WASHINGTON – Before a crowd of mostly right-wing Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state at the Israeli-American Council’s annual conference last Sunday, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Democrat of California) was asked her thoughts on the Trump administration’s promise of presenting a peace plan for the Middle East. “One of the principles we hope to see there is a two-state solution,” she said.
Her words drew boos and cries of “No way!” from a number of people in the crowd, who wanted to express their opposition to this decades-old formula for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Pelosi responded to the hecklers by stating that their real source of concern shouldn’t be the two-state solution, but an alternative idea that is gaining more and more support among left-wingers in America. “I understand there are disagreements,” she said. “But you need to understand, the extreme left wants a one-state solution.”
Pelosi’s comments came a week after CNN fired commentator Marc Lamont Hill after his call for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” While the outrage over Hill’s words focused on this specific phrase – which has long been used by Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups – Hill later explained what he really meant to say (during his speech at the United Nations) was that it was time to move away from the two-state solution and adopt instead the formula of one state where everyone will have equal rights.
The “one-state” or “binational” solution isn’t a new idea. It has enjoyed support on the fringes of Israeli politics for decades, and was once described by the Palestine Liberation Organization as its main goal – before it moved toward formally supporting a two-state solution in the 1980s. (As long ago as 1969, the PLO passed a resolution saying its objective was “to establish a free and democratic society in Palestine for all Palestinians whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews.”)
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For decades, the one-state solution has also been viewed as a marginal idea that doesn’t have much support among Americans – but that seems to be changing. A poll released earlier this week by the University of Maryland showed that more and more Americans are expressing support for this idea.
One question in the survey asked respondents what their preferred solution to the conflict would be if it became apparent that a two-state solution had become impossible to achieve. Some 64 percent replied that in such a scenario, they would support a single democratic state in which all Israelis and Palestinians are equal citizens.
The Israeli left has mostly rejected this idea over the past decades, as it would lead to the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. For the same reason, the leading left-wing Jewish groups in the United States have also consistently rejected the “one state” option, and instead pushed for a negotiated two-state solution that would ensure Israel’s standing as a Jewish and Democratic country.
In recent years, though, the mood has been shifting and, as noted by Pelosi, there is growing support for a one-state solution on the left. That includes at least one new member of Congress, Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib (Democrat of Michigan), who is of Palestinian descent and is officially supportive of the one-state option. Another new congresswoman, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Democrat of New York), has expressed openness to the one-state idea but has not officially backed it.
Dr. Shibley Telhami, who conducted the University of Maryland poll, wrote Wednesday that rising support for a one-state solution is likely a result of despair from the possibility of implementing a two-state solution. “When one considers that many Israelis and Palestinians, as well as many Middle East experts, already believe that a two-state solution is no longer possible, especially given the large expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, it’s not hard to see why more people would be drawn to a one-state solution,” he wrote.
‘Looking for alternatives’
Dr. Debra Shushan, director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now, tells Haaretz that what is driving up support for a one-state solution among left-wingers in America is “the aggressive, annexationist policies of the current Israeli government and its failure to pursue a two-state solution. This has fostered a growing perception that an independent Palestinian state is moot or impossible, which prompts people to look for alternatives,” she says.
Shushan strongly prefers a two-state solution, and her organization works to promote that goal. As a result, it has often been attacked by right-wing supporters of Israel in the United States. “Since a two-state solution is the only conflict-ending vision that satisfies the national aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike, it is incumbent upon seekers of Israeli-Palestinian peace to confront resolutely the formidable but surmountable obstacles to peace and redouble our efforts to achieve it,” she said.
Left-wing groups affiliated with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel are clearly pleased with the shifting dynamic over the one-state solution in the United States.
Josh Ruebner of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights told Haaretz: “For too long, an unsuccessful yet unending pursuit of a two-state solution has meant that the status quo of inequality continues with millions of Palestinians oppressed by Israeli rule. It is welcoming to see that there are growing numbers of people – from activists to thought leaders to now members of Congress – who are shifting away from telling Israel that the status quo is unsustainable to instead saying the status quo is unacceptable.”
In the late ’70s, when then-President Jimmy Carter expressed his support for an independent Palestinian state existing next to Israel (Carter used the word “homeland”), he was attacked by many leading Jewish groups in Washington and accused of betraying Israel. Today, though, the mainstream position within the American-Jewish community is to support a two-state solution.
The leading pro-Israel lobby group in Washington, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, emphasized support for a two-state solution during its annual conference in Washington last March. And in October, the organization shared a webpage explaining its support for a two-state solution.
A number of sources within America’s pro-Israel community have told Haaretz in recent months there is concern over the growing left-wing support for a one-state solution. Some of them acknowledged that this trend is also connected to the growing opposition to a two-state solution on the right, both in Israel and the United States.
In 2002, President George W. Bush officially endorsed a two-state solution. The Trump administration, after almost two years in office, has thus far refused to do so. Trump has said a number of times that from his point of view, both one state or two states would be a good solution, saying at the UN in September: “Bottom line: If the Israelis and Palestinians want one state, that’s OK with me. If they want two states, that’s OK with me. I’m happy if they’re happy.”
In 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, in which he endorsed his own version of a two-state solution. In 2015, though, at the height of that year’s general election campaign, he retracted that speech and promised that a Palestinian state would never materialize as long as he is in office. Netanyahu’s Likud party never officially expressed support for two states and the majority of its Knesset members oppose the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.
However, there is also a party in his governing coalition – the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi, led by Naftali Bennett – which is pushing for its own version of a one-state solution, whereby Israel would annex about 60 percent of the West Bank without giving Israeli citizenship to its Palestinian population.
“There is definitely a sense among people on the left that the two-state solution is currently a meaningless slogan,” said one pro-Israel activist, who asked not to be identified. “The lack of any progress in the peace process is causing people to lose any hope for a future peace deal. As a result, people are thinking of alternatives to the classic ‘two-states’ formula. We have a big challenge on our hands, because the one-state solution basically means Israel will no longer be a Jewish state.”
This is also a challenge for left-of-center Jewish groups – such as J Street, the Israel Policy Forum, and others – that support a two-state solution. These groups have long grown used to being criticized by the right for opposing settlement expansion and pushing for a two-state solution. These days, though, they are also being criticized from the left for precisely the same positions. J Street, specifically, announced earlier this year it was dropping its endorsement of Tlaib because of her support for a one-state solution.
Dylan Williams, J Street’s senior vice president for government affairs, tells Haaretz his organization is concerned about support for a one-state solution on both the left and right. He notes that while Tlaib will be the only Democrat in Congress who openly supports the one-state solution, there are dozens of Republicans who have endorsed the Israeli right’s version of a one-state solution, which is basically annexation in the West Bank without providing citizenship and equal rights to the Palestinians.
Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum tells Haaretz that “one-staters on the left and the right have very different visions of what a single state will look like. But their support for one state is creating joint momentum for a disastrous outcome that is going to leave most Israelis and Palestinians unhappy if it comes about.”