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The case for a democratic one-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians

The case for a democratic one-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians
President Trump greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Rose Garden of the White House on March 25. (Olivier Douliery / TNS)

President Donald Trump has promised he will soon unveil his “Deal of the Century” for Palestinians and Israelis. But it is unlikely to do much more than consecrate a reality that has prevailed for decades: Israelis living within the borders of historic Palestine will enjoy full freedoms and political rights, while a majority of Palestinians living within the same space will remain largely disenfranchised and voiceless.

One thing the deal will make apparent, however, is that the two-state solution is dead, laid low by a thousand cuts – or, more precisely, by the hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, whose immovable presence ensures that no genuinely sovereign Palestinian state will ever emerge there. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both played a role in delivering the final blows: Trump with his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and Netanyahu by promising voters prior to his recent reelection to begin annexation of the West Bank.

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It is time to face some undeniable facts:

First, despite Israel’s every effort to establish and maintain a Jewish majority, the two peoples living under Israeli rule hover at near parity, at approximately 6.5 million Jews and 6.5 million Palestinians.

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Of course, an Israel founded on equal rights for all will no longer be a “Jewish state.”


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Second, Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs are destined to live together in Israel/Palestine in perpetuity. Neither people can or should be forced to leave the land in which they reside and to which they are passionately committed.

Third, segregation, of which the two-state solution was a form, is not the answer. As Americans know from our own historical experience, separate is never equal.

Finally, it is only equal rights and justice that can provide the foundation for a durable peace for Israelis and Palestinians.

The way forward will be difficult, but it could start with a compassionate declaration from Palestinians, along the lines of South Africa’s Freedom Charter, committing to a just society that includes both Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Such a declaration should embrace a broad, multi-faceted and contemporary vision of justice for this troubled land.

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For example, a Freedom Charter would address the rights of the Israeli Jews who currently inhabit homes of Palestinians seized in 1948, and fear eviction when Palestinian refugees return, as we are legally and morally due. My family, like survivors of the Nazi Holocaust seeking return of their seized works of art, insists that ownership of our grandfather’s Villa Harun ar-Rashid in West Jerusalem should be restored to us. But we have no need nor desire to evict its current Jewish residents. In a similar vein, Israelis living in Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank should not lose their homes, but the settlements should be desegregated by permitting Palestinian families to move in.

The charter should also address rights for women and members of the LGBTQ community, which some Palestinians as well as some Jewish Israelis have been slow to embrace. And it should address environmental issues that will be crucial as global warming puts increasing pressure on the Middle East.

Although some would argue a single state is unrealistic, there is a growing constituency for such a solution, particularly among young people. About one-third of Palestinians support a one-state solution, and that’s without any major Palestinian political party or faction advocating for it. Meanwhile, in the U.S., polls show that about an equal number of Americans support one state with equality as support a two-state solution, with young people leading the way. According to a poll released by the University of Maryland in December 2018, 42% of Americans ages 18 to 35 support a single state, versus 33% for two states. And if a two-state solution is no longer possible, a majority of all Americans support one state with equal rights.

Of course, an Israel founded on equal rights for all will no longer be a “Jewish state” — just as South Africa, after the fall of apartheid, was no longer a state that institutionalized white supremacy. It was a fundamental misperception of Israel’s founders that a homeland privileging Jews could be accepted in another people’s land.

Israeli Jews will not surrender their advantages easily. Privileged groups never do. A 2018 poll showed, however, that more Israeli Jews (19%) supported a single state with equal rights than supported either apartheid (15%) or expulsion of Palestinians (8%).

Israeli Jews must recognize the equal rights of the Palestinians with whom they cohabit the land to secure a peaceful future. Doing so would certainly come with benefits for Israel, including regional acceptance. What would it be worth to Israeli Jews to travel safely throughout the Middle East, or to do business not just with the tyrants of the Arab world but with its people?

Trump, Netanyahu, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and the other ethno-chauvinistic leaders of the world are having their moment now. Yet hope is a powerful motivator, and the prospect of building a just and genuinely free and democratic society — a true beacon of progress for the region if not the world — can inspire heroism in both Israelis and Palestinians.

George Bisharat is a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law and writes frequently on the Middle East.

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