One state: Stop the hysteria and start thinking

By Lisa Goldman and Dahlia Scheindlin

(This article has been updated. See the addendum below.)

In a recent New York Times op-ed, a prominent American academic posits that the time for implementing a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is now past. Ian Lustick, a professor of comparative politics at University of Pennsylvania, argues that after 20 years of failed negotiations, the two-state paradigm is a proven failure. The Americans, Palestinian Authority and Israeli government cling to what he calls the “two state illusion” out of vested interests that have nothing to do with the facts on the ground. It is time, he writes, to explore other options.

The article generated a predictable and tedious flurry of dramatic reactions from left and right, as if Lustick’s grand thesis were new. It is not, and neither are the clichéd (and hysterical) responses.

It seems that the talk of one state for Israelis and Palestinians is causing a stir now for two reasons—because the New York Times is a mainstream liberal media outlet; and because mainstream Israeli and non-Israeli Jews are now discussing it seriously.

Read more: Two state vs. one state debate is a waste of time, political energy

But the idea of one state for Israelis and Palestinians has not been radical for quite some time now. As Mairav Zonszein documents in a post for +972, Members of Knesset from across the political spectrum have turned away from two-state rhetoric, including former Knesset Speakers Reuven Rivlin (Likud), and Avraham Burg from the left (a former Labor MK and Chairman of the Jewish Agency). Today, these two men agree with far-right politician Danny Danon and Likud hard-liner Tzipi Hotovely that the two-state solution is no longer possible (and for the Right, it never was desirable). Meanwhile, Tel Aviv University’s Yehouda Shenhav, a Leftist who recently published Beyond the Two State Solution, insists that exploring alternatives to two states is Israel’s “moral obligation.”

In the United States, liberal Jewish supporters of a two-state solution responded to  Lustick’s op-ed as if it were a betrayal, perhaps because he is “one of their own” — a former chairman of the Association for Israel Studies, which he helped found partly to counter anti-Israel bias in Middle East studies. Meanwhile, the Right simply lumped him together with all the “depraved anti-Israel” left-wingers, because it views the Left’s version of one state as the destruction of the Jewish state.

Basically, there seems to be a lot of reacting and not a lot of listening or lateral thinking.

There also seems to be a prevailing partisan attitude on all sides that shuts down debate. Those who deviate from the party line face excoriation. The result is that the actual complexities on the ground are choking in the dust of absolutism.

It’s easy to fling out the assertion that the two-state solution is dead. That is what Lustick, Danon and Shenhav essentially have in common. Whether American readers like it or not, that is a realization that both Israelis and Palestinians on the ground, from both the Left and Right, are starting to agree on.

What we need is a deep and honest examination of whether the alternatives are in any way feasible.

If a one-state option in any form is to be considered at all relevant there are some fundamental questions that must be answered: how will land be owned and divided? What will Jewish and Palestinian refugee rights be? Whose national symbols and narratives will appear where? And what kind of political system can be fashioned that is both representative and provides relative stability? Amongst those who call for one state, few have addressed these issues in any concrete way.

But in Israel and Palestine there are people who are quietly working to develop creative solutions. Nascent civil society initiatives have sprung up among Israelis and Palestinians, and not only on the Left. These people are working on various formulations that go beyond the two-state paradigm, because they live there, recognize the reality and care deeply about the future of the place they call home. They have, pragmatically, abandoned dangerously utopian notions of a single democratic state devoid of ethno-national identity basis and perfect equality for all. Instead, they are exploring ideas such as federation, confederation, open borders, two entities in one land, consociational power-sharing arrangements—essentially a bi-zonal, bi-communal approach. This is the kind of solution that has long been imagined for nearby Cyprus, where the two-state solution is embraced primarily by the hard-line nationalists. Although negotiations have failed there too, the bi-zonal bi-communal unification idea remains the paradigm, and the violence that scarred Cyprus in the 1970s and 1980s is now history.

But in any case, the ill-conceived notion that stamping out debate over this issue can somehow make changing and urgent realities on the ground magically disappear, should finally be put to rest.

Ian Lustick provided the following correction, regarding the establishment of the Association for Israel Studies:

I did serve, as you say, not as chairman, but as president of the Association for Israel Studies, and I was one of its founders. I organized the founding conference of the Association at Dartmouth College, where I taught in the 1980s, and edited its first publication. But our rationale was not to defend Israel against anti-Israel bias in Middle Eastern studies. Our objective was to create a scholarly setting for the study of Israel, per se, that did not advance itself as a Zionist organization or act as a propaganda tool for the Israeli government. That is, indeed, how we saw existing organizations at that time, for example the Association of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East.

We are grateful for the correction, and regret the error.

Read more:
Why we can’t stop having the one- or two-state debate
How a Jewish Agency fellow becomes a one-state activist
Why it’s time to discuss the one-state solution