A de facto one state reality is emerging on the ground, and both Israelis and Palestinians are careening toward that end without giving the consequences much thought. For both, a one state reality – whether formalized or not – carries extremely dangerous risks.
The idea of partition of Eretz Israel/Palestine into two states has been around since the mid-1930s, when the British government put forward a formal partition proposal. In 1947, it resurfaced in United Nations Resolution 181, which declared how the British Mandate over Palestine should end: two states – one Arab and one Jewish – and a corpus separatum or international regime over the Jerusalem area.
The idea receded a bit until resuscitated in the late 1980s when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) finally accepted United Nations Resolution 242, proposed in 1967 after the Six Day War, as the basis for resolving the conflict; at that point, the Palestine National Council agreed to accept a Palestinian state on the territory Israel had occupied in the June 1967 war. Since then, the peace process has aimed at achieving a two-state solution through negotiations.
Today, however, a negotiated outcome is more remote than ever.
Neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders have shown any interest in working together, let alone supporting the kind of difficult compromises that would be needed to reach an agreement.
The United States, which for decades claimed the exclusive role of impartial third-party intermediary, recently shot itself in the foot with a series of policy pronouncements that aligned it solely with Israel: the announcement (later reportedly retracted) that the administration wanted to close the PLO office in Washington, D.C.; President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to locate the U.S. embassy there, absent any recognition of Palestinian claims to the city; the announcement that the United States is considering cutting funding to UNRWA, the agency that supports Palestinian refugees; and the threat by Trump to cut economic assistance to the Palestinians unless they return to the negotiating table.
As the prospect of negotiations dwindles, Israeli politics are moving inexorably toward a one state reality. Buoyed by the support that Trump has provided to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the significant tilt of American policy toward Israel, the Likud party recently voted unanimously to annex the West Bank.
While this is unlikely to actually take place, other actions point in the direction of Israel’s further integrating the West Bank into Israel proper. For example, the Israeli Attorney General has reportedly instructed all Ministries to indicate how new rules and regulations will affect Israeli settlements, making it incumbent on the Ministries to explain why this should not happen on a case by case basis. In the meantime, settlement activity continues.
The situation on the ground is also tying the knot tighter between Israel and the West Bank in important ways.
Today, about 120,000 Palestinian day workers commute to Israel, making this the largest source of Palestinian employment other than the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Palestinian security services continue cooperating with Israel, thus serving the dual mission of providing security in PA-held areas and assisting Israel to protect its own population. The administrative service provided by the PA and UNRWA, funded by international donors, has relieved Israel of the burden of caring for the Palestinian population, a role incumbent on an occupying power. And the Palestinian economy is intimately tied into the Israeli economy, in trade of both goods and services.
One would think that both Israelis and Palestinians would wake up one morning, see what’s happening, and say: "Stop." For Palestinians, the emerging reality promises to kill, or at least defer indefinitely, their achieving sovereignty, national independence and a state of their own. Even if they achieve equal political status in the emerging one state – which is far from certain – they will remain a minority with status as second-class citizens.
For Israelis, the prospect of one state calls into question the very cornerstone of the Zionist dream – to enjoy independence and sovereignty in a Jewish-majority state. While population figures for Jews and Arabs living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea are disputed, there is no doubt about the near parity in the size of the two populations. It is quite possible that high birth rates among the Israeli ultra-Orthodox population and reported declining rates among some segments of the Palestinian population will maintain a Jewish majority for some time to come.
But the presence of a slim majority of Jews and a significant minority of Palestinians in a single state raises the most fundamental choice for Israeli society: whether to grant Palestinians full citizenship and full rights in the unitary state.
The choice is stark, and the implications of either option are dramatic. Granting Palestinians full rights, a decision that would be in keeping with Israel’s civil democratic nature, would represent a severe complication for Israeli politics.
Israeli parties proliferate constantly, and coalitions are always required to form a government. While Palestinian parties in this unitary state might also proliferate, perhaps they will not, and thus the Jewish-majority parties could face a blocking minority in the Knesset. In the last Israeli election, Israel’s Arab-majority parties did unify, in the process forming the third largest bloc in the parliament.
The alternative – not granting full citizenship to Palestinians – is unthinkable, for it would be, in the words of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, tantamount to creating an apartheid state, with Palestinians as second-class residents without full political rights. It is inconceivable that the majority of Israelis who justifiably are proud of their democratic tradition would sacrifice this.
I have been an ardent supporter of the two-state solution for more than 40 years, during my career in the Foreign Service and now as an academic. I remain committed to that goal, but must admit that not only am I in a dwindling minority of believers, but also am facing a reality on the ground that appears to be headed in the opposite direction.
The search for an answer to this conundrum lies not in my hands, nor in the hands of the U.S. administration for that matter, but in the hands of Israelis and Palestinians. They must decide the political future – one state or two states – they will share in a common homeland.
Daniel Kurtzer is S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton. From 2001-05 he served as the United States Ambassador to Israel and from 1997-01 as the United States ambassador to Egypt.
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