The British House of Commons, in a non-binding vote, recently reiterated its support for the partition of its interwar Mandate in Palestine when it passed a resolution stating that "this House believes that the Government should recognize the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel, as a contribution to securing a negotiated two state solution." Rather than signifying a potential change in British policy, as the press widely reported, a two-state solution has been an integral part of British policy alternatives since the Peel Commission recommendation in 1937 that the British Mandate be partitioned between the Jews and Arabs.
Indeed, this concept became the basis of the November 1947 UN resolution determining a two-state solution. In both 1937 and 1947, the Arab side was not prepared to cede any territory to the Jews, whom they considered interlopers on their land, while a majority of the Jewish community was prepared to accept a two-state solution if it meant they could have a state of their own.
Despite this history, we often miss what is and has always been the most important distinction in this conflict. Rather than viewing the conflict merely between Jews and Arabs, it is important to note that the major disagreement here is between Palestinians and Israelis who support the separation of the area into two states -- a Jewish state and an Arab state -- and those Arabs and Israelis who reject the partition of Palestine in favor of a one-state solution -- one state within the entire territory of the Mandate.
Among deeply committed one state supporters are Hamas, the Israeli far left and right, and large elements of the BDS movement now sweeping Europe and many American college campuses. These movements or political entities do not always vocalize their support for a one-state solution, but all but the Israeli far right advocate for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to the land inside pre-1967 Israel, which ultimately leads to that inevitable conclusion. They view the State of Israel itself as an illegal creation, one that must be rescinded. Fundamentalist Jewish one-staters have an opposite vision. They seek to create an enlarged State of Israel where Palestinians would reside, but would not exercise control even if in the majority. They clearly oppose the right of the Palestinians to an independent state. All these groups, whether Jewish or Arab, have never agreed, and remain opposed, to the Partition Plan that called for a two-state solution.
The supporters of a two-state solution consistently include the majority of the Israeli and Palestinian publics, as well as most states around the world encompassing, of course, the United States.
The difficulties faced in reaching a peace accord reflect the conflict between the advocates of the one- or two-state solution in both the Palestinian and Israeli populations, and the ability of those who favor a one-state solution to hold their compatriots hostage.
Seeing the conflict in this way offers fascinating insights. First, the power of those one-staters who do not accept a partition of the territory comes from their expression of basic beliefs held by their larger populations. Each side speaks to deeply-seeded claims to and attachment toward the land.
The Jewish fundamentalists speak of a "greater Israel" with biblical antecedents, an argument that is hard for Israelis to dismiss since most believe that Israel sits on the land spoken of in the Bible, even if they do not agree that its borders must be based on biblical texts. Israelis believe that there has always been a Jewish population in the Land of Israel.
The power of the one-stater Palestinians rests on their claim that this territory has always been populated only by Palestinians. They view the invasion of the Crusaders as evidence of the West's continuing desire to rule over the Arab population. They also assert that the Jews never lived on this land and that any archeological evidence pointing to biblical history has been manufactured. Their ability, despite their minority status, to insist that the right of all refugees and their progeny from 1948 to return to pre-1967 Israel and be included in any peace agreement is based on this assumption.
The Palestinian moderates argue that since most of these refugees would have no interest in living in a majority Jewish state, the inclusion of this right for any peace agreement to be reached is merely a formality, a political cover so the more right wing among them can agree to end the conflict. However, since the Palestinian right wing includes Hamas, an entity that has shown its willingness to resort to terror against Palestinians as well as against Israel, the Palestinian Authority would have a hard time convincing Israel to agree to this condition.
Second, although both the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders claim that they want a two-state solution, their need, or desire, to please their more right-wing populations leads them to adapt counterproductive policies that prevent their enumerated desires. Neither Israel's settlement policy nor the Palestinians' insistence on the refugees' right of return is compatible with the development of a negotiated two-state solution.
Where the right-wing Israelis' policy impact is most noticeable is in the ongoing creation of new settlements. Despite their minority status, they have managed to keep control of the government due to Israel's complex political system. Similarly, the one-state solution Palestinians hold an equally powerful position in any decisions made by the Palestinian Authority.
Third, because Israel's settlement building and even construction plans are quantifiable and Abu Mazen's stated insistence on the right of return is more amorphous, Abu Mazen has the public relations advantage. It is often overlooked that when provided real opportunities to create an independent Palestinian state -- such as the offers given at Camp David in 2000, or the subsequent Clinton parameters and the generous offer by then Prime Minister Olmert in 2008 -- the Palestinians have not accepted them. In large measure, the Palestinians rejected or ignored these offers because the policy positions did not adequately address the right of return for all the refugees. Now, admittedly refugees were only one of several core issues on which the parties could not agree. But, even if these terms were better known, it's harder to blame a party for being obdurate about a future matter than one who is seen as actively implementing trouble in the here and now.
Finally, despite the House of Commons' move to recognize the Palestinian state and send a signal that Israel's unabated settlement policies are threatening the viability of a two-state solution, it would actually be more difficult for the Palestinians to adhere to such a resolution if it were ever to be implemented. For most Israelis, settlements are a minority policy not essential to core beliefs. But for the Palestinians, relinquishing the right of return would indeed mean a huge concession that would necessitate the redefinition of Palestinian core identity, even for moderates.
Ironically, while the House of Commons has challenged current Israeli settlement policy, its insistence on a two-state solution requires the Palestinians to relinquish their most controversial demand in order for two states to be possible. Moreover, the House of Commons has demonstrated that outside powers -- ultimately the Arab powers as well -- are needed to convince the Palestinians to accept the state of Israel "alongside" a state of their own.
One-state advocates in both the Palestinian and Israeli camps have been quite successful in preventing the formal partition of the former British Mandate of Palestine and putting an end to the conflict. If the recent British Resolution serves to clarify the overarching disagreement between those who view two states as the only viable resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and those who still refuse to accept the idea of two states, and if its insistence on two states weakens those who still decline to accept either the State of Israel or the creation of a State of Palestine, the House of Commons will have done those who pursue peace a great favor.