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What Does a "One State Solution" Really Mean?

January 25, 2014 at 3:56 pm

Beyond the Failed “Peace Process”
By Alain Gresh

Renewed Arab/Israeli negotiations, opened under the auspices of President Barack Obama in September, are undermined not just by settlement building but differing visions on other fundamental issues. The impasse has led to calls by some senior figures, including Israelis, for the creation of a single state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan.

“The lesser danger, the lesser evil, is a single state in which there are equal rights for all citizens,” said the Israeli parliament’s speaker. Another politician, a former minister, added that the only remaining option for Israel is the declaration of a single state covering the whole of the historical territory of Palestine, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. A young female member of parliament with strong religious convictions has also defended the same conclusions. These three politicians are not members of Hamas, nor even Palestinians, nor European anti-Zionists. They are prominent members of the Israeli right.

The Knesset speaker, Reuven Rivlin, has challenged the idea of an Arab demographic threat and said this attitude “leads to thinking of transfer, or that they should be killed. I am appalled by this kind of talk. I go into schools, and when they hold mock elections, Lieberman [the foreign affairs minister and leader of the extreme right party, Yisrael Beitenu gets 40 per cent of the vote and I hear kids saying that Arabs should be killed. It seems to me that many of the belligerent Jewish movements that were built upon hatred of Arabs, and I’m not only talking about Lieberman but within the Likud as well, grew out of the patronizing, socialist attitude that said ‘They’ll be there and we’ll be here.’ I have never understood this. When Jabotinsky (1) says ‘Zion is all ours’, he means a Jewish prime minister and an Arab deputy prime minister” (2).

Moshe Arens first came to prominence as defense and foreign minister in the 1980s. Arens, who is Netanyahu’s political godfather and regarded as a hawk, wrote in the daily Haaretz: “What would happen if Israeli sovereignty were to be applied to Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], the Palestinian population there being offered Israeli citizenship? Those who, in Israel and abroad, consider the Israeli ‘occupation’ of Judea and Samaria an unbearable evil should be greatly relieved by such a change that would free Israel of the burden of ‘occupation'” (3). But how would that population be absorbed? Israel, he replies, already includes well-integrated minorities such as the Druze and the Circassians. As for Muslim Arab difficulties with integration, they stem from “successive Israeli governments that have not taken effective measures”. He believes that this is the primary task to be addressed.

Tzipi Hotovely is the youngest member of Knesset and a rising star in Likud, which she joined in response to a personal invitation from Netanyahu. She opposed the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which she claimed demonstrated the failure of any sort of withdrawal. She is in favor of the idea of Israeli settlements: “The Jews lived in Hebron, in Beit El. These are biblical places. Hebron is the place where King David began his kingdom. I don’t think it’s something we can let go, because what is Zionism all about? Zionism is really about going back to Zion, going back to Jerusalem, going back to all those biblical places. We need to start talking about the peace process without removing people from the settlements” (4). In which case the only possibility is the extension of Israeli law to all of the West Bank and the granting of citizenship and the vote to the Palestinians: a single state which, for Hotovely as for Rivlin and Arens, could only be a Jewish state.

These proposals are an attempt to resolve one of the fundamental contradictions for the liberal wing of the Israeli right: how to reconcile its claims to sovereignty over the whole of “Judea and Samaria” with democratic principles, and how to avoid establishing an apartheid system in which Palestinians are deprived of their political rights.

Menachem Begin, who led the right to victory for the first time in 1977, was the first to try to solve this dilemma. After welcoming Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977, he put forward a plan which set out his idea of Palestinian autonomy and offered the residents of the West Bank and Gaza the choice of Israeli or Jordanian nationality, and thus the right to vote in one of two states. This proposal was quickly dropped because it ran into the same obstacle that none of our three contemporary politicians has managed to overcome: could the claims of a Jewish state be reconciled with granting the Palestinians the right to vote? Arens claims that the Palestinians wouldn’t represent more than 30 per cent of the total, but that underestimates the population of the West Bank and ignores Gaza. His plan failed to explain how it would prevent the Palestinian population from crossing the critical 50 per cent threshold. Even at 40 per cent, no government could be formed without Palestinian support, and it is hard to understand what interest they would have in supporting the government of a “Jewish state”.

Peace process on life support

Whatever their limits and contradictions, these iconoclastic points of view reflect the general pessimism that characterizes the “peace process”, on life support for years now. Despite the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the aegis of President Barack Obama on 2 September, few commentators would bet on the patient being resuscitated. The sense of discouragement is widespread and has perhaps affected most of all the US officials who have recently held the Middle East brief.

Aaron David Miller served as adviser to six secretaries of state under three presidents from 1988 to 2003. He took part in all the negotiations, public and secret. In a sensational article called “The false religion of Mideast peace and why I am no longer a believer” (5), he explains that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer central to Washington now that Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and especially Iran monopolize its attention, and even a great power such as the US cannot do everything at once, especially in a crisis.

“The believers need to re-examine their faith, especially at a moment when America is so stretched and overextended. The United States needs to do what it can, including working with Israelis and Palestinians on negotiating core final-status issues (particularly on borders, where the gaps are narrowest), helping Palestinians develop their institutions, getting the Israelis to assist by allowing Palestinians to breathe economically and expand their authority, and keeping Gaza calm, even as it tries to relieve the desperation and sense of siege through economic assistance. But America should also be aware of what it cannot do, as much as what it can.”

Robert Malley, who acted as adviser to President Bill Clinton during the Camp David negotiations in July 2000, also draws a pessimistic conclusion from his experience. He has developed a radical critique of the two-state solution: “The problem with the two-state idea as it has been construed is that it does not truly address what it purports to resolve. It promises to close a conflict that began in 1948, perhaps earlier, yet virtually everything it worries about sprang from the 1967 war. Ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is essential and the conflict will persist until this is addressed. But its roots are far deeper: for Israelis, Palestinian denial of the Jewish state’s legitimacy; for Palestinians, Israel’s responsibility for their large-scale dispossession and dispersal that came with the state’s birth” (6). The creation of a Palestinian state and debate over who will regain what territory will not pacify “the two peoples’ most visceral and deep-seated emotions, their longings and anger”. So what option does that leave if, like Malley, you reject the single-state solution?

Non-violent status quo

Like other US commentators, Malley supports the idea of a “long-term interim solution”. The contours of this vary, but it would permit the postponement until some unspecified later date decisions on the most sensitive issues, such as Jerusalem and refugees.

Roger Cohen, a writer for the New York Times editorial pages, has summed up such a vision (7): “Obama, who has his Nobel already, should ratchet expectations downward. Stop talking about peace. Banish the word. Start talking about détente. That’s what Lieberman wants; that’s what Hamas says it wants; that’s the end point of Netanyahu’s evasions. It’s not what Abbas wants but he’s powerless. Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist, told me, ‘A non-violent status quo is far from satisfactory but it’s not bad. Cyprus is not bad.’ A peace of the brave must yield to a truce of the mediocre – at best.”

This pessimism is fed by a false symmetry which has characterized the actions of the great powers since 1993: two peoples live on this land, they must reach an accord, which presumes that the extremists are isolated and there is good will on both sides. It obscures the particular responsibilities of the occupier and puts the occupier on the same level as the occupied. It overlooks the fact that all Israeli governments, even after the Oslo Accords, have pursued a policy of territorial expansion: the number of settlers has gone from 100,000 in 1993 to 300,000 today, not including the 200,000 who have moved to East Jerusalem. Likewise, “the addition of territories situated to the west of the wall of separation, land held by official and unofficial settlements, spaces used for bypasses and closed military zones in the valley of Jordan which the Israelis intend to retain in any event” (8) represent 45 per cent of the territory of the West Bank. Israeli political parties on the right and the left reject with impunity UN resolutions and international law.

The start of the second intifada in September 2000 enabled the then prime minister Ehud Barak to convince the majority of Israeli public opinion that there was no “Palestinian partner” (9) and never had been. Even the historic decision of the summit of Arab nations in Beirut in March 2002, which accepted global peace with Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state within its 1967 borders, was contemptuously rejected. And the government paid no price for this rejection, since the major world powers – the EU, the US, China and Russia – dealt with Israel as though the occupation did not exist, even though the image of Israel in public opinion was being eroded.

More fundamentally, Israel’s leaders refused to recognize Palestinian equality in their actions. Signing the Olso Accords didn’t dent their arrogance or overturn the idea that the life of a Palestinian is worth less than the security of an Israeli. Citing the hostility of neighbors and drawing justification from the genocide of the Jews in the Second World War, Israel’s leaders have constructed a concept of security as an absolute beyond the reach of any power, which drags the country into endless wars. Is a solution possible if the principle of equality between all human beings in this land is not recognized? “Equality or nothing” used to be the watchword of the American-Palestinian Edward Said (10), and it is an idea that has now been taken up by various parties, not least the Palestinians of Israel, who claim it vehemently.

This worries Ehud Yaari, a veteran Israeli journalist and author of one of the first books about Fatah (11). In an article this spring, he explained his view that within the next few years, support for a two-state solution will crumble and new concepts take its place, that the disappearance of the Palestinian Authority will bring about the de facto annexation of the occupied territories and that the Palestinians will “accomplish by stealth the sort of Arab demographic dominance that Israeli leaders have for decade sought to avoid by occupying, rather than annexing, the Palestinian territories. Such an annexation in reverse would leave no choice but to coexist alongside an Arab majority” (12). He believes that an armistice is necessary and could be facilitated by an Israeli retreat to the line fixed by the “security wall”, which would mean dismantling some 60 settlements and repatriating 50,000 of Israel’s half-million settlers.

Occupation by other means

All these plans for interim solutions in the context of current power relations will in fact only prolong the occupation in other forms; the Palestinians will be confined to reserves without territorial unity, control of their borders or economic or political power. As for the Palestinian Authority’s threat to declare an independent Palestinian state, it is derisory (13). Such a state was previously declared by the PLO in 1988 and recognized by more than 100 states. Even if the EU were to recognize such a state today, would it be prepared to treat Israel as an occupying power and subject it to sanctions to force it to withdraw?

The prospect of a single state covering all the historic territory of Palestine is equally problematic (14), as demonstrated by the debate in the Palestinian camp after the proposals from Rivlin and Arens.

Uri Avnery, a veteran Israeli peace campaigner, has criticised the flaws in these plans (15). They exclude Gaza; the single state would be Jewish; the annexation of the West Bank would allow settlement building to continue; the granting of citizenship to the Palestinians would happen at best over a decade, if not a generation. He concluded: “In Roman Polanski’s movie Rosemary’s Baby, a nice young woman gives birth to a nice baby, which turns out to be the son of Satan. The attractive leftist vision of the one-state solution may grow up into a rightist monster.”

This viewpoint is contested by American-Palestinian Ali Abunimah, who runs the Electronic Intifada website and has written a book arguing for a single state (16). Like Avnery, he enumerates the limits of the right’s plans, but goes on: “Once Israeli Jews concede that Palestinians must have equal rights, they will not be able to unilaterally impose any system that maintains undue privilege. A joint state should accommodate Israeli Jews’ legitimate collective interests, but it would have to do so equally for everyone else” (17). He draws a parallel with what happened in South Africa: “By the mid-1980s, whites overwhelmingly understood that the apartheid status quo was untenable and they began to consider ‘reform’ proposals that fell very far short of the African National Congress’s demands for a universal franchise – one-person, one-vote in a non-racial South Africa. … Until almost the end of the apartheid system, polls showed the vast majority of whites rejected a universal franchise, but were prepared to concede some form of power-sharing with the black majority as long as whites retained a veto over key decisions.”

Hamas equivocates

Hamas has remained on the sidelines, limiting itself to the acceptance of the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and to promising in these circumstances a hudna (truce) of unspecified duration with Israel, but without recognition of Israel. As for what would amount to “the liberation of all Palestine” and the future of its Jewish population, Hamas confines itself to statements about Islam’s acceptance of religious minorities. And Fatah has remained silent.

While the two most representative Palestinian organisations, Fatah and Hamas, remain absent from the debate about a single state (see A history of conflict between opposing ideals) – even though it is not a new debate – Edward Said and Tony Judt, some of the solidarity movement with Palestine, and a significant though minority part of Palestinian opinion have supported or do support the utopia of a single democratic state (18). But like the Fatah proposal from the end of the 1960s, it still remains hampered by its ambiguities: are we talking about a state of all its citizens on the South African model? Or a state of two nations like the former Czechoslovakia? What would its constitution be, and what guarantees would it offer to its different national and religious communities? What stance would it take towards its neighbors? Would it be a member of the Arab League?

More problematic still, such a project could only come about through the Palestinians making common cause among themselves, and among some significant part of Israel’s Jewish population. The example of South Africa is often mentioned. But beyond the question of whether Israel is or is not an apartheid state, the South African model was made possible because the African National Congress (ANC), through its alliance with the Communist party, had a “white base”; it also adapted its language and combat methods to the will to build a rainbow nation to avoid the exodus of the white population experienced by Angola and Mozambique. It made only limited use of terrorism for fear of alienating support, especially among the white community (19). The ANC, while uncompromising on the principle of “one man, one woman, one vote”, also knew how to take into account the fears of the white and mixed race communities and offered them firm guarantees.

This model requires new forms of organisation on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, and it needs to overcome the fears, hatreds and prejudices that divide them. Describing the difficult pilgrimage back to his house in Jerusalem, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote (20):

Should I ask permission from strangers
sleeping in my own bed
to visit myself for five minutes?

Should I bow respectfully
to the inhabitants of my childish dreams?
Would they ask, Who is this inquisitive foreign visitor?

Would I be able to speak
of peace and war among victims?
and victims of victims?

Without contradiction? Would they say to me,
There is no room for two dreams in one bedroom?

Translated by George Miller

Alain Gresh is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique and heads its Middle East/Muslim world department

(1) Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), leader of the Zionist right, whose ideas inspired right-wing parties which under Menachem Begin won the Israeli elections for the first time in 1977.

(2) Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 15 July 2010.

(3) “Is there another option?”, Haaretz, 2 June 2010.

(4), 10 July 2010.

(5) “The false religion of Mideast peace and why I’m no longer a believer”, Foreign Policy, Washington, May-June 2010.

(6) Co-authored with Hussein Agha, “Can they start over?”, New York Review of Books, 3 December 2009.

(7) “A Mideast truce”, New York Times, 16 November 2009.

(8) Denis Bauchard, “L’Etat palestinien en question: la solution des deux Etats est-elle encore possible?”, Institut Français des Relations Internationales, Paris, March 2010.

(9) See “Camp David’s thwarted peace“, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, July 2002.

(10) Israël-Palestine, l’égalité ou rien, La Fabrique, Paris, 1999.

(11) Strike Terror: The Story of Fatah, Sabra Books, New York, 1970.

(12) “Armistice Now: An Interim Agreement for Israel and Palestine”, Foreign Affairs, New York, March-April 2010.

(13) The scenarios are intelligently examined by Jean-François Legrain in Palestine: un Etat? Quel Etat?.

(14) See Dominique Vidal, “Palestine: à propos de l’Etat binational”, Association France-Palestine Solidarité, 23 November 2009.

(15) Uri Avnery, “Rosemary’s Baby“,, 24 July 2010.

(16) Ali Abunimah, One Country: a Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2006.

(17) “Israelis embrace one-state solution from unexpected direction“, The Electronic Intifada, 21 July 2010.

(18) See Leila Farsakh, “Time for a bi-national state“, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2007.

(19) See Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: the Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Little, Brown & Co., New York, 1994.

(20) From “Counterpoint (for Edward W Said)”, Almond Blossoms and Beyond, translated by Mohammad Shaheen, Interlink Books, Northampton, Massachusetts, 2009.

This article appears in the October edition of the excellent monthly, Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

Source: Counterpunch

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.