The Trump administration’s “vision to improve the lives of the Palestinian and Israeli people” may provoke uncoordinated unilateral steps but is unlikely to lead to “peace” or “prosperity” as most would use those words. But that does not mean it will die alongside other stillborn or short-lived initiatives, such as the Rogers Plan of 1969. Rather, its impact will be shattering over the short to medium term.
It is not the “two-state solution” alone that has just been shattered. Most observers long ago concluded that it had lost its viability—I claimed in 2007 that “the peace process has no clothes,” wrote of a “sunset for the two-state solution” the following year, and was hardly the first to say such things. Instead the Trump administration has shattered two other long-established elements—multilateral diplomacy and Palestinian state-building—and the choice of the word “shattered” is deliberate.
To say that multilateralism has been shattered does not mean that diplomacy has been destroyed. There are many individual, bilateral, and even somewhat broader diplomatic efforts and reactions that can occur, but any effort to develop a wide international consensus has become a victim of the U.S. initiative. Multilateral diplomacy has always been uneven, with the United States sometimes treating it as a necessary annoyance to be contained. Yet over the past two decades initiatives such as the Road Map—gestated by European powers, baptized by the United Nations Security Council, and fostered by the Quartet of the European Union, the United Nations, the United States, and Russia—as well as the Arab Peace Initiative often meant that like-minded international discussions could sketch out ideas, even as realities on the ground gave them little traction.
For good or ill, real diplomatic breakthroughs have come only when the parties themselves have been involved and even willing to take surprising initiatives. It is then that multilateral diplomacy can provide support and muscle. But at this point there is no longer any international framework for negotiations. The Arab world, in earlier generations regarded by many Palestinians as ineffectual but supportive, is deeply split and much distracted. The United States and Europe are more at odds over basic questions regarding the conflict than the United States and the Soviet Union were during the Cold War. Even after the current confusion clears, there will likely be little basis for the concerted international action that produced frameworks such as the Tripartite Declaration of 1950 or even the 1947 UN partition plan.
More subtly, the Trump initiative has shattered Palestinian state-building efforts. In recent years those efforts were often framed by the idea of a two-state solution, but they predated it and survived its demise. Again, the term “shattered” is used to suggest not that the efforts are destroyed. Indeed, their institutional effects are woven deep into the fabric of prevailing arrangements. But their coherence is lost. Moreover, their disconnection from Palestinian society—already deeply in evidence—can be counteracted now only by a revival of Palestinian civil and political life that many international efforts have been undermining for two decades.
The elements of Palestinian state-building consist of layers of institutions dating back to the British Mandate (and a few even before). Some of them—labor unions, professional associations, nongovernmental organizations, and the like—were based in Palestinian society and were established to help organize Palestinians into a national movement. Others, such as schools, courts, and municipalities, were built under various overseers, but could be handed from one to the next—the British, Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians—depending on who could enforce their control. Some, such as the Palestinian factions, as well as unions, and even the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) itself, were created at least partly in exile. And some, such as the Palestinian security services and most ministries, were established when the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) took over the state-building project in the West Bank and Gaza in the mid-1990s.
All of these efforts had flaws, and some have seriously faded or been deliberately destroyed. Organizing efforts in large parts of the Palestinian diaspora have been anemic for a generation. Israel has forcibly closed many Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem and broken their links with Palestinian national structures. Many Palestinians inside Israel are attempting to elbow their way into a space at the Israeli table, even as the tug of shared national identity with non-Israeli Palestinians gradually grows. The Gaza-West Bank split has left the PNA’s unity threadbare at the best of times. But despite all these problems, there were surviving elements that worked to maintain some connection to the idea of a Palestinian state.
Those elements are now all in protracted crisis. One, namely the PLO, is moribund, but alive on paper; another, the thrice-declared “State of Palestine” has only some international representation to its name; and a third, the PNA, offers no path to statehood and has lost much of its nationalist credibility. While they all have had a single leader, they have lost much connection with Palestinian society at the grassroots level over the past two decades. Yet they soldier on in international diplomacy and provide some oversight of domestic governance.
But most of the constituent parts of past state-building efforts are still very much alive. And they are sufficiently embedded that they will likely continue operating in some way. The security forces will come under great strain. They are caught in an impossible trap of being allowed to function by Israel in return for coordination, but being domestically legitimate only because they are led by Palestinians. Other institutions, such as schools, will likely continue operating, while ministries and bureaucracies will march on, often inefficiently but still providing employment and desultory administration.
But no longer do such structures answer to a viable national leadership or project to guide them. And it is rare to meet a Palestinian who thinks such dusty and degraded bodies can serve that purpose anytime soon. By treating them with disdain and by disbanding the loose international coalition that protected them, the Trump administration has ensured that when Palestinians act as a national community they will not do so through the state-building structures of the past.
Palestinian national identity remains strong even as it has grown alienated from existing political structures. Whatever revived national movement does arise, it will likely emerge not by breathing life into the old structures but by moving outside of them. The unity of the national movement and its orientation toward state-building was always loose, but U.S. moves have virtually ensured that however Palestinians learn to organize themselves effectively—and that may take much time—it will be in forms that the past structures will not be able to lead or contain.