In his “Questions For One-Staters” Ziad Asali points out some of the many problems associated with a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The most obvious of these, of course, is the failure of one-staters to devise a satisfactory formula for dealing with the overwhelming Jewish Israeli rejection of a bi-national state. But Asali is asking the wrong questions—and to the wrong people. It may be easy to dismiss advocates of a one-state solution as politically naïve; but thanks to Israel’s ever-expanding settlement enterprise, the cantonization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the absence of a credible diplomatic process, it is actually the two-state option that needs defending.
At the outset I should make clear that I still support a two-state solution. It is the most practical and least worst of all likely outcomes to the nearly 100 year-old conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land. As someone who worked directly on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations for nearly six years, I believe that fair and sustainable resolutions can be found on even the most intractable issues like Jerusalem and refugees.
Whether such a resolution is politically possible, however, is another matter. And in this I am not alone—polls (e.g., here and here) continue to show most Israelis and Palestinians still support a two-state solution, even while majorities on both sides have come to see it as a virtual impossibility. In the eyes of many, if a two-state solution were to be had it would have already happened. But the contradictions do not end there.
The basic problem with the way most of us think about a two-state solution can be summed up not in ten questions but in one: when does the clock run out on two-state solution and how will we know when it does? We have all heard the familiar warning that “time is running out on a two-state solution.” And yet few, if any, of the multitude of U.S., Israeli, Palestinian and other officials who regularly invoke this mantra have ever actually explained what it means. How much time must go by, how many Israeli settlers must be added, how much territorial fragmentation must occur before the parties and the international community finally conclude that a two-state solution is simply no longer even a physical possibility?
Ask any Israeli or Palestinian–or American or European–official this question (which I do as matter of course) and you are likely to hear only vague reaffirmations of the crucial need for a negotiated resolution based on two states for two peoples. Press them further, however, and they will eventually concede something like the following: “The two-state solution cannot expire because there is no alternative.” But if there is no alternative, then time is certainly not “running out.” It is this paradox that gives American, Israeli, and even Palestinian leaders the illusion that the status quo can be maintained indefinitely, and why it is so easy for all sides to support a two-state solution without ever taking the necessary steps to make it happen.
That a bi-national state may not be an acceptable alternative at this time does not preclude the possibility of one as an eventual outcome. So, while, there can be no normative threshold beyond which a two-state solution officially becomes null and void, it cannot logically remain on the table forever. This is so not only because growing numbers of Israelis, and especially Palestinians, are abandoning the idea of two states, but because they already live in a one-state reality—albeit a highly inequitable and unsustainable one.
In the meantime, there are any number of ways a two-state solution might be rendered permanently unworkable on the ground. The most obvious and tangible of these is the physical collapse of the Palestinian Authority, including its many security and governing institutions. This could happen through an official decision by the Palestinian leadership to dissolve the PA, as President Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have occasionally threatened, or, more likely, as a result of the chronic lack of resources, political dysfunction, and declining legitimacy that plagues the PA. A decision by Israel to formally annex all or parts of the West Bank, as it threatened to do in response to last year’s UN bid, could also put an end to the possibility of two states, as could the eruption of sustained violence similar to what took place a decade ago in the West Bank.
While the elimination of the two-state option will not necessarily lead directly to a single democratic state where both peoples live as equal citizens, Palestinians are not likely to accept a permanent state of subjugation. They will eventually revolt, peacefully or otherwise, and demand their rights, whether in one state or two. The great irony, therefore, is that until we can accept the very real possibility of a one-state outcome we are unlikely to work in any meaningful way toward a two-state solution.