously unthinkable. The million dollar question is whether a generation of Palestinians who grew up through the failure of Camp David and the Second Intifada, and a generation of Israelis who grew up with the threat of bombings and under the shadow of rockets, can find a modicum of trust to engage in a project so transparently in their mutual self-interest.
We don't know the answer to that question. But we do know there are few ways to find out other than the three-state solution.
Also on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Mercaz Harav massacre
Second Lebanon War
Hamas vs. the Hilles family
The road to the Annapolis Summit: more despair in the Middle East