Why One State Won't Work

Brent E. Sasley on a prominent Israeli liberal's call for the one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last week Gideon Levy joined (or perhaps just made more explicit his part in) the small but growing group of Israelis and Palestinians who call for a one-state solution to the conflict. Levy argued that a single state is, for all intents and purposes, already here, but it just lacks basic elements of justice and rights for all. He’s certainly right that the effort to extend Israeli sovereignty over much of the West Bank has been proceeding apace. But while I share his concern about justice and rights, and agree that the occupation is undermining both, the argument that a single state will resolve all these problems seems naïve at best, a recipe for more violence at worst.

Levy echoes Yousef Munayyer’s use of Theodor Herzl’s “if you will it, it is no dream” statement to demonstrate that the dream of a Zionist state was all but impossible at the end of the nineteenth century. The implication of both is that the dream has been corrupted, and therefore it is time for a new dream of a shared Jewish-Palestinian entity.

My response to Munayyer’s piece applies just as well to Levy. But Levy does admit that his “fantasy” is no short-term panacea. It will, he says, “be achieved through a long, difficult and complex process of liberation from old beliefs and values that were destructive for both nations. It will also require the overcoming of deep fears that are no less destructive, and drawing a line under the past.” He’s certainly right about the obstacles standing in the way of such a daydream. So let me add two more counter-points regarding the sheer mechanics of implementing a single state.

First, the notion that one person, one vote will ensure human and political rights for all ignores that such unification will actually lay the groundwork for the very opposite. Let’s assume a single state is implemented. As even Levy admits, there will be mistrust between Jews and Palestinians for a long time. What this will do is create an atmosphere of support among the Jewish population for the arguments that the settlers, secular nationalists, and haredi will put forward: namely, that there’s an urgent need to embed in the new state’s institutions and rules the hegemony of Jewish ideas, symbols, and identity before the Arab population is large enough to, through one person, one vote, remove these very things.

We know this is the likely outcome because polls tell us that most Jewish-Israelis like Israel being Jewish, regardless of whatever rights the Arab minority has. A Palestinian population on the verge of becoming a majority of the population would, therefore, likely be viewed simply as a threat, rather than something positive. There’s nothing to suggest any other arguments can work among the bulk of the population, not least because Jewish public opinion is elastic enough to include rights and support for the Arab population while maintaining a Jewish majority in the current state.

Second, there’s no evidence at all that things in the new state will be pleasant and peaceful. Supporters often point to years of co-existence between Jews and Arabs before 1948 as evidence for such an outcome. But that was a different era. The establishment of the state engendered a large constituency for Jewish sovereignty that, again, isn’t so rigid as to exclude—among most of the Jewish population—a place for Arab citizens.

I’m not making an “ancient hatreds” argument, but noting that the contemporary State of Israel itself provides much to its Jewish population specifically—namely, a sense of pride, belonging, security, and simple existence. Under this condition, Levy’s arguments simply can’t fly with this constituency—which encompasses the vast majority of Israeli Jews.

All public opinion data, including the desire for national self-determination among both Jews and Palestinians, the lack of concrete examples of how Jews and Palestinian can be convinced to want to and to like being in a single state together that truly is ethno-nationally-blind, and the absence of a real plan for what such rules and institutions would look like undermines the argument for a single state. It simply isn’t convincing.