One State or Two?


Do you favor a one-state solution or a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict? Personally, I favor both.


The one-state solution calls for a single state made up of Israel plus the occupied territories. Since the state is conceived as democratic, it would very likely involve a Palestinian majority. Sometimes there is talk of giving Jews in this state certain protections; always there is talk of acknowledging a Palestinian right of return. The proposal is said to be the only just solution, and the only one which can eventually produce a happy, prosperous, beautiful Palestine.


The two-state solution has several variants, some of them justly infamous. Mine is very simple: Israel gets out of every square inch of the occupied territories, and the Palestinians acquire complete, unqualified sovereignty over every square inch of the West Bank and Gaza. In return, the Israelis get the one thing they need–defensible borders. Anything else can be negotiated later.


No doubt Israel would also want Palestinian guarantees to end terrorism, but why? Guarantees are mere words. If Israel wants real security, it must end the oppression of the Palestinians and permit the formation of a genuinely independent Palestinian state–a state its rulers and virtually its entire population would want to preserve. Since cross-border attacks would certainly provoke an Israeli invasion, a truly sovereign Palestine and its supporters would not allow such attacks. Palestinians would not want their newly independent country to be destroyed.


When it comes to comparing the proposals, as always, the devil is in the details. The most important division among proposed solutions is not between one-state and two-state arrangements, but between those arrangements which do and which do not take the settlements as accomplished fact. Sleazy one-state and two-state proposals accept the settlements with a patently insincere throwing up of hands: “gosh, there are so many settlers, so well established–why can’t we just all get along?” — Because the settlers are taking all the good land, dummy, not to mention the water! Anyone who thinks the Jewish presence in the occupied territories is an accomplished fact should look back to the expulsion of the French ‘colons’–settlers–from Algeria. Even for many Israelis, the abolition of the settlements is neither unwelcome nor impossible. Presumably, if Israel cares for its settlers, it would force them to depart with its armies, who after all are very practiced in expelling people from their homes.


The solutions debate is further confused by a failure to distinguish two considerations: (i) what is morally right given that everyone, including Israel, behaves morally; (ii) what is morally right given how the Israelis can reasonably be predicted to behave. The first consideration gives priority to a single-state solution; the second to a two-state solution. I agree that the single-state solution is ideally preferable, but I get annoyed when it is used to play a game of moralizing one-upmanship whose object is to see who can give the greatest lip-service to Palestinian rights.


No doubt these rights are extensive, and derive from the illegitimacy of the project that displaced the Palestinians. The Zionists did not come simply as refugees or immigrants or settlers. They didn’t simply seek, as immigrants often do, some land. They wanted more than a ‘homeland’ in the sense that, say, Bavaria is the homeland of the Bavarians. They intended to create a Jewish state, a state in which Jews retained sovereignty. This implies that Jews alone have the final say on everything, including who lives and dies, within a certain geographical area. That the Zionist state was conceived to be ‘democratic’ ignores its essential requirement–a perpetual Jewish majority to preserve, in the facts on the ground if not in law, Jewish political supremacy throughout its territory. This means that the other inhabitants of the area must either submit or leave. Since no one contends that the Palestinians had done any harm to the Jews before the Zionist influx, it can only be regarded as an exercise in usurpation.


Given the illegitimacy of the Zionist project, there is certainly a case for a full right of return for all displaced Palestinians and all their descendants, which might in turn require the displacement of Jews now occupying Palestinian land. One might go beyond this to advocate the payment of extensive compensation, not only to those Palestinians dispossessed, and also to those not themselves dispossessed, but injured by the dispossession of others. If these measures mean a fundamental change in the nature of the Israeli state–if they mean an end to guaranteed Jewish sovereignty–so much the better. So the Palestinians may well have a right to a single state, perhaps even to a state in which they are de facto sovereign. But there’s a catch. Lots of people have lots of rights to lots of things. But these rights do not translate easily into strategies. They must be balanced against other rights as well as other moral and practical considerations.


The problem here does not issue from the rights of innocent Israelis. Their rights are protected no matter what proposal is adopted: the two-state solution greatly improves their security, and no one-state solution is politically feasible unless it satisfies the concerns of at least Israeli moderates. What matters instead is that the Palestinians’ own right to survival takes precedence over any right to Israeli land. At this point, the threat to their survival is imminent. The sooner a Palestinian state is created, the more Palestinian lives will be saved. This affects, not which sort of state to work for, but which state to work for first.


When the survival of the Palestinians is given priority over their territorial claims, certain facts loom large in the one-state-two-states controversy. A one-state solution does not just mean ‘abandoning apartheid’, as some claim. It means abandoning the core of Zionism, abolishing the sovereignty of Jews over Israel. Israel, the country, might still exist, but the Zionist project would vanish off the face of the earth. Given that Israeli governments won’t agree even to stop settlement activity–an attempt to extend the boundaries of Jewish sovereignty–how and when, exactly, are they expected to abandon that sovereignty altogether? How and when, exactly, is someone going to force them to do so?


The idea of a single, secular, inclusive state may be attractive, but so is the idea of a world in which everyone is good, all the time. The one-state ideal is politically and even morally irrelevant because it isn’t feasible at this point. The fact that it isn’t feasible because the Israelis won’t honor their moral obligations is no more alterable, and has no more bearing on practical politics, than the fact that the Palestinians don’t have a warp drive. One is reminded of David Hume’s remark that “A prisoner who has neither money nor interest, discovers the impossibility of his escape, as well when he considers the obstinacy of the gaoler, as the walls and bars with which he is surrounded; and, in all attempts for his freedom, chooses rather to work upon the stone and iron of the one, than upon the inflexible nature of the other.” So it is for the Palestinian prisoner with his Israeli jailers, whose inflexible nature rules out a single state.


Does this mean the single-state solution should be dismissed out of hand? No; it simply means that solution is a very long-term project, depending on basic shifts in the Middle East balance of power as well as, one hopes, an eventual softening of Israeli attitudes. Meanwhile, the Palestinians face destruction. Even if the project of a single state were imminently practicable, it would properly take second place to securing their survival which is, after all, one of its prerequisites.


But in fact there is no long-term conflict between the survival of the Palestinians and the project of a single state: both require, without a doubt, a prior two-state solution. (Norman Finkelstein prefers to speak of a two-state ‘settlement’, which nicely distinguishes between a imperfect, perhaps temporary arrangement and a final just outcome.) If the Palestinians are to live, if they are to have a platform from which to demand a single state, if they are to acquire the power to make their demands heard, it can only be from the relative sanctuary of their own country. They haven’t the slightest chance of obtaining this sanctuary except in the West Bank and Gaza. So the one-state solution absolutely requires a two-state solution. If ever there was a false dilemma, it is any claim that the two alternatives are mutually exclusive.


Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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