Despite the heroic efforts of the new American Secretary of State John Kerry, the creation of two states for two peoples in Israel and Palestine is looking increasingly unlikely. The resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was last week described as “another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution” by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. It might be the final nail. Moreover, Friedman is not alone. Writing from Pretoria, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy put forward the suggestion that Palestinians follow the black South Africans in demanding “one person one vote.”
So is it time to start looking for an alternative to the two-state solution?
A majority on the left will reply with a firm no—no, exclamation point—and that is part of the problem. For many years, a majority on the left in Israel has been expressing horror at the very idea of a single state. It has been termed “a disaster,” or “a recipe for perpetual civil war.” It is predicted that the establishment of a state of all its citizens in the area between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean will inevitably lead to a Muslim Arab state.
There are many problems with this way of thinking, which is fundamentally just as anti-Arab as the dogma of the Israeli right. It is perfectly legitimate to want a Jewish state and to point out that this will be difficult to achieve if there is no withdrawal from the West Bank, but there is also an increasingly clear subtext: “Who needs all those additional Arabs?”
The problem with painting horror pictures of the single state is that, when it comes about—and it is virtually here already—it will be much more difficult to make the best of it. There is an old Jewish joke about the recurrence of the biblical flood. When the news is broadcast, the Christians pray for salvation, the Muslims book a comfortable place in their heaven, but the Jews turn to one another, saying, “Nu, life will be difficult under six feet of water.”
Life will certainly be difficult in a single state, but we had better start working out how to make the best of it. There are various ideas floating around for a bi-national structure that will guarantee both communities self-determination. There is a proposal that each community will elect its own legislature to avoid the danger of one side dominating the other. My own view is that we should not complicate matters unnecessarily. I am on record in my book, The Other Side of Despair (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), as favoring simple democracy: one person, one vote, with a large measure of communal autonomy, plus the cancellation of the Law of Return and the rejection of the Right of Return.
At least at the outset, the Jews will still have a majority, which self-interest dictates they should use wisely. If the Knesset becomes one-third Arab, this will be a positive development. The Arabs can utilize their new political power to achieve long overdue reforms that will equalize their conditions with those of the Jews. Their towns and villages will receive equivalent development budgets, equal water allocations, fair planning permission for building homes, and adequate educational resources.
Higher living standards and better education may well drive down the Arab birth rate to that of equality with their Jewish fellow-citizens. Thus it is by no means inevitable that the new entity will have a dominant Arab majority.
In a one-state solution, the Jews will accept voluntary limitation of their sovereignty, and the Palestinians will lose their chance of establishing an independent state, but they have only themselves to blame. Both peoples share the historical responsibility for failing to implement a sensible partition plan, which would have resulted in a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the Jewish state.
There are also positive aspects. The Palestinians will become citizens of a modern democratic state—and there are strong indications that that is what most of them really want. The Jews will gain acceptance in the Middle East, which is their existential need.
It will be argued that the above picture is unrealistically optimistic, and I cannot totally deny such an assessment, but I don’t see a better alternative on the horizon at this point in time. At the very least, the Israeli left and their supporters must stop crying “Gevalt!” every time that the one-state solution comes up for discussion.