The Price of Nostalgia
America’s Self-Defeating Economic Retreat
For nearly three decades, the so-called two-state solution has dominated discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the idea of two states for two peoples in the territory both occupy was always an illusion, and in recent years, reality has set in. The two-state solution is dead. And good riddance: it never offered a realistic path forward. The time has come for all interested parties to instead consider the only alternative with any chance of delivering lasting peace: equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians in a single shared state.
It has been possible to see this moment coming for quite a while. As he tried to rescue what had become known as “the peace process,” U.S. 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. Resolution 2334, which the UN Security Council passed with U.S. consent in late 2016, called for “salvaging the two-state solution” by demanding a number of steps, including an immediate end to Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories. That was three years ago. And since then, Israel has continued to build and expand settlements.
The arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House put the final nail in the coffin. “I am looking at two-state, and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump explained in February 2017. Policy wonks and seasoned diplomats rolled their eyes at the reality-TV celebrity turned commander in chief describing the options as if they were dishes on a buffet table. But the remark indicated a genuine shift: since the current phase of the peace process began in the early 1990s, no U.S. president had ever before publicly suggested accepting a single state. What Trump had in mind has become clear in the years that have followed, as he and his team have approved a right-wing Israeli wish list aimed at a one-state outcome—but one that will enshrine Israeli dominance over Palestinian subjects, not one that will grant the parties equal rights.
Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has abandoned any pretense of seeking a two-state solution, and public support for the concept among Israelis has steadily dwindled. Palestinian leaders continue to seek a separate state. But after years of failure and frustration, most Palestinians no longer see that path as viable.
The simple truth is that over the decades, the Israelis developed enough power and cultivated enough support from Washington to allow them to occupy and hold the territories and to create, in effect, a one-state reality of their own devising. Netanyahu and Trump are seeking not to change the status quo but merely to ratify it. The question, then, is not whether there will be a single state but what kind of state it should be. Will it be one that cements de facto apartheid in which Palestinians are denied basic rights? Or will it be a state that recognizes Israelis and Palestinians as equals under the law? The latter is the goal that Palestinians should adopt. The Americans and the Israelis should also embrace it. But first they must realize that the status quo will eventually prove unsustainable and that partitioning the land will never work—and that the only moral path forward is to recognize the full humanity of both peoples.
Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea live approximately 13 million people, all under the control of the Israeli state. Roughly half of them are Palestinian Arabs, some three million of whom live under a military occupation with no right to vote for the government that rules them and around two million of whom 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: an open-air prison walled off from the world by an Israeli blockade.
Meanwhile, between 500,000 and 700,000 Jewish Israeli settlers live among millions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Protecting the settlers and increasing their numbers have been chief priorities for Israel ever since it captured territories from the Arab states it defeated in the Six-Day War of 1967. In 1993, the Oslo accords started a new phase of the relationship, based on a quid pro quo: Israel would withdraw from parts of the occupied territories and abandon some settlements in return for an end to Palestinian resistance and the normalization of relations with Israel’s Arab neighbors.
But a vast settlement-building project never sat easily with that goal and created strong political incentives to avoid it. Today, large numbers of Israelis support keeping much of the occupied territories forever. A week before the Israeli election in September, Netanyahu delivered a televised address announcing his intention to annex the Jordan Valley and every Israeli settlement in the West Bank—a move that would eat up 60 percent of the West Bank and leave the other 40 percent as isolated cantons, unconnected to one another.
What was remarkable about Netanyahu’s announcement was that it was so unremarkable: among Jewish Israelis, annexation is not a controversial idea. A recent poll showed that 48 percent of them support steps along the lines of what Netanyahu proposed; only 28 percent oppose them. Even Netanyahu’s main rival, the centrist Blue and White alliance, supports perpetual Israeli control of the Jordan Valley. Its leaders’ response to Netanyahu’s annexation plan was to complain that it had been their idea first.
This state of affairs should not come as a surprise to anyone, especially policymakers in Washington. In fact, one national intelligence estimate drawn up by U.S. agencies judged that if Israel continued the occupation and settlement building for “an extended period, say two to three years, it will find it increasingly difficult to relinquish control.” Pressure to hold on to the territories “would grow, and it would be harder to turn back to the Arabs land which contained such settlements.” That estimate was written more than 50 years ago, mere months after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank began. Nevertheless, Israel has forged ahead with its expansion and has enjoyed unflinching U.S. support, even as Israeli officials periodically warned about its irreversibility.
The question is not whether there will be a single state but what kind of state it should be.
Palestinian leaders also made decisions that reduced the chances for a workable partition—none more significant than agreeing to the Oslo framework in the first place. In doing so, they consented to a formula that encouraged Israel’s expansion, relinquished their ability to challenge it, and sidelined the international community and international law. Under Oslo, the Palestinians have had to rely on the United States to treat Israel with a kind of tough love that American leaders, nervous about their domestic support, have never been able to muster. In the 26 years between the 1967 war and the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, the population of Israeli settlers (not including those in occupied Jerusalem) grew to around 100,000. In the 26 years since then, it has reached roughly 400,000.
As the failure of the peace process became clearer over time, Palestinians rose up against the occupation—sometimes violently. Israel pointed to those reactions to justify further repression. But the cycle was enabled by Palestinian leaders who resigned themselves to having to prove to Israel’s satisfaction that Palestinians were worthy of self-determination—something to which all peoples are in fact entitled.
Arguments about the conflict often devolve into shouting matches about who bears more of the blame for the failure of the two-state solution. But such disputes miss the point: any plan that saw partition as a means to a just solution was always doomed to fail.
The belief in the viability of a two-state solution has depended on a flawed assumption that the conflict was rooted in the aftermath of the 1967 war. Peace through partition would be possible, advocates argued, if only the two sides could break the violent cycle of occupation and resistance that took hold 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 Palestinians. This illogical project was made possible by a willingness to dismiss the humanity and rights of the Palestinian population and by sympathy for the idea of creating a space for Jews somewhere outside Europe—a sentiment that was sometimes rooted in an anti-Semitic wish to reduce the number of Jews in the Christian-dominated West.
Any plan that saw partition as a means to a just solution was always doomed to fail.
In 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, outlining the goal of creating a “national home” in Palestine for the Jewish people without infringing on “the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish” population. This formulation contained a fundamental flaw, one that would mar all future partition plans, as well: it conceived of the Jews as a people with national rights but did not grant the same status to the Palestinians. The Palestinian population could therefore be moved around and dismembered, because they were not a people deserving of demographic cohesion. Twenty years later, the British Peel Commission proposed a partition plan that would have kept together the vast majority of the Jews in Palestine but would have split the Arab population into three separate political entities: one Arab, one Jewish, and one British. A decade after that, in the wake of the Holocaust, a UN partition plan presented a similar vision, with borders drawn to create a Jewish-majority state and with the Palestinians again divided into multiple entities.
In 1948, as British rule over Palestine came to an end, Zionist militias began to create a Jewish state on the ground by force, relying on the UN partition plan to legitimize their aims. In the war that followed, the majority of the land’s Palestinian inhabitants were forced out or fled ahead of Israeli incursions; they were never allowed to return. Their land was seized by the new state, their villages were razed, and their urban homes were given to Jewish newcomers. They became refugees, their lives thrown into limbo. Palestinians refer to this historical moment as the nakba—the “catastrophe.”
The 19 years that followed might be the only time in the past two millennia that the land of Palestine was actually divided. None of the great powers who had ruled over the territory—the Romans, the Byzantines, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the crusaders, the Ayyubids, the Mameluks, the Ottomans, the British—had ever divided Gaza from Jerusalem, Nablus from Nazareth, or Jericho from Jaffa. Doing so never made sense, and it still doesn’t. Indeed, when Israel took control of the territories in 1967, it actually represented a return to a historical norm of ruling the land as a single unit. But it did so with two systems, one for Jewish Israelis and the other for the people living on the land that the Israelis had conquered.
What is the problem that the two-state solution seeks to solve? As the Oslo process has dragged on, the answer has become clear: not so much a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians but one among Israelis themselves. Israel likes to consider itself a democracy even as it rules over millions of subjects denied basic political rights. Endless negotiations have only obscured that fundamental fact. Actual progress in the talks would threaten Jewish control of the land, something that has proved more important to Israel than democracy. That is why the Israelis have favored Oslo-type negotiations, which make it appear they are earnestly trying to deal with the Palestinian issue but never force them to actually do so.
The Palestinian leadership, on the other hand, has devoted itself to the two-state solution, even though any state it could conceivably win through the existing negotiating process would fall far short of minimal Palestinian needs. Such a state would not allow Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral towns and villages, or offer full equality to Palestinian citizens of Israel, or grant Palestinians genuine independence and sovereignty. Accepting a role in this misbegotten exercise was a giant strategic mistake, one driven less by the basic needs of Palestinian nationalism than the personal interests of Palestinian leaders.
Having led the armed struggle against Israel for decades, Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization was known and accepted by ordinary Palestinians. By the late 1980s, however, the group had become a shell of its former self. Already isolated by its exile in Tunisia, the PLO became even weaker in 1990 after its wealthy patrons in the Gulf cut funding when Arafat backed Saddam Hussein’s grab for Kuwait. On the ground in the territories, meanwhile, the first intifada—a grassroots revolt against the occupation—was making news and threatening to displace the PLO as the face of Palestinian resistance. By embracing the Oslo process, Arafat and his fellow PLO leaders found a personal path back to influence and relevance—while trapping the Palestinian community in a bind that has held them back ever since.
The PLO’s decision was all the more regrettable considering the global context in which it was made. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, fueling a global wave of democratization. South Africa was dismantling apartheid, demonstrating that a country could willingly abandon a system of racist oppression in favor of democracy. The PLO could not have asked for a more favorable moment in which to demand equal rights in a democratic state. Instead, the leaders of the PLO grasped at immediate relevance and allowed Palestinians’ fundamental rights to be the subject of three-way negotiations in which they would always be the weakest party.
The PLO’s choice condemned the Palestinians to still more oppression under military occupation and misery in refugee camps as they waited for a mythical deal. Decades later, even after everybody else has moved on, Arafat’s successors in the Palestinian Authority still cling to the peace process and the two-state solution. Having sunk so much effort and credibility into their state-building project, they are having difficulty letting go.
This accommodation should stop. The time has come for the Palestinian Authority to abandon its advocacy of a two-state solution, an idea that has become little more than a fig leaf for the United States and other great powers to hide behind while they allow Israel to proceed with de facto apartheid. Instead, Palestinians should acknowledge the reality that there is and always will be only one state between the river and the sea and focus their efforts on making that state a viable home for all of the territory’s inhabitants, Jews and Arabs alike.
Some will object that such a shift in strategy would undercut the hard-won consensus, rooted in decades of activism and international law, that the Palestinians have a right to their own state. That consensus, however, has produced little for the Palestinians. Countless UN resolutions have failed to stop Israeli settlements or gain Palestinians a state, so they wouldn’t be losing much. And in a one-state solution worthy of the name, Palestinians would win full equality under the law, so they would be gaining a great deal.
The Trump administration will not embrace the concept of equal rights for all inhabitants, including the Palestinians. But American voters might. A poll conducted last year by the University of Maryland found that Americans were roughly evenly split between supporting a two-state solution and supporting a one-state solution with equal rights for all inhabitants. Yet when asked what they preferred if a two-state solution were not possible (which it isn’t), the status quo or one state with equal rights, they chose the latter by a two-to-one margin.
The United States has been able to secure what it desires most in the Middle East—the steady flow of natural resources—without a just peace. But that has come at the price of perpetual instability. A shared state with equal rights for all would serve U.S. interests even better, because it would finally stabilize the region and generate broader opportunities for economic growth and political reform.
Israelis would benefit from a shift to such a state, as well. They, too, would gain security, stability, and growth, while also escaping international isolation and reversing the moral rot that the occupation has produced in Israeli society. At the same time, they would maintain connections to historical and religious sites in the West Bank. Most Israelis would far prefer to perpetuate the status quo. But that is just not possible. Israel cannot continue to deny the rights of millions of Palestinians indefinitely and expect to remain a normal member of the international community. The Middle Eastern version of apartheid will eventually be recognized for what it is, and then Israel’s true options will be clear: move to one state with equal rights or become a pariah.
Advocates of equal rights for all must take steps to make sure that “one-state solution” does not become as empty a slogan as “two-state solution.” To focus and ground their vision, they should therefore propose not only a new state but also a new constitution. That would both demonstrate their commitment to democracy and highlight Israel’s lack of the same. When the country was founded in 1948, Zionist leaders were trying to expedite the arrival of more Jews, prevent the return of Palestinians, and seize as much land as possible. They had no interest in defining citizenship criteria, rights, or constraints on government power. So instead of writing a constitution, the Jewish state instituted a series of “basic laws” in an ad hoc fashion, and these have acquired some constitutional weight over time.
Israelis and Palestinians should work together to craft a constitution that would uphold the rights of all.
In place of that legal patchwork, which has been used to protect the rights of some and to deny the rights of others, Israelis and Palestinians should work together to craft a constitution that would uphold the rights of all. The new constitution would 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. It would acknowledge the Jewish people’s history of being persecuted and the paramount importance of ensuring that all citizens, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or national origin, have a right to safety and security. And it would also recognize the wrongs done to Palestinian refugees and begin a process to repatriate and compensate them.
A new constitution could offer citizenship to all the people currently living in the land between the river and the sea and to Palestinian refugees and would create pathways for immigrants from elsewhere to become citizens. All citizens would enjoy full civil and political rights, including the freedom of movement, religion, speech, and association. And all would be equal before the law: the state would be forbidden from discriminating on the basis of ethnicity or religion.
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—say, a requirement of at least 90 percent approval in the legislative branch. 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.
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. For inspiration, it could look to past efforts in South Africa and Rwanda.
Some will dismiss this vision as naive or impractical. To them, I would ask: More naive and impractical than unscrambling the omelet that the Israeli occupation has created? How many more decades of failure must we endure before we can safely conclude that partition is a dead end? How many more people must we condemn to oppression, violence, and death?
The idea of equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians in a shared state has been around for decades, perhaps as long as have 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.
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