In Two-State, One-State, No-State, Two Is Still the Magic Number

Rafael Yaghobzadeh/Abaca/Sipa via AP Images

The Dome of the Rock Mosque and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem

You know that moment: when you notice that the chatter in a crowded room full of people has risen to a roar.

Right now the crowded hall is the virtual space containing everyone even vaguely concerned with Israel and Palestine. The roar is many of them saying loudly, emphatically, that this two-state business is past tense. Israel under Netanyahu has gone much too far in absorbing the occupied territories, they say; the United States of Trump has lost its license as the couples therapist for nations. The time has come, or will be here in a moment, when the only solution—if you care about democracy—is for Palestinians to become full voting citizens of Israel, which will in that case no longer be Israel.

The clamor is justified. The conclusions don’t hold up.

Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did in fact mean abdication of America’s role as the sponsor of peacemaking—the facilitator, the endless listener and the not-often-enough nudger. The declaration was the natural coda to Trump’s opening move last year—appointing a U.S. ambassador to Israel who is an ally of hardline settlers. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas’s bitter, furious speech Sunday night, in which he rejected any American role in negotiations, was the predictable outcome.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu accelerates the process of turning the West Bank into Israel’s Algeria: Territory ruled virtually as part of metropolitan Israel, except that its Arab population is denied basic rights and its settler population has privileges beyond those of citizens living in the home country. The process has been going on for 50 years. But Netanyahu’s coalition is working particularly fast at building obstacles for any future government to agree to withdrawing from the West Bank in favor of the independent state of Palestine.

So isn’t it logical to declare the death of two states as a policy goal, and instead work toward a single state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan?

Not really, not if you devote careful thought to the question.

In comparing policies, it’s not enough to list the problems with one in order to prove that the other is better. You need to look at the content of each, and what it would take to achieve each of them. Otherwise you risk leaping from a daunting plan to an absurd one.

The content of a two-state agreement has been discussed endlessly. The basic outline is clear, even if the devil’s in the details—the question of whether any settlements would remain in place, the arrangements for Jerusalem’s holy sites, and the dispute over whether a symbolic or larger number of Palestinian refugees would return to Israel.

In the simplest form—especially as formulated by progressive advocates across the sea—the one-state plan goes like this: Recognize that Israel has already created a single state including the territories conquered in 1967. Therefore, demand and achieve Israeli citizenship for all Palestinians under Israeli rule. You now have a democratic country with civil rights for all. Hold new elections, choose a new government, and move on.

This is an answer to the very serious issue of Palestinians’ individual rights and their lack of power in the regime that rules them. It doesn’t answer a lot of other questions.

For instance, one argument against the two-state idea is that Israeli settlements have grown too large to dismantle. But Israel took possession of the real estate on which most settlements stand through military orders, or by giving a very peculiar interpretation to Ottoman-era law. In some cases, even those legal fig leafs are missing; private land was simply stolen. After the one-state transition, it’s fair to expect a tsunami of lawsuits by Palestinians demanding their property. If those suits are fairly adjudicated, expect large number of settlers to lose their homes. If they’re not fairly adjudicated, expect large numbers of Palestinians to feel that the new regime has failed them. Either way, expect turmoil.

If fairly elected (not gerrymandered as in North Carolina), the new parliament will be about half Jewish, half Palestinian. It will immediately face proposals to repeal Israel’s Law of Return, which allows Jews to immigrate freely, and to allow Palestinian refugees to return, an influx that could quickly reduce Jews to national minority status. Even more than the questions of language, national holidays and history textbooks, the issue of return is hardwired to the core of Jews’ and Palestinian’s national narratives and their ideas of what self-determination means.

And this points to the underlying problem: The individual rights of Palestinians to live freely are desperately important. But resolving the conflict also requires a workable accommodation of two peoples’ aspirations for national freedom.

Among the many mistakes that George W. Bush and his co-conspirators made in Iraq was imposing a political structure that looked democratic but did not deal with the communal conflicts that were inflamed by colonialism, followed by minority Sunni Arab rule. It was an egregious and tragic case of American provincialism. Assuming that one-person, one-vote will be enough to create a working democracy after decades of Jewish-Palestinian national conflict is equally naive. Rather than leading to one state, it stands a high risk of leading to a failed state.

Yes, it’s possible to deal with all these disputes ahead of time, in negotiations between the sides on the structure of the new entity. Notice, though: This stipulates the kind of negotiations that aren’t happening on a two-state agreement, with nearly all the same issues except that the problem of long-term power-sharing replaces the question of borders. And the concessions that each side would need to make in terms of their dreams of independent national life would be greater.

This brings us to the second policy question: How difficult is it to get from here to there? Getting to a two-state agreement requires political changes on both sides to the conflict, spurred by more intense international involvement and pressure than we’ve yet seen. The rub is that getting a one-state agreement requires even more of that. Getting a majority of Israelis to agree to evacuate settlements is a lesser problem than getting a majority in favor of giving up a Jewish state—and probably evacuating settlements anyway. On the Palestinian side, you need not just a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, you need Hamas agreement to permanent power sharing with the Jews.

This situation could inspire despair. It could make people elsewhere in the world who up to now have cared about Israel or Palestine, or both, to decide it’s more worthwhile to follow bitcoin fluctuations. But despair is no more reasonable than deciding to give up on racial equality in America just because there’s a racist president, or to give up on universal health care because Trump and Friends are trying to destroy Obamacare.

Because I’m writing in English, I have to stress that it’s hard for Americans to understand the influence of American culture and political shifts on Israel. The Israeli right feels free of constraint, consciously because of Trump’s Middle East non-policy, and less consciously because he seems to have removed the bothersome model of American liberal democracy. But if you’re reading this, you are probably pretty committed to making the Trump era last as little time as possible.

If there’s a positive note in this crisis, it’s that Trump and Netanyahu together may succeed together in turning the Israeli-Palestinian problem into a sharply partisan issue—which is to say, making it a litmus test for Democratic candidates to oppose the endless occupation. The policy they should endorse, the policy that is achievable, is a much more assertive U.S. role in achieving a two-state outcome.

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