West Bank checkpoint
IDF soldiers checking a Palestinian taxi driver on Route 443 in the West Bank. Photo by Reuters
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In a recent op-ed, Moshe Arens suggested that Israel seriously consider the option of a single state west of the Jordan, in which Palestinians be granted full citizenship.

The one-state solution is advocated by a number of Palestinian intellectuals and is becoming rather popular within the European left. Their reason is generally that the one-state solution would give more justice to the Palestinians - this position is mostly seen as anti-Israeli. Israel’s extreme right favors holding onto the greater land of Israel, generally on theological grounds.

Arens raises his idea from a different standpoint, because he is a secular liberal who indeed believes in full equality for Israel’s Arabs. Even though I have for years argued that the one-state solution is not feasible, Aren's idea needs to be explored - at least as a thought experiment - because it may well be that the window of opportunity for the two-state solution is about to close. So far no Israeli government has succeeded in implementing it; Palestinians are beginning to reject it, and Israel may not be able to uproot more than one hundred thousand settlers.

Arens has indeed tried in his political career to increase equality for Israel’s Arabs, and he deplores Israel’s failure to do so. He has told me in conversation that this failure was his strongest motivation for writing the article on a one-state solution. In my mind, thinking about this failure requires us to face that Israel has been in an ongoing culture war for most of its existence – and not only with respect to its Arab citizens. Israel’s elections ostensibly seem to be about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in reality they are a reflection of the tensions in Israel’s society: religious vs. secular; Ashkenazi vs. Sephardim; Jews vs. Arabs.

Of course, many will not accept Arens’ assessment that there are only 1.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, and Palestinians are unlikely to accept the exclusion of Gaza from the new state. But even in Arens’ scenario, Israel would de facto become a bi-national state. Jewish cultural hegemony would have to be largely renounced and give way to a multicultural model.

Arens’ idea raises a real challenge for Israel: It would, for the first time, have to truly face the task of radically revising its political system and culture and to think carefully about how ethnicities, religions and worldviews can truly live side by side with each other instead of struggling for cultural hegemony.

One consequence of Arens’ idea is that the state would have to sever its ties to all religious institutions, and would have to become completely secular, along the French or U.S. model. Both Jews and Muslims would have to accept that religion cannot play any role in affairs of the state, and religious institutions would become completely voluntary and communitarian. In order to avoid tensions between the various religious groups, and between religious and secular lifestyles, the Swiss confederative model might be considered. The federal government’s involvement in the canton’s internal affairs would be low to allow for maximal cultural flexibility.

Both Jews and Palestinians would have to be willing to renounce the struggle for hegemony. The political culture would have to be structured in a way that avoids such a struggle. Jews would have to be willing to accept Jabotinsky’s suggestion that the President of the state could be sometimes Jewish and sometimes Arab.

Of course the most attractive feature of the one-state solution is a complete restructuring of the Middle East. Arab rejection of a fully liberal Israel-Palestine would no longer have a case. Of course radical Islamists might continue to object to the presence of non-Muslims, but the majority of Arabs would feel much more comfortable with a bi-national state.

I continue to be skeptical about the one-state solution. I am afraid that it will be very difficult to implement, and it is almost unimaginable that a cohesive society would emerge after a century of bloody conflict, particularly if you consider that even states like Belgium are on the verge of falling apart. Economic inequality, which is very high in Israel today, would increase even further and create huge problems.

Arens’ challenge must be taken seriously, for a number of reasons:

First, we are close to the point at which only the one state solution will be possible.

Second, because we need to face that the culture wars have led to the point where Israel is currently on the verge of falling apart as a country. The events surrounding the refusal of Haredi parents in Immanuel to have their daughters study with Mizrahi girls must be seen as what they are. The Haredi community has staged the imprisonments of these parents into a grand event of martyrdom for the Torah. For them Israel’s legal system simply has no legitimacy.

Paradoxically, not only Ashkenazi Haredim think this way - the Haredi state of mind was made fully explicit by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’ spiritual leader, who condemned the High Court of Justice for intervening. He said that the offended Mizrahi parents should not have turned to arka’ot - the term traditionally used by Jews to designate the courts of the gentile countries in which Jews lived. It was seen as a betrayal of Jews by Jews to turn to these courts instead of a rabbinical court. Add to this that some Haredim used terms like the Chelmnitzky pogroms and ‘inquisition’ to describe these events. This rhetoric shows the depth of the chasm between the Haredim and the rest of the country.

De facto, approximately one million Jews - Haredim and part of the settler community - have ceased accepting the authority of the state. Add to this that most of Israel’s 1.5 million Arabs do not identify with the state and you get a society without little cohesion and a state whose legitimacy is question from within and from without.

Given this situation we need to see that Israel will have to rethink its conceptual and legal foundations. Even if the two-state solution would finally be achieved, Israel would do well to apply some of the features of the one-state solution: to become a truly liberal, secular state without ethnic dominance in which subgroups no longer try to impose their way of life on each other. It should seriously consider a confederative structure to defuse its culture wars that are tearing it apart.