Last month I spoke with a Palestinian who lived in the West Bank town of Beit Jala. He described the hardships and injustices the occupation had inflicted on his life. I asked him what political solution—one or two states -- he favored. Showing some impatience with the question he replied that anything that stopped the ongoing confiscation of Palestinian land and accorded Palestinians their full human and political rights was acceptable. I believe his refusal to pronounce on the best or “possible” arrangements for vindicating those rights displayed political wisdom.
Whether acknowledged in sorrow, proclaimed triumphantly, or offered as disinterested political analysis, a two-state arrangement for Israelis and Palestinians has widely been declared “dead.” However, the death announcement is ambiguous between at least three claims. One is that there is no effective political will that aims at two-states. A second is that even with sufficient political will, two-states could not be achieved, and a third is that even if it could be achieved, it would necessarily be unjust. I take the first to be true, the second to be false, and the third dependent on unexamined ideals. The conflation of the three muddies strategic thinking and impedes advancing toward a more just Israel/Palestine.
True: No Living Political Power for Two-states
There have always been Jewish Zionists and Palestinian anti-Zionists who rejected the idea of two-states, and a credible argument can (and often is) made that neither the majority of Jews nor a majority of Palestinians ever truly accepted the legitimacy of the other group’s claims to political sovereignty in any part of the land. Be that as it may, what is beyond argument is that for at least two decades now the Israeli government has no interest in allowing the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, and that international support for two-states ranges from pure lip service to feckless gestures. In this context, the actual function of two-state advocacy is often to serve as a pretext to preserve and deepen the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights. That no one with real power is working toward two-states has long been obvious, and the current Israeli government, its policies de facto allowed by America, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, makes absurd any belief in a living process aimed at two-states. As a serious project of powerful actors, two-states are as dead as Jacob Marley. And if the prospect of two-states is invoked to continue to deny Palestinians human and political rights, it should be denounced as the swindle that it is.
False: There is no longer an Historical Possibility for Two-states
That there is no real effective will for two-states, however, is very different than the claim that given sufficient political will, two-states would still be impossible. History is replete with single sovereignties, often with entangled ethnicities and economies, devolving into multiple independent states. Sometimes this happens in a horrific storm of violence and ethnic “cleansing,” (Yugoslavia), sometimes through bloodless negotiations (Czechs and Slovaks), sometimes after one ethnic group had long dominated the other (Britain and Ireland), and sometimes when the dissolution was wholly unforeseen (USSR). If, in 1992, for all the Latvians living in Russia, and all the Russians living in Latvia, two states were formed, and in 2023, for all of the Scots living in England, and English in Scotland, two states may yet emerge, there are little grounds for claiming two-states, given the political will, are an impossibility in Israel/Palestine.
Of course, that “given” is a substantial caveat. For now, there is no effective political will to two-states, and if formation of such will is impossible, so is the realization of two-states. But such political will could emerge (or if you believe it was there in the Oslo period, reemerge). Should a majority of Jewish Israelis and their political authorities come to believe that they cannot, at an acceptable cost, sustain Jewish political dominance over the Palestinian population, then I believe they would opt for two-states. And should a majority of Palestinians come to believe, as they very well might already, that Jewish Israelis would never willingly live as a minority group in a democratic state, nor will Palestinians ever amass the power to force Israeli Jews to do so, then Palestinians too would accept two-states as the best available option. If two-states is the best that either Israeli Jews or Palestinians can hope for, neither people are so irremediably irrational to render the arrangement impossible.
Hidden Utopian Premise: The Moral Ideal of One State
Finally, “two-states is dead,” is less a description of political reality, than it is an expression of a political hope. If one believes that any possible two state arrangement would be unacceptably unjust, declaring it dead is proclaiming an ideal rather than issuing a coroner’s report. It is an ideal that I share. But as often happens in contemporary progressive politics, in I/P it is an ideal vision counterproductively misapplied to current political realities.
What is the misapplied ideal? It is the ideal that a willingness to submit to democratic majority rule should not depend on the composition of the voting population or borders of the state. It divorces group identity from political legitimacy, and nationalism from political identity. Its logic points to one world, without any full local sovereignties. It makes all border monitoring racist, all citizenship requirements unjust discrimination. It is one thing to treat all citizens as absolute equals—something most actual states profess and some come close to realizing. It is quite another to be totally indifferent to who your fellow citizens are. Equal citizenship in a borderless worldwide democracy is, at this historical moment, a political utopia.
I am all for living in that utopia as soon as it is viable. But it exists nowhere, and Israelis and Palestinians are not the likeliest nationalities to be the vanguard leading to its realization by dropping their nationalist inclinations (witness the ubiquity of Palestinian flags as part of the resistance to the occupation and the equal visibility of Israeli flags at anti-Natanyahu liberal Israeli demos). Insisting that one non-national state is the only acceptable or viable option for ending Jewish supremacism in I/P pushes that goal further away.
The Relationship of the One State Ideal to Palestinian and Israeli Political Will
West Bank and Gaza Palestinians may already be willing to accept an independent sovereign Palestinian state in a partitioned land. Citizenship in a truncated but viable state is clearly preferable than being, as they now are, rightless subjects of a Jewish supremacist state. Why then does Palestinian support for two-states appear to be waning? If many Palestinians now seek one non-national democratic state rather than two national ones, it is likely because they have reason to believe that a single non-national state, were it to be stable and democratic, would before long become a de facto single Palestinian state. And even if Palestinians know it is highly unlikely that single democratic state is achievable in their lifetimes, they might as well agitate for that if two-states is equally unlikely—indeed, is “dead.” Of course, some Palestinians are certainly genuine progressive idealists, and believe that Palestinians and Israeli Jews can live together, in a stable, fully democratic state in which neither nationality sets the agenda, and that in falling short of that ideal, two-states are unacceptable. But the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are not so utopian, and would welcome a viable, independent, sovereign Palestine, if a single state with a Palestinian majority was not realistically on the agenda. The formation of Palestinian will toward two-states may have been an insurmountable obstacle to its achievement in the past, but is not one in the present. If two-states are now dead, it is not because Palestinians have no interest in it. However, this Palestinian will is irrelevant so long as there is no equivalent Israeli will, for the Palestinians currently have little power to force the issue. Israeli disinterest in two-states is what gives two-states its current deathly pallor.
A solid majority of Israeli Jews s apparently believe, not without some grounds that they can perpetuate, at an acceptable cost, the undemocratic, oppressive, and frequently violent suppression of Palestinians indefinitely. In this I think they are wrong; I will not argue the point here. but I believe the combined moral, economic, and political costs of repressing a Palestinian human rights movement may wax and wane, but eventually will be too high to sustain. Nor do I here want to explore the best tactics for raising the costs to Israel of the ongoing violation of Palestinian rights. Rather, I want to discuss why proclaiming two-states dead makes it harder for Jewish Israelis to abandon the current undemocratic Jewish supremacist state.
For all of their heated political fissures, the value of a single, Jewish-controlled state to most Israeli Jews depends very much on what they perceive the alternatives to be, and the most significant “cost comparison” will be their perception of the security implications of alternatives. Israelis certainly worry that a Palestinian state on its borders will make them vulnerable to violence emanating from that state, but it is a vulnerability subject to diplomatic, technical, and operational remedies. A single democratic state with a predictable Palestinian majority, on the other hand, would remove Israeli Jews from control of their own security. Perhaps Israeli Jews should not have such control, perhaps that is not the best way to maximize their security. But loss of such control is perceived by Israeli Jews (and much of the Jewish diaspora as well) as a much higher cost than the perceived vulnerabilities of a separate Palestinian state.
The Zionist project had various motivations, but the most widely shared one, and the one that still most grabs those Jews committed to a “Jewish state,” is that Jewish safety should not depend on the good will of non-Jews. In times of persecution Jews should not have to depend on others to provide visas; in times of violent attack, Jews should not have to depend on armies and police controlled by non-Jews for protection. Far more than any nationalist movement, autonomous control of state security services was at the heart of Zionism. Any arrangement that would lead to the foreseeable loss of that autonomy will be resisted by Israeli Jews far more than arrangements that do not entail that price.
Jews may be wrong that sovereign control of security most ensures Jewish safety in the contemporary world, but it is understandable how millennia of Jewish history, especially the recent history of pogroms and genocide that most influenced Zionism, would engrain that belief. The contemporary fate of Rohingya, Kurds, Tibetans, Uigurs, etc., etc. (and indeed, Palestinians!), no doubt reinforces the conviction that it is naive to depend on the conscience of others to provide protection. Again, this may be a wrongheaded, unjustified cynicism. But it is a psychological reality that smart political strategy must take into account.
Perhaps liberal Israeli Jews will come to realize that their hopes to avoid rule by an illiberal, authoritarian-religious regime is doomed unless they can incorporate all Palestinians now under Israeli jurisdiction into an anti-Jewish supremacist, liberal democratic coalition. But they would also have to believe that there is sufficient non-nationalist, liberal Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza to constitute such a potential coalition, and believe that that coalition could amass the power to (non-violently) overthrow Jewish nationalist power that currently denies Gaza and West Bank Palestinians democratic rights. And these liberal Jews would have to fear Jewish illiberalism more than they do the loss of Israeli security autonomy. All this may come to be. But none of it looks remotely close to actually being.
Those wanting to stop the violation of Palestinian rights, and/or save Israeli Jews from the harms ultimately bound to flow (indeed already flowing) from perpetuating those violations, have two strategic tasks: demonstrating and raising the price of the immoral status quo, and convincing Israeli Jews that a less costly alternative is available. Declaring two-states dead makes that second task much more difficult and will serve to prolong the ever-deepening oppression. (The Palestinians already believe there are a variety of feasible alternatives less costly to them than the status quo).
None of this means that the Israeli Jews’ felt need for full control of their own security is an immutable fact. An Israeli national identity that includes Jews and Palestinians might emerge, or antisemitism might so diminish, that future generations of Israeli Jews might become less obsessed with security autonomy. Nor does it mean that the right strategy now is to promote two-states; demands that the violation of Palestinian rights be ended immediately need not specify the political form that takes, and besides being morally correct, such demands help raise the cost of the unjust status quo. But it does mean that we should be open to any arrangement that each people, Palestinians and Jews, democratically endorse. Perhaps it will be a single democratic state, or a close confederation of two-states, or two democratic states that view each other suspiciously. But telling Israeli Jews, and much of diaspora Jewry, that the only possible or acceptable alternative to the unjust reality, is the loss of security autonomy, will extend that injustice. Proclaiming the death of two-states gives extended life to the single undemocratic Jewish state.