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One vision for one state in Israel/Palestine

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As a proponent of the one-state solution for Palestine/Israel, I feel a responsibility for describing my vision of that state. It’s not enough to tell other Palestinians that they will never see their ethnically pure Palestinian state, and to explain to Israelis that their state is a racist apartheid one whose exclusivist existence is unjustified. Both sides deserve a practical – if not positive – vision of the future. The assumption that the two-state solution is unworkable serves a bedrock function here, but I’m not going to try to prove my assumption. Instead, I’ll reverse the burden of proof; show me how to remove 500,000 settlers, partition the land, provide mutual security and we’ll about the two-state solution. Then try to get me to agree to relinquish my right of return. No, there won’t ever be a ‘Palestinian state’ – and the ‘Jewish state’ will cease to exist, as such. But I believe that there will be a state for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis in Palestine/Israel. I outline one possible federal structure for that state here. For the record, I do think the one-state solution is positive, despite its being the default one. Given the choice, I’d still choose to live in a multiethnic state; New York is one of my favorite places in the world.

Federalism is the idea that discrete political units can unite to cede some rule-making authority to a representative central governing body. They do this for different reasons but facilitating trade is usually an important one. For the purpose of this essay, confederations don’t exist – federations have either stronger or weaker central governments. Federalism provides an elegant solution to a tough problem; how to provide ethnically dissimilar, but inextricably linked peoples a political structure that permits full realization of their communitarian and individual potential. It’s worth reviewing the current situation in Palestine/Israel before I launch into how it might look sometime in the future as a federal state.

Israel proper, that is, Israel along the 1949 armistice lines, has a population of about 7 million. 75% of Israelis are Jewish and 20% or 1.5 million are Palestinians. The remaining 5% are assorted others like Southeast Asian workers and non-Palestinian Christians. The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is home to about 500,000 Jews and 2.5 million Palestinians. There are approximately 1.5 Palestinians living in Gaza. Practically, that means that Benjamin Netanyahu makes decisions about the lives of 5.5 million Palestinians and 5.75 million Jews in Palestine/Israel. Needless to say, most of the Palestinians are not allowed to vote for the government that collects their taxes and governs most aspects of their lives – the Israeli government.

For Jews, Israel is a representative parliamentary democracy. Jews in Israel enjoy many of the same freedoms enjoyed by normal people in normal liberal democracies, although the military censor significantly inhibits freedom of the press. Palestinian-Israelis are second class citizens of the state who have the right to vote for their representatives, but are discriminated against by state institutions as a matter of law and fact. The Knesset is the unicameral legislative house in the Israeli government. Its 120 members are elected through a proportionally representative party-list system. The Palestinians in the West Bank are governed by several different, but coordinated, control systems. The first layer of control is the Israeli army. It governs through force and is undemocratic. Second is the Palestinian Authority, which is functionally a subcontractor for the Israeli government – although it does exercise some independence. For example, decisions about color choice for curbsides in Ramallah are the sole purview of the Palestinian Authority. But like the Israeli army, the Palestinian Authority also governs through force and is undemocratic. Finally, the Palestinians in Gaza are also subjected to multiple layers of control. The Israeli and Egyptian armies exercise indirect undemocratic control, while the elected Hamas government exercises what effective government it can under siege. It should be noted that the Hamas government is Islamic and has acted restrictively – something I strongly oppose.

The biggest problem associated with the one-state solution is not unique to Palestine/Israel. That problem is one of potential incongruence between different community preferences – ranging from state religion to nudity on television – in a shared polity. Those incongruities can result in violence and the dissolution of the state. Dividing a country into discrete federal units can help to alleviate some of the effects of the incongruence problem I just described. In America, these units, or states, make decisions about emissions standards, gay marriage, the drinking age, etc…. My thought is that Palestine/Israel ought to be divided into four federal units. Each will have a governor and state legislature or governing committee. The federal government will consist of a legislative parliament, executive authority, and independent judiciary.

Secessionist currents exist in many federal states. For instance, some Quebecoise would like to cede from Canada. And secessionism is one impediment to a federal one-state in Palestine/Israel. That issue was in my mind when I was trying to develop a structural plan for the one-state. Paradoxically, the most attractive feature of federalism, allowing distinct groups to more or less self-govern, is also a force for the state’s dissolution. The imperfect solution for Palestine/Israel is to create mildly heterogeneous federal units. Heterogeneous federal units are less likely to secede, but they may also restrict the full expression of a community’s cultural rights. I’ll address that issue shortly. First I want to describe the four units and the logic governing their number.


This one was easy. The Gaza federal unit will have exactly the same boundaries as the Gaza Strip does today. This makes sense because Gaza is developmentally so far behind both the West Bank and Israel and it will need special attention from the federal government. Although the decision to designate Gaza as a federal unit violates the heterogeneity principle – Gaza is basically all Sunni Muslim Palestinians – I think the risk of secession is low. That’s because Gaza will rely on an uneven allocation of federal tax dollars – tax dollars collected from other citizens of Palestine/Israel – for much development. I should note that development monies for schools, infrastructure, etc., will not be allocated on a racial basis, although that will be the de facto case. The distinction is important however. If a Jewish citizen of the state decides to move to Gaza, she will also benefit from the same unequal allocation of development dollars.

West Bank

The second federal unit will be comprised of the entire West Bank along the 1949 armistice lines. It will hew to the heterogeneity principle because Jewish settlers will remain where they are. I don’t want to discuss just compensation for lands right now; it’s enough to say that no one can or will remove 500,000 people from their homes. The settlers in ‘greater Jerusalem’ will also be residents of the West Bank federal unit. I’ll talk about Jerusalem itself below.

The North and West

The third federal unit will begin at the northern border with Gaza, bounded on the West by the Mediterranean Sea. It will run along the contours of the West Bank to the east and will encompass the entire northern part of the country. This federal unit will include all the major Jewish population centers except Jerusalem. For those concerned about the expression of Hebrew culture in a one-state, this federal unit will likely contain a Hebrew core and retain a Hebrew character. But a significant portion of the population will be Palestinian. This is the state that most of today’s Palestinian-Israelis will call home. Hebrew nationalists may not like their inclusion, but this unit is the one at greatest risk of secession and its heterogeneity will help protect against that.

The Southern District

The rest of the country will comprise the fourth federal unit. The extant Southern District is mostly desert, is the largest federal unit territorially, and the most sparsely populated. Only about a million people live there, 85% of them Jewish. Once again, the heterogeneity condition is satisfied.

Jerusalem will exist independently of the federal system. As the state’s capital and seat of federal government, it should stand independently of any state governor’s influence. Jerusalem’s income will be derived from both municipal taxes, like any ordinary city, and from federal monies for the maintenance of the central government.


Those are the structural features of the federal state I envisage. I chose the number four for two reasons. First, the country lends itself to this division. Gaza and the West Bank are already territorially distinct, and what remains is to draw a line between the north and south. Second, to the extent that all the states are constitutionally equal (something I haven’t discussed at all), it makes sense to have parity between the number of Palestinian and Jewish majority states. The issue posed by the heterogeneity principle – whether having a distinct minority in a democratic federal unit will restrict full expression of the majority culture – is a difficult one to address. To the extent that the minority is met by full recognition of its difference by state institutions, it can be accommodated within the culture of the majority. For instance, Hindus in Pennsylvania celebrate Diwali without protesting Christmas trees in Harrisburg’s city hall. Sometimes they will drive to New Jersey where there is a proportionally much larger Indian community to celebrate with family. My answer to this question is unsatisfactory even to me; I don’t think tension can be avoided completely.

Palestine/Israel’s special history means that no plan is complete without a formula for mutual protection. Jewish Israelis are worried that we Palestinians are going to slaughter them en masse at the first opportunity. Unlike some of my friends on the left, I’m not so dismissive of their fears. The Palestinian experience in Lebanon itself should serve as a reminder of what can happen when a civilian community with a long history of antagonism is left defenseless. The Lebanese Forces perpetrated the Sabra and Shatila massacres only after the PLO militia was evacuated in 1982. The Shi’ite Amal militia attacked the camps in 1987 – the so-called War of the Camps – when they were similarly prone. I have every reason to believe that there will be elements of the emancipated Palestinian population in Palestine/Israel who will likewise seek redress through violence against civilians; the Israelis have not been benevolent colonists and occupiers. Just today, three Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, were murdered by the Zionist war machine. The attendant rage and grief does not dissipate overnight, nor should it. I hope to tackle the justice question sometime in the future in another essay, but right now I want to focus on the protection issue.

It is with some reluctance that I suggest the following, but the best way to protect civilians from one another is through institutionalized militias. Right now I’m thinking of the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq. American history is also instructive on this question. Many people today don’t realize that the state National Guards, consisting of 50 state militias, exist in part to protect against invasion by other states and domestic rebellion; the United States hasn’t always been a stable liberal democracy with a single currency. Anyway, the idea is that citizens of the Gaza federal unit can organize a branch of the federal army explicitly to protect that federal unit, and likewise for the other states. But what’s going to prevent the Gaza federal unit from waging war against the North and West federal unit? If the militias are proportionally representative, then their heterogeneity should offer some protection. Furthermore, if militia regulars are cycled into the federal state army, their interaction with members of other militias increase, reducing intercommunity tensions. That’s the Lebanese experience; the army is perhaps the only non-sectarian institution in the country. Also, the chance of conflict decreases with increased economic interdependence between the states, but that happens over time. It’s not a perfect plan, but the question must be addressed in a way that permits every community to feel self-reliant on security issues.

This is a limited essay with limited goals. I avoided any talk of refugees and their right of return, justice for the victims of war criminals, division of competencies between the central government and state governments, currency, national languages, state religion and religious freedoms, immigration, state constitution, human protections, the normalization of marriage and divorce, symbols of the state, and so on. I’d like to address those questions in other essays in the future. And while I’m sure there’s a lot to disagree with, my goal was to begin the realistic conversation on how Palestine/Israel will look as a single state. It’s good to believe deeply in high-minded principles and to build our institutions with those principles as a foundation. But practical implementation often requires a focus on the lowest common denominator. That’s why I suggested a federal solution for a country of fewer than twelve million people who are bitterly divided. That’s also why I suggested that institutionalized militias be created to protect those civilians from one another. The reality of the situation is that we may never see the day where many Palestinians and Jewish Israelis don’t fear and hate one another. But we can put structures in place so that our children may one day only dislike one another. And in another generation or two, maybe develop a cohesive national identity. The American civil war ended in 1865 – and some people still cling to the Confederate flag and sing confederate songs. 145 years later, and America still has very serious problems with racism.

Ahmed Moor is a Gaza born Palestinian-American freelance journalist living in Beirut.

Ahmed Moor

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a PD Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism and co-founder and CEO of Twitter: @ahmedmoor

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