It is often said that in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the two-state solution is the only game in town. And yet, despite the official commitment of the Israelis, the Palestinians, and nearly the entire international community, a two-state solution has failed to bear fruit.
There are today roughly three times more Israeli settlers in the West Bank than when Bill Clinton took office. The Palestinian leadership has probably not been this divided and weak since before Yasir Arafat took control of the PLO in 1969. Extremists have risen to power in both Israeli and Palestinian elections.
If the two-state solution is not dead, it is at best in a coma. Since what we’ve been trying hasn’t worked, it should be good news that some people are looking for alternative paths to peace. But last week, in his column at Open Zion, Hussein Ibish tried to hold them back.
Many different kinds of alternatives have been offered, from all ends of the political spectrum. There are Israeli nationalist dreams of annexing the West Bank and proclaiming Jewish rule over the entire country. Hamas has similar dreams, except they want to make the country an Islamic state.
But there are also proposals to build a single democratic state where Israelis and Palestinians would be equal. This is known as the one-state solution.
Ibish lumps all these ideas together and dismisses them as "maximalist." That is an entirely unfair way of describing those who advocate a state founded on the principle of one person, one vote.
In quickly dismissing the one state idea, Ibish makes the same mistake that American policymakers often make. He limits the playing field of peacemaking to what he thinks would be “plausibly acceptable” to the parties today.
A state based on equality between Jews and Palestinians is “a total nonstarter” for most Israelis, and so it “simply won’t happen.” The end. Don’t bother with new ideas. The alternatives won’t work, so let’s return to what we’ve been doing, which also hasn’t worked.
Ibish is correct that the vast majority of Israeli Jews fear the one-state idea. But like most advocates of the two-state solution, Ibish ignores the majority of the Palestinian population: the refugees who were displaced in 1948. Their homes and their property are inside Israel, and establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip never promised to do much for them.
If it is not reasonable to propose something that ignores the desires of the majority of Israelis, then why is it presumed to be reasonable to ignore the majority of Palestinians? The advocates of a two-state solution have never been able to overcome this basic inequality.
Let me be clear: the one-state solution might not work either. It forces a painful concession from both Israeli and Palestinian national aspirations. There would be no Jewish State. And there would be no Arab State, either. Instead, there would he a shared homeland, and a government that treats all individuals as equal citizens.
There are other challenges. While the one-state model more easily allows for the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, it does not explain how that return would work in practice. Some of the land belonging to refugees is now the site of heavily populated Israeli cities. Israelis who live in these places have legitimate reasons to protect their interests, and negotiators would have to find a way to balance these conflicting rights.
But ultimately there are no short cuts to a just peace. The sad truth is that neither the one-state solution nor the two-state solution has any objective track record of success. The two-state solution has been the centerpiece of peacemaking efforts, on and off, since the Peel Commission in 1937, and its only clear result has been continued cycles of violence.
We have a long and tragic record in this conflict showing that what has been politically acceptable for one side has never been politically acceptable to the other. Anyone committed to a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace must look for ways to change what seems possible.
Among all the alternatives to the two-state solution, the one state idea has a very substantial advantage: It is difficult for anyone committed to the values of liberal democracy to object to it as a matter of principle. Moreover, as hopes for a Palestinian state wither, we are in fact left with one country under Israeli rule—and the only question is whether that country will be a state of apartheid or democracy.
As an idea built on the principle of human equality, the one state solution has the capacity to challenge both sides, to change minds, and to inspire people in a way that splitting the country in two never could.