The one-state debate: Consociationalism versus Centripetalism

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The LA Times recently published an op-ed by Neve Gordon that calls on the J Street lobby organization to think differently about its stated goals. The two-state outcome isn’t viable so it’s time to talk about a single state that isn’t governed by Jewish apartheid, he entreated. Gordon invoked the Irish model to suggest that consociationalism may be the way to go although the “[t]he one-state is still a colt and just began its training.”

The op-ed is encouraging in important respects but falters conceptually in others. For example, Gordon speaks about one versus two states from the vantage point of a traveler who’s arrived at a fork in road. All that remains for J Street’s director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, to do is decide: left or right. In fact, he’s already on the one-state road, it’s just horribly rutted and muddy. So the real choice he’s faced with is whether he’s going to help mend it or not.

But how to mend? Gordon suggests consociationalism.

Part of the graduate work I completed at Harvard’s Kennedy School was focused on the same question. I came to a different (still developing) set of conclusions. Like Gordon, I realized that majoritarianism wouldn’t work in the Palestine/Israel context. But I also began to view consociationalism as difficult to engineer; it relies too much on the magnanimity, virtuousness and eminence of political elites to work. In other words, it’s the view that Ted Cruz and Harry Reid will somehow work it out between them. In fact, Cruz’s incentives tend toward the adoption of extreme positions in pursuit of the marginal votes in his small, almost entirely Republican, district. That’s the main criticism of consociationalism.

Instead, centripetalism – an emerging set of theories – seems like a better framework for thinking about how to construct a single state. If consociationalism relies on adversarial community leaders to broker deals with one another, centripetalism requires them to appeal to members of the other ethnic group to win votes. In the American context it’s what used to be called Blue Dog Democrats or Rockefeller Republicans.

Before getting into what and why and how, the reader should think of Majoritarian and Power-sharing systems as two distinct classes of democracies. It is important to recognize that while either choice may be defined by a state’s constitution, it will actually be expressed through the electoral systems that different electoral units (countries, districts, states, etc..) decide to use. So rather than say “Palestine must adopt a power-sharing government,” one would institute a proportional list voting mechanism for seats in parliament, for example. The alternative parliamentary approach would be to award a majority of seats to the party that wins a plurality of the vote, like in the UK.

For simplicity’s sake it’s helpful to think of Consociationalism and Centripetalism as power-sharing models, although that’s not strictly the case; centripetal systems can be majoritarian too.


Majoritarianism is pretty straightforward. It’s the idea that the elected majority, however defined, has the right to govern in any manner it sees fit. The principle ought to be distinguished from the electoral formula: that a plurality of the vote will produce a single winner, like in the US.

The winner-take-all approach to democracy produces a high degree of instability in deeply divided societies. The contest for the Egyptian (and lately, the American) presidency is helpfully illustrative. Further, majoritarianism does a poor job of protecting minorities or out-groups. It is mainly for those reasons that majority government is probably a bad idea in Palestine/Israel.


Power-sharing is different. It’s the idea that diverse groups in a society should have the right to executive-level input. Moreover, ones ability to impact outcomes is proportional to one’s electoral strength. The definition here is neater and simpler than the reality but it’s good enough for now.

Power-sharing only occurs in parliamentary systems because it relies on governing coalitions which arise through cooperative processes like negotiation and compromise. But here too, things get muddled. 

Consociationalism relies on a proportional electoral system whose essential assumption is that elected elites will cooperate to broker compromise. Centripetalism assumes the construction of a preferential voting mechanism to promote inter-communal competition for votes among non-dominant politicians. The difference really comes down to the way in which the preferential mechanism works; in power-sharing systems that’s the Single Transferrable Vote. Basically, voters rank politicians on a ballot in order of preference. The candidate with the most number of votes wins. The mechanism creates different incentives for different politicians depending on their popularity among their core ethnic constituency.

In the simplest scenario, if politician A from district A is dominant among his A’ ethnic group he will be ranked first among members of his ethnic group. But if the district is a mixed one, inhabited by large numbers of people from the B’ ethnic group, then the second most dominant candidate from the  A’  ethnic group has an incentive to adopt policies that appeal to voters from members of the B’ ethnic group.

To be sure, centripetalism is constrained by certain structural factors. A society must be characterized either by:

  1. A very high number of competing ethnic groups, or;
  2. A low number of ethnic groups but a high degree of geographical intermixing.

Palestine/Israel may satisfy the second condition provided that electoral districts are constructed with a mind to centripetal dynamics.

Other measures

This discussion can be enhanced through one more consideration: federalism. Federalism allows different state apparatuses to exercise powers exclusive of one another. The US is the oldest modern federal state and from the perspective of the citizen Congress makes decisions about certain things (like funding the federal government) while state legislatures make decisions related to public school funding. And so on.

Palestine/Israel may be able to employ federalism for the purposes of cultural preservation, crafting curricula, community policing, etc… One could conceive of a state with four ethnically-mixed federal units and an independent Jerusalem. The governor of each state could be elected through an Alternative Vote ballot (thereby rewarding the moderate candidates with the broadest appeal among Palestinians and Jews in that state). The federal, parliamentary government could similarly employ centripetalism, although on a proportional Single Transferable Vote basis.

In any event, it’s time for one-state advocates to begin to concretely answer a lot of the questions that others rightly pose. Centripetalism seems like a good place to start.

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