One-State of Mind

Shouk-ha-Carmel. Tel Aviv, 2013.

“The two-state solution is the only viable option to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” So goes the familiar refrain. Lately, I’ve noted a couple of instances where the cliché has been accompanied with mockery of those who advocate for one secular, democratic state in all of the land Israel now controls. There’s a lot of arrogance and condescension in that attitude. Knowing many prominent one-staters, and being familiar with the work of many others, I can testify that most are not utopian thinkers or naïve dreamers. Many of them make a strong and cogent argument. But the question remains: is there any realistic possibility of resolving this conflict within the framework of a single state?

In both one-state and two-state formulas, there are significant obstacles. In theory, one simply has a choice in the various permutations of each formula as to which obstacles she estimates will be less difficult to overcome. But the two-state formulation has one thing going for it that no one-state idea does: an international consensus that has been built up behind it. This isn’t the only point two-staters make as to why their path is preferable. There is also the point that mixing strong nationalist movements has historically led to disaster, and that the imbalance of power means the one thing Israel will not ever give up is a state constituted of a large Jewish majority. There are other arguments as well, but the only one that renders one-state plans as seemingly “fantasy-based” is the international consensus.

Indeed, the biggest weakness the one-state argument has is that there is no political body, particularly no Palestinian or Israeli one, that endorses it, outside of extremists on both sides who advocate either an Islamic state or a Jewish apartheid state. There is no political force behind a secular, democratic state or a bi-national or even a federated one at this time. It is indeed fair to say that without that, a single state solution in Israel-Palestine will not be part of the political-diplomatic discourse.

I’m not a one-state advocate. But neither do I fundamentally oppose a single state solution. My own view has long been that the preferred solution should be the one that works, that can be accepted by enough Israelis and Palestinians to hold, and that can be sufficiently just to work for everyone. I do not believe the Oslo formulation meets those criteria anymore, if it ever did. That doesn’t mean that some other two-state formula might not work. What I have been advocating for the past several years is that Oslo needs to be scrapped, and that a new formulation must be constructed, based not on the security needs or nationalist ambitions of either party (though both of those must play prominent roles in any arrangement,) but which is built on a foundation of equal rights for all.

In order to do that, however, the discourse must encompass the full spectrum of ideologies and views. The discourse we have now is simply pro- or anti-Oslo, and we must move past this, to a broader discussion. That can only be done by bringing one-state ideologies that consider the needs of both Israelis and Palestinians into the conversation, and that requires more than just some academics and activists writing and talking about it. It requires an Israeli or Palestinian body advocating for it.

The two-state solution came to occupy the position it now holds through a combination of circumstance, happenstance and political decision. Once Israel was created in 1948, the various partition plans that preceded it were relegated to the dustbin of history. It was only the beginning of the occupation in 1967 that opened the possibility of a two-state solution again.

Irgun Museum. Tel Aviv, 2013.
Irgun Museum. Tel Aviv, 2013.

In 1974, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) first endorsed the idea of accepting Palestinian rule over any part of Palestine that was liberated. Israel perceived this as a new strategy to wipe it out, and indeed, the PLO framed it within the goal of liberating all of Palestine. But many Palestinians and other observers recognized that this was a step toward conceding that the Palestinians would have to resign themselves to Israel’s existence and find another way toward self-determination from which point, presumably, they could pursue redress for their grievances as a nation-state.

The notion of a Palestinian state had a lot of obstacles to overcome, even beyond the obvious Israeli and American ones. Many Arab leaders, for instance, were reluctant to embrace this strategy. Some of their reasons had to do with Cold War issues, some with a desire to maintain the fight against Israel’s existence, and some because a Palestinian state frustrated their own ambitions. Jordan was one such state, but its attitude changed gradually over the years. The Palestinian Declaration of Independence came after a failed Israeli-Jordanian attempt to forge a peace treaty which would have included Jordan taking back the West Bank, a failure which resulted in Jordan formally relinquishing its claim to the West Bank. That, as it turned out, paved the way for the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel in 1994.

The intifada that began in 1987 severely weakened the PLO, as a new leadership, based in the Occupied Territories rather than in exile as Arafat and his crew were, emerged from that struggle in the West Bank and Gaza. This weakness was compounded by the 1991 Gulf War. That conflict obliged the United States, as a quid pro quo for Arab assistance against one of their own, Saddam Hussein, to convene a peace conference in Madrid. The PLO was not directly involved, but maintained contact through the Palestinians who were part of the Jordanian delegation. Yasir Arafat’s support for Saddam in the war had strained his own position with the Americans and the Arab League and had severe effects on Palestinians living in other Arab countries, especially Kuwait, from where some 400,000 Palestinians were expelled. All in all, the conditions for an agreement were ripe but the PLO was horribly weak.

Without all of these various circumstances, the Oslo Accords might never have come about. The point of this historical review is that such a development was the result of a combination of circumstances, some of which were intentional some of which were not, but all of which depended initially on a Palestinian decision, when the occupation was still young, to pursue a two-state solution.

A number of Palestinian leaders I have spoken with, as well as other informed sources, have said that a new generation is emerging in the Occupied Territories which embraces a one-state program. While this may cause two-staters to break out in a cold sweat, it is, in fact, a most hopeful development, no matter what one’s vision for peace is. For without a strong and legitimate one-state voice, the thinking of how to ultimately resolve this conflict will remain stunted and restrained.

Moreover, the current refusal to even consider alternatives to the flawed Oslo program is quickly becoming the biggest obstacle to peace in and of itself. I explained elsewhere how the Oslo thinking is born of the basic inequality in power between Israel and the Palestinians, and how this leads to visions of “compromise” that are actually very-one sided arrangements favoring Israel. Some supporters of Israel might embrace such things, but ultimately that means they will lead to deals that cannot possibly hold for long.

The Oslo mode of thinking needs to be abandoned and replaced with a discourse that considers all reasonable alternatives and begins from a foundation not of security (though that needs to be a key component, for Palestinians as well as Israelis) but of equal rights for all the people that live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. That can’t happen until one-state ideas are given their place at the table.

The introduction of a one-state argument does not decide the debate, but enhances it. Israel will bitterly resist such a thing, of course, but it did so with two states at one time as well. That can be overcome, especially because now there is much more sympathy in the West for the Palestinian cause than there was in 1974, and a one-state scenario would not be as threatening to entrenched Arab leadership as a Palestinian state was thought to be by some forty years ago. A reasonable one-state view, which has the imprimatur of a recognized Palestinian leadership, can get to the table much faster than the two-state formula did. While it might not take twenty years, it still won’t be easy.

In order to get that political legitimacy, some good fortune will be required, as will a quick response when an opportunity presents itself. But such fortune and opportunity will go to waste if there is no political leadership advocating the position, but only a handful of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian bloggers, activists and intellectuals scattered around the world preaching for a one-state solution.

Israelis and traditional “pro-Israel” forces won’t like it, but in fact, such open discourse, exploring the full range of possibilities and coming up with creative solutions that takes the best from all points of view in a collective process is the best way to save the Zionist dream of Jewish self-determination from what it has become—an oppressive, paranoid and selfish system of oppression that lives, and will eventually die, by the sword. It is also the best hope that Palestinians have for a future where self-determination means a real opportunity to build their own future and hope for real prosperity.

It’s time to save the peace process from the clutches of the Oslo Accords. It’s time to scrap ideas that haven’t worked and can’t work because they cannot possibly offer Israelis what they want – peace, security and a more stable regional position—and also offer the Palestinians what they need – freedom, self-determination and economic and political viability. It might be that we can still find a way to do that in two states, perhaps with those two states working together in some formal fashion. It may be that we can only accomplish those things in a single state that finds a way to blend democracy and two strong nations that want to keep their own separate identities.

Israel-Palestine is a unique and complicated constellation of cultures and politics. It’s time we stopped trying to fix it with simplistic formulas and attacked the problem with the full range of thought and creativity that Israelis, Palestinians and all of their supporters have at their disposal.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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