Yousef Munayyer, Arab Center Washington DC (Non-Resident Scholar)
For nearly three decades, the so-called two-state solution has dominated discussions on Israel/Palestine. But the idea of two states for two peoples was always an illusion. In recent years, with Israel on the verge of annexing parts of the West Bank with American support, reality has set in. The Israeli government is poised to formally annex further territory from the occupied West Bank and the international community will be forced into a rude awakening.
It has been possible to see this moment coming for quite a while. While trying to salvage “the peace process,” former Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that the two-state solution had one to two years left before it would no longer be viable. That was six years ago. UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which passed with U.S. consent in late 2016, called for “salvaging the two-state solution” by demanding a number of steps, including an end to Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories, on a one-year timeline. That was three years ago–and since then, Israel has continued to build and expand settlements.
Policy has finally caught up with these realities. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has abandoned any pretense of seeking a two-state solution, and public support for the concept among Israelis continues to dwindle. Further, despite being given multiple opportunities to replace him in the past two years, the Israeli electorate continued to support the right-wing religious nationalist bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu even as his legal troubles mounted. The Palestinian leadership continues to officially seek a state. But after years of failure and frustration, most Palestinians do not see this path as viable. The American “Deal of the Century” peace plan put forward by the Trump administration cemented the failures of the two-state approach and did so in the voice of American policy. All of these events will keep us fixed on an accelerated path toward a binational reality, which in turn would require equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians in a shared state.
Over the course of decades, Israel developed enough power and cultivated enough support from Washington to allow it to occupy and hold the territories and to create, in effect, a one-state reality of their own devising. Netanyahu and Trump are not seeking to change the status quo but merely to ratify it. The question, then, is not whether there will be a single state but rather what kind of state should it be. Will it be one that cements a de facto apartheid in which Palestinians are denied basic rights? Or will it be a state that recognizes that both Israelis and Palestinians can share a belonging in a society as equals under the law? In the long run, the status quo will prove unsustainable and partitioning the land will never work. An outcome that recognizes the full humanity of both peoples instead of negating one to empower the other is the only moral answer.
The basics of this reality are well known. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea live approximately 13 million people, all under the control of the Israeli state. Nearly half of them are Palestinian Arabs; roughly three million who live under a military occupation with no right to vote for the government that rules them and around two million who live in Israel as second-class citizens, discriminated against based on their identity owing to Israel’s status as a Jewish state. Two million more Palestinians live in the besieged Gaza Strip, where the militant group Hamas exercises local rule in an open-air prison ensured by an Israeli-imposed blockade.
Meanwhile, between 500,000 and 700,000 Jewish Israeli settlers live amongst millions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Protecting the settlers and increasing their numbers have been one of the Israeli government’s chief priorities ever since Israel captured territories from the Arab states it defeated in the Six-Day War of 1967. In 1993, the Oslo Accords set in motion decades of negotiations premised on the principle of “land for peace”: by withdrawing from parts of the occupied territories and abandoning some settlements, Israel would secure an end to Palestinian resistance and would normalize relations with its Arab neighbors. But a vast settlement-building project never sat easily with that goal, and it created strong political incentives to avoid it. Today, large numbers of Israelis support forever keeping much of the land and the idea of a permanent presence in Palestinian territory, in one form or another, is supported by the vast majority of the Israeli political spectrum.
Palestinian leaders also made decisions that made partition harder to envision. None were bigger than agreeing to the Oslo/Madrid framework. In doing so, Palestinian leaders essentially agreed to a formula that enabled Israel’s worst expansionary instincts and relinquished the ability to effectively challenge them. By de-internationalizing the issue, Palestinian leaders conceded to a framework where Israel would only give them what they sought if it satisfied Israel’s comfort level, instead of requiring it as a basic demand. This meant Israel essentially had veto power over progress in the process turning the doable into the impossible simply because it was politically inconvenient. What is worse, the framework kept Washington, Israel’s strongest ally and the player least likely to pressure it to meet its obligations, as the mediator. It should come as no surprise that the settler population grew significantly during the course of the “peace process”. In the twenty-six years from 1967 to 1993, the population of Israeli settlers, not including occupied Jerusalem, reached 100,000. In the twenty-six years since the 1993 Oslo Accords, that same population reached well over 400,000.
Partitioning the Land was Always Doomed to Fail
The belief in the viability of a two-state solution has always relied on understanding the Israeli-Palestinian issue as essentially rooted in the aftermath of the 1967 war. The thinking went that peace through partitioning the land would be possible, if only the two sides could just break the violent cycle of occupation and resistance that began after the war. Yet the dilemmas posed by partition long predate 1967 and stem from a fundamentally insoluble problem.
For the better part of a century, Western powers–first the United Kingdom and then the United States–have repeatedly tried to square the same circle: accommodating the Zionist demand for a Jewish-majority state in a land populated overwhelmingly by non-Jewish Palestinian Arabs. This project required both a willingness to dismiss the humanity and rights of the Palestinian Arab population, and also a willingness to look sympathetically at a political project that sought to create a space for Jews outside of the Christian West – a willingness that was at least in part motivated by longstanding Western antisemitism.
In 1917, the British government, even before they came to control the Mandate of Palestine in the aftermath of the First World War, issued the Balfour Declaration. The statement outlined the goal of creating a “national home” for the Jewish people without infringing on “the rights of the existing non-Jewish” population. Herein lies the fundamental dichotomy that has misguided every Western effort at partition; they view Jews alone as a people with national rights, but did not view the Palestinian Arabs, who made up upwards of 90% of the population at the time, the same way. They, as a population, could be moved around and dismembered because they were not a people deserving demographic cohesion – this perverse principle shaped both the 1937 and 1947 partition plan. Under any configuration, in order to preserve a contiguous majority-Jewish state, any two-state solution would rely on land swaps, divided cantons, and disregard for the aspirations of Palestinians: all things that have proved unworkable in the past.
What is the problem that the two-state solution sought to solve? As the Oslo peace process dragged on, the answer became clear: the problem it sought to solve was not so much a “conflict” between the Israelis and the Palestinians but rather a conflict within Israel—a kind of identity crisis spurred by claiming to be a democracy while placing millions of people under military rule and denying them the right to vote. A two-state solution would certainly solve that problem for Israel by writing millions of Palestinian off their books. But Israel has increasingly perceived the land, and Jewish control over its entirety, as more important than democracy; an idea that might be valued by westerners who see the world through rose colored glasses and not the realities of the Middle East as Israelis perceive it. Further, Israelis have been able to enjoy to the status quo at relatively low cost because the peace process enabled them to subcontract administrative management of most of the occupied Palestinian population to the Palestinian Authority and maintain and develop military and economic relations with the rest of the world under the pretense of peace making.
The core reality for Palestinians is that even the best kind of state that they could conceivably achieve as a result of negotiations with Israel would not address many of their most fundamental needs. It would not allow Palestinian refugees to return to their towns and villages, nor offer equality to Palestinian citizens of Israel and would likely jeopardize their rights further, nor even grant Palestinians genuine independence and sovereignty. The most significant strategic mistake the Palestinian leadership ever made was to accept a U.S.-led peace process based on establishing two states. Some will object, claiming that a shift in strategy would undercut the hard-won consensus, rooted in international law, that the Palestinians have a right to their own state. But that consensus has produced little progress on the ground. Countless UN resolutions have failed to stop Israel’s settlement project. And the rights of Palestinians would hardly be diminished in a single state that granted them full equality under the law and those rights remain supported by international law as well. Today, the two-state solution has become little more than a slogan for major powers, especially the United States, to hide behind while they allow Israel to proceed with de facto apartheid.
Constituting the Idea
Israel is not merely a one-state reality of inequality, but in addition and because of that reality, it is also a state that might suddenly find itself on the cusp of major reform just as the South African state found itself in the late 1980s.
Is a binational state based on equality conceivable? It would require Israeli leaders to help their citizens see their own situation clearly and to acknowledge a number of truths. Israelis do not want to cede any land to the Palestinians. Many do not want to lose connection with specific religiously significant places in Jewish history in the West Bank which many Israelis refer to as Judea and Samaria, a likely outcome under a partition. Israel has sunk billions of taxpayer money into settlements that would have to be at least partly abandoned in any partition; billions more would be required to uproot and relocate the settlers. Israelis already know these things, and many have concluded that these are precisely the reasons why they should merely prolong the status quo. What many Israelis do not seem to understand, and what Israeli leaders are unwilling to admit to them, is that the status quo will ultimately become unsustainable. Israel cannot continue to deny the rights of millions of Palestinians just so that Jewish Israelis can reign supreme over the entirety of the territory and simultaneously expect to remain accepted in the international community forever.
Although the Trump administration will hardly be sympathetic to the idea of equal rights for all, an equal rights vision would ultimately put Palestinians in a better position in their relations with the United States by aligning them more closely with the views of American voters. A poll conducted last year by the University of Maryland found that, when Americans were asked whether they supported a two-state solution or equal rights in one state, they were more or less equally split but when they were asked what outcome they would support if a two-state solution proved impossible, Americans supported one state with equal rights for all over the status quo, by a two-to-one margin.
Israel has never had a constitution and the absence of one has supported a history of state-driven ad-hoc law creation that helped create an unequal one-state reality. When the country was founded in 1948, Zionist leaders were expediting the arrival of Jewish nonresidents, preventing the return of Palestinians who had been expelled during the war, and seizing as much land as possible. For those reasons, they wanted to avoid setting specific constraints on government power and preferred to leave unanswered questions about who was a citizen, how they became citizens, and what rights they had. So, instead of a constitution that would provide clarity, Israel instead instituted a series of “basic laws” that acquired constitutional weight over time but were assembled in an ad hoc fashion to allow the state to assert Jewish control over the vast majority of the land of Palestine in its early years.
In place of that legal patchwork, which has been used to protect the rights of some and to deny the rights of others, a new constitution could recognize that the country would be home to both peoples and that, despite national narratives and voices on either side that claim otherwise, both peoples have historical ties to the land.
A new constitution could define as citizens all the people living in the land between the river and the sea and also for repatriated refugees and create pathways to citizenship for immigrants. All citizens would enjoy full civil and political rights, including the freedom of movement, religion, speech, and association. All citizens would be equal before the law: the state would be forbidden from discriminating on the basis of ethnicity or religion. In sum, it would require a reorientation of the concept of citizenship in the state, from a category of exclusion, to a category of inclusion.
In order for such a state to function, those constitutional principles would have to be considered foundational, and they would be subject to a very high bar for amendment–much higher than other laws, perhaps 90% or greater. This would ensure that basic rights could not be altered by means of a simple majority and would prohibit any one group from using a demographic advantage to alter the nature of the state. Other mechanisms for robust checks and balances should be considered.
A transition to a new system with equal rights would require a kind of trust that cannot be built as long as victims of oppression, violence, and bloodshed over the decades feel that justice has not been done. So the new state would also need a truth and reconciliation process focused on restorative justice that can learn from the historic examples of such efforts in South Africa and Rwanda.
Some will dismiss this vision as naive or impractical. They will recite examples of Yugoslavia and Lebanon to fearmongering just as we heard fearmongering around predictions of mass violence in the 1980s if Black South Africans were given the vote. In truth, there are thousands of ethnic groups and just fewer than 200 states today in the world today. Multiethnic states are the norm and strife in multiethnic states is the exception. Is there something innate in Israelis and Palestinians that make them uniquely and fundamentally incapable of existing as equals before the law unlike others around the world? This is the logical leap we are required to take to believe the equal rights alternative is impossible. Further, exhaustive social science research has failed to support the stereotype that ethnic divisions cause conflict. Peace is a function of freedom, justice and equality, precisely what is lacking in Israel/Palestine today.
Is it harder to imagine than achieving justice through unscrambling the territorial and population omelet between the river and the sea today? How many more decades of failure must we endure before we can safely conclude that partition is a dead end? How many more people, particularly Palestinians, are you willing to condemn to violence, oppression and death before considering another way?
The idea of equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians in a shared state has been around for decades, perhaps for as long as efforts to partition the land. But it has always been cast aside to accommodate the demands of Zionism, even at the expense of peace. Countless lives have been lost and generations have had their rights denied, all while partition has become less and less realistic. Neither side can afford to go on this way. Now is the moment to adopt the only genuine way forward; equal rights for all.
“When the pollsters asked half of the Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli respondents about a proposed peace deal along the lines of what has been discussed in previous peace negotiations, only 37% of the Palestinians and 39% of the Jewish Israelis said they would be in favor of it.” – Support for two-state solution at lowest in nearly 20 years — poll
Times of Israel, August 13, 2018 by Adam Ragson https://www.timesofisrael.com/support-for-two-state-solution-at-lowest-in-nearly-20-years-poll/
 “A majority of 61% believes that the two-state solution is no longer practical or feasible due to the expansion of Israeli settlements …76% believe that the chances for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel in the next five years are slim or nonexistent” Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research Poll March 2020 https://www.pcpsr.org/en/node/799
“Benny Gantz calls for annexation of Jordan Valley”, Jerusalem Post, January 22, 2020
https://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/Gantz-calls-for-annexation-of-Jordan-Valley-614803 and “Haaretz Poll: 42% of Israelis Back West Bank Annexation, Including Two-state Supporters”
 UMD Critical Issues Poll: American Views of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict https://sadat.umd.edu/sites/sadat.umd.edu/files/UMCIP%20Questionnaire%20Sep%20to%20Oct%202018.pdf
 Collier, Paul, and Anke Hoeffler (1998) “On Economic Causes of Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers, October, 50(4), 563-573, Collier, Paul, and Anke Hoeffler (2004) “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers, October, 56 (4), 563-595., Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin (2003) “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” The American Political Science Review, 97 (1), 75-90.