In his article in favor of the one-state solution, Yazan Al-Saadi correctly points out that it is safe to conclude that the Peace Process, as formulated under the 1993 Declarations of Principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, is effectively dead. The breakdown of the 2000 Camp David Accords and the bloody Second Intifada that followed have led to such a decline in mutual trust that actual reconciliation and an eventual comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians seem further than ever. The problem has been further compounded by divisions within the Palestinian nationalist movement as a result of the 2007 Palestinian Civil War, which resulted in a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and a Fatah-controlled West Bank. Reconciliation between the two groups appears unlikely, despite recent announcements from Hamas’s Khaled Meshaal and Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas about a proposed unity agreement.
Against this backdrop, a sudden flurry of arguments and proposals within academia have arisen calling for the establishment of a singular bi-national state between Jews and Palestinian Arabs in the territory of historic Palestine. Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the website Electronic Intifada, refers to this arrangement as “A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse” in the sub-title of his most recent book. Abunimah was a speaker at Harvard’s recent One-State Conference, the most respectable forum as of yet to discuss the idea of establishing one-state in Palestine.
Although I do not doubt that one-state proponents are sincere in wanting to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people living under Israeli-occupation, they display a great deal of disingenuousness in touting the one-state idea as a “bold proposal” for ending the conflict and as a means to truly achieve justice for both sides. The one-state solution had for decades been the PLO’s goal, and, before that, had been pursued by the pre-1948 Palestine nationalist movement led by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Husseini. Anyone with even a basic understanding of the conflict will recognize that the one-state solution is a sheer impossibility and could never be implemented. Should it be put into effect, it would be an unmitigated political and humanitarian disaster for both sides, though likely more for the Jews than for the Palestinians.
There are two primary problems with Al-Saadi’s argument. First, the one-state solution is entirely unworkable, and will only lead to further violence and bloodshed in the region. Second, from a standpoint of morality and justice, implementation of the one-state solution will lead to the end of Israel, a legitimate nation-state that has existed for over sixty years, and lead to an outcome where only one side, the Palestinians, achieve “justice.” This, I believe, is the true objective for proponents of the one-state solution. For them, it is not enough that the Israeli-Arab conflict comes to an end peacefully; the end to the Zionist project and the dismantling of the State of Israel must also be achieved.
The Problem with Multi-National States
First, I will tackle the impracticality of creating a bi-national state. The basic purpose of the one-state solution, at least to my understanding, would be to unite the historic territory of Palestine, which includes present-day Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, under a single bi-national state in which Jews and Arabs would operate under a power-sharing framework within a democratic system.
Anyone with at least a cursory knowledge about the fate of multi-national states in the twentieth century cannot seriously claim that this idea is a reasonable one. What about the awful fate of Yugoslavia and Lebanon? Even in peaceful Belgium, the government has for decades suffered frequent political deadlocks due to conflicts between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons. And, of course, a singular state in mandate Palestine would not in any way resemble Belgium. It would require forcing together two national groups who have been in violent conflict since at least the 1920s and making them agree to share power within a single state. Does no one see a problem with this arrangement?
To understand the impossibility of uniting the Palestinians and Jews in one state, one only needs to examine Israel’s neighbors. The 2003 U.S.–led invasion of Iraq tremendously impacted the country’s political-sectarian dynamics. For nearly a thousand years, the region that came to be known as “Iraq” had been governed by Sunni Arabs, who were in the minority. Following the 2003 invasion, the occupying forces attempted to establish a democratic system in Iraq, which involved dividing up power between the country’s three main groups: Shiite Arabs, who form the majority, Sunni Arabs, and Iraqi Kurds in the north. Nearly a decade of horrible sectarian violence ensued with civil war only narrowly averted. Even today, the level of trust between these main groups is dismal at best.
A similar outcome may occur in Syria, which is currently in the grips of on-going protests inspired by the Arab Spring. One shudders to think what will likely emerge if the protests succeed in overthrowing the minority-Alawite dictatorship, which has ruled a majority-Sunni country. Syria also has significant populations of Christians, Druze, and Kurds. Does a Belgium-style power-sharing government seem likely?
Shortly after achieving independence in 1943, a power-sharing accord was developed between Lebanon’s multiple confessional groups, which scholars Clifford Geertz and Arend Lijphart touted as an effective example of “consociational democracy.” However, the Lebanese political system ultimately broke down in 1975 and suffered a protracted civil war among its many sectarian groups. Today, strong tensions still exist among Lebanon’s Sunni, Christian, Shiite, and Druze communities
Contrasting Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria with the situation between Israel and the Palestinians demonstrates the results of forcing diverse peoples to live under a single state and underscores the types of governing strategies that arise in these circumstances to hold states together. The possibility exists that similar arrangements could come to pass in a bi-national state between Palestinians and Israelis. Why should we force these groups to suffer through such a political outcome, in lieu of allowing them to live in two different states with each in control of its own destiny?
If one looks even closer at the proposal for a bi-national state, it does not, in fact, appear to be the end goal for proponents of the one-state solution. As Al-Saadi argues, “[w]hat of the Palestinian refugees? It is their inalienable right to receive compensation and to return to their former homes within present-day Israel. There is no negotiation or compromise on this matter” (emphasis added). Al-Saadi is, of course, referring to the five million Palestinian refugees, and their descendents, who either fled or were expelled during the 1948 War. Assuming a bi-national state is created and the government of that state agrees that all Palestinian refugees have a right to return home, we would no longer truly have a bi-national state. Instead, we would have a Muslim-majority Arab state with a small Jewish minority. How can this be considered a fair and just solution? No state would voluntarily agree not only to self-dissolution, but also to accept the possibility that its people would become a minority who may be stripped of their political rights by the majority ethnic group. This appears, however, to be what one-state proponents are asking of Israel.
Morality and Justice
The second aspect to the argument against the one-state solution concerns morality and justice. Proponents of the two-state solution, including myself, acknowledge by definition that the Palestinian people exist and that they have a basic right to self-determination. Why do proponents of the one-state solution find it so difficult to say the same about Israel? Leaving aside all the usual anti-Israel, anti-Zionism arguments, narratives about Zionist colonization in Palestine during the British Mandate period, and Israeli actions during the 1948 war, it cannot be disputed that the State of Israel (that is, the State of Israel within the Green Line) has become a prosperous, multi-ethnic democracy with a clear national identity. Israel’s cultural and scientific accomplishments have been tremendous considering its small size. The one-state solution, as I have illustrated above, would bring this society and its accomplishments to a crashing and, most likely, violent end.
Al-Saadi attempts to negate the successes of Israeli society and Zionist ideology by exaggerating the schisms that exist between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, arguing that Israel has not been a state for all Jews, let alone all Arabs. Oddly, he argues that “Arab Jews” were not recognized in the UN Partition Plan, which is misleading considering that the population of Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries) in Palestine was negligible in the pre-state period. It was only in the years following the founding of Israel that hundreds of thousands “Arab Jews” immigrated to the Jewish state. While there has indeed been a shameful history of institutionalized and individualized racism against Mizrahi Jews in Israel, this situation has gradually improved overtime, and there are more Mizrahi Jews represented in high positions in the Israeli government than in years past.
Al-Saadi argues that proponents of the continuing survival of the Jewish state “put aside legitimate criticisms regarding the flawed Biblical narrative and perceived purity of the ‘Jewish nation’, which has been foundational to the Zionist ideology.” This statement is a fundamental misinterpretation of the central tenets of mainstream political Zionism (ignoring for a moment the movement’s many ideological offshoots), which advocate for the establishment of a national Jewish home as a response to the anti-Semitism and physical danger Jews faced in the countries in which they lived. Anyone who reads the foundational texts of political Zionism, particularly the works of the movement’s founder, Theodor Herzl, would conclude that Zionism has nothing to do with Jewish ethnic supremacy or biblical messianic delusions.
Israel has been remarkably effective as a haven for Jews fleeing persecution and poverty from their home countries, as demonstrated by successive waves of immigration to Israel, which have included: Holocaust survivors in Europe, Jews fleeing from Arab countries, Jews escaping persecution from South American military juntas, Jews escaping the Soviet Union, and Ethiopian Jews fleeing starvation. Israel’s role as a safe haven for world Jewry, the original purpose of Zionism, would also most likely come to an end if a one-state solution were implemented.
Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank and confiscation of Palestinian land for the building of illegal settlements has been a moral and political disaster. Yet, rectifying this situation and bringing justice to the Palestinians by stripping Israeli Jews of their sovereignty is neither just nor moral. It simply alters the power dynamic by reversing the role of the oppressed with the oppressor. A just solution, however it is achieved, must be fair to both Jews and Arabs. One-state proponents need to come clean and acknowledge that what they are truly proposing is the dismantling of the Jewish state and the establishment of a Muslim Arab state over all of historic mandate Palestine. It is then up to those concerned with this ongoing conflict to decide whether this can be considered a just and fair solution.
*Daniel Steiman is pursuing a Master’s degree in the Democracy and Governance program at Georgetown University’s Department of Government. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Bucknell University
 See Clifford Geertz, “The Integrative Revolution: Primordial Sentiments and Civil Politics in the New States,” in: Clifford Geertz (ed.): Old societies and new states: the quest for modernity in Asia and Africa. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, London, Collier-Macmillan, 1963: pp. 105-157; Arend Lijphart, Democracy
in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (New Haven, 1977), p. 5.