West Bank separation fence graffiti AP Sept. 2, 2010
Graffiti on a section of the West Bank separation fence in the town of Bethlehem on Sept. 2, 2010. Photo by AP
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The one-state solution has suddenly reappeared in the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. George Bisharat wrote a column supporting it in the Huffington Post, Harvard recently hosted an entire conference promoting it, and the former Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa), restated his support of it last month in an article in al-Quds al-Arabi. This position, however, is not only completely unfeasible in practice, but it also represents a denial of the very purpose for Israel’s creation as well as a misunderstanding of the philosophy behind national movements.

In theory, a one-state solution would create a binational state in the land west of the Jordan River, giving both Jews and Palestinians equal voting rights, equal services, and equal protections under the law.

Though this solution may seem ideal at first glance, it quickly becomes clear that it is nothing but a fantasy. By attempting to unite two entirely disparate national movements, it would deny self-determination to each of them. The Jews and Palestinians, both, have their own distinct traditions, customs, beliefs, and most importantly, national aspirations.

The Jewish State of Israel was founded as a home for the Jews, somewhere they would always be safe, where they could unite to shape their own destiny as an independent member of the family of nations. Palestinians have the same hopes and dreams. In fact, every nation of the world hopes to achieve these ideals. It is when these aspirations are denied, justly or unjustly, that conflict erupts.

Herodotus illustrated this concept over two thousand years ago in "The Histories." He discusses how different peoples tell different stories about themselves, their pasts, and their aspirations for the future. This fundamental truth is really what differentiates nations from one another. Free people living in a nationless world would still make associations and groupings with others who share some set of characteristics. Once formed, these strong national, tribal, and familial sentiments are nearly impossible to dissolve or change. Herodotus notes that, “If someone were to put a proposition before men bidding them choose, after examination, the best customs in the world, each nation would certainly select its own.”

This natural propensity would preclude the possibility of a binational state. The Palestinians would obviously want their traditions informing national laws, holidays, and education, while the Jews would fight for their own. Each group would seek to determine the path of this new state and would end up ceaselessly fighting the other do it. This solution would institutionalize conflict while perpetuating the illusion of a single state.

The one-state solution, though often shunned by Israelis and Palestinians alike for these very reasons, has support from an unsavory cast of characters, including the late Muammar Qaddafi and the late Saddam Hussein. Each of these has argued that Zionism is a cancer, a form of racism. These individuals represent another motivation to institute a one-state solution: the hope that it will extinguish Zionism and erase the Jewishness of Israel via demographic pressures.

These types of arguments fundamentally misrepresent the nature of Zionism, yet if we are to come to a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must understand the underlying beliefs of each party.

Zionism began as a struggle for negative freedom. Theodor Herzl, commonly referred to as the founder of modern Zionism, began his activism on behalf of the Jewish people as an assimilationist. He was not a religious man and believed that Jews should follow the natural flow of history, becoming a part of whatever society they happen to be in. He believed that through assimilation even anti-Semitism could be overcome.

It was the Dreyfus Affair that stripped him of this belief. He realized that even the most thoroughly assimilated Jew, one whose connection to Judaism was practically non-existent, could be destroyed by anti-Semitic forces. In short, shouts of, “à bas les juifs” were what motivated him to pursue a national identity. He believed that through the creation of their own state, Jews would finally be able to escape the horrors of persecution.

Thus, the purpose of his form of Zionism was negative freedom: freedom from persecution, from marginalization. Yet the Jews would not be able to declare a state until they ceased defining themselves in opposition to the gentile world around them and began to strive for positive freedom: the freedom to self-determination, to self-government, to a culture.

Decades later, in 1944, David Ben-Gurion, perhaps Israel’s greatest founding father, told a youth group in Haifa that, “the meaning of the Jewish revolution is contained in one word- independence! Independence for the Jewish people in its homeland! … Independence, too, means more than political and economic freedom; it involves also the spiritual, moral and intellectual realms, and, in essence, it is independence in the heart, in sentiment, and in will.” It is important to note that he never said independence from anything.

This speech, among the words and deeds of many other Jewish leaders, is an indication that Zionism was no longer solely about escaping persecution, but had taken on the role of a national revival. This change in philosophy was able to give Jews the motivation to build the national infrastructure necessary for the proper functioning of a state. Thus, with each successive Aliyah, there were more schools, more banks, more government buildings than before. By the time May 14th, 1948 rolled around, the Jews had already created a state in all but name.

The Palestinian national movement has undergone its own journey but today, much of it seems to exist in opposition to Jewish nationalism. It is still focused on attaining negative freedom to the exclusion of pursuing positive freedom. But no ideology can long exist only to oppose another. This is precisely why Hamas could never achieve true self-governance in the Gaza Strip. Its very creation is predicated upon the existence of Zionism and Israel. According to its charter, “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.”

Only an organization that doesn’t seek to achieve anything positive can eschew all compromise. There are far more aggressive and anti-Semitic quotes from the charter, but this one demonstrates how single-minded Hamas is in its pursuit of what it believes to be negative freedom. If Hamas’ ultimate goal were truly the national self-determination of the Palestinian people, then its focus would be on building the foundations for a Palestinian state rather than on trying to tear down those of the Jewish one.

Though the Palestinian Authority has undoubtedly gone to greater lengths in building a national Palestinian infrastructure, it often still seeks to fan the flames of division in order to win the support of an otherwise disillusioned population. The Palestinian ambassadors to both Lebanon and the US have stated that no Jew or Israeli could live in a future state of Palestine while maintaining that approximately 4.7 million Palestinians worldwide have a right of return to Israel proper, which would effectively make it a second Palestine. The PA hopes that such pronouncements will rally the Palestinians and channel their frustration away from their leaders and towards Israel.

This will not, however, lead to independence. To achieve an independent Palestinian state, more Fatah politicians should take up the mantle of Salam Fayyad and work to create the strong civic and private institutions necessary for a true national renaissance.

Whatever disagreements and conflicts may exist in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, one thing is certain: both groups have legitimate national aspirations and neither will have a chance to achieve them if they are lumped into a binational state.

Uriel Epshtein, a fluent Russian and French speaker, studies Global Affairs with a specialization in International Security at Yale University.