Two States or One?

Two States: In principle inherently unstable and unjust

But imagine for a moment that two States had been achieved. Is it to be believed that future generations of Palestinians, aware – viscerally and intellectually – of the full extent of historic Palestine, will accept as permanent a settlement comprising a mere 22% of the land that in its entirety had always been their birthright? Surely they will find the ‘settlement’ contrived by their parent’s and grandparent’s generations hard to stomach? Viewed from this perspective, two States becomes a seat of instability, in a region that is volatile enough. Historic injustices do not simply fade away, consider the fight and plight of the Kurds.

The two State proposal is predicated on the Israeli State being specifically a Jewish State. That is to say, a State which, by definition, will necessarily be discriminatory towards its non-Jewish population, as it is now. True, we may wish to avert our eyes to this outcome, perhaps seeking comfort in the fact that there may be proportionally fewer non-Jews in an Israeli State under two States than is currently the case and, therefore, the quantity of harm measured by the number of people at the receiving end of it is reduced, the implication being that this would be tolerable.  Surely not.

It was perhaps always both glib and naïve to characterise two States as a ‘solution’, as though the ‘problem’ was amendable to an essentially technical fix which, once implemented, would make the problem go away.

The irony: Israel has long favoured One State, but not a just one

Israel is a settler-colonial project, its intent to Judaise historic Palestine. This requires the removal, or at the very least the significant diminution, of the indigenous Palestinian population. This objective explains the rationale informing home demolitions, settlement construction, military control of the OPT, the bantustanisation of the Palestinian population, the ambition to annex the Jordan Valley and much else.

Israel’s has always sought to establish ‘facts on the ground’, a policy predicated on the unilateral creation of immovable objects, pre-empting thereby the possibility of reverse or meaningful compromise. These ‘facts on the ground’ are numerous and widespread and explain why two States is a chimera.  Some of the more immediate, tangible reasons why two State proposals are now otiose:

  • Expropriation of 24% of Palestinian West Bank land for the creation of Jewish-only Settlements.
  • More than 250 Jewish-only settlements have been constructed in the Occupied Territory
  • These settlements are home to 750,000 Israelis (350,00 of which live in East Jerusalem)
  • These discreet settlements are now being consolidated into contiguous blocks
  • 24% of West Bank land has been expropriated from Palestinians for the settlements and supporting infrastructure, roads and so forth
  • Israel passed its Regularisation Law that allows it to retroactively expropriate private Palestinian land on which illegal settlements have been built
  • 87% of water coming from the West Bank is channeled to Israel and its settlements only 17% to 2.7m Palestinians
  • Israeli architect Eya Weizman describes Israel’s Matrix of Control as ‘vertical occupation’, extending from beneath the ground to the skies above.[3]  In other words, total control of the OPT.
  • The Oslo agreement divided the West Bank into three zones: A: 18% of West bank under full Palestinian Authority control (but see caveat below); B: 21% of West Bank, security under Israeli control, civilian matters under PA control; C: 61% of West Bank, under full Israeli control. Israel in fact enters Area A whenever it wishes. As an IDF (Israel Defence Force) soldier pointed out to me, ‘For the army there is no Oslo’
  • The three zones are not contiguous and are best thought of as bantustans
  • Israel has effective control of the Palestinian economy
  • Through a system of permits and passes, themselves subject to arbitrary changes, Israel effectively controls all movement in the West Bank. Gaza is effectively blockaded by the Israeli army.  
  • Palestinians – historical residents – of annexed East Jerusalem are not citizens of Israel, but accorded permanent residential status.  This status can be revoked on various grounds. Other Israeli policies limit Palestinians’ ability to plan and develop their communities.
  • Israeli has increasingly cut off East Jerusalem, once the focus of political, commercial, religious and cultural life for the entire Palestinian population of the occupied Palestinian territory, from the rest of the West Bank and from the Gaza Strip.

Thus is Israel’s militant pursuit of Settler-Colonialism achieved.

Israel is the effective, though not legally recognised, governing power over the entirety of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Notwithstanding what it might see as ideo-religious imperatives to turn de facto control into de jure, it recognises that this may not be immediately realisable, the potential gains from pursuing annexation outweighed by the risks it poses at this time. But no matter. Israel can and does ‘manage’ the occupation, with little or no disturbance to itself.  The embedding of additional facts on the ground can continue unhindered.  In summary, One State is almost achieved, but it is an Apartheid one, festering in injustice.

One State

One cannot usefully talk about possible pathways to resolving the Palestine/Israel impasse in the absence of an analysis, a framing of the nature of the issue. The tendency has been to speak of it in terms of a ‘conflict’, the implication being that there is at heart an equivalence between the ‘parties’, between Palestinians and Israelis and thus, in broad terms, assimilable in type to other conflicts involving identifiable sides.  It’s the sort of perspective that leans towards technical fixes, a point I made above in relation to the two State proposition.

But if instead we take ‘Settler Colonialism’ as the framework for analyisng the issue, this directs our attention away from the moribund two State ‘solution’ which merely perpetuates the structural inequities between Palestinians and Israelis by other means.

In ‘Decolonising Israel, Liberating Palestine’, Harper explains an alternative framework, one that questions the degree to which the term ‘conflict’, as commonly understood, has salience:

‘…settler colonialism generates conflict between the colonist usurpers and the indigenous population. No population is willingly displaced. But if a conflict involves two or more “sides” fighting over different interests or agendas, then a colonial struggle is not a “conflict”.  Colonialism is unilateral. One powerful actor invades another people’s territory to either exploit it or take it over. There is no symmetry of power or responsibility.  The Natives did not choose the fight. They had no bone to pick with the settlers before they arrived. The indigenous were not organized or equipped for such a struggle and they had little chance of winning, of pushing the settlers out of their country.  The Natives are the victims, not the other “side”. Nor, to be honest, are they a “side” at all in the eyes of their conquerors. At best they are irrelevant, a nuisance on the path of the settler’s seizure of their country, an expendable population, one that must be “eliminated”, if not physically annihilated then at least reduced to a marginal presence in which they are unable to conduct a national life and thus threaten the settler enterprise. Such a process of unilateral, asymmetrical invasion that provokes resistance on the part of Native peoples threatened with displacement and worse can hardly be called a “conflict”. Rather than the “Israeli/Palestinian/Arab Conflict” we must speak of Zionist settler colonialism.’

The analysis is at once cogent and germane. It fits the situation like the proverbial glove. But where does it lead, what is to be done in its light? 

The logic underpinning the analysis suggests that the antidote to settler-colonialism is the elimination of a settler-colonial regime.  In the Palestine/Israel context, this requires a fundamental reordering of the nature and meaning of Statehood, and therefore of citizenship. If, too, it is accepted that the flirtation with the two State notion must end, in practice has ended, though vestiges of its superficial charms still seduce some, then, for the reasons given above, there seems only one logical direction of travel, and that is towards the creation of a democratic single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, a secular State based on strict equality for all its citizens: Palestinians, Jews and others.

Mad idealism?

To many such a possibility will seem to be the ravings of a mad idealist, one blind to the complexity, and presumed longstanding enmities between the people of this region. Will Israeli Jews be willing to give up their structural, exclusive dominance of people and territory? Can they shake off their racist presumptions, and their supremacist sense of Jewish-Israeli exceptionalism?  Will Palestinians, after years of suffering the brutal, murderous might of the Israeli Occupation, to say nothing of the discriminations visited upon Palestinians living within Israel proper, be able to, if not forgive, then to at least accommodate themselves to living alongside a people who were their physical and psychological oppressors?   And the people of Gaza, an area that Israel holds under virtual siege, whose people have been bombed, denied food and water, seen their children wounded and killed by Israeli forces, is it even right to ask them to show even the slightest degree of tolerance towards the people who have made their lives a perpetual nightmare?  Despite these, and no doubt other, profound hinderances to realising a single democratic State, the idea of it is not new, nor as fanciful as at first blush it may seem.  It is an idea that refuses to go away, one that, certainly over the relatively recent past, is gaining traction, though by no means on a smooth, clear or direct path.  

Historical precedents

The notion of one inclusive, non-discriminatory State or territory in Palestine is not new.  In 1968 the PLO moved to a position advocating the idea of Palestine as a single democratic State for all its citizens, both Jews and Arabs (Palestinians). This objective recognised that Israeli Jews had acquired the right to live in Palestine and could not be made to leave[2].   On the other side, so to speak, there was, in the 1920’s, a strand of cultural Judaism that sought only to create a space in the Land of Israel where Jewish culture might flourish.  It had no ambitions to create a State, still less a Jewish one. This strand of thought and aspiration acknowledged the forgotten, or willfully ignored, half-sentence of the Balfour Declaration[4] that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ There is also a strand of religious Zionism that does not recognise the Israeli State, seeing it as a heresy in the light of their belief that an attempt to re-establish Jewish rule in Israel by human agency was blasphemous. Hastening salvation and the coming of the Messiah was considered religiously forbidden, and Zionism was seen as a sign of disbelief in God’s power, and therefore, a rebellion against God.

The above examples might appear as no more than straws in the wind, manifestly not grounded in present day realities. Looked at another way, they represent intimations of different ways of thinking, different ways of being, where neither Palestinian nor Jew had as their objective domination of the other. That tradition, notwithstanding that it expresses itself in diverse forms, appears to be bubbling, and in more places and ways than I have attempted to capture here.

One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC)

One expression of the one State ideal is the One Democratic State Campaign.  The ODSC, comprising Palestinians from every major community – Palestinian’s living in Israel proper, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the refugee camps and the Diaspora/Exile – together with their critical-Israeli Jewish partners, has issued a call for the establishment of a single democratic state to include everyone living between the River and the Sea, including Palestinian refugees who choose to return to their homeland. Over the past three years or so it has made considerable progress in formulating its ideas and key principles these finding expression in its ten-point political programme.   

There are, nevertheless, mighty conundrums, complexities and resistances to be debated and overcome. Consider, for example, the ODSC’s call for Collective Rights: 

‘Within the framework of a single democratic state, the Constitution will also protect the collective rights of Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews to freedom of association – national, ethnic, religious, class or gender – within the framework of a common state and democracy….No group or collectivity will have any privileges, nor will any group, party or collectivity have the ability to leverage any control or domination over others. Parliament will not have the authority to enact any laws that discriminate against any community under the Constitution.’

In an area where collective identities are so fiercely felt, and in the context of a history where, under settler-colonialism, Palestinian identities in particular were marginalized, the need for protections and constitutional guarantees is clear.  No less so will the kaleidoscopic array of religions and religious sects want, require, a constitution that guarantees their collective or group rights.

But determining where the boundaries lie between different traditions and groups, and the powers that might accrue to them, will be a knotty problem to resolve. Where, too, does one draw the line between individual rights, and collective ones?  This is likely to be a hotly contested matter.  There is an attendant danger that too greater admission of collective rights into constitutional provisions may have the unintended consequence of reinforcing sectional divisions based on identities, rather than ameliorating them. 

None of these considerations nullify the legitimacy of seeking to offer constitutional guarantees in respect of collective rights, but they do alert us to the minefield to be traversed to get there.

End word

It has not been my intention in this post to offer a comprehensive account of the One State idea, that is in any case beyond my capabilities but more of the detail can be found here, here and here.  

Instead, my task in this post has simply been to alert readers who may not already know that there are vibrant alternatives to resolving the Palestine/Israel impasse, ones that start from the belief that the resolution of historic ills is not to be achieved by ‘solutions’ based on division and inequities, but rather founded on solidarity, mutual regard and interest.  To achieve this will mean treading a rocky path up a very steep hill but, as Awad Abdelfattah, coordinator of the One Democratic State Campaign and the former secretary general of the Balad party has said, One State is ‘a noble idea’ that should now be pursued.     



[1] Jeff Harper: Israeli Jew, academic, author, activist, founder of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions

[2] Source: The hundred years’ war on Palestine, by Rashid Khalidi

[3] Source: Decolonising Israel, Liberating Palestine

[4] Balfour Declaration: ‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’


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