One-State Reality: Israel as the State that Rules the Lands and Populations Living Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River

Ian S. Lustick, University of Pennsylvania

The image of Israel as a metropole controlling an entity separate from itself, “the occupied territories,” has been the standard model of “what Israel is” (as a state) since 1967.  It was indeed the conceptual framework for my 1993 study of the evolving relationship between three parliamentary democracies and densely populated foreign territories that had come under their long-term control.[1]  I stand by what I argued there about the dynamics of political relations between strong states and outlying territories, and the thresholds of radical change that demarcated the probabilities of different kinds of futures.  In the 1980s and 1990s I believed that the difficulty of establishing Israeli hegemonic control over the Palestinian areas was more likely to result in political separation (a version of the two-state solution) than in apartheid.  That assessment may have been right or wrong, and if history could be “re-run” many times I still believe a two-state solution would emerge in at least twenty to thirty per cent of those counterfactual futures.  But, as it happened, in the world that is the world we have lived in, it did not emerge.  By my reckoning, attainment of a two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict via negotiations shifted from not improbable in the 1990s to implausible in the early 2000s to impossible in the 2010s.

It bears emphasis that a real opportunity did exist for a two-state solution.  That past reality, along with false beliefs in the present by many that negotiations for a two-state solution might someday be successful, were and are functions of the same image of, the same ontological assumption about, “what Israel is,” viz.¸a state within the green line exercising fundamentally temporary and contingent control over the rest of the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.   For decades following the 1967 war, that is what Israel was.  But that is not what Israel has been, at least for the last decade or so.  Hence, the two-state solution “was” a solution, but it is not a solution today. For a few decades, that formula combined a pretty picture of the future with a plausible way to get there (negotiations to divide the country roughly along the pre-June 1967 borders). The picture remains, but the way to get there is gone.   As a result of what Israel has become, a negotiated two-state “solution” is now every bit the fantasy of an unattainable future that its advocates have believed the “one-state solution” to be.

If a solution is a pretty picture of the future combined with a plausible way to get there based on interest-driven policy decisions, then there is no “solution” in sight.  There is, however, a reality. There is today one state, the State of Israel, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It is an apparatus of power, recognized by the international community, whose policies and actions decisively affect the lives of everyone in the area. Travelers from Amman crossing the Jordan River via the Allenby Bridge report the end of the inspection process as marked by a “Welcome to Israel” greeting from Israeli officials.  Indeed the State of Israel collects taxes from West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, determines who enters and leaves those areas, who enjoys rights to property, and who can live, build, or even visit where.[2]  Even the Trump-Kushner-Netanyahu “plan” or “vision” for the future testifies to the one-state reality.  While labelling the future it delineates as featuring two states, the description it offers shows in remarkable detail that there does and will exist only one state between the river and the sea.  That state is Israel, with full prerogatives to decide what half a dozen walled-in ghettos will be permitted to call themselves, with an effective monopoly of force throughout the land, and with full rights to deploy its military power when and as it sees fit inside any of the ghettos.  In its current form, the Israeli state is no group’s “pretty picture.” Neither its operating rules nor its institutional contours are what any group, in the past, strived to bring about.  It was achieved by no one’s carefully implemented plan. It is not a solution but an outcome—a one-state reality.

The critical facts are that Palestinians of Gaza and of the West Bank are citizens of no other state. As measured by the State of Israel’s impact on the intimate details of their lives and indeed on whether they live at all, they are as much its inhabitants as black slaves were of the United States and as Africans in the Bantustans were of apartheid South Africa. The five-decade occupation of the West Bank and the twelve-year blockade of Gaza combined with the exposure to state violence that these populations regularly endure, do not mark their exclusion from the Israeli state.  They simply register the fact that Israel rules different populations in different regions in different ways. Although the Arab inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip came within the ambit of the Israeli polity fifty-three rather than seventy-two years ago, the palpable fact is that they live within it.[3]

Officially, the Israeli government views lands west of the Jordan River but across the green line—as “disputed,” which implies that from their perspective, they are part of the country. Thus, when Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reports the number of Israelis in the country, it counts every Israeli living west of the Jordan River, not just those living in the part of the country surrounded by the Green Line. Most official Israeli maps feature no divisions between the sea and the river other than administrative boundaries of districts and regions.[4] Textbooks show lines surrounding the Gaza Strip and around Area A clusters and a slightly different shading for Area B clusters. But the only lines indicating a border between Israel and another sovereign country are those along its borders with Arab states—and these separate both Gaza and the West Bank from the Arab states.[5] A map accessed in December 2018 on Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website was titled “Israel within Boundaries and Ceasefire Lines.” It labels the Gaza Strip as “under Palestinian jurisdiction” and the Oslo demarcated areas of “A” and “B” in the West Bank as characterized by Palestinian responsibility for “civil affairs.” The country’s international boundary includes both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank within the state.[6] All mail that enters or leaves the West Bank or the Gaza Strip does so via Israel. The undeclared one-state reality is also revealed in the ordinary language of public communications: images of the country used by Israeli ministries, weather maps, maps of annual average temperature and rainfall, maps of the topography of the “State of Israel,” road maps, and iconic depictions of the country’s borders used for tourism and other purposes.

These pictures of the country are not anomalies or errors. They are consistent with a one-state reality in which the state exercises different kinds of domination in different regions and prefers to blur all of these regions into one domain of power. Yet die-hard two-state solution advocates still warn of the imminent “catastrophe” of one state. Stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the warning of one state has already come true, whether catastrophic or not, reveals the deep attachment among Jewish two-state advocates to obsolete beliefs in a small Jewish and democratic Israel as well as to their fear of living with Arabs and relying on alliances with them to build a democratic society.[7]

Because of the presence of 430,000 non-Jewish non-Arabs (mostly families of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel as relatives of Jews), the more than six and a half million Arabs living in the land are currently a plurality but not a majority.[8] But even though Jews have only recently become a minority in the whole land, Israel as “Jewish and democratic” has always been a slogan, not an accurate caption for the country’s political system. It always meant a polity controlled by Jews and for Jews but one that could front itself as a democracy with equal rights for all. However, no state whose policies toward half the people under its control include mass incarceration, heavy and constant surveillance, a strangulating system of pass laws and checkpoints, collective punishment, and bloody violence can convincingly claim the mantle of democracy.

Clearly, Arabs in different regions have different access to the Israeli political arena and experience the power of the Israeli state differently. One and a half million Arabs are citizens of Israel with full civil and political rights but second-class access to state resources and opportunities to exercise those rights. The 350,000 Palestinian Arabs who are permanent residents of Greater Jerusalem are citizens of the municipality they inhabit but not of the state. They have residency rights but severely restricted access to municipal resources. Two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip live under Israeli state control in a ghetto sealed against anything but closely regulated minimal contact with the outside world. Their diet, health, exposure to violence, and life chances are almost entirely subject to Israeli government decisions. More than 2.5 million West Bank Arabs live in an archipelago of cities, towns, and villages. While not as tightly ghettoized as Gaza Palestinians, they are subject to a blanket of travel restrictions whose constantly changing and arbitrary requirements empower Israeli soldiers at nearly 150 checkpoints to summarily refuse exit from or entrance into their localities or lands.[9] Meanwhile, 650,000 Israelis live in the West Bank (including expanded East Jerusalem), inhabiting their own archipelago of gated cities, towns, and villages. While subject to violent attacks by Arabs, they enjoy much legal immunity as well as the full political rights of first-class Israeli citizens.

Dov Weisglass, who helped Ariel Sharon engineer Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza while putting the peace negotiations in “formaldehyde,” endorsed one Palestinian’s characterization of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as the “only prison in the world where the prisoners have to provide for themselves.” Israel, wrote Weisglass,”has the authority of the sovereign in the territories—without the obligations.”[10] In Gaza, Israel permits Hamas to absorb most of the day-to-day responsibilities for meager services provided to the population. In the West Bank (or in Israeli parlance “Judea and Samaria”) the Palestinian Authority (PA) promotes the fiction that it is independent of Israel while working intimately with the Israeli security apparatus to protect the privileges of the thousands of families whose livelihoods directly depend on it. From Israel’s point of view, the PA functions as a supervisory apparatus for tasks that the state prefers not to perform directly. The PA’s impotence in relation to Israel was demonstrated with casual brutality in December 2018 when, without comment or legal justification, the Israeli military declared a multiday lockdown of the city of Ramallah—the PA’s “seat of government.”[11] Indeed, the Israeli parliament often discusses legislation for different parts of the West Bank without any thought of consultation with the PA, most recently and most noticeably with regard to highly publicized proposals to adjust the juridical and administrative categories applied to Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley. Thus, the institution that most effectively claims a monopoly on the legitimate authority and on the use of violence in the West Bank is the same state, Israel, which “governs,” albeit in different ways, Gaza, the Galilee, the Negev, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv.[12]

Once the one-state reality is accepted as political ontology, exciting opportunities for rethinking old slogans, worries, conflicts, and obsessions are opened to analysts and activists.  Why be concerned with more Jews moving to West Bank settlements if that means less pressure on Arab communities in the Galilee?  Why object to the “unification of Jerusalem” if it offers the eventual prospect of a capital shared by all Palestinians and Jews living between the river and the sea? Why discourage Arabs in East Jerusalem from voting in municipal elections out of fear that by doing so they could “legitimize the occupation,” when their votes might advance equality, living conditions, and democratic values, to say nothing of demonstrating a pathway into the future based on Jewish-Arab alliances?  In that regard, why continue raising the “demographic demon,” as a specter capable of frightening Israelis into leaving the territories, when Israeli rule of those territories is permanent?  Under the circumstances of a one-state reality, frightening Jews with the presence of Arabs only bolsters the Israeli right-wing by Jews discouraging Jews from discovering the vital social, economic, and political interests they share with Arabs, both those currently enfranchised and those who, eventually, can be enfranchised.  Why sacrifice opportunities to highlight oppression and discrimination against masses of people ruled by the Israeli state to protect non-existent opportunities for new and “productive” negotiations to begin?

Many are likely to answer that they cannot tolerate the idea that the transformations that can bring a better future to Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs may take not just decades, but generations, and may entail difficult and even bloody struggles.  Indeed, two-state solutionists have been accustomed to believing that, given the right combination of leadership in Israel, American diplomacy, and international pressure, the “Palestinian problem” might be neatly “solved” within a number of years or even months. The reality is that political parties and movements, such as Blue and White, Commanders for Israel’s Security, and J-Street, who officially stand by the two-state solution, actually advance policies designed to do no more than preserve the illusion that it remains available.[13]  Only by maintaining the pretense of a still attainable solution based on separation can they avoid confronting what Israel has in fact become—a non-Jewish, non-democratic state from the sea to the river.

As Nadav Shelef has observed, it is necessary to re-examine the historical analogies we use to think about Israeli-Palestinian relations.   Processes of democratization, through which masses of historically distrusted, despised, or feared inhabitants are enfranchised, don’t happen over periods of months or years.[14]  Consider how long it took for blacks in the United States to move from slavery through Jim Crow and the civil rights movement to something approaching a multi-racial democracy.  It took eighty years, following Ireland’s annexation by Britain, for Irish Catholic enfranchisement and the transformation of politics in the United Kingdom that resulted.  Black South Africans struggled for generations to gain political equality.  In virtually all advanced industrial societies, mobilization for female suffrage took just as long to come to fruition.

Israel cannot and will not decolonize by ending its dominion over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it can still decolonize—by respecting the equal rights of all in the state that rules them to full and equal citizenship.  Unfortunately, it will likely take at least as long to transform the kind of one-state that Israel is, as it took Israel to become the one-state that rules all those living between the river and the sea.

A Note on the Brouhaha over Annexation

The sturm und drang surrounding Israeli government plans to annex the West Bank, or parts of it, does not mark a fateful battle over whether it will occur. As was long predicted by opponents of creeping annexation, that frog has already been boiled.  No one lives in any part of the country without being subject, in the most intimate fashion, to the outcome of contestation within the Israeli political arena, to consequences of Israeli decisions, and to the exercise of Israeli coercive power.

In the long run, what matters is not whether pronouncements of annexation are made.  What matters are the outcomes of struggles over what it will come to mean.  No formal declaration of “annexation” or “sovereignty” was made in 1949 and 1950 when the “occupied territories” in the Galilee and the Negev were absorbed into Israel.  Certainly Israeli leaders never intended Arabs to play an important role in running the country.  But no political party, and least of all Mapai, could resist the temptation to harvest their votes, resulting in a decision by Ben-Gurion to authorize Arab voting.[15]  For decades battles were fought over which Arab inhabitants of the country, living under military government until 1966 and under the control of Shin Bet coordinated “Arab Departments” in different ministries after that, would be citizens and what political rights they would have.  Three generations later the Arab dominated Joint List is the second largest political party in Israel.

Neither Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, want that kind of “binational outcome” for annexation.  They will try all the tricks and more used in the 1950 Nationality Law to constrain Arab paths to citizenship.  They will almost certainly avoid official use terms such as “annexation” or “sovereignty” when dealing with the West Bank, instead using language about extending Israeli law, jurisdiction, and administration as was contained in the 1967 measures that added expanded East Jerusalem to the municipal boundaries of the Israeli city of Yerushalayim.  In this fashion they will seek to enforce non-citizenship on non-Jews while granting them revocable rights of residency.  For what they want is not the full implementation of Israeli sovereignty, and the equality of all inhabitants that goes with that formula in a democracy, but silent apartheid.  In other words, what they are aiming for is a system of separation and systematic discrimination between Israeli citizens and non-citizens that need not speak its name. They may succeed in the short run, but in the long run both the dynamics of the one-state reality and of democratic competition will bend the arc of history toward inclusion of subordinated masses, and toward the political and cultural transformations that inclusion will make necessary.



[1] Ian Lustick. Unsettled States, Disputed Lands:  Britain and Ireland, France and Algeria, Israel and the West Bank-Gaza (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1993).

    [2] On Israeli collection of taxes arising from economic activity in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip see “Economic Monitory Report to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee,” World Bank, April 19, 2016,; and Mahmoud Elkhafif, Misyef Misyef, and Mutasim Elagraa, Palestinian Fiscal Revenue Leakage to Israel under the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations (New York:  United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2013) The Israeli military maintains a database of the entire population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As in other domains, the Palestinian Authority operates as a data-gathering and administrative arm of the State of Israel. See COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories), See also Peter Beinart, “Jewish Leaders Encase Israel’s Actions in Gaza in Euphemism and Lies,” If Americans Knew Blog, April 30, 2018,

     [3] In the Gaza Strip, Israel treats Hamas much as Palestinian prisoner organizations are tolerated in standard Israeli prisons. Inmate activity in prison yards is not wholly controlled by Israeli authorities, but is nonetheless taking place within the Israeli state.

     [4] See a Haaretz editorial drawing attention the maps and counting rules used by the Central Bureau of Statistics, “This is How Israel Inflates Its Jewish Majority,” Haaretz, May 1, 2017.

     [5] “What Borders Does Israel Show in Maps in School Textbooks?,” Quora,

    [6]  “Israel within Boundaries and Ceasefire Lines,” Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, February 1, 2006,

[7] For an important and early analysis of what they termed the “one-state condition” see  Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, The One-State Condition:  Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2013).

     [8] There is dispute about the exact figures, but in March 2018, the Israeli military officially announced that there were more Arabs than Jews living between the sea and the river. Yotam Berger, “Figures Presented by Army Show More Arabs than Jews Live in Israel, West Bank and Gaza,” Haaretz, March 26, 2018, Because 4 percent of Israel’s population are non-Arab Christians and other ethnic minorities, Arabs are a plurality but not a majority in Palestine/the Land of Israel.

     [9] For details see Nasser Al-Qadi, The Israeli Permit Regime: Realities and Challenges, The Applied Research Institute—Jerusalem, 2018,; Yael Berda, Living Emergency: Israel’s Permit Regime in the Occupied West Bank (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017). and Cédric Parizot, “Viscous Spatialities:  The Spaces of the Israeli Permit Regime of Access and Movement,” South Atlantic Quarterly 117, no. 1 (January 2018): 21-42.

     [10] Dov Weisglass, “Oslo deal was good for the Jews,” Ynetnews, August 21, 2012,,7340,L-4270970,00.html.

[11] PA decisions in early 2020 to cease coordination with Israel in protest of plans to “annex” portions of the West Bank have inconvenienced Israel in certain ways, but they have imposed drastic and unsustainable liabilities on Palestinians.  Meanwhile Israeli incursions into Palestinian ghettos have continued at their normal rate. For example, during the week of June11-17, 2020, there were 74 incursions and 75 arrests in the West Bank including East Jerusalem.  Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, “Weekly Report on Israeli Human Rights Violations n the Occupied Palestinian Territory (June 11-17, 2020),

     [12] The most popular definition for a “state” among political scientists is one version or another of Max Weber’s formulation that it is the institution that “upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.”  During the autonomy negotiations from 1979-1982 between Israel, Egypt, and the United States, the Israeli government never retreated from its insistence that it would be the “source of authority” for any autonomous Arab entity established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Harvey Sicherman, Palestinian Autonomy, Self-government, and Peace (Boulder:  Westview Press, 1993).

      [13]For detailed discussion of this point see Ian S. Lustick, Paradigm Lost:  From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) pp. 101-119.

      [14]See Ian S. Lustick, “Time for a Paradigm Shift in Israel,” Informed Comment, October 29, 2019,,

      [15] Peter Medding, The Founding of Israeli Democracy, 1948-1967 (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1990) pp. 25-26; Shira Robinson, Citizen Strangers:  Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 2013) p. 83.