Who’s Afraid of a One-State Solution?

As Israeli-Palestian peace talks remain at an impasse, a radical solution gains steam.


In light of the ongoing deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, leaders such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni have raised the specter of a one-state solution. Their intention, of course, is to scare some sense into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his intransigent coalition partners. But, as this once-taboo idea becomes a legitimate part of political discussion in the region, some Israeli intellectuals are making the case that this is not something to fear, but a path toward a viable resolution to the region’s long-running crisis.

The two-state solution has presented no shortage of obstacles: Negotiations are mired in talks about talks; the settlement policy is splintering what little territory was envisaged for the Palestinian state; and Israelis are becoming increasingly aware that the conflict doesn’t stop at the Green Line, but emerges in varying shapes, including unprecedented racism and sectarian rioting within Israel proper. It’s little wonder, then, that an increasing number of Israeli voices are beginning to inquire whether the one-state idea is more than just a bogeyman.

The one-state solution has long had advocates among the Palestinian diaspora, from Edward Said to Ghada Karmi and Ali Abunimah. However, there has recently been an exponential rise in mainstream Israeli media of articles that seriously consider the one-state arrangement. Trawling through the online archives of mainstream media, I found just three such articles from 2004 to 2007, but 16 pieces from 2008 to 2010. A 5,000-word essay by former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti, arguing that the binational state is all but inevitable at this stage, was published in January and still sits atop Haaretz‘s most read and most emailed articles. Now comes the latest installment: sociologist Yehouda Shenhav‘s book The Time of the Green Line (or, in its Hebrew title, Trapped by the Green Line), released in February by the impeccably mainstream Am Oved publishing house.

Shenhav’s book re-examines the very premises on which Israel and its allies perceive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He suggests that the dispute’s fundamental problem is that most Israelis and Palestinians are using two different timelines, with conflicting conceptions of the conflict’s "year zero." For centrist or left-wing Israelis, it is 1967: the year when the West Bank and Gaza were occupied and the hitherto small, democratic, idealistic Israel turned sour. "All that I’m trying to do is allow my grandchildren to live in this country as I lived in it during the quietest, most beautiful decade of its life — 1957 to 1967," Shenhav quotes Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo Accords and the Geneva Initiative, a private follow-up plan, as saying. For the Palestinians, Shenhav says, year zero remains 1948: the year of the mass expulsion of Arabs and the creation of a regime that systematically excluded them from meaningful participation in political and social life.

Shenhav deconstructs the nostalgic view of a supposedly pure pre-1967 Israel — highlighting its military administration of the Galilee region and of Arab cities, and its rampant discrimination against Arab ("Oriental") Jews. Moreover, he suggests the elite-oriented left fetishizes this era not due to its objections to Israeli incursion into Arab space, but because of the influx of Arabness, and the religious nationalism it elicited from Jews, into "civilized," Westernized Israel. For Shenhav, "the ‘new nostalgia’ longs for an Israel ruled by a secular, Jewish Ashkenazi regime," before the influx of Arabic-speaking Jews into the Israeli political space and that of Palestinian Arabs into Israelis’ day-to-day lives. The fear of growing non-European influence in Israel, Shenhav argues, also motivates centrist, segregationist Israeli political trends, which support the separation wall and even unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories exclusively to defuse Israel’s "demographic time bomb."

Shenhav suggests that the Israeli consensus over the two-state solution stems from the hope to go back to 1967, without revisiting the original sins of the expulsions and expropriations of 1948. Moreover, he that argues the two-state solution as propagated today will cause lasting damage not just to settlers — most of whom, including the second and third generations, would lose their homes — but to the Palestinian refugees, who will be sidelined, as they were by the Oslo process. The group set to suffer the worst political consequences of this two-state solution are Israeli Arabs, who will be pressured to seek redress for their demands from the new Palestinian state or even, if the views of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are heeded, have their Israeli citizenship forcibly withdrawn and replaced with a Palestinian one.

Rather than pinning his hopes for an equitable solution on the Israeli left, Shenhav actually looks to a coalition of Palestinians, non-Zionist leftists, and, most surprisingly, a few dissident settlers for a solution to the dispute. Unlike the Israeli left — bogged down in nostalgia for a mythically pure pre-1967 Israel — he argues that an increasing number of settlers are more in sync with the Palestinian timeline of 1948 and are opting to share sovereignty rather than give up their homes. Moreover, some appear to be more aware than "mainland" Israelis of the realities of occupation; Shenhav quotes a settler journal slamming the checkpoints and curfews, as well as a prominent settler educator saying that the military regime’s ongoing wrongs are "like Sabra and Shatila multiplied by a million," in reference to the infamous 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps, perpetrated by a Christian militia allied with Israel. Shenhav also quotes poet Eliaz Cohen, resident of Gush Etzion, as saying: "Just as I have a right of return to Kfar Etzion, there’s no reason that Palestinians from Nablus shouldn’t have a right of return to Jaffa."

Shenhav claims that the transition to one-state thinking will redraw the Israeli political map, currently defined by the right’s and the left’s positions toward Israel’s future role in the Palestinian territories. Although it’s far too early to speak of a movement, both left and right have begun realigning themselves: Leftists are beginning to use the racist jargon of demographics, while a new settler group calls for a one-state solution — with the right of return to boot. Quite apart from them, firebrand Likud Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely calls for the phased admission of West Bank Palestinians as Israeli citizens.

Curiously for a decidedly left-wing manifesto, Shenhav rejects out of hand the "one man, one vote," "state of all its citizens" model as an alternative to a two-state solution.

This model, he says, "presumes the existence of a homogenous population motivated by individual interests and ignores the fact that most people in the contested space are religious nationalists with tremendous differences within both the Israeli and Palestinian communities." He opts instead for a consociational democracy: a system in which religious, cultural, national, and economic considerations will be balanced by mutual agreement, within a power-sharing government.

But Shenhav acknowledges it would be folly to accompany such a fundamental shift in conceptualizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with full-fledged political programs. His book is a conversation starter; it asks many more questions than it gives answers. Its primary contribution is to suggest that recalibrating our understanding of the conflict’s creation to 1948, in time and space, could provide more opportunities to address Israeli and Palestinian ills than the 1967 paradigm. The hesitance to offer concrete programs, common to most one-state articles, underscores that it’s far too early to speak of a school of thought or a movement; but their very appearance already indicates that, as attempts to reach a two-state solution are dying down, more inclusive, far-reaching alternatives are taking shape.

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