It’s time to talk one-state solution

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, May 14 2021

In 2006, former President Jimmy Carter published a book called “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley, one of many commentators outraged by Carter’s use of the term apartheid, called the allusion to South Africa “a foolish and unfair comparison, unworthy of the man who won—and deserved—the Nobel Peace Prize.” Weeks later, the Post published a piece by the historian Deborah Lipstadt in which she argued that Carter had a “Jewish Problem” and implied that his book was anti-Semitic. Carter wrote an op-ed in response to the blowback, but even he avoided defending the legitimacy of the term.

Fast forward to now. Early this week, as Palestinians protested against impending evictions in East Jerusalem, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Noura Erakat and Mariam Barghouti in which the two Palestinian researchers wrote matter-of-factly that “we need solidarity to overcome apartheid.” And two weeks earlier, H.A. Hellyer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published an essay in the Post titled “Israel uses apartheid to exclude Palestinians. When will Washington face that?” The piece was pegged to the release of a high-profile Human Rights Watch report which had concluded that Israel is committing crimes of apartheid (a conclusion Hellyer called “behind the curve”).  

This week veteran Middle East observers exuded a sense of déjà vu as they lamented the latest of the “cycles of violence” that reliably punctuate Israeli-Palestinian relations. Yet something has changed.

Mainstream media discussion has expanded to encompass previously marginalized terms and ideas and previously sidelined voices—including voices that reject the status quo as untenable yet doubt the possibility of a two-state solution. And this shift has raised the cost for some politicians (on the Democratic side, at least) who are accustomed to deploying rote statements that affirm Israel’s right to self-defense, call for de-escalation on both sides, and reiterate support for a "peace process" that hasn’t shown signs of life since Americans now entering college were born.

Is all of this cause for hope? Or is there nothing to hope for? Does the longstanding reliance of politicians on these cliches reflect, in part, the absence of realistic alternative formulations?  

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In the 1980s, scholar Daniel Hallin suggested a way to analyze media coverage by sorting ideas into three spheres. The "sphere of consensus" houses ideas that journalists leave unquestioned, while ideas deemed worthy of debate fall into the "sphere of legitimate controversy." The third space—the "sphere of deviance"—is for views considered so ridiculous or dangerous as to not warrant debate. When it comes to Israel-Palestine, the sphere of legitimate controversy has been expanding.

The migration of the term apartheid from “deviance” to “controversy” reflects a thematic shift in discourse. Palestinian activists have over the past two decades couched their core aspiration less and less in terms of the creation of a Palestinian state and more and more in terms of the provision of full human rights. The attention focused this week on the right claimed by Palestinians in East Jerusalem to maintain their homes in the face of Israeli eviction efforts—an issue cited in the HRW apartheid report—is an example of this shift. So is attention increasingly given to other issues cited in that report, notably the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank, though ruled ultimately by a government that calls itself democratic, aren’t allowed to vote and don’t enjoy due process of law.

Of course, if this changed—if Palestinians outside of Israel proper were allowed to vote—then the political boundary separating the two would lose much of its meaning. Which is one reason “one-state solution,” a term that two decades ago wasn’t heard in polite society, is now in the zone of controversy.

The other reason for this change is the growing implausibility of a two-state solution. Prominent Palestinians like Noura Erakat and Yousef Munayyer have for years argued that the relentless growth in the number of West Bank settlements (and their interconnection via highways that Palestinians don’t have access to and that cut off traditional travel routes between Palestinian villages) will preclude a two-state solution. Erakat and Munayyer write about a “one-state reality”—the idea being that Israel and the occupied territory already constitute a de facto polity, and the only question is whether it will remain an apartheid polity or grant rights to all Palestinians.

Last year their cause got a boost from Peter Beinart, an Orthodox Jew who wrote a full-throated case for a one-state solution in the New York Times. And the Carnegie Endowment, a mainstream Washington think tank, enhanced the idea’s legitimacy by publishing a report calling on the US to abandon the current two-state peace process. As the one-state solution enters the sphere of controversy, the two-state solution is, too—by leaving the sphere of consensus.

This will complicate the lives of some politicians. For decades even the most progressive Democrats have framed criticisms of harsh Israeli actions in terms of the threat they pose to the two-state solution. Writing in Foreign Policy, Munayyer recently compared Democrats in Congress who use this formulation to Republicans who use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings. “It is a way to distance lawmakers from terrible outcomes they have the capacity to prevent while dodging responsibility for continually failing to do so,” he wrote. The current conflict will expand the circulation of Munayyer’s view in progressive circles.

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But if progressive politicians abandon the two-states talking point, what can they say instead? The number of Israeli Jews willing to consider giving political rights to Palestinians who live beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders is vanishingly small. And of course, without the support of Israeli Jews, there’s no path to a one-state solution.

Still, there are three arguments for prominent Americans, including politicians, to start talking about a one-state solution.

The first is that if there is any hope of reviving a two-state solution—if the facts on the ground haven’t yet made such a thing quite as challenging as unscrambling an egg—that hope can’t be realized unless Israel makes a much more generous offer to Palestinians than it has made in past negotiations. (For example: letting a Palestinian state control its borders and airspace, which true states are accustomed to doing.) And the galvanizing specter of a one-state solution may be the only thing that could get Israelis to contemplate such a shift.

The second argument for using the term “one-state solution” is that lots of things that once seemed politically impossible—such as people other than white males voting in America—wound up happening.

The third argument is: What are the alternatives? Israel’s unending encroachment on the West Bank (in violation of international law) would seem to point toward two other possible futures: (1) a one-state reality—whether de facto or de jure—that is essentially an apartheid state, with the eligibility of West Bank residents to vote still determined by their ethnicity; (2) the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians—coercing their migration to Jordan—on a large scale.

And note that in either of these cases the problem of Gaza—subjected by Israel to a suffocating blockade, governed by a faction whose legitimacy depends on its demonstrated hostility to Israel—continues to fester.

Building a single state in which Israelis and Palestinians live in peace is a mammoth challenge of political engineering. But serious thinkers are coming up with various creative ideas—such as a binational confederation—for making it work.

The only way to sustain this progress—to refine these ideas, inject them into the conversation in circles that matter, and get feedback from the groups that will determine their destiny—is for more and more people to talk about the possibility of a one-state solution.

If nothing else, that might at least get Israel’s leaders to finally answer the question: What long-term alternative to this do you envision?

This piece originally appeared in The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll consider becoming a paid subscriber.

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 (Photo credit: Justin McIntosh, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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