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Mideast Can't Even Agree on What 'One-State Solution' Means

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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For the last several years it has been increasingly common to hear Israelis and Palestinians alike say that the two-state solution to their struggles is dead and that the time has come to discuss a one-state solution. U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledged that trend during a news conference Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by saying that he is “looking at two states and at one state” while remaining open to whichever suits the parties.

There’s just one problem: “One-state solution” means something almost completely different on each of the two sides. Years of negotiation and debate have created the general contours of a two-state solution, but when people speak of one-state options, they lack that common ground. 

On Thursday, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the U.S. supports a two-state solution, but “we are thinking out of the box as well.” What might that mean for the Palestinians, for starters? (I’ll restrict this discussion to vaguely realistic visions that could be reached by compromise, not force -- so I won’t consider the disappearance of either the Jewish state or the Palestinian national cause.)

QuickTake Two-State Solution

For most Palestinian one-staters, the ideal is a democratic state offering equal citizenship rights to everyone living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, both Jews and Arabs. The state could be federated into two parts, so that each side would enjoy a majority in its own areas. Jerusalem might be treated as its own federal unit or divided between the two federations with shared responsibility for the Temple Mount.

In this picture, all citizens would be allowed to travel freely through the state and across federation lines. Probably all would be allowed to live wherever they chose.

This version of Israel-Palestine wouldn’t necessarily have a Jewish majority. Palestinians know that Israelis are afraid a single state would eventually be taken over by a Palestinian majority, which would make them into a minority.

The solution would be a constitution that guaranteed the federation’s continued existence even as demographics change. The Israeli part would keep its Jewish character no matter what.

Complicated problems present themselves at once, of course. For example, what if population movement rendered a Palestinian majority even within the Israeli side of the confederation? That could perhaps be overcome by making the federation virtual rather than purely geographical -- or even by restricting how many people could live in any part.

Reasonable Palestinians understand that even to consider such a deal, Israelis would have to be able to keep important symbols of the Jewish state, such as the Law of Return, which allows every Jew the right to immigrate. But that would have to be matched by some provision for refugee Palestinians in Jordan and Lebanon to return home. The numbers could possibly be managed or spread out over time.

When it comes to defense, things get messy fast. No Palestinians I know are willing to contemplate a single state in which Israelis keep permanent control of the army and the police. Some might be willing to allow the outside borders to be controlled by Israel for the time being. But the long-term goal for Palestinians is a truly shared sovereignty, which would require something like an integrated military command.

Most Israeli one-staters see the world very, very differently. Right-wing Israelis typically imagine that there would be no single Palestinian entity, just local government in Palestinian areas.

Left-wing Israeli one-staters can imagine a federated country, but with Israel continuing to control the army and the national police force (not to mention the nuclear arsenal) for the foreseeable future.

Most Israeli one-staters are also unwilling to imagine Israel as anything other than a Jewish state. After all, the point of Zionism was to create a Jewish-majority homeland. For them, Jewish sovereignty must always ultimately trump Palestinian sovereignty, both symbolically and practically.

Israelis understand that someday there may be more Palestinians than Israelis. The liberal democratic Israeli one-staters would like to use the one-state solution to ensure that Israel remains democratic and Jewish even if and when that happens.

In short, both of these perspectives on one state depend on the dream that the other side will give up on something it has long considered basic in exchange for peaceful coexistence: Palestinians hope Israelis will give up or modify the need for total Jewish sovereignty. Israelis hope Palestinians will give up or modify the goal of unfettered self-determination.

The point isn’t that these dreams are impossible, or even mutually exclusive. Nor are they necessarily unappealing. It’s that both dreams are further from present reality than what the boring old two-state solution imagines.

If reconceiving the solution helps solve the problem, no one person could be against trying. But before getting carried away, the Trump administration should realize just how far apart the one-state visions are from each other. And it should remember that in the Middle East, more than almost anywhere else, the situation can always get worse.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net