Time, we are hearing with increasing frequency, is running out for the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is often attributed to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but whatever the reason, few serious observers disagree that the two-state solution may be a practical impossibility within the days of the Obama era.
In fact, though the concern is correct, the perceived reason isn’t. Settlements can be abandoned or dismantled, roads can be opened to all and walls and barriers can be removed. The most difficult ones to eliminate will not be the new ones, but established ones like Kiryat Arba, and Hebron. Hussein Ibish, Senior Policy Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), correctly diagnoses the real threat in his new book, What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda:
“The moment at which a state of ‘impossibility’ for the realization of a two-state agreement is reached is…not the function of a critical mass…of changes constructed by Israel in the occupied territories…it is that moment when a critical mass of Israelis and Palestinians conclude that such a peace agreement is no longer feasible or desirable.”
The question then arises: what is the alternative?
It is in part because of the potential for this question to rise as well as the growing support for a one-state solution on campuses and on the Left that Ibish has written this book.
Right now, in all the circles that matter — Palestinian, Arab, Israeli and American — the two-state solution is the only one even close to the table. But the one-state agenda will surely gain a good deal of traction if the two-state model fails, and Ibish launches a pre-emptive strike against this.
In fact, beyond what Ibish deals with in his book, there are three major one-state models:
- The Greater Israel vision, which, at minimum, would have Israel in full control of all of Mandatory Palestine and a lot fewer Arabs within those borders.
- The Islamist vision of a Muslim state in all of Mandatory Palestine, with a Jewish minority much smaller than the current population
- The secular-democratic single state, where all of the current inhabitants, plus returning Palestinian refugees, would be one political body
It is worth noting that the former two visions, which had both once been generally discredited, are gaining more adherents as the conflict continues and hatred on both sides mounts. Still, they are the province of radicals, often religious, always on the extreme fringe of nationalist passion.
The third, however, has a clear visceral appeal to democratic values. After all, one person one vote is a clear Western and democratic value, as is equality under the law. It is precisely this appealing yet insidious aspect of the one-state formulation that makes Ibish’s case so timely.
Ibish deconstructs the one-state argument with a fair degree of accuracy, laying out the reasoning used by its proponents clearly. It is based, first and foremost, on the perceived lack of viability of the two-state solution, particularly when it comes to the return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel proper.
The refugee issue is, of course, quite vexing as it is a deeply held Palestinian value and an absolute red line for all but a handful of the most anti-Zionist Israelis. One state seems to neatly resolve this tension.
But the extensive problems with the one state formulation are laid out with a clarity and incisiveness that only someone with Ibish’s deeply held belief in a two-state solution coupled with his extensive experience and contact with the one staters’ leading spokespeople could muster.
Ibish recognizes that Palestinians can never achieve freedom and self-determination without agreement from Israel, something the one-state adherents seem not to understand. He also recognizes not only the reality of superior Israeli power but he also respects the national will of the Israeli Jewish population. For this, naturally, he is regarded by one-staters as a “Zionist stooge.”
But Ibish’s argument is, at all times, firmly grounded in the best interests of the Palestinian people. He recognizes that the only sustainable solution is one that works, even if imperfectly, for both Jews and Arabs in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Is this not precisely what so many naysayers have been decrying the lack of? When Jewish advocates of peace in Washington – J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum, B’Tselem’s DC Office – are asked where their Arab counterpart is, the Arabs that understand and respect Israel’s position and strive to truly address the needs of both sides equally, it is ATFP and people like Ibish they point to.
Ibish effectively demonstrates that the one-state agenda is unrealistic, unattainable and a threat to the Palestinian political agenda. He recognizes from the outset that a plan that offers nothing to Israeli Jews is neither a practical plan for Palestinians nor a morally justifiable notion for anyone. And he doesn’t hesitate to point out that in this regard, it is very similar to the status quo, which he sees as equally problematic in both practical and moral terms.
One piece that Ibish only implicitly touches on in his description of the one-state agenda is the belief which underlies the thinking of many (though not necessarily all) one-state advocates that the conflict can never be ultimately resolved as long as Zionism remains a driving ideology in Israel.
That Ibish doesn’t deal with this issue is not surprising as his focus is on the one-state thinking among Arab advocates. In the hardcore left, and amongst anti-Zionist Jews, however, the idea that Zionism is ultimately the problem is much more prominent.
To be sure, the entire conflict could be resolved much more easily if ideology was not such a huge factor. That’s true about Palestinian as well as Jewish nationalism. But it is. And the fact that one-staters tend to focus on only one side’s nationalism also reveals a larger portion of their view of the conflict.
Ultimately, any resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has to include accommodations that satisfy the minimal needs of both sides. That necessarily also means serious compromises on both sides. Everyone knows this. Solutions and approaches that only address the “other side” out of grudging necessity are doomed to failure.
Citing Zionism as the primary issue is no better than the right-wing mantra that “if only the Palestinians would stop struggling, the conflict would be over.” This is and has always been a conflict of two deeply held nationalisms whose goals are ultimately mutually exclusive. Analyses that begin with the legitimacy of one of those nationalisms and the illegitimacy of the other lead to impractical solutions that will never be accepted by any party to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But the one-state argument, as Ibish rightly points out, actually addresses the needs of neither side. That it necessarily involves the dissolution of the Jewish state is obvious, but it also means the Palestinians, at least in the short term, would have to abandon their own national aspirations. In any case, the goal is completely unattainable. Israelis will not give up the Jewish nature of the state. Any such plan necessarily involves widening and extending the conflict until Israel is defeated. It’s a terrible future to imagine, and it removes any reasonable hope from the Palestinians as well.
What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda makes a pro-Palestinian case for a two-state solution, and it makes a pro-Israeli one as well. That it comes from one of America’s most prominent Arab intellectuals makes it all the more significant. Like Ibish, I have had extensive and direct personal and professional contact with most of the leading one-state proponents in the US. If any of them have answers to his arguments, I have yet to see them.
Ultimately, one hopes that well-reasoned arguments like Ibish can remove or at least blunt the one-state distraction and bring that energy to a more constructive use. That’s needed, because the hope and faith in the two-state solution on the ground in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories is dwindling. As Ibish says, it’s not really a choice between one or two states. It’s a choice between the hope for peace and war continuing on into the foreseeable future.