Every now and again, when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks particularly intractable and/or when the Israelis seem to be operating with particularly obtuse intransigence, someone will point out that Israel desperately needs a viable two-state solution, because the alternative is a one-state “solution” that ends the Zionist dream of a Jewish state (whatever a “Jewish state” might mean – and nobody seems to agree on what it does). Some even declare that a two-state solution is already impossible, and that the only remaining option is granting the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank (and Gaza?) equal voting rights within a bi-national state.
It should be clear to people who say these things that a one-state “solution” is an illusion, and this kind of rhetoric amounts mostly to moral posturing on the part of critics. By “posturing” I don’t mean to impugn the moral stance of said critics – they may or may not have right on their side; that’s another question – but to suggest that this stance has little chance of actually affecting reality.
Allow me to explain why a one-state “solution” is not going to be implemented.
First of all, the Israeli Jews simply won’t agree to it, because they are fully aware that it would mean dissolving their state, and would be understood almost universally as the surrender of their country to a hostile enemy. I can’t think of a historical instance where this happened in the absence of massive military defeat.
The two examples often used to compare to the Israeli situation in this regard are Algeria and South Africa, and there are some ways in which those analogies are quite applicable. But in other ways they fail. The Algerian analogy fails because Algeria, although an integral part of France, was only a part – and not a particularly central part. The pieds noirs could go “home” to metropolitan France; the Israeli Jews cannot go home anywhere – if they left, they would be leaving home, and going into diaspora.
Of course, the Boers of South Africa couldn’t go “home” anywhere either – they had been in Africa for hundreds of years, longer than the Jews have been a substantial community in Israel. (There have been Jews in Israel continuously since antiquity, but between the Roman expulsion and the Zionist era they were not a large community, much less a dominant one.) But the Boers were a relatively small minority among South Africans, whereas Israeli Jews are a community of roughly equal size to their Palestinian Arab opponents. Moreover, the Boers were not the only white community in South Africa, and the English did not hold identical attitudes toward the land or toward racial purity.
Then there’s the question of what kind of pressure could be brought to bear on Israel, practically, to force it to change. The South African economy depended substantially upon black labor in a way that the Israeli economy no longer depends on Palestinian labor. Israel has gone out of its way since the first intifadeh to reduce that dependence, and has been quite successful, both by changing its industrial mix and by importing alternative labor sources from Thailand, the Philippines, Romania, Nigeria and other places. This means that the Palestinians have less economic leverage over Israel, but it also means that a practical argument for a single state – that these two communities are really part of a single entity – is less true than it has been in the past. The opposite was true of South Africa.
Israel’s dependence on American largesse can be easily overstated. Yes, the end of American aid would be a budgetary blow to Israel, and Israel uses many American weapons systems. But American aid is only about 4% of Israel’s budget, and were that relationship to go badly, Israel would have a number of options for continued military development. American support for Israel can be criticized because it implicates America in Israel’s policies, or can be defending as buying America a certain amount of influence over Israel’s policies, but it’s far from clear that America’s support has been crucial to the success of Israel’s policies. It seems far more likely that a withdrawal of American support would lead Israel to seek new partners to pursue its preferred policies, rather than adopting a more conciliatory line.
Israel is dependent on access to international trade to maintain its first-world economy, so a concerted international effort at economic isolation could impose very substantial costs on the country. However, such pressure is extremely difficult to orchestrate, since cheaters reap outsized benefits. Moreover, the examples of Iran, Cuba, Myanmar and North Korea suggest that the strategy of international isolation has limited effectiveness when the isolated country has a sufficiently strong commitment to its own stubborn course. I wouldn’t bet against Israel on this score.
Given the extreme nature of the stakes for Israel, it strikes me as likely that Israel’s response to a concerted effort to push it towards a one-state solution would be to turn in an aggressively nationalist direction, and implement its preferred solution unilaterally.
Finally, of course, there are the Palestinians, and what they actually want. There is little evidence of a Palestinian interest in a truly bi-national state as an alternative to a Palestinian state. The liberal position among Palestinians is to favor a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state that has become a “state of all its citizens” – that is to say, that does not discriminate in favor of Jews and does not have an explicitly Jewish character even if it has a Jewish majority. The hard-line position among Palestinians is that there will be one Palestinian state between the river and the sea.
The liberal Palestinian position is certainly something Israel can work with if it actually wants to – the demand that the Palestinians “recognize” Israel as a “Jewish state” is extremely silly, since the only practical question is how the refugee question gets settled, and if it is settled to Israel’s satisfaction then the “character” of the Israeli state is an internal matter, not a diplomatic one. But my point is that the Palestinians are very far from making the argument that Jews and Arabs need to live in harmony and equality in one bi-national state. Which, again, is not at all surprising given the historically nationalist character of Palestinian resistance and the way in which relations between the communities has evolved over the course of Israeli occupation, but it once again illustrates a contrast with the ideology of the ANC in South Africa.
As Gershom Gorenberg argues in his excellent book, The Unmaking of Israel, which I reviewed earlier this year, bi-nationalism can only actually work in the context of reasonably peaceful relations between Jews and Arabs. In an atmosphere of inter-communal warfare, all a hypothetical bi-nationalism would do is turn those unwilling to accept union into rebels against the state. Since these are currently an overwhelming majority of both communities, you’d have civil war, not coexistence.
That sounds like a very pessimistic note to end on, so I won’t end there. Because a two-state solution remains much more possible than pessimists think. Indeed, the only way to make a one-state solution seem more plausible than a two-state solution is by playing a logical shell game.
The same people who argue for a one-state bi-national solution frequently assert that because of Israeli settlement activity, a two-state solution is “impossible.” But this impossibility depends entirely on the assumption that Israel will be allowed to get its way in keeping whatever territory it has substantially settled. And that assumption logically precludes a one-state bi-national solution as well. After all, if Israel cannot be pressured into surrendering Ma’ale Adumim to a future Palestinian state, then why should we assume it can be pressured into surrendering Tel Aviv? Wouldn’t the former be much more acceptable in any plausible universe?
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon worked very hard to get America to agree that “facts on the ground” had to be taken into account in the context of any final settlement – effecting a soft revision of America’s longstanding position that a resolution of the conflict should be “based on” the 1949 armistice lines (which didn’t imply that those lines had to be the future borders, but did imply that any unilateral “revisions” to the border were illegal). But this concession only has any meaning if there is an actual effort to come to a resolution. In the absence of that diplomatic context, there’s no reason for Israel to assume that anyone is particularly interested in pressuring the Palestinians to accept that Israel is going to retain this or that settlement bloc.
And once you throw away the assumption that Israel will be allowed to keep the large settlement blocs in pretty much whatever form they wish to keep them, the impossibility of a two-state solution vanishes. The settlement blocs might wind up becoming an integral part of Israel. Or they might wind up being torn up by Israel as part of a unilateral retreat to more defensible borders (as with Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza). Or they might wind up being handed over to a sovereign Palestinian state. In the absence of agreed borders, every dollar Israel pours into settlements is very plausibly a dollar poured down a rat hole – but that waste doesn’t make a two-state solution impossible.
Israel does need a two-state solution, because the continuation of the conflict is wrecking the country. It’s an enormous waste of money and human potential. It’s pushing Israeli politics in a frighteningly anti-liberal direction. It’s fueled increased conflict within Israel between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority, conflict that has already turned violent at times and that could get much uglier. As Gorenberg demonstrates persuasively in his book, the settlement enterprise has undermined the rule of law within Israel, with wide-reaching negative consequences. And there’s always the potential for a truly catastrophic war. But there is no one-state alternative to a two-state solution. The alternative to a two-state solution is continued war.
I can’t be optimistic in the short term. The next Israeli government is going to be even more right-wing than this one is, and Israel may soon be surrounded by populist Islamist regimes rather than conservative personal dictatorships. But objective conditions have a way of forcing their way to the surface, against any and all ideological resistance. Even in the most ideologically-charged patch of land in the world.