The specter of the one-state solution
By Victor Kotsev
On his way out of the Annapolis conference three years ago, former Israeli
prime minister Ehud Olmert explained to the Israeli Ha'aretz newspaper his
motivation for engaging in the negotiations: "If the day comes when the
two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for
equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as
soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished."
More recently, in the context of President Mahmoud Abbas' repeated threats to
walk out on the peace process and dissolve the Palestinian Authority, the
specter of the one-state solution and the ensuing demographic threat to
Israel's Jewish majority have again started to haunt the Israeli media and
Among others, Israeli historian Dr Gadi Traub argues in favor of a
unilateral disengagement from the West Bank. In an op-ed for Yedioth Ahronot,
he offers his rationale and his analysis of the Palestinian strategy: "If they
still view Zionism as a colonial enterprise that invaded their land and must be
expelled and have its state destroyed, the way to eliminate Israel as a Jewish
state is simply to refuse to separate from it. All they need to do is avert
partition, and wait."
Curiously, however, a large portion of the people who are deeply troubled by
this possibility share a very specific identity: they are Israelis who belong
to the center-left (a minority of the Israeli population, if last year's
elections are any indication). They often quote recent polls that suggest that
Palestinians are increasingly sympathetic to the one-state option and use this
as evidence of the impending doom of the Jewish state, barring a two-state
Just as curiously, some on the Israeli right not only fail to be scared - by an
argument that, in as much as it combines demographic projections with pathos,
carries racist undertones, no less - but openly invite the one state solution.
Israeli knesset (parliament) speaker Reuven Rivlin, a prominent member of the
conservative Likud party, is one of them. "I would rather Palestinians as
citizens of this country over dividing the land up," he proclaimed in April,
quoted by Ha'aretz.
By all accounts, something interesting is going on. The Israeli left and the
Israeli right appear to be engaged in an unusual fencing match over this issue,
while the Palestinians, despite some muted threats, are largely silent on the
issue. Moreover, there are reasons to doubt the sincerity of both Israeli
claims, and the most important such reason is revealed by an analysis of the
There is a major problem with interpreting the polls of Palestinian opinion: a
gulf of difference exists between support for a one-state solution and support
for a viable way to reach such a solution. In a sense, Traub is right: the end
goal of a single state has always been acceptable to practically all
Palestinian factions, including Hamas (hence the mantra of the Islamist
movement, ''Palestine from the river to the sea'' .
The devil is in the details. There are two opposing views among the
Palestinians about what that means: for one faction, a single state entails
violence and the destruction of the Jewish state by force. For the other, it
entails a peaceful, demographic takeover of Israel. There also exists a kind of
compromise option: violence, way down the road, leads to a settlement and the
establishment of a single state, and demographics lead to its takeover. What is
missing in all these scenarios is a realistic vision for achieving the end
In 2008, during my brief work at the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (a
prominent Palestinian think-tank, located, ironically, in Bethlehem), I had the
opportunity to ask my Palestinian colleagues what they thought about the
one-state solution. Most of them bluntly dismissed the idea. ''I never thought
the Israelis were stupid,'' one of them blurted. ''They know that if they allow
this to happen, we would breed them out.'' Others pointed to divisions among
the Palestinians and the deep-rooted hatred between the two peoples.
It is helpful to think of historical paradigms - as people on the ground often
do - to illustrate the details and problems of each approach to the one-state
solution. For the Palestinians, there are roughly three possible paradigms:
that of Algeria (where the French were expelled by force), that of South Africa
(where violence resulted in a settlement that dissolved the apartheid
government), and that of the non-violent US Civil Rights movement.
Let us, for a moment, set aside the obvious differences in detail. The Algerian
paradigm is currently dead as a dodo. It has been tried (even before the actual
war in Algeria), it has failed, and it has proven to be a disaster for the
Palestinians (and indeed for Arab countries as a whole).
The US Civil Right paradigm - the nightmare of the leftists - presents a
slightly more complicated case, but on closer inspection it must be thrown out
as unrealistic as well. A non-violent campaign can be an enormously powerful
weapon, but there is one important caveat: it has to be just that,
overwhelmingly non-violent and disciplined.
Both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King - the two most famous non-violent
leaders - were successful because they were able to enforce strict non-violent
discipline among their followers, and were willing to go out on a limb to
demonstrate through endless compromises their ability to hold the moral high
ground. If the Palestinians were able and willing to do that, they could not
justify pulling out from the two-state negotiations in the first place.
In the Palestinian case, there is little unity and discipline - much less
non-violent unity and discipline. The population is split between two enclaves
with rival leaderships - Gaza and the West Bank - and is becoming increasingly
fragmented and radicalized as the conflict drags on. To be fair, Israel bears
part of the responsibility for this, but the end result is the same: it is
inconceivable that the Palestinians can wage a successful non-violent campaign
in the foreseeable future.
Finally, the South African paradigm is the most complex of all, and the
preferred one for Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists who seek to
delegitimize Israel. Israeli leaders in the 1970s all but invited the parallels
through their alliance with apartheid South Africa. However, after a more
careful analysis, the similarities begin and end here.
Setting aside the moral comparisons and contrasts (which, in the case of the
Israeli-Palestinian stand-off, can be particularly hypocritical in the
arguments on both sides), it is important to understand that apartheid South
Africa was an unsustainable country without either the labor power of the black
African populations or massive external assistance. This was key to the fall of
the apartheid regime. The decline of external assistance was due as much to the
delegitimization campaigns as to the end of the Cold War, which diminished the
importance of South Africa as an ally of the Western bloc. This in turn gave
the African National Congress a major trump card, which it played successfully,
not least because of the ability of Nelson Mandela to unite his constituency.
None of these circumstances offers a realistic parallel to Israel. Most
importantly, Israel is a remarkably sustainable state (it weathered the recent
financial crisis, for example, much better than most of the rest of the
developed world), while the Palestinians are heavily reliant on it and on
foreign assistance. Moreover, not only is there little hope of Palestinian
unity, but some of the strongest (if silent) proponents of keeping down the
Palestinians are to be found in the neighboring Arab states.
Beyond the historical paradigms, it is important to look at demography as well,
despite the speculative nature of demographic arguments. One result of the
delegitimization campaigns against Israel has been an increase of anti-Semitism
worldwide, a trend that, if it continues, could lead to increased immigration
of Jews to Israel. It is hard to overlook the fact that about 60% of Jewish
people currently live outside Israel.
Thus, under certain conditions, a successful delegitimization campaign could
backfire spectacularly for those who want to destroy the Jewish state. While a
majority of the Palestinians, too, live in exile, Israel could easily (as it
currently does) bar them from returning, while absorbing its own immigrants and
taking over more of the precious little available fertile land in the area.
Increased economic disparities, meanwhile, could lead to Palestinian emigration
and a declining birth rate. A number of Palestinians I spoke to, for example,
indicated that barring an improvement of their situation, they would consider
Overall, while many analysts have questioned the viability of the two-state
solution, it seems highly premature to claim that the main alternative of a
one-state solution is any more viable or easy to achieve. It is hard to imagine
that even those who conjure up its specter truly believe in it. More likely,
the debate we are witnessing is simply a typical example of Middle Eastern
bargaining - which takes place not only across Israeli-Palestinian lines, but
The Hebrew language features a rare expression which seems particularly
relevant to the situation at hand. It is called hafuch al hafuch,
loosely translated as ''the opposite of the opposite''. It denotes a situation
where, in order to get something, one asks for the opposite. It often seems to
apply not only to internal Israeli bargaining, but to any political process in
the Middle East. And it often is what makes those processes so confusing. In
Hebrew, by the way, more hafuchs can be added at will to indicate
further twists. An example: The one state solution? Hafuch al hafuch al hafuch.