The One-State Solution

Virginia Tilley

There are different kinds of minorities. The notion of an Egyptian state for the Egyptians, a Jewish state for the Jews, simply flies in the face of reality. What we require is a rethinking of the present in terms of coexistence and porous borders.

Edward Said, 1999

For some years, most people sympathetic to Palestinian national aspirations – or simply alert to their durability and the political dangers they pose – have assumed that a stable resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would require the formation of a Palestinian state in the (dwindling) areas not yet annexed by Israel, in what is left of British Mandate territory. This old staple of the Palestinian national movement was even belatedly approved by Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush. The Palestinian Authority itself was set up by the Oslo process as a pre-statal entity, intended to establish by stages an independent Palestinian cabinet and parliament, as a prelude to sovereignty over (a disarmed, landlocked, dependent) Palestine. Most recently, a courageous coalition of Israeli and Palestinian professionals has tried to imbue the two-state solution with new energy by formulating a detailed agreement – the so-called Geneva Accords. All these efforts have referred, vaguely or specifically, to the withdrawal of Jewish settlements, without which a Palestinian state would make no territorial sense.

Yet at some point in the past decade, this foundational precept became an obfuscating fiction. As many people privately acknowledge, and as Tony Judt has now proposed in the New York Review of Books, the conditions for an independent Palestinian state have been killed off by the inexorable and irreversible advance of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an idea, and a possibility, whose time has passed, its death obscured (as was perhaps intended) by daily spectacle: the hoopla of a useless ‘road map’, the cycles of Israeli gunship assassinations and Palestinian suicide bombings, the dismal internal Palestinian power struggles, the house demolitions and death counts – all the visible expressions of a conflict which has always been over control of land.

All the while and day by day, Israeli construction crews have been crunching and grinding through the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, laying roads and erecting thousands of new housing units in well-planned communities. ‘Settlement’ suggests a few hilltop caravans defended by zealots, but what we have is a massive grid of towns penetrating deep into the West Bank and Gaza and now housing some 200,000 people (in addition to the 180,000 in the East Jerusalem city settlements, which no one believes will be abandoned). Tens of thousands of homes and apartments are served by schools, shopping malls, theatres and arts centres, connected by major highways, elaborate water and electricity supplies, dykes, walls, perimeter fences and surveillance systems. The grid is immovable both because of its massive infrastructure and because of the psychological investment of its residents. A decade ago, a concerted international effort might have arrested its growth. But it has now gone too far, and nothing stands in the way of its expansion.

Carved up by populous Jewish-Israeli settlements, neither the West Bank nor the Gaza Strip is a viable national territory. And it follows that if there can be no reversal of the settlement policy, a Palestinian state is not practicable. Judt believes, correctly, that the one-state solution, in whatever form (binational or ethnically cleansed), is now the only option. He has argued persuasively that Israel must confront its obsolete ethno-nationalism and face a post-Zionist vision for the country, however hard that might be. The alternative – the forced transfer of Palestinians out of the territory – is both unconscionable and unimaginably dangerous. Not surprisingly, Judt’s piece has drawn fire from those who see a binational Israel as a betrayal of the promise of a Jewish haven, but as Judt points out, these objections crumble under the onslaught of ‘facts on the ground’. And in any case, the ramifications of a one-state solution go far beyond Israel’s existential crisis.

To consider the future of the settlements under a two-state solution is to understand that it is not a solution at all. In theory they and their 200,000 residents could be absorbed into the Palestinian state with settlers acquiring Palestinian citizenship or some kind of permanent-resident status. But given the extent of official Palestinian corruption, as well as the settlers’ emotional, political and economic links to Israel, citizenship is not a serious option. Permanent residency would only compound the present situation: enclaves of non-citizens in a non-contiguous Palestinian territory. Alternatively, buildings and infrastructure could be dismantled and Jewish residents reabsorbed into Israel proper – a costly process for Israel, financially and politically. Or the settlements could simply be turned over intact for Palestinian use (helping to absorb Palestinian returnees) while Jewish residents, again, are moved into Israel proper – again, entailing major financial and political costs to Israel. The Geneva Accords are an attempt to work flexibly with these options: pulling some settlements, leaving other major ones. Yet none of the agents with the power to impose the Accords – the Israeli Government, the United States, and the European Union (or some part of it) – has the will to do so.

The present Israeli Government is not, of course, expected to undertake any such project. The problem is not merely Sharon, who has prosecuted a vigorous campaign for Israeli sovereignty over all of Mandate Palestine, of which completion of the settlement grid is a major element. Nor does the problem lie with the minority of settlers in ‘Judea and Samaria’ who are indeed gun-toting religious zealots (mostly from the US), even if their domestic political influence is daunting. Should they resist removal by force, which some would certainly do, the moral authority of any government trying to shift them – even the legitimacy of the state of Israel itself – would come into question for those Zionists who understand Jewish sovereignty over the land as both right and obligation, deriving in the first instance from biblical authority and in the second from the need to safeguard Jews from contemporary anti-semitic threats by preserving the territory as a Jewish sanctuary and homeland. Politically astute and genuinely faithful to these tenets, the religious settlers would invoke both. The uneasy compromises between Israel’s secular and religious Jews could be destroyed, threatening the country’s internal political fabric as well as its already faltering claim on world Jewry.

And yet the zealots are a distraction. For two decades or more, government complicity in the settlement project has far exceeded what was necessary to accommodate the extremists, and commitment to it remains embedded in government institutions and policy, beyond the reach of electoral politics. Since 1984, Sharon has served as Minister of Trade and Industry, of Construction and Housing, and of National Infrastructure. He has thus been in a position to ensure that grants and low-interest loans are available for commuter homes as well as new Israeli industry in the territories; he has expanded government involvement in providing services, banking, electricity and water supplies; facilitated private investments in housing and infrastructure; and encouraged the strategic co-operation of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organisation in developing settlement blocs that straddle the Green Line. Almost every government ministry and agency was involved in designing and building the Rehan bloc, for instance, which eradicated the Green Line along the north-east border of the West Bank. Reorchestrating all these agencies to cut off subsidies, services, and other incentives for settling in the territories would require altering their fundamental design (structure, policies, staff), a task beyond the ability of any Israeli politician or coalition of politicians.

To make matters worse – far worse – Israel is more zealously shielded by the US from the political consequences of its settlement policies than it has ever been. And US policy is unlikely to change. The United States will never take on the role of active peacemaker long ascribed to it by an anxious international community. Blanket support for Israel’s worst actions and, recently, puerile reiterations of Sharon’s insistence that Palestinians ‘end terror’ have put paid to any hope of useful US intervention; the recent attack on an American target in Gaza suggests that, even for long-credulous Palestinians, belief in Washington’s role is finally collapsing. International affirmations of the importance of the US as a broker live on because they still serve US interests in pre-empting European action (and European interest in avoiding action?), while suggesting, for the especially gullible, the possibility of policy change.

None is pending, for reasons that can be found deep in the US political fabric. The problem does not come down to narrow vision, or ‘Jewish money’ (the standard anti-semitic explanation), or even to America’s long-standing military strategy, which assumes Israel to be a bedrock ally – a more even-handed policy would be more likely to enhance the US strategic profile than to erode it. Rather, the force durably proscribing any more constructive policy is the Congress, where one-sided support for Israel is deeply ingrained. This is the result, very largely, of Israeli-lobby leverage and campaign contributions (of various kinds) but major US business interests in Israel have to be borne in mind, as does the well-organised Christian Right, with its bizarre millennialist fixation on a Jewish Israel as portending the Endtimes.

Even more limiting of US foreign policy are the attitudes of individual Congressmen and women. Their public statements indicate that the great majority have internalised right-wing Israeli propaganda. For decades, the Israeli lobby has presented Congress with the narrative of a beleaguered Jewish people trying to build a homeland in a tiny country huddled on the Mediterranean while fending off irrational Islamic/Arab hostility. With members from both parties saturated in these assumptions and hooked by hard financial and electoral clout, the Presidency is greatly constrained in any attempt it might make to lever the Israeli Government towards a loathed and costly policy change – withdrawing or freezing settlements, for instance – even though there are dissenting Israelis who would ardently endorse it. Any move in this direction on the part of any President would be political suicide. The US, then, is not neutral, but neutralised; its foreign policy remains committed to supporting Israel’s ‘welfare’ however the Israeli Government conceives it, which is why it can have no independent impact on settlement policy.

An inspirational new Palestinian leadership might have provided the moral authority to challenge the prerogatives of Israeli and US strategy. It has not emerged. In restoring the authority of Arafat’s corrupt inner cadre, which lacks any commitment to genuine democratic governance, the Oslo process marginalised the alternatives. Arafat himself has clung to power as crucial years have ticked by: in declining health, intoxicated by his own mystique, yet still a skilled manipulator of people and purse-strings, a decrepit godfather blocking any exit from approaching ruin. He cannot, however, contain the disintegration of the Palestinian movement from the ruins of his Ramallah offices. By physically isolating Arafat, the Sharon Government has made him powerless to control splintering Palestinian militancy and terror attacks with his old methods of pay-offs and persuasion, while leaving him in charge so that he can be blamed for them. But, confined or free, Arafat is no statesman, and has no vision appropriate to nation-building under these conditions. Yet if he were somehow to disappear quietly from the scene, as many Palestinians sincerely wish he would, his exit would leave a power vacuum which everyone rightly fears. No one in his inner circle is likely to recapture the moral high ground lost in recent years to cycles of extremist terror attacks. No alternative leader – the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, for example – has the charisma to win the popular loyalty that might also serve to re-establish Palestinian unity. At this advanced stage of political decay, no one is in a position to step forward and take charge: those who have ventured to do so – Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmad Qurei – have rapidly withdrawn.

Israel would have little to gain from Arafat’s removal. Sharon is obsessed with getting rid of him partly because he loathes him but partly, too, because he has the belief (common among Israel’s right wing) that Arabs know only headman politics: a matter of self-seeking leaderships manipulating inchoate masses innately prone to ‘respect power’. In this view, changing a leadership would change mass behaviour and, in the present instance, put an end to violent responses to Israeli occupation. That an Arab leadership might be politically constrained by its masses is hard for the Israeli Right to fathom, not least because it would mean accepting that the masses have developed political views and grievances of their own thanks to their first-hand experience of Israeli occupation, and of the project of the Jewish state which dispossessed them in the first place. Far from bringing about a mass change of attitude and an end to terror attacks, the removal of Arafat promises only to accelerate Palestinian political fragmentation, which may well increase, rather than diminish, terrorist attacks on Israel. In a ghastly way, however, that would suit Sharon, giving him the opportunity both to intensify the military occupation and to preserve the settlements as inviolate sanctuaries for innocent civilians threatened by barbarity.

The Palestinian national movement is in any case splintering towards anarchy. Well aware of the corruption of Arafat’s cadre, and disgusted by its failure to end Israeli brutality, new extremist groups are forming every week, brandishing various ideologies of outrage, and launching wildcat actions against Israeli (and now US) targets. Even Fatah is on the brink of serious splits, as successive prime ministers find themselves at the same time facing desperate demands for change and hamstrung by Arafat’s controls. The Fatah-dominated elite sidelines those serious and thoughtful Palestinian intellectuals, activists and journalists who argue for alternatives. Even the best efforts of the great democratic intellectuals of the past decades – Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Edward Said among them – could not seriously impinge on that power bloc. And those clear and principled voices have now passed, leaving in their wake equally dedicated but less authoritative figures, who – despite their best efforts – are now further enfeebled by rising Islamic militancy and the pace of political disintegration.

Sharon is nearing the realisation of his long-dreamed-of goal: Israeli sovereignty in all of Mandate Palestine, with non-viable enclaves providing a dismal bantustan autonomy in which the remnants of Palestinian society can slowly crumble. This will leave him holding a highly undesirable package, however: a territory containing more than two million politicised Arab Muslims and Christians with no real state of their own, fragmenting Israel as effectively as Israel has fragmented their national community. The problem is as old as the conflict itself: what to do with the people, when all you want is the land?

Since forcible transfer out of the West Bank, mostly across the Jordanian border, would unleash regional violence on a scale not yet glimpsed, and since Sharon is too intelligent to pursue it, whatever the ultra-right-wing pressures on him, the Palestinians would have to remain in designated parts of the territories under some ‘autonomous’ Palestinian authority charged with maintaining order. Technical statehood for the Palestinians would be of no concern in this plan, as Sharon himself has stated; their economy would remain crippled, and their communities would eventually wither into irrelevant ethnic vestiges. As Judt noted, this solution might have suited the late 19th and early 20th-century ethno-nationalist ideologies which launched the Zionist movement, but it contradicts the democratic principles on which modern Israel is based. Israel’s sovereignty over a West Bank containing bantustan enclaves would entail logistical and moral impediments to its own coherence. It would also mean continued regional unrest, with the Palestinian ‘plight’ providing a central grievance for militants throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

The real issue for the international community now is to look the one-state solution full in the face, and sort out its obstacles. They are clearly massive. The problems for Israel are profound: compromising the Jewishness of the ‘Jewish state’ would not only require retooling its laws, but would run straight up against common Zionist (and right-wing Christian) beliefs about Israel’s raison d’être. That clash is not new: it echoes the divisions in earliest Zionist thought. The one-state solution is being mooted at a time when new (and very emotional) debates about Israel’s Jewish character have been brewing for a decade or more, centring on ‘post-Zionist’ queries as to whether Israel itself can or should be reconceived: not as a Jewish state precisely (in the sense of public institutions enshrining permanent Jewish ethno-nationalist ascendancy), but as a state in which Jews are guaranteed ethnic freedoms and security on an equal basis with all citizens. It is impossible to exaggerate the extent of the fear, sorrow, grief and outrage that run through these debates about Israel’s future or the feelings of apprehension, resentment and rejection that talk of a secular state elicits. Yet Judt’s is hardly a maverick voice, even though Leon Wieseltier has implied as much in an irate rejoinder in the New Republic.

If Palestinians and Israelis (of all ethno-religious backgrounds) are indeed to share a single state as equals, the post-Zionist vision also needs to clarify the non-ethnic character of the Palestinian component. A formally ‘binational’ state, recognising and reifying both Jewish and Palestinian ethno-nationalisms, could simply set up the bipolar rivalry which, given greater Palestinian demographic weight, inspires Wieseltier with such alarm. In his view, the domination of Jews by Palestinian nationalism is so inevitable that it justifies the domination of Palestinians by Jewish nationalism.

The challenge for the one-state solution is to find a political path through the transition from rival ethno-nationalisms to a democratic secular formula which would preserve Israel’s role as a Jewish haven while dismantling the apartheid-like privileges that presently assign second-class citizenship to non-Jews. Israel already faces that contradiction within its legal borders: even for the country’s present Arab population, the system of laws which safeguards the ‘Jewish state’ are widely agreed to be unjust and in the long run unstable. It follows that, in a democratic secular state, the very concept of Jewish statehood (and, implicitly, the scope of Jewish nationalism) would have to change quite radically. National rights and privileges on both sides would have to be guaranteed by subsuming them into Israeli national privileges. Benefits now legally restricted to Jews (commonly by attaching them to military service and less directly to the Law of Return), such as housing loans, education loans, public-sector employment and so forth, would have to be reconceived and resources redistributed. Land use – some 93 per cent of Israel is at present reserved for Jewish use – would have to be reconfigured. Housing would have to be formally detached from exclusive Jewish occupancy (and the ‘Jewish-only’ character of the settlements would have to evaporate). The long-established role of the Jewish Agency, which administers Jewish national resources and privileges in Israel, would have to be re-examined. Electoral politics and Knesset representation would also be transformed, to permit legislative debate on the basis of equal ethnic standing. Alterations to the Basic Laws, or the creation of a secular constitution, could ensure that Israel continues to safeguard Jewish lives and rights, providing the sanctuary which many Jews in Israel and abroad remain anxious to preserve. But the same basic law would have to ensure Muslim, Christian and, indeed, agnostic/ atheist rights, and eliminate – at least juridically – any institutionalised hierarchy on ethnic or religious lines. Such a transition would require years of debate and struggle – and a political will now glaringly absent. Truth commissions and/or a general amnesty might eventually surmount the legacy of violence and hatred, but as in all such aftermaths, the process will take generations.

The problem for the Palestinians would be of a different order. Are their aspirations indeed for a democratic secular state based on territorial sovereignty – the model long proposed by Palestinian nationalists and elaborated by intellectuals such as Edward Said? Or would many now favour an ethnic or ethno-religious state based on notions of Arab and/or Muslim indigeneity of the kind taking hold in Gaza? Such a foundational debate is not unique, nor is it as hopeless as might be thought (post-apartheid South Africa has trodden some of this ground). Moreover, many Palestinians are so disillusioned with their ‘national leadership’ that they might welcome the idea of its demise, provided equal rights as citizens of a single state were on offer to them (finding adequate guarantees for these rights may be the primary obstacle).

The Palestinian leadership itself would probably resist such an outcome. In a one-state solution, the entire apparatus of the PLO and the PA would have to be subsumed into Israel’s domestic governance and party-political processes. Many of Arafat’s cronies – and his rivals – would lose major sources of economic power and political leverage in the transition. Fatah derives its economic strength from Palestinian businesses; its crony politics reflects its crucial devotion to the interests of affluent Palestinian families. Senior Fatah figures have long hoped for an independent Palestine in which, nicely positioned near the centre of power, they could flourish on the ballooning Israeli-Arab trade that peace would be expected to bring. They would sooner have a separate Palestinian state, however weak and co-opted it might be. Absorption is also a process that Israel is bound to manipulate, promoting some people and barring others from any role in the new domestic politics. Palestinians would be right to be on their guard. The Islamic militant groups, freshly inspired to see Zionism and Jews themselves as eternal enemies, would require special negotiations and treatment. The outlook may seem bleak but the prominence of the militant Islamists is quite recent and their reach much more fragile than it might seem.

The larger and longer-range impact of the one-state solution could transform regional tensions as well as local ones, by eliminating the military occupation, unifying the territory, and effectively restoring the Palestinians to (shared) sovereignty in their historical homeland. It would grant them long-sought representation, property rights, a civil justice system, and press freedoms within the democratic system hitherto reserved for Jews but which many Palestinians have long admired and hoped to emulate. It would not solve all disputes: the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount tensions, for example, would rumble on. But it would recast those disputes as ethnic arguments within a democratic polity rather than between polarised and mutually demonised Others. It would also return Israel to respected standing in the family of nations, and remove the ‘Palestinian problem’ as a source of outrage for offended Muslims, Arab nationalists, and extremist groups all over the world. Given that the two-state solution promises only more trouble (and its failure will bring such dire consequences), the one-state solution is the only one that the international community can responsibly now entertain.