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One-State or Two-State?

March 2008

A version of this piece originally appeared in ZNet.

This week Palestinians around the world are commemorating Land Day (begun in 1976) to mark their attachment to, and dispossession from land — the fundamental issue of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Former Grassroots International Board chair Assaf Kfoury reflects on the re-emergence of the one versus two states debate.

In a review article in November 2003, Daniel Lazare argued that an honest discussion of Zionism is no longer off limits.[1] Lazare wrote, “a longstanding taboo has finally begun to fall. … Where before it was all but impossible to have an honest conversation about Zionism, it is now becoming impossible not to.” This was perhaps a little too optimistic, or at least overlooked the many occasions when a little opening of the debate was blocked by a massive counter-attack.

Be that as it may, Lazare’s other observation in the same article was closer to the mark, namely, that “this taboo is largely an American invention. In other countries, the field has been much more open — including, irony of ironies, in Israel.”

Since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, and increasingly since 1967, there were always a few Israeli journalists, academics, and even former politicians, who would reject prevailing views of Zionism without fear of being fired or hounded out of their jobs. True, these dissenters were few and largely ineffectual in blocking state policies, but they were tolerated nonetheless, and to this day there are many examples to prove it: journalists like Gidon Levy and Amira Haas (who write in Haaretz), academics like the “new historians,” former politicians like Meron Benvenisti, and several others. Such tolerance is of course very selective and does not extend to dissidents among Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, like Azmi Bishara for example, now forced to live in exile.

By contrast in the United States, this narrow margin was always narrower. One constant in mainstream politics and respectable opinion in the US has been unquestioned and unqualified support for extreme Israeli policies, ignorance of the facts, and indifference to the Palestinians’ plight — with severe retribution meted out to anyone straying from the official dogma in the form of vilification campaign (Noam Chomsky), political ostracism (Jimmy Carter), tenure denial (Norman Finkelstein), and other forms of banishment for those who do not conform or know how to exercise self-censorship.

A few cracks in the US mainstream started to appear since the mid-1990’s, as it became clear that the much-hyped Oslo Accords of 1993-95 were only a cover for continuing Israeli expansion and had nothing to do with granting Palestinians even a modicum of self-determination. There have been further cracks since then, with more American commentators who had been silent, or even toeing the official line on Zionism and US policies in the Middle East, turning against it. This movement gained a little more momentum as the US became mired in the disasters it had created in Afghanistan and Iraq, and as hawkish Israeli politicians and generals kept cheering America on to pursue its reckless military adventures.

The result has been a new critical current in the mainstream, all within proper limits to be sure, as well as renewed criticism outside the mainstream. This is probably what led Daniel Lazare to write, in 2003, that an honest discussion of Zionism was no longer off limits. Yes, there has been a little opening of the debate in the United States, but also an ever worsening situation for the Palestinians in the territories and the refugee camps. This is not the time to falter and shrink from the hard tasks of helping the Palestinian communities survive, and yet the temptation is greater than ever to speculate instead about a very distant post-Zionist future.

What makes this new current different is not its critique of Zionism and US-Israeli relations — after all people like Noam Chomsky, the late Edward Said, and others have been at it for decades — but the fact that a few (by no means all) of its protagonists go beyond the critique. They go beyond the critique or largely avoid it, and turn their notion of a far-off Israeli-Palestinian (or Jewish-Arab) coexistence into a topic of immediate importance or, even more, into a program of actions from now until the victorious end. Their far-off coexistence formula is typically a unitary state of some kind in old Palestine. Part of their reasoning is that the Oslo Accords were the last Two-State opportunity and, after their collapse, it is time to try a One-State alternative (more on this presumed implication later). Part of the controversy has been the blurring of lines, if not confusion, between a vision of something in the distant future and advocacy for things that can be now accomplished towards that goal.

The One-State proponents largely embrace the older (and continuing) anti-imperialist critique of Zionism and US-Israeli relations. In doing so they attract an approving audience on the left, broadly defined, and also choose their ideological camp (the left). They claim as their own several veterans of the older critique, most prominently Edward Said, and many other mostly US-based academics. They do so even though the older critique does not necessarily provide evidence to support the feasibility of their preferred unitary solutions — or, at least, feasibility within a few years rather than several decades.

Two articles that refer to One-State stand out, if only because they appeared in prestige publications of the American elite: Edward Said’s “The One-State Solution” in the New York Times Magazine [2] and Tony Judt’s “Israel: The Alternative” in the New York Review of Books.[3] Said’s focus is mostly on the failures of the Oslo Accords, and Judt’s main interest is to pry open the topic of Zionism and US-Israeli relations in America. References to One-State are only a small part of both articles, and for both Said and Judt, it takes the form of a binational Israeli-Palestinian state in a far-off future — and they leave it at that, just a loose vision for a far-off future.[4] Sensibly, neither follows the slippery path of proposing an agenda for how to achieve the long-term vision or define its final shape, something that other One-State proponents are not always careful to avoid.

Unfortunately, the mere idea of Israeli-Palestinian binationalism, however far-off into the future, remains anathema in the US. It triggers an immediate counter-attack and, in present conditions of overwhelming odds, can be turned into an opportunity for the opposite camp to step up almost unopposed its usual calumnies against the Palestinians. And on this, it seems that Said and Judt miscalculated, and Judt probably more than Said, as suggested below.

Said’s and Judt’s views, at the outer left limit of respectable opinion, were promptly rebuked by the guardians of liberal orthodoxy. Shortly after Judt’s article, the New York Times, a few notches to the right of the Review, issued its warning: “An insidious argument is gaining ground that the historic moment for the two-state solution has passed. … This is code for the end of Israel and must be strenuously opposed.”[5] If polishing the liberal image calls for the occasional publication of outlandish views, then this is fine so long as the views remain insulated and ineffectual. So, instead of allowing an honest debate to develop — not necessarily on this (One-State vs. Two-State), but on more pressing issues (the Wall, the settlements, the blockade) — worn-out catchphrases of Palestinian terrorism and intransigence are dusted off to quickly foreclose it. Or, worse, the debate is turned around to justify even more extreme policies against the Palestinians, since they can be conveniently charged once again with fanaticism and genocidal intentions.

It is instructive to read the reactions to Judt’s article, far more hostile than to Said’s, perhaps because Judt wrote his article nearly four years later, at a time (end of 2003) when the Iraq disaster was beginning to unfold and more people were ready to question US policies in the Middle East; or because Judt is Jewish and therefore guilty of tribal disloyalty; or perhaps because Judt is outside the circle of diaspora Palestinian and Palestinian-American intellectuals who had been until then the main One-State proponents. (Beleaguered and hapless Palestinians can be allowed to publish their crazy ideas, which is good for the liberal image and also good for providing evidence that Palestinians can’t be trusted to be reasonable, but only so long as these ideas remain isolated and limited to Palestinians.)

Judt was surprised, and distraught, by the vehemence of the attacks on his essay. There were letters to the Review[6] as well as articles in other publications, from the usual commissars: Abraham Foxman, Michael Walzer, Leon Wieseltier,[7] Alan Dershowitz,[8] and several others. In his reply, where he seemed to retreat a little to appease his critics, Judt compared American and non-American reactions. He noted that “much of the American response verged on hysteria,” heaping on him accusation after accusation of nefarious intentions. In marked contrast, his Israeli correspondents, including the director of the Yad Vashem Archives, “welcomed the disagreement.” The only letter unequivocally coming to Judt’s defense was from an Israeli, Amos Elon. That was not surprising. “This taboo is largely an American invention,” as Daniel Lazare observed.

The circle of One-State proponents now includes many non-Palestinians. It is a loose grouping of intellectuals, most of them based in the US, with a few in Europe, and a handful in the territories. They do not have a common political program, certainly not in the sense of belonging to the same political party, nor do they necessarily share a common understanding or focus on the conflict. For some, the conflict is between “Israelis and Palestinians”, for others it is “the Jewish people and the Palestinian people,” and for others still the focus is on “Jews and Arabs” or some more ambiguous formulation. For an example of the latter, consider this one: “a single democratic state for Jews, Christians and Muslims” — a sectarian democracy, as it were, in the Holy Land — which replaces national identities by religious identities. (What will happen to secularists among both Israelis and Palestinians, or to those among them who cannot be so classified, in such a state?) These are not minor differences, though innocuous now because they are far removed from the actual conflict; but they may confuse and undermine support for a just resolution in the future. These differences are apparent in the many articles and books which One-State proponents have written.[9]

Who Is to Decide

“The one-state solution returns, riding on the backs of Israelis and Palestinians …” Thus laments a good Israeli, the author Yitzhak Laor.[10]

The One-State has “returned” because it was already raised in the 1940’s, in the specific form of binationalism, by groups connected with the Communist Party, the League for Arab-Jewish Rapprochement and Cooperation, Hashomer Hatzair, and like-minded organizations.[11] After the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the binational idea receded from attention and remained dormant for the next twenty years. In the United States, Noam Chomsky revived it in his first public lecture on the Middle East in March 1969. At the time there was a chance, just a tiny chance, for a One-State to succeed if Israel and its American supporters, Chomsky’s target audience, could be blocked from embarking on a systematic policy of dispossessing Palestinians under occupation and annexing their lands. Right after 1967 and for a few short years into the early 1970’s, a One-State was also a small possibility on the Palestinian side: The settlers and the settlements were a minor presence in the territories, the Palestinians were united under a credible and united PLO leadership, and even a few groups within the PLO dabbled with a One-State idea (though not in its binational form). By the mid-1970’s, a One-State solution based on mutual rapprochement, however small its chances of succeeding, completely faded as a real option; by then Israel was pursuing its conquest of the territories unhindered, and various factions of the PLO first and then the PLO as a whole adopted a Two-State position.

And the One-State has returned “riding on the backs of Israelis and Palestinians.” The result has been the cottage industry, centered in the United States, that has produced dozens of articles and books since the late 1990’s. Palestinians and their few Israeli allies do not need to be told by their friends abroad, even their friends who go native, what is good for them. More bluntly, Palestinians are not in need of lessons for how to conduct their struggle. What they need from friends abroad is understanding and solidarity, neither of which necessitates a stand on One-State or Two-State in current conditions. (For example, the priority of stopping and then dismantling the ever-expanding settlements is independent of the question One-State vs. Two-State. On this particular issue, American activists can help by calling on the US government to end its consistent rejectionism that unilaterally blocks the international consensus. How to use such help is then up to the Palestinians.) Even worse would be when friends start to make their solidarity conditional on the Palestinians’ taking a stand on One-State or Two-State, as some seem prone to do, especially at a time when the Palestinians themselves are not making the choice between the two an issue to be settled urgently.

In an article a few years ago, whose conclusions seem no less relevant today, Salim Tamari pointed out that, although some intellectuals in the Palestinian diaspora see in a One-State option an answer to the betrayals of the Oslo Accords and its aftermath, there is not one Palestinian political group (not even a minority one) that has adopted One-State as an objective.[12] Nor is there an ongoing debate on the question of One-State versus Two-State between Palestinian organizations working among their own masses — whether in the territories, in the refugee centers of Lebanon and Jordan, or inside the green line. There is no such debate, not even to clarify the implications of the two putative options. This stands to reason, as the Palestinians’ most pressing concerns in the territories and refugee camps are elsewhere, now and for some years to come.

The closest the debate has come to the Palestinian arena, both geographically and politically, has been on the rare occasions when Israelis have been engaged in it. On any such occasion it was invariably between Israelis who are all opposed to the settlements, the Wall, and the occupation. The most publicized instance was a debate between Ilan Pappe (for One-State) and Uri Avnery (for Two-State) that took place in May 2007; sensibly, for all their differences, Pappe and Avnery also agreed that “the struggle against the occupation [was] point number one on the agenda.”[13] This kind of debate remains marginal and without noticeable positive effect on ongoing Israeli policies against the Palestinians.

To put things in a starker perspective, the handful of Israeli individuals who have adopted a One-State objective, binational or otherwise inclusive of Palestinians as equal, are in no position to challenge the powerful movement of a very different kind of One-State proponents. The latter are the racists on the far right of the Zionist political spectrum, who also want a unitary state in all or most of old Palestine, but ethnically cleansed of its non-Jewish population. The threats that these One-State racists spout with no compunction are real enough: They speak for powerful political parties and institutions inside Israel/Palestine proper, some of which are part of the current Israeli government coalition and, therefore, in a position to act on their beliefs. The point is not that One-State racists should not be challenged, but how to build a broad coalition that will eventually force them to back off and then start the slow process of reversing the occupation.

What Next

The question “One-State or Two-State?” offers a false alternative, as neither is a live option in the immediate future. One-State is now an escapist fantasy, whatever form one would like to give it, while Two-State is stigmatized by the failed Oslo Accords, a discredited Palestinian leadership, and an “international community” that never enforced its own UN resolutions on Palestine.

It will be a shame if the question keeps recurring and develops into a full-blown debate, now necessarily centered in the United States, as it will suck up a lot of good energy without helping to ease the Palestinians’ hardships one iota. In this sense such a debate is callously self-indulgent. It will only divert attention from the plagues now eating away at the very existence of Palestinian society.

But setting aside a wasteful and useless debate is only one part. The other part is to define a clear agenda ahead so that supporters of Palestinian rights know what they are struggling for. In the long run, the biggest plagues threatening Palestinian existence are the settlements and the Wall that was built to protect them.[14] These will all have to go if the dispossession and economic strangulation are to be stopped and reversed. Doubtless the task will take many long years, but already supported by an international solidarity movement — comprising many human-rights, grassroots and non-governmental organizations — which are increasingly taking their cues from the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa. The legitimacy of this effort cannot be impugned, sustained as it is by international law that rejects collective punishment and expropriation of a people under occupation. Whether it will be a One-State or a Two-State at the end of the road, expropriated lands and resources will have to be returned to their Palestinian owners.

In the short run, long before the settlements are dismantled and the Wall is torn down, there are the other plagues faced by Palestinians under occupation. These are cruel, humiliating and deliberately intended to make Palestinians’ daily routine miserable and unbearable: the curfews, the targeted assassinations and their “collateral” victims, the extra-judicial imprisonments, the checkpoints, the withholding of fuel and food supplies, the house demolitions, the land grabs, the Israeli-only “bypass” roads, and other regular atrocities. These will all have to be eliminated to help the Palestinian communities survive intact for a better day. Support groups abroad will have to reach out to all those who have kept Palestinian life going despite all the hardships — from trade unions to health workers, educators, farmers, lawyers, and other segments of Palestinian society — and provide them with moral and material sustenance for the long haul. There is enough to unite people of good will in common actions for years to come, and together lend a helping hand to the struggling Palestinians, without getting mired in a sterile debate of One-State versus Two-State.


1. Daniel Lazare, “The One-State Solution,” The Nation, November 3, 2003.

2. Edward Said, “The One-State Solution,” The NYT Magazine, January 10, 1999.

3. Tony Judt, “Israel: The Alternative,” The New York Review of Books, October 23, 2003.

4. This is even clearer in Said’s case than in Judt’s. While Said’s article, “The One-State Solution,” is often mentioned as evidence that he turned against a Two-State option, the fact is that he subsequently suggested that a Two-State configuration, predicated on a complete rollback of Israel to its 1967 borders, was still a short-term goal worth struggling for. Consider for example Said’s article “Palestinian Elections Now,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 13-19 June 2002, written a little more than a year before his untimely death. This is one of Said’s angriest denunciations of the Oslo Accords and the devastation they brought about. In this article, he suggested some possible actions to “create a new basis of Palestinian legitimacy,” separate from Arafat’s corrupt leadership. On the possibility of a just resolution, he wrote “mainstream Zionism has still not been able to produce such a vision [of coexistence], so it must come from the Palestinian people,” and that “it must be up to us [Palestinians] to project the idea of co-existence in two states that have natural relations with each other on the basis of sovereignty and equality” (emphasis added).

5. Editorial, “New Tries for Mideast Peace,” The New York Times, October 31, 2003.

6. Letters by Omer Bartov, Amos Elon, Abraham H. Foxman, and Michael Walzer, in response to “Israel: The Alternative,” reply by Tony Judt, The New York Review of Books, December 4, 2003.

7. Leon Wieseltier, “Israel, Palestine, and the Return of the Binational Fantasy: What is Not to be Done,” The New Republic, October 27, 2003.

8. Alan Dershowitz, “The Opposing View,” The Sunday Times (London), October 26, 2003.

9. Among other books: Ghada Karmi, Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine, Pluto Press, 2007; Ali Abunimah, One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Metropolitan Books, 2006; Virginia Tilley, The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock, University of Michigan Press, 2005; Mazin Qumsiyeh, Sharing the Land of Canaan, Pluto Press, 2004; Marc Ellis, Israel and Palestine: Out of the Ashes, Pluto Press, 2003. These authors do not all envision the same One-State, their differences varying from minor to significant, and they are not equally concerned with the final shape of a unary state; e.g., Tilley puts more effort, and Ellis less effort, than the others in defining the organization of such a state. A website, named “The One-State Solution,” has a comprehensive list of articles and books on the topic.

10. Itzhak Laor, “What the Settlers Know,” Letter to the London Review of Books, Vol. 25, no. 23, December 4, 2003.

11. A good account is in Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948, University of California Press 1996, pp. 269, 324-25, 348-51. In addition to the groups discussed by Lockman, all connected with the labor movement in Palestine — not an insignificant force though at the end losing out to the nationalists and right-wing groups of various stripes — there were a few emigres from the Western intellectual elite who were favorable to binationalism, most notably people like Judah Magnes and Martin Buber. An account of the activities of the latter is in Tom Segev, One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, Owl Books 2000, pp. 408-414, among other books.

12. Salim Tamari, “The Binationalist Lure,” The Boston Review, December 2001-January 2002.

13. Ilan Pappe’s statement, Uri Avnery’s statement.

14. For a recent very detailed account of the horrors created by the settlers, the settlements and the Wall, see Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, Lords of the Land: The War over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007, Nation Books, 2007.

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