A recent flurry of commentators have proposed a seemingly original, bold and innovative way out of the current Israeli-Palestinian stalemate—a bi-national or “one-state” solution to the conflict. The common thread throughout each argument is how a single country for Israelis and Palestinians would better meet the desires of ordinary people, but alas is continually subverted by short-sighted leaders on both sides. For example, Haaretz’s Gideon Levy argued that the region’s salvation would only come through a “truly revolutionary leadership that shatters old and bad paradigms and neutralizes fears.”
However, as another observer in this region said long ago, “there is nothing new under the sun.” For this apparently new and shiny one-state bauble is in fact a prudently discarded historical relic. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) is well known for recommending partition in its 1947 report, which became the basis for U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 and whose logic still informs current efforts to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But what is little known is that 3 countries—Iran, India and Yugoslavia—out of the 11 represented in UNSCOP disagreed with partition and proposed an alternative federal plan. This plan called for a single federal state of Palestine that linked together constituent Jewish and Arab states.
What is particularly interesting in this forgotten footnote of history is that the central advocate for a federal solution was the now non-existent Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Indeed the Yugoslav representative, Vladimir Simic, even submitted an impassioned 12,000 word annex to the UNSCOP report to outline his views. Simic’s main points are surprisingly analogous to Levy’s et al, blaming the “hegemonistic designs of certain Arab and Jewish politicians” for enabling partition. Similarly, he points to those few enlightened visionaries who are working to create a shared state, which would meet the true “interests and aspirations of the population.” Simic’s clear subtext is that a federal Jewish-Arab state would parallel the Yugoslav Republic, which at the time presented itself as a harmonious amalgamation of different nationalities by simply granting equal rights to all.
Simic, Levy and other one-staters fall into the classic monistic trap of thinkers since the French Enlightenment who place abstract unity and universality over irreconcilable diversity and human nature. While commendable for reminding us of the dangers of xenophobic nationalism, claiming “if only” Israelis and Palestinians realized their true interests of living in one state parallels the Marxist dodge of false consciousness. Palestinian and Israeli leaders want their own state precisely because their people are just like all other peoples—they seek a sense of belonging within their own communities. In fact, “ordinary people” are infinitely wiser than these doctrinaire ideologues in acknowledging that differences cannot all be smoothed out, nor do they wish to do so.
The great scholar of liberalism, Isaiah Berlin, appreciated how the nation-state met this profound human need for collective self-expression and spoke about the dangers of repressing these feelings by imposing an artificial universality. This is also why Berlin advocated for a two-state solution, recognizing that however messy partition might be it is the only path that allowed each side to express these deeply held beliefs. Denying both groups the right to self-determination is therefore not only delusional, but liable to foster the dangerous nationalist reaction that one-staters rail against. In a very real and tragic sense the one-state solution was buried not by the machination of any Israeli or Palestinian leader, but in the graveyards of Sarajevo and Srebrenica.
UNSCOP’s majority recommendation got it exactly right when it stated, “Only by means of partition can these conflicting national aspirations find substantial expression and qualify both peoples to take their places as independent nations in the international community and in the United Nations.”
For those wanting to improve the Israeli-Palestinian situation, guidance should not be sought in the old and wisely rejected snake oil of a bi-national state. Indeed, variations of this “solution” have appeared intermittently since UNSCOP and, like Simic’s minority federal proposal, are best forgotten (as I am sure even The New York Times would agree after publishing the deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s bizarre call for “Isratine” barely two years before he began to massacre his people). Rather it requires helping both the leadership and the people of these two nations take the difficult steps needed for each to articulate their respective national aspirations and respect those of the other.