On January 5, The New York Times reported that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) is “seriously debating” whether to shift its national strategy away from a two-state solution and toward “the pursuit of a single state,” in which Israelis and Palestinians receive equal rights and privileges. PLO Central Council member Mustafa Barghouti informed the Times that this question was “dominating the discussion” leading up to the body’s meeting later this month.
Such a move would be a revolutionary departure from decades of PLO strategy and efforts. Moving beyond the obsolete two-state paradigm and articulating a clear and inclusive vision for a single, democratic state in all of Israel-Palestine is essential for achieving a just and peaceful future for Palestinians and Israelis alike. The PLO should recognize this and act accordingly.
For some time now, demographic and political reaIities on the ground in Israel-Palestine have rendered the premise of “two states for two peoples” unworkable. Israeli settlements cut across the West Bank and East Jerusalem, transforming the prospect of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state into an utter fantasy; Palestinian citizens of Israel are not content to live as second-class citizens within an exclusivist Jewish state; and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees remains ignored. There is no “ultimate deal” that can justly resolve these issues.
For decades, politicians, negotiators, and experts have warned of a “point of no return,” after which establishing two states would be impossible. In November 2008, a group of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy luminaries sent a paper to then President-elect Barack Obama arguing that the following “six to twelve months may well represent the last chance for a fair, viable and lasting [two-state] solution.” In 2015, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a long-time champion of this goal, declared, according to Prospect Magazine, that “there is zero chance of [a] two-state solution.”
Even among veteran Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, who have spent much of their lives working toward two states, the outlook is grim. After numerous interviews with these officials, scholar Padraig O’Malley recounted in his book, the Two State Delusion, that “most acknowledged that the ‘tipping point’ for finding a two-state solution had been, or was on the verge of being, passed.”
The PLO knows that a two-state solution is not feasible politically either. The Israeli right is not interested in it. The Israeli left is not interested in it. The United States is unwilling to effectively use its influence to achieve it. As the International Crisis Group argued in 2012 regarding the failed peace process, “[t]he first step in breaking what has become an injurious addiction to a futile process is to recognise that it is so – to acknowledge, at long last, that the emperor has no clothes.”
The case in favor of a one-state solution is not merely that it is the only option left. It is also that it offers the greatest equality, security, and prosperity for all residents of Israel-Palestine.
Embracing a shared state with equal rights and opportunities for both Israelis and Palestinians would resolve many of the key issues and injustices driving the conflict and allow both peoples to achieve key aspirations. Palestinians would be free to live in all of historic Palestine, just as Israelis could live in all of Eretz Israel. Palestinian refugees in exile could exercise their right to return to their homeland, just as diaspora Jews could make Aliyah to the shared state. Jerusalem would be unified and open to all. Both communities, with histories of exile and oppression, could finally flourish together.
While it may presently be difficult to accept the plausibility of such a future, as Israel deepens its occupation of Palestinian territory and bans groups that advocate for equal rights, it is not as unachievable as it may seem.
As Palestinian organizer Hamada Jaber told The New York Times, “’At least 30 percent of Palestinians support one-state when no one is talking about it… If there’s at least one political party on each side that will talk about it and adapt this strategy, the support will grow.’” This is not to mention the likely support for such a solution among Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinian refugees, and other members of the Palestinian diaspora, whose aspirations would likely be ignored by a two-state solution.
At this moment, Israeli Jews are less enthusiastic about giving up hegemony in favor of equality, with recent polling suggesting that only 19 percent of Israeli Jews support such an outcome. Many Israeli Jews fear for their future in a democracy where they would no longer make up the majority. History, however, offers examples to assuage these anxieties. A similar fear of being outnumbered was rampant among white South Africans as late as 1990, with only 2.2 percent willing to accept a “universal franchise with majority rule” and four out of five whites believing that majority rule would threaten “their physical safety.” Despite these apocalyptic predictions for a post-Apartheid South Africa, 69 percent of white South Africans voted to end Apartheid in a 1992 referendum.
If the white South African population of approximately 14 percent was able to embrace a democratic majoritarian government, then it is not impossible to imagine that Israeli Jews, who comprise nearly half of the population of Israel-Palestine, can someday accept a democratic system in which they are equitably represented and empowered. Certainly, this is better than prolonging the violent status quo.
The PLO and other proponents of a one-state solution need to emphasize, as long-time single state advocate Ali Abunimah explained in his book, One Country, that “the point is not to deny Jews a safe haven in Palestine-Israel, but to make the necessary changes that can at last allow it to become one for the first time since Israel was founded.” As Abunimah has also noted, an important lesson of the South African struggle is that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) were able to lead the internal and international resistance to Apartheid and white minority rule while appealing to the humanity of white South Africans by constructively addressing their fears and convincing them that they had a place in a future South Africa free of Apartheid.
In line with the ANC’s strategy, the PLO should adopt an inclusive vision for a shared Israeli-Palestinian state, simultaneously advocating justice and equality for Palestinians while addressing Israeli fears and aspirations. Postponing this and failing to advocate for a viable, democratic alternative to the moribund two-state solution only serves to prolong ongoing injustices and ensure future suffering. It is time for a new strategy.