In the U.S. political mainstream, expressing support for the “two-state solution” in historic Palestine has been routine for many years. But anyone who looks at the map of the settlements Israel has implanted into the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) has to conclude that withdrawing enough of them to provide territory for a viable Palestinian state is now politically impossible.
The demographic egg in the West Bank has been thoroughly scrambled and cannot be unscrambled. This leaves diplomats around the world with two options. Either the project to establish a Palestinian Arab entity must be yet further truncated into, for example, creating a “necklace” of tiny Palestinian Bantustanettes in some of the “Area A” parts of the West Bank, and Gaza—a formula reportedly being considered by Jared Kushner. Or, the long-pursued project to build separate Israeli and Palestinian entities in historic Palestine should be ditched in favor of establishing single democratic state there in which all persons with a legitimate claim to belonging there enjoy full civic equality within it.
Everyone who believes in the equality of all human persons, including Palestinians, would surely opt for the second of those choices.
I’ll leave it to others to write a fuller obituary for the two-state solution My goal here is to explore what it would mean at the level of international diplomacy to leave behind the “two-state” model and start to pursue the one-state model instead.
The two-state model dates back not just to 1967, the year Israel’s well-honed military occupied the West Bank, Gaza, Golan, and a big chunk of Egypt. It dates to 1947, the year the British government, exhausted after World War II and seeing its global empire crumbling, summarily dumped the Palestine Question into the lap of the still-young United Nations.
“Partition” of conflict-plagued areas was enjoying quite a vogue in those years, for example in India and Germany. So without a lot of planning, the two powers then at the apex of the world system—the US and the Soviet Union—united around that formula for Palestine. (Interestingly, the Soviets were hoping Israel could be a thorn in the side of the British Empire, which still tightly controlled the governments of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq… And for some years that did happen.)
When the United Nations was founded, just two years earlier, in 1945, its Charter staunchly proclaimed “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” But in Palestine and several other countries still under the yoke of the British or other European empires, those principles were set aside. In 1947, when the UN’s member nations voted 33 to ten, with ten abstentions, to partition Palestine, they rode roughshod over the aspirations of the more than two-thirds of the country’s population that was Arab, who strongly opposed partition. Instead, they privileged the desire of the less than one-third of the population who were Jewish, to have a state of their own.
(David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first Prime Minister, privately told family members he saw having a Jewish-only state in just a part of Palestine as a stepping-stone to having one in the whole of the country.)
The Partition Plan allocated a disproportionate amount of the land to the Jewish state. But even that was not enough for Ben-Gurion and his cronies. The UN passed the Partition Plan on November 29, 1947. It was not supposed to come into effect until the following May, but from November 29 onward the well-organized militias that existed in the Jewish community set about two tasks. They worked to expand the areas of Palestine that they controlled– and they worked to ethnically cleanse all those areas from the Arab residents who actually made up a majority of those areas’ population.
Those expansion and ethnic-cleansing operations continued from late November 1947 until early 1949 when all the Arab states bordering Israel signed longterm ceasefire (“armistice”) agreements with it.
During the fighting of 1947-49, the Palestinian Arabs had only weak and fragmentary means of self-defense. A decade earlier, they’d launched an uprising against Britain’s rule in Palestine which the British suppressed with great brutality. So in 1947-49 the Palestinians had no militias capable of matching the Jewish community’s Haganah, Palmach, and Etzel.
The nominally Arab armies of neighboring Egypt and Jordan were under still under tight British control. They stayed completely out of Palestine until after May 15, 1948 and even after then, they were careful not to provoke the Jewish/Israeli fighters. The King of Jordan showed his contempt for Palestinian self-rule when he annexed the West Bank in 1949. The King of Egypt was content merely to bring Gaza under “military occupation.”
It’s important to understand this history, because if we want to support the idea of a single democratic state in all of Palestine, we need to understand what it’ll take to achieve it; and it won’t be easy. It will involve ending the institutionalized privilege for Jewish people in Palestine (the vast majority of them colonial settlers) that the State of Israel has embodied ever since 1947. And at the international level it will involve persuading enough states in the United Nations that the partition of Palestine that the UN itself pioneered back in 1947 has to end.
There are some glimmers of hope. One of the other key partitions of the late 1940s has already collapsed: East Germany and West Germany peacefully reunited back in 1990. And just last week, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that a step that Britain took in 1965 to detach the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, a few years prior to Britain “granting independence” to the thus-truncated Republic of Mauritius, was unlawful. Britain, the ICJ ruling said, should end that unlawful partition of Mauritius and hand the Chagos Islands back to Mauritius.
It’s true, that ruling was only an “advisory opinion” and, like the ICJ’s earlier opinion on Israel’s Wall in the West Bank, it is not self-enforcing. Still, reading some of the detail in the ICJ’s Chagos Islands ruling offers intriguing possible precedents for those seeking to challenge the legality of the UN’s partition of Palestine.
In late 1991, Israel’s rulers had an amazing opportunity to make peace with all their neighbors, including the Palestinians. That year, all those neighbors met Israel at the Madrid Peace conference with the common aim of winning a final peace based on the principle of “Land for Peace”. It would have been a “two-state” peace. Jordan had renounced its claim to the West Bank in 1988; Egypt had never claimed Gaza as Egyptian; and the PLO was clearly representing Palestinian interests there.
Since 1991, however, successive rulers of Israel from both major parties chose colonial aggrandizement over peace. And now, because of the success of their settlement-building project, the chance for a two-state solution is gone.
There is one respect in which winning a one-state solution should be easier than continuing to search for a two-state peace. In the context of any two-state-based negotiation, the matter of that large portion of the Palestinian people who were ethnically cleansed from their lands in 1947-49 was always extremely hard to address.
Under international law, these refugees and their descendants all still have the right to return to their original homes if they are prepared to live there at peace with their neighbors. No Israeli government since 1948 has been prepared to let that happen.
So long as “two-state”-focused negotiations continued, numerous conferences were convened were held with the goal of finding other outcomes for the refugees. But if we’re looking at a one-state solution, then anyone who supports the idea that Palestinians are fully human and that their rights actually mean something, will surely be out there loudly supporting the Palestinian refugees’ full right of return. These chronically vulnerable Palestinian families have been living in the squalor of refugee camps for more than 70 years; most of them are stateless; all have suffered greatly from political turmoil, in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, or Gaza, or the West Bank; and they’ve never had any capable state apparatus of their own to protect their interests or even their lives.
If, in the context of an egalitarian one-state solution, Jewish-Israeli settlers who live in settlements all over the country are allowed to stay and live in peace and equality with their neighbors, Palestinian refugees now barely surviving in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, or elsewhere should surely, finally, be allowed to implement their UN-sanctioned Right of Return? A one-state outcome could enable that to happen.