One-state: solution or illusion for Palestine?

Abdallah Schleifer

Published: Updated:

The idea of a one-state Solution (in all of the old Mandated Palestine) as a more viable and progressive answer to the two- state solution has been floating around the edges of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian intellectual and/or activist circles for some years. This is particularly true as the Oslo Agreement withered and Israeli settlement building in the West Bank (including Arab Jerusalem) has accelerated.

Despite President Obama’s continued insistence on the two-state policy as the only option for peace - as recently as yesterday, while addressing the U.N. General Assembly - the one- state plan is suddenly gaining traction in the elite portion of mainstream American media. It started with an Op-Ed in the Sept. 14 New York Times, written by University of Pennsylvania professor Ian Lustick. He challenged the two-state recommendation as “an idea whose time is now past.” The piece stimulated a lot of outraged pro-Israeli letters to the editor as well as “two explorations of whether a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a future” in The New Yorker online edition of Sept. 20.

Arguing back and forth

Bernard Avishai, the Israeli-American writer and social critic, argued that two-state was the only viable solution and Yusef Munayyer, director of the Jerusalem Fund and its educational program at the Palestine Center in Washington DC, argued that the two-state policy has not been viable for years.

What is clear on the ground, for better or worse, is that neither a majority of Israelis nor a majority of West Bank Palestinians want to live with the other

Abdallah Schleifer

Lustick has been writing about the Arab-Israeli conflict for at least the past three decades and his article makes for interesting reading because it is inspired more by regret at the three decades of failed negotiations towards the two-state solution then in making unhesitant positive assertions about the one-state possibility. Lustick suggests possible cross communal alliances between various sets of Palestinian and Israeli sub-cultures that share common values that might generate one-state viability.

Unfortunately his sub-cultures are minority sub-cultures on both sides of the green line or, more accurately and more tragically, on both sides of the Separation Fence. The one- sub-culture of Lustick’s many identified cultures that theoretically now constitute the majority of Jews in Israel - the Mizrahi/Sephardi Arab Jews - have no interest aside from their food and their music in any association with anything that could be called Arab. This is the case even if Maimonides, the towering figure of post-Talmudic Jewish religious thought did nearly all his writing in Judeo-Arabic.

One-state would evolve out of the geography and populations of Israel and the Palestinian occupied existence of a “single state” in its occupier (Israel) and the occupied (West Bank) components and presumably its besieged (Gaza) component from an “apartheid state” into a state in which the Palestinians had the same full and equal rights that Israeli Jews exclusively have in its present reality.


Two-state started as a Palestinian perspective for a negotiated settlement after the 1973 October War, and gradually over the 40 years that have followed it has been accepted in one- form or another by just about everybody - except for most secular right-wing Israelis and all religious- nationalist right-wing Israelis, and some of the organized remnants of the Palestinian Fedayeen movements - as the viable formula for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its starting point for negotiations are the borders of the Palestinian territories (the West Bank and Gaza), as demarcated from 1948 up until the 1967 Six Day War.

It is bitter irony that over the course of time, particularly after 1973, the Palestinians and then the Arab states have abandoned-d what could be called the older “intransigent” model of a one-state solution. Instead, more countries have endorsed the two-state, the circumstances of the Israeli occupation have made it less and less possible to support the former.

Munayyar calls for “thinking outside the two-state box” and by that he means outside of the idea of Israel as a “Jewish state:” be it as a goal, since the late 19th century, of Zionist zeal, or as the product of post- Holocaust global sympathy leading to the U.N. endorsement in 1947 of the partitioning of Palestine Mandate into a “Jewish state” and an “Arab state.” He advocates that one- must think outside the box of de-facto recognition that Israel - that state which will be recognized by all the Arab states in Two-State as the ultimate expression of PLO and Arab League realism - is whatever it chooses to call itself. Like those Arab and Muslim republics which assert or have asserted in their very names that they are - in various combinations - Arab, Islamic, Socialist and Democratic.

A view from history

Yet, from a purely historical perspective shaped by anti-colonialism (which includes pre-1948 Zionist settler-colonialism) and a sense of justice based upon the principle of self-determination which means “one- man, one- vote” – such a vote- anytime from the beginning of the Palestine Mandate after World War I up until the U.N. voting to partition Palestine – would have meant there would never be a Jewish state.

Two- state has become increasingly less possible, but it is the idea of a democratic one-state that is an illusion. “Democratic” is an important qualification. One can reasonably imagine that if negotiations go nowhere and the settlements (all built upon confiscated Palestinian land) continue and the slow but steady ethnic cleansing of the rural portions of the West Bank continues (as well as in Arab Jerusalem) or even accelerates, that formal Israeli annexation of it all ,or nearly of it all, will eventually follow. Then, there will be a one- state solution, but certainly not the one- state that both Lustick and Munayyer, each in their very different way, have in mind.

Avishni’s article makes the most interesting reading in part because he is not only an academic but also very much a man of letters and because he offers up an intriguing analogy between the travails in the 19th Century of making French speaking, Catholic Canada (the province of Quebec) and English-speaking Protestant Canada, into one- state. It did not turn out to be as such, instead it became a Confederation of two states – the province of Quebec and all English provinces which we may metaphorically consider as “the other state” with far more authority delegated to the provinces than in the federal model that prevailed after the failure of confederation in the United States and after WWII in West Germany.

But the analogy does not hold – both English Canada and French Canada were products of two rival settler colonialisms that displaced what we might imaginatively think of as “Indian Canada.” Palestine has been a land in the continuous possession of the Palestinians – be their religious identity Cannanite, Jebusite, Judean (Jewish), Christian, Muslim and Druze: a land opened up under the British-administered post WWI Mandate to a predominantly Jewish settler-colonialism with a global movement for a mother country.

Rejecting one-state

What is clear on the ground, for better or worse, is that neither a majority of Israelis nor a majority of West Bank (and I would presume, Gaza) Palestinians want to live with the other.

Perhaps the only significant community in Israel that would welcome one-state would be the Israeli Arabs, who held out against all odds in 1948-49. They resent their second class status but they speak and read Hebrew as well as Arabic and participate as Hebrew –speakers in Israeli life and no one- expects them to move into a separate Palestinian state.

But by a slight majority, according to all polls, Israelis, regardless of who they vote for are ready to abandon Greater Israel for an Israel at peace in the fullest sense with its neighbors. An even larger majority of Palestinians still in the occupied territories are more than ready to settle for Two-State.

I stress “still in the Occupied areas” for many, if not necessarily most Palestinians living in the Diaspora ranging from Lebanese refugee camps, to comfortable but provisional residence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates are opposed to a two- state solution that ends the dream of return, aside from a very limited symbolic repatriation.. But under two-state there would be at least return to Palestine if not to Jaffa, Haifa or the more than 400 Palestinian villages that were leveled to the ground. Lustick does not deal with it, but if you read Munayyer very carefully, his version of one-state implies the Right of Return.

one-state without the Right of Return would mean, given higher Arab birth-rates, a gradual transformation from two populations in approximate numerical balance to a very predominantly Palestinian one-state. Right of Return would mean immediate transformation. Any Israeli who would even contemplate a democratic one-state for just a moment, knows this and will not accept it. Otherwise why live or stay on in Israel in the first place.

This is true except for a highly exceptional individual like Avishai. Born and raised in Canadia, Avishai who is a new type of global Israeli, highly immersed in what is now a living modern Hebrew culture as well as highly familiar with all the current social and cultural trends in the West, divides his time between a home in America and one in Israel where his wife teaches at Hebrew University. Even he is opposed to one- state, and no doubt opposed to anything but a very limited symbolic Palestinian Right of Return to that portion of Palestine that became Israel in 1948.

That is the major reason why Sharon gave up densely populated Gaza. With no way of dumping the Palestinians there into Sinai, Gaza had terrible demographics.

On-the-ground realities which can only get worse make two-state, however difficult, the only alternative to apartheid in Greater Israel.


Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.