"Everything is now pushing against a two-state solution and the compromises from Israel that it would require". Photo: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The one state solution

A quarter of a century after the Oslo peace accords, the dream of a two state solution is shattered beyond repair. Former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg proposes a bold new plan
August 17, 2018

Many years ago, my friends and I were lonely voices. It was a time of hubris, of outright Israeli denial that peace was our best strategic alternative. Since 1967 Israel had occupied Palestinian territory, telling ourselves that this was the only way to keep our nation secure. But before the first Intifada began in 1987, waking many Israelis up to the injustices of occupation, we were among the very few people in Israeli politics to insist that no enduring resolution to the conflict in our region could be imposed by force alone, and to call instead for a negotiated two-state solution. It wasn’t easy: we were called traitors, well poisoners, Trojan horses and more.

But within a few short years, what we had called for—what we had been told was impossible—became Israeli policy. What’s more, it had been agreed to by the Palestinians themselves. On a sunny September day in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, and Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, shook hands in the White House Rose Garden. The two men agreed to a process of mutual recognition, which the world understood would one day lead to two separate states, Israel and Palestine, living in peace side-by-side.

So what an irony that today I find myself charged with the difficult task of telling Israel and the world something else that it doesn’t want to hear: that the two-state solution is dead. A quarter of a century on from the Oslo Accords, the two-state solution lies in tatters. There is no peace process. There is very little hope left. And yet somehow, we must still find a way for Israelis and Palestinians to live side-by-side, with equal rights within a single international border. It is time for a progressive one-state solution. I accept that this view is as unpopular among Israelis today as the two-state solution was long ago. But, as I shall explain, it is our only hope.

How the two-state solution died

Two states may once have been wildly controversial, but it has long since become a platitude. We mouth the mantra without stopping to ask whether it had already passed its expiration date. Where once the formula was a practical possibility, and the best prospect for peace that we had, today it is a hollow phrase. It provides a refuge for dishonest people, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who refuse to countenance making the real sacrifices it would inevitably require.

It is often said it takes two to tango, but two states just won’t happen unless one tangos first: Israel. For this is not a conflict between equals. In the dishonest blame game we eternally play, all pious Israeli patriots like to think in terms of a 50-50 share of responsibility with the Palestinians. But if—a big if—this were ever true, it is certainly not true today.

Try to forget the past. Whatever the historic mistakes of the Palestinian side, they cannot justify Israel’s wrongdoing in the here and now. For the conflict is today—fundamentally—one between the privileged and the deprived. Israel now enjoys 100 per cent of the privileges between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Freedoms, resources, power, political rights and industrial clout: all of these things are monopolised by us.

The pre-condition to moving things forward is not negotiation, in the old sense of one side swapping some cards for the other’s, but rather one side—the Israelis—becoming ready to relinquish some of the deck of cards on which it has an exclusive grip. Only then can we start thinking about moving from a monopolised space to a shared one, as we know in our hearts we must one day do if we are to enjoy the real security that can only come through a just and durable peace.

But we seem to have less readiness the for requisite compromises than ever before, as has been made abjectly clear by Netanyahu’s new quasi-constitutional Nation State of the Jewish People law, which was passed in July. It elevates long-standing day-to-day discrimination into a formal ethnic hierarchy, by asserting that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” This shows contempt not only for the people of the occupied territories, but also for the Israeli Arabs who we used to like to claim as co-equal citizens.

Netanyahu still pays lip service to the two-state solution—mouthing the phrase doesn’t cost him a thing. But he wilfully refuses to develop any strategy that could make it happen, so when he says the words it is nothing but a cynical evasion. Netanyahu is, in practice, an arch conservative who simply wants to defend Israel’s position of dominance for now, and put off the whole question of the conflict so that it becomes someone else’s problem to deal with down the road. In the meantime, he deepens our country’s racialised character.

And yet, with all of this going on, because we hear that “two state” phrase all the time, too many of us Israelis kid ourselves that a two-state solution still is—and always will be—an option. That matters for our standing in the eyes of the world, and it matters, too, because it makes us feel that at some point, somehow, in some entirely unspecified manner, a way will be found to draw a line under the conflict. We can entertain that soothing thought without doing anything about it. What we can’t do, however, is hope to make it a reality.

For the two-state solution is, quite simply, no longer viable. Why not? Because the long-dominant Israeli right, with the active if tacit support of successive Labor leaders, has changed the facts on the ground.

For one thing, numbers matter. Israel was able to push through a withdrawal—of sorts—from Gaza in 2005 and deal with the practical consequences of bringing the settlers there back into Israel proper because they numbered in the thousands. Back in the 1990s, when West Bank settlers were still counted in tens, rather than hundreds of thousands, it might still, had it mustered the political will, have been able to withdraw from there too, and so cleared the way for a viable a Palestinian state. But no longer. Those settlers, who now number around 400,000, can vote for the Knesset—entirely unlike the two million or so Palestinian adults living under occupation in the West Bank, the overwhelming majority of Arabs in East Jerusalem or anyone living in Gaza. And the settlers form an increasingly powerful bloc, even before you consider their family and friends within Israel proper who may also vote in their interest.

Furthermore, of course, Gaza has taken its own ugly turn during the last decade of separate Hamas rule, sundering the putative Palestinian state. Even more fundamentally, the mood for compromise within Israel, as across so much of the planet, has passed. Back in the 1990s, walls seemed to be coming down worldwide: the Soviet Empire spluttered out, and the old iron curtain countries were being integrated into the west; apartheid was negotiated away; peace was being brokered between deadly enemies in segregated Northern Ireland. Amid the bloodshed of the first Intifada, Israelis were forced every day to confront the reality that they, too, were living amid another conflict; and the way the world was going suggested that the way out of that was compromise. But now—post-9/11, post-Iraq, post-7/7, with Europe struggling to keep its borders down, and nationalism everywhere on the rise—we live in a different age; the walls are back.

Nowhere is that more true than Israel, which started building its great wall before Donald Trump ever had the idea, and which has developed considerable skill in using aggressive security to keep the deep conflict over its land from intruding on the day-to-day life of its citizens. It is less “two states,” more two parallel universes.

Meaningful words have long been palpably absent from the peace enterprise, but—more than that—the whole melody is adversarial in tone. If talks ever were to result in a peace agreement, it would be a peace tinged with suspicion and hostility. Many Palestinians are convinced that every Israeli is either a West Bank settler or a soldier, because the shared spaces between the two peoples have now shrivelled to the point where these are the only Israelis they will ever encounter. And many Israelis are certain that “they,” all Palestinians, hate Israel. The sourness of Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers, as well as the suspiciousness of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah colleagues, a tired bunch often more interested in entrenching their own position internally than in really moving things on, are an obstacle to concrete change.

In sum, everything—the political geography of the settlements, the deepening split between Gaza and the West Bank, the nationalist turn of politics—is now pushing against a two-state solution, and the compromises from Israel that would require. It is no longer on the table. We won’t move forward until we face the truth about that.

Moving beyond borders

Israel can try to forget the occupation, and in day-to-day life it sometimes succeeds. But running away from this argument is morally irresponsible. It debases a real democracy into the sham of an “ethnic democracy.” In an uncertain world, where the politics of a declining America are increasingly mercurial, continuing with an occupation that most of the world condemns leaves you lonely, and so carries strategic risk. Looking forward 100 years in this part of the world is not easy: try to do so, and some things are frightening, and many things are always unclear, but they become much more so without a plan for a just peace.


Read Donald Macintyre on how the dream of a two-state solution died

_______________ So if two states are no longer an option, we need to start talking about how we can allow Israelis and Palestinians to co-exist in a single state. Today we already have one version of the one-state solution, the Greater Israel dream of the right, which involves a single state which is—as now—beset by discrimination. But my own proposal comes from a very different place—the idea that we can create a single state that treats all its citizens equally.

Think of our political structure as a building with three levels. The first storey—the foundation—of the new building contains the principles upon which the entire future state will be built. Every person between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is entitled to the same equal rights—personal, political, economic and social. They include the right to protection and security, equal treatment, freedom of movement, property, judicial recourse and the right to vote for, and be elected to, public office. Regardless of your citizenship, Israeli or Palestinian, you will be bound by the same constitutional framework and principles and entitled to the same fundamental liberties, without discrimination based on ethnicity, faith or national affiliation.

The middle level of our building will be divided between the tenants: an agreed-upon, logical division and separation between the two self-identifying collective groups in the form of two self-governing polities. There will be different ways of splitting things up—with, say, more or less devolution to individual regions or cities, and more or less regard paid to where Arabs and Jews actually live, as opposed to the historic green line. But all of this is second order, and should be soluble, once the principle of self-government built atop of shared and universal rights of citizenship is agreed.

Each self-governing community (or “nation”) will express the respective aspirations and values of the Israelis and the Palestinians, in its own allotted space and as it sees fit in accordance with its own traditions. Like individual American states or the Scottish nation within the UK, each community will be free to pursue its own domestic social policy within this middle level. But more than that, again mindful of its own traditions, each of our “nations” will have some room to conduct its own relations with the rest of the world.

But we cannot stop building there. Because the hostilities and violent frictions of the past could return at any time, constant co-ordination between the tenants is essential. And so a third storey will have to be constructed for that purpose—a superstructure, joining both our polities in a federation. The federation of Israel and Palestine will direct its attention both inward and outward. Using the powers accorded to it by the twin communities of Israel and Palestine, the government of the central federation will also have the muscle to be the back-stop enforcer of the constitutional system in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

After all, there will never be quiet and reconciliation here unless a language of common values can be created. A murderer in one community must be considered a murderer in the other. We have had enough of the intolerable situation in which the same act is considered a heinous crime on one side and a supreme expression of patriotism on the other.

While each state will collect taxes from its own citizens and maintain its own institutions, their infrastructure will be co-ordinated. The federal administration will ensure that water sources from the mountains are shared with the lowlands, that rivers are kept clean for their entire length. If water and other resources are controlled from the top for the good of all, then many of the questions about which community gets to control every last slope and scrap of land will become less fraught. The federation will see to it, too, that road signs should use the languages of all the region’s drivers; the same in both Netanya and Nablus, with the aim being—as with an interstate American highway—to connect people, rather than keeping them apart.


Now read Raja Shehadeh's response from a Palestinian perspective

___________________ It is also on the federal level that the co-ordination of asylum and immigration policy will have to be settled, including the rights of return for both Jews and Palestinians. Vis-à-vis the outside world, beyond the historical region between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, a successful Israeli-Palestinian federation could in time evolve into a framework that other political entities could join in a sort of regional union, although only for those polities that could accept the obligations deriving from the democratic and constitutional principles of the building’s foundation floor.

The proposed building attempts to solve most of the issues on the agenda, but not all. Those who hanker after an integrated single state will find only partial satisfaction in the federal structure. Advocates of a two-state solution will find some of their wishes addressed in the middle level, while those dedicated to individual rights will get partial satisfaction as reflected in the binding constitutional infrastructure.

That’s all fine, the cynics will say, but what about security? I would respond to the cynics with cynicism: “Do you agree with everything else? When we accomplish everything else, it will be a lot easier to deal with security issues.” And to those delving more deeply, I would pose a question of my own. Did anyone ever think open borders between Germany and France were possible? Peace between Spain and the Netherlands, or reconciliation between Russia and Germany? When the environment changes, so do the threats, and so does one’s perspective on security.

To everyone else I will say this. Have faith that we are strong; that we can afford to abandon a strategy of fear, and move to a perspective of trust. If I’m wrong, we won’t be any worse off than before. And if I’m right, then the current obsession with security will change so much as to be unrecognisable. As indeed it recently changed in response to Iraq’s disintegration, Syria’s fragmentation and Egypt’s decline, so it will change dramatically again in the face of a Palestinian-Israeli partnership that will be completely different from anything we have ever known.

The road to one state 

How will we get there? In theory, the argument should not be such a hard sell. It would start from the assumption that our fates, Israeli and Palestinian, are intertwined and that it is ultimately useless to ignore reality. Cancers left untreated on one side send secondary growths to the other, and there isn’t a wall in the world that can stop them.

But given current Israeli politics, this is a formidably challenging sell. It is easier to foresee that the argument for a just single state will ultimately have to prevail, than to envisage how it will do so. The process of getting there could turn out to be painful. One possibility is that we shall slide slowly into a new conversation, as the situation gradually deteriorates towards a point where it is so stark that one state is the only viable way forward, that can no longer duck debate about what sort of state that will be.

Another disturbing possibility is that we will be jolted out of our current complacency by a shock or a trauma. All the big moments in Israeli history have responded to trauma—the 1973 war led to a strategic peace with Egypt, while the first Intifada gave birth to the Oslo Accords. Or maybe, instead, someone—perhaps from the right—will pass a Knesset resolution that clarifies realities, by calling for the official annexation of the West Bank, just as we did with Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

But how much better it would be if we could get there without trauma, by fixing our politics instead. In particular, we need to overcome the partition wall between Jews and Arabs—not only physically, but also figuratively in terms of politics. We cannot and should not leave the Arab society in Israel as an alien and perpetual opposition bloc in the Knesset, but must work together across ethnic lines. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder, within Israel proper, and then in the Palestinian territories too. The outmoded and ossified parties, in Palestine as well as Israel, need to be opened up to challenge, by those who are unafraid to see the country they are living in as it really is. Those of us with eyes to see it—Jews and Palestinians, working together—must be ready to confront those, also both Jews and Palestinians, who cannot. None of us can any longer afford shelter behind polite fictions about a peace process that processes nothing, indeed a process that doesn’t exist.

An Israel for all

The 1948 Declaration of Independence established Israel as a “Jewish state.” This has always been the biggest obstacle to the idea of a single state—how can it be both Jewish and, if non-Jewish votes are to enjoy their full weight, also democratic? In the early years of the State, the concept of “Jewish” was more civil and cultural. Today it has a different interpretation that is more religious and nationalistic. As a result, Israel has de facto two sources of authority: the democratic and the theocratic, colliding and contradicting each other constantly. Furthermore, one resident does not equate to one vote, since it has been decided in advance that the votes of one ethnicity are bound to prevail. The federative formula I am proposing, of two self-governing communities working within one federation, can solve that seemingly intractable problem.

Politically, it will undoubtedly require some of the Israeli political continents to move. The left, or parts of it, has to depart from the Zionist paradigm, and move into a more inclusive paradigm. Israel must belong to all of its residents, including Arabs, not to the Jews alone. Then we can forge the new and creative alliances that will be required to really move things. On the Israeli Arab side, those who believe in integration within general Israeli society must prevail over the separatists, in order to create a real bridge between the two communities.

Some on the right, like President Reuven Rivlin are dedicated territorialists, but also sincere democrats. They are dedicated to comprehensive human rights, which means they are potential partners in building a single state. Wiser Palestinians—intellectuals and activists alike—are also increasingly pressing more for the right to vote, rather than for an independent state purely for the sake of having one.

A combination of these three—a new Israeli left, the democratic Israeli right, plus new and courageous Palestinian thinkers and leaders—might sound unlikely. But in time it could be formed into a coalition which just might begin to crack the ice.

It will certainly not happen overnight. We might have to cross troubled waters. And we might well have to park for a while longer in that dead-end street called “Two States.” But the ideal of inclusive and equal citizenship for everybody who lives across this small and war-weary corner of the Earth is a noble and inspiring vision. It also offers a way ahead, as it becomes more and more obvious that the old routes into the future are running out of road. If we can find the guile and the courage to take it, we can transform our iconic conflict into an iconic symbol of reconciliation that will inspire other warring nations and states to find their own way out of the quagmire of hatred and animosity.


What a one-state solution might look like by Prospect staff

Supporters of an inclusive one-state solution tend to agree on the basic principles—a state where all citizens enjoy the same political rights. But when it comes to the details of how it would work there are competing plans.

Burg favours a union of two “nations,” but there is an arguably even more radical plan, outlined in the map here, mooted by the Federation Movement, which is backed by several prominent Israelis. Modelled on the US, with its 50 individual states, the new nation would be formed of 30 cantons—20 with a Jewish majority, 10 with an Arab (or Druze) majority. Each would manage its own internal affairs, on both sides of the “Green Line” which currently separates the occupied West Bank from Israel proper, while a federal constitution would guarantee the rights for all.

Greater Jerusalem, which is very diverse and includes the east of the city which Israel annexed in 1980, might need to have a special status. Settling that would be fraught. And the Federation Movement’s plan leaves Gaza to one side, as a separate entity. That locks a Jewish majority into the new single state, but offers scant hope to the most desperate part of the Palestinian population.

article body image