A two-state or one-state solution?


Today’s question: One state? Two states? More? What should be the shape of the region in the future? Click here to read the week’s previous exchanges.

Point: Judea Pearl

I will start with my utopia, which has been the utopia of most Israelis for the past 60 years: “Two states for two people, living side by side in peace, security and prosperity, equally indigenous and equally legitimate.”

Is it desirable? The models of Spain and Portugal and Slovakia and the Czech Republic teach us that separate polities are sometimes necessary and often conducive to unleashing the distinct and creative energies latent in each society. In fact, the reason most people of conscience consider Israel the greatest miracle of the 20th century and the moral consciousness of the 21st is because it has demonstrated to the world that people bonded by a shared historical vision can take charge of their destiny and, in just 60 years, turn a scattered tribe of beggars and peddlers into a thriving democracy and a world center of art and science. There is no reason why Palestinian society, guided and assisted by Israel’s example, will not reach equal heights.


Is it a just solution?

On Tuesday, we discussed historical justice, concluding that the historical claims of the Jews are no less compelling than those of the Palestinians’. Moreover, since Jews are a nation first and religious group second -- bonded by shared history, not faith -- the label “Jewish state” merely defines the cultural character of the polity and does not deny political rights to any minority.

True, religion has served as a carrier of the Jewish narrative, and orthodox Jews still lay claim to being the sole arbiters of Jewish identity. But realistically, the bond that unites an Ethiopian Jew today with his Russian counterpart is the understanding that (figuratively) both were delivered from Egypt, both journeyed with Moses to the land where the Bible was authored, both fought with the Maccabees (in the story of Hanukkah), and both rebelled against and were exiled by the Romans -- and both were destined to come together in their historical homeland and work together toward the establishment of a model society. Nationhood is a state of mind, not a historical document, nor is it guaranteed by land ownership or residence.

Is this utopia democratic? Despite all the complaining, criticizing and hysterical bashing, the saying “Israel is a thriving democracy” is not a slogan -- it is a hard reality. Israel’s record of accomplishments speaks for itself, even without comparing it to that of other nations. The two main complaints about special privileges given to Jews are, first, the right to serve in the Army, and second, the right to immigrate and automatically receive Israeli citizenship.

The first is temporary and will naturally be modified when security conditions permit. The second is a remnant of worldwide anti-Semitic persecution (which, sadly, seems to again be on the rise) and serious considerations are given each year in Israel to bringing this law closer to standard criteria of immigration and naturalization. As you noted previously, George, the orthodox parties have disproportional power, and Israel’s democracy is struggling daily with this phenomenon. This will be solved in time, and the best way to accelerate the process would be for Israel to have 10 years of calm. The miracle of normalcy would indeed be the best gift the world can give to a beleaguered democracy on her 60th birthday.

Is the utopia attainable? This is the topic of tomorrow’s discussion, and I believe that the answer depends on whether Palestinians really want it to happen. I hope, George, that you will reinforce our hopes that there exists a willing peace camp on the Palestinian side -- my friends in Israel are thirsty for such signals.

Finally, a word on the so-called one-state solution. Despite the euphemistic terminology with which it is decorated in the media, I do not want to dignify this nightmarish contrivance with discussion, for this would only embolden the enemies of coexistence. In my opinion, this contrivance is a recipe for endless ethnic strife, Iraqi style.


Any peace-seeking pragmatist understands that a meaningful peace plan must take note of the 5.5 million Israeli Jews traumatized by collective memories of accomplished (1945) and attempted (1948) genocides who would never agree to relinquish the right to defend themselves. Defense and immigration policy are the two key ingredients that Israelis will not be able to relinquish under any peace plan -- all the rest is negotiable.

So let us remove the “one-state non-solution” from the table and concentrate on the realistic goals of peace and dignity for all people in the region: “two states for two people, equally indigenous and equally legitimate.”

Judea Pearl, a professor of computer science at UCLA, is a frequent commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is the president and co-founder of the Daniel Pearl Foundation -- named after his son -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to dialogue and cross-cultural understanding.

Counterpoint: George E. Bisharat

Forgive me, Judea, for this long post. I believe that a single democratic, secular and multicultural state in Israel and Palestine would best actualize the rights of Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. I will share my reasons over several days. But my main concern now is to critique your call for “two states for two peoples” in some depth.

Judea, with respect, it is you this time who has indulged in wishful thinking. Nowhere do you delineate the borders of these two states you propose. Perhaps that is because a just partition of Palestine into two states -- one Jewish, and one Palestinian -- is impossible. Israel has killed any chance of a viable Palestinian state by thoroughly and irrevocably colonizing the West Bank. Jewish settlers there and in East Jerusalem approach 500,000. Israeli land claims now cover about 40% of the West Bank, and expansion continues apace. Meanwhile, no political force on the horizon will reverse this colonizing juggernaut.

Any Palestinian entity, even if called a “state,” that arose from the fragments of territory left in the West Bank would be a bantustan, with its borders, airspace and major underground aquifers controlled by Israel. This bantustan could not practically absorb the Palestinian refugees, whose right to return to their homes would be effectively voided. Meanwhile, 1.4 million Palestinian citizens of Israel would be consigned to permanent subordinate status as non-Jews in Israel.

It would only be a matter of time before conflict burst forth anew.

But the two-state solution is also morally and politically wrong. Its principal raison d’etre is the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state. But the hard truth is that ethnic nationalism, of which Zionism is a version, is a dead end. It may have been acceptable in the 18th century, but it is not in the globalized and multicultural world of today. The problem is that while Israel is a Jewish state juridically, 24% of its citizens are non-Jews, mostly Palestinian Arabs.


The very meaning of a state that is “for” one people is that it acts primarily in that people’s interest, not in the interests of all of its citizens. Thus an ethnic state would pass laws privileging one group -- just as Israel has done. Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has counted 20 Israeli laws that facially discriminate in favor of Jews or against Palestinians.

An ethnic state would allocate government resources unequally -- just as Israel has done. Palestinian kids in Israel are educated in schools described by Human Rights Watch as “separate and unequal,” receiving 60% of the funding that Jewish kids receive. Israel has built countless new towns for Jews, while 70 unrecognized Palestinian villages that house tens of thousands of residents receive no roads, water, electricity or other government services.

An ethnic state would ensure that the dominant group maintains a monopoly over political authority -- just as Israel has done. No Palestinian party has ever been invited to join a government coalition in Israel; Palestinian members of parliament are politically marginalized. Until last year, no Palestinian had ever been appointed a minister in an Israeli government. After six decades and hundreds of ministerial appointments, we have one now: a minister of sports and culture.

Ethnic states breed tension, as the dominated group or groups resist their subordination and the dominant respond with repression -- just as Israel has done. Israel ruled its Palestinian population for 16 years through military government. It banned Palestinian political parties, harassed leaders into exile and repeatedly used lethal force against its own Palestinian citizens protesting government policies (while treating equally disruptive Jewish protesters with restraint).

Despite repression, minorities facing discrimination eventually protest. Palestinian citizens of Israel, indeed, are increasingly vocal in their demands for reform. In the last two years, four separate documents have been issued by Palestinian citizens of Israel demanding equal rights.

Dominant groups in ethnic states typically do not respond tolerantly to threats to their power -- and indeed, Israeli Jews seem to be responding with mounting anti-Arab racism. Thus, Israeli political leaders speak openly about transferring Palestinian citizens outside the state. Last year, a poll revealed that 74% of Jewish Israeli high school students regarded Arabs as “unclean.”


In short, ethnic states are inherently discriminatory -- and properly belong to the past.

Judea, I am saddened to learn that you view the prospect of transforming Israel and Palestine into one state based on the principle of equal rights as “nightmarish.” This, I believe, is a progressive model, and one which reflects the tolerance and respect for diversity of our age.

The one-state solution has a number of important advantages: First, it would transform 1.4 million Palestinian residents of Israel from a subordinated minority to full citizens. Second, it would permit genuine realization of the right of return of roughly 4 million Palestinian refugees by providing a greater geographical range for their resettlement. Third, it would enable Jewish Israelis to continue to choose to live in parts of the West Bank that are of religious and cultural significance to them. Fourth, it would vault over two of the thorniest issues that plague the two-state solution: the drawing of borders of the new Palestinian state and the division of Jerusalem. Fifth, while it would require both peoples to surrender their deeply cherished dreams of exclusive sovereignty, this sacrifice would be reciprocal and would result in a more equitable distribution of rights overall. Finally -- for now -- and most importantly, because it would resolve major outstanding injustices, it would lead to durable peace in the region.

George E. Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.

Response from Judea Pearl

George, I disagree with the fundamental premise of your argument -- namely, that sovereignty based on shared historical narrative is necessarily anachronistic, discriminatory and leads to ethnic discontent.

Every sovereign state develops an identity-shaping narrative that, eventually, is shared by all its citizens. For example, the Muslim community in Great Britain is expected to eventually adopt the British narrative of World War II (and I) as its own, even though it was not really part of that struggle, nor were its ancestors (some actually fought against the British) or spiritual teachers.

The discontent we now see in Israel stems from the fact that many in its Arab minority identify with and occasionally assist the enemies of Israel, who openly admit their intent to destroy the state. Many Israeli Arabs regard the historic Jewish narrative, especially the Jewish connection to the Biblical land, to be a fabricated imperialist plot rather than one they can respect and live with side-by-side with their own narrative.

When this changes -- and a two-state-solution can bring about such change -- Israeli Arabs will enjoy precisely those benefits and privileges that your one-state utopia is presumed to (but will not) offer.

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