The One-State Solution

GEORGE BISHARAT – A two-state solution would be damaging to Palestinian rights, and impossible to achieve.

Is this really the best idea?

You write that a ‘one-state solution’ is possible in Israel, that it can “maximize rights.” How can it maximize human rights?

It is pretty simple. In an area in which you have mixed ethnicities and religions, there is no way to institute a state system that privileges some people over others — two-state solution would do that, since there would be two ethno-national states alongside each other — without prejudicing the rights of the minorities living in each country. In more concrete terms, a two-state solution would be most damaging to the rights of Palestinians — it would do nothing to change the status of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are discriminated against legally, socially, and politically. I believe that their status in Israel might very well deteriorate under a two-state solution.

A two-state solution does not address the status of Palestinian refugees. For example, 80% of the population of the Gaza Strip — who are refugees forced out of their homes in 1949, the 1950s — are going to stay where they are now, and will have no substantial redress of their right to return. Likewise, there are millions of Palestinians who live outside the borders of former mandate Palestine. Where will they go? They are going to cram into the West Bank, especially the part that becomes part of the proposed Palestinian state.

I could be more open-minded about a two-state solution if it were a fair two-state solution. There are two people, which could imply dividing the land evenly, or according to population. The two-state solution we are talking about today, however, is one in which at least 78% of the land goes to the Jewish State, in addition to parts of the West Bank it retains. In territorial terms, this kind of solution is unequal. And when one looks at what would be left to the Palestinians in terms of water, control over electromagnetic airspace, freedom of movement, ability for defense, it becomes clear that this new entity would not be a true state. Palestinians will have power to control their municipalities and to pick up the trash, run local schools and hire civil servants — but it won’t be a truly independent state.

I think it is time to recognize that there is no two-state solution. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — they are not going anywhere. There is no political force on the horizon that will cause those people to move. On the contrary, the Knesset has approved the building of new settlements “deep in the West Bank.” The pace of the absorption of the West Bank is much faster than the gathering forces that oppose it.

We have twenty years, at least, of empirical evidence that shows why the current two-state solution cannot work. I think the current two-state advocates should be honest enough to admit that their strategy has not worked; the number of settlers in the West Bank has tripled since 1991, and any hopes for reconciliation have been pushed aside.

How will a two-state solution further take away the rights of Palestinians?

I had specifically mentioned the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The way I think the two-state solution would jeopardize their rights would be through a substantial withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the West Bank, and their relocation within Israel. This resettlement would come at the expense of Palestinian communities within Israel. When Israeli settlers were withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, they were responsible for what Israeli government officials called “pogroms” against Palestinian citizens of the city of Acre in October 2008.

One of the problems with the settlement enterprise is that it encompasses far more than the people living in these communities; there are contractors who build the roads and houses, telephone services: there is a whole industry that profits from the creation of these settlements. One of the functions these settlements provide for Israeli society is that they act as a release valve for tensions that would otherwise arise within Israel: social and ideological tensions. Israel has growing economic inequality, and these differences would be much more acute if the population were packed into a much smaller space — a result of the two-state solution. Social tension has been managed by the separation of ideologically distinct groups of Israeli society.

What happens when these religious-nationalist settlers are relocated into Israel as part of a two-state solution? What land remains for them to settle? Land held by Palestinians in Israel will be lost; this situation is already developing. In the Negev Desert, Palestinian Bedouin communities are being squeezed into smaller spaces, their homes are being demolished, for the sake of various kinds of developments favoring Jewish “settlers.” Palestinians own much of the remaining private land within Israel, and they would lose it if the region divided into two states.

We have been discussing the problems Israel has posed to the Palestinians. Is there a shared responsibility for achieving peace? 

I do not absolve Palestinians of responsibility for their situation, and I think the Palestinian leadership has made many errors. Yet my basic response is, “no, it would not have made any difference if the Palestinians had acted in another fashion.” The Israeli leadership has never been honestly committed to a genuine two-state solution in which Palestinians would have robust sovereignty over its territory. But of course, I must still recognize the imperfections — and sometimes undemocratic behavior — of the Palestinian leadership: the way in which Palestinian violence fueled legitimate fears among the Israeli public. Yet, fundamentally, I do not believe the situation would have been very different without these imperfections present.

Groups like Hamas are taking a more political role in the Palestinian territories. How can these entities be incorporated into a one-state solution, if, in many instances, neither side recognizes the other’s right to exist?

I see Hamas as the mirror-image of Zionism. Hamas is in favor of a single-state solution: a state that under Muslim rule. I feel this desire is similar to that for a “Jewish State.” Hamas wants to institute the political advantage of one group. I oppose Hamas’ vision of an Islamic state as much as I oppose Zionism. I believe, however, that Hamas can be convinced that the institutionalization of Muslim power does not have to be pursued.

There is enough ferment within the Islamist movement — particularly if one takes into account what is going on in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the Arab World — towards pursuing democracy as a worthy government. Islamists are realizing that there cannot be a democracy in which one group holds power. There are specific theological and jurisprudential notions in Islam are being tapped for new interpretations, that Hamas could buy into. Substantial parts of Hamas leadership have already come very close to acceptance of two states.

If Hamas is willing to accept a two-state solution, why would they not be willing to accept a single state that actually realizes more of their goals, minus the establishment of a Muslim state. I think they would accept this solution — it would enable the realization of the right of return, provide for access to all parts of Jerusalem, and it would address the condition of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

How has the US and western intervention in the region over the last decade harmed or helped the possibility of conflict resolution?

The United States is a staunch ally of Israel. Who would expect the US to be an honest broker of peace? Unfortunately, much of the world has been either fooled or too afraid to speak their mind. For most of the world, it is the latter. It is impossible to be both a defender of Israel in the United Nations and purport to be a nonpartisan negotiator. The United States has played a very counterproductive role in the region. I consider myself an American, although I am of Palestinian descent, and I am deeply ashamed of how my country has handled the conflict in Palestine, and in the Middle East generally. I think the US is structurally incapable of producing a fair foreign policy in the Middle East.

Should there be a third party involved in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians?

Honestly I do not think there is going to be any solution to this grand regional problem in the next few decades. Having peace negotiations right now is just “noise,” as far as I am concerned. There has to be too much change before negotiations can be productive; what has to change is the balance of power between the parties involved, and between their respective backers. Palestinians are disorganized. They have not produced a leadership that is competent and that genuinely represents the interests of all Palestinians. They have made grave mistakes in using violence against innocent civilians. But it does not matter who sits between the two parties right now; nothing is going to happen. The US is still too powerful, and will veto any resolution unpalatable to certain Israeli government officials. There is no way to eke a fair resolution when one party has all the guns, money, and diplomatic power. Prepare to read and write about this conflict at least for the next twenty years. 


GEORGE BISHARAT is a professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and a frequent commentator on Middle East political and legal issues.

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