The one-state “solution”

Sep 10, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

September 10, 2008
Number 09/08 #03

Today’s Update focuses on the so-called “one-state solution” to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The policy would see Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip become a single state rather than Israeli and Palestinian states living side-by-side. Apparently making a come back, it has been championed recently by several prominent Palestinians.

First up is a good analysis by the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre, which provides background information on the “one-state solution” and analyses the practical significance and potential implications of its re-emergence. The piece begins by describing what a one-state solution means and notes that proponents envision the single state being either a bi-national state or a unitary democracy. It also points out that a one-state solution would mean the effective end of Jewish sovereignty represented by Israel, and the rejection of the legitimacy of Jewish national self-determination. Although the policy is touted as a response to Palestinian frustrations over the pace of negotiations toward a two-state solution and settlement building, the article points out that it actually harkens back to PLO policy in the 1960s and ’70s and is a rejection of UN resolutions on the conflict that the PLO has since accepted. The piece concludes that talk of a one-state solution is more a pressure tactic than realistic goal, but is nevertheless cause for concern. For all the reasons why, CLICK HERE. Also, the blistering critique of the policy by an Arab newspaper editorial, mentioned in the piece, is here.

Next up is Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre, writing in Haaretz. Spyer argues that recent support for the one-state solution is a return to what had been the original end-goal of Palestinian nationalism – a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. He further argues that the re-emergence of the idea is not a surprise, but rather a natural product of how Palestinian nationalism characterises the conflict. According to Spyer, that characterisation remains one of a national liberation movement fighting against an illegitimate coloniser. This view denies Jews the right to self-determination and sees them as merely minorities in an Arab Muslim state. Spyer does not believe Palestinian nationalism ever shifted to a view of the conflict as one between two national groups each with legitimate claims and aspirations, but he concludes that the Palestinians will not actually return to a one-state policy for pragmatic reasons, particularly the Western aid and support that flows from the peace process based on a two-state solution. For his full analysis, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Yossi Alpher analyses the one-state solution as one of several options being discussed in what he calls “old/new thinking” about possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On a potential three-state solution, he argues that the possibility of Gaza and the West Bank being treated as separate entities is a possibility, despite Palestinian insistence on the need to rejoin the two, and depends in large measure on Hamas’ evolution. But he firmly rejects the idea that Jordan and Egypt will step into the West Bank and Gaza Strip as “patently unrealistic”, noting that neither country has indicated a desire to do so. He is even more dismissive of the chances of the one-state solution succeeding. He argues that Israeli Jews would never agree to such an outcome, and wouldn’t remain in Israel if it came to pass. He also argues that championing the idea is actually counterproductive, since it elicits hostility or indifference among Israelis rather than softening their negotiating position. For this interesting breakdown on the one-, two- and three-state solutions to the conflict, CLICK HERE.

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September 2, 2008

Key points

    * The ‘one-state solution’ envisages the abandonment by the Palestinian national movement of its goal of a state alongside Israel, and the replacement of this with the demand for the establishment of a single state in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

    * The one-state solution is currently re-emerging within Fatah partly because frustration at the slow pace of negotiations is leading to a re-examination of earlier stances. Moreover, there is a sense that Fatah leaders are attempting to use the one-state idea as a useful rhetorical device in the negotiations, to place pressure on Israel and lead to a softening of the Israeli bargaining position.

    * The current talk of the one-state solution within Fatah is unlikely to progress beyond the declarative level. The recognition by the PLO of UN resolutions relating to the conflict has brought more tangible gains to the Palestinians than did nearly three decades of commitment to the one-state solution.


In recent weeks, a certain amount of media coverage has been given to statements by prominent Palestinian figures suggesting a possible turn towards the policy option known as the ‘one-state solution’.  Among the well-known Palestinian nationalists who have hinted at a possible turn towards this idea are Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), former prime minister of the PA and current head of the negotiating team with Israel, and Professor Sari Nusseibeh, former head of the PLO in Jerusalem and a prominent Palestinian intellectual.  Qurei recently told Fatah supporters in Ramallah, ‘The Palestinian leadership has worked to establish an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 [pre-Six Day War] borders, but if Israel continues to resist making this a reality, then the Palestinians’ demand for the sake of the Palestinian people will be a solution of one state for both nationalities.'[1] Nusseibeh, meanwhile, interviewed by Haaretz newspaper, expressed himself in the following terms: ‘It so happens that Fatah, in particular, the mainstream party and the only viable alternative to extremes on the left or on the right, now needs a strategy, an ideology. Because the ideology that Fatah has adopted over the last 15 years – a two-state solution – seems to be faltering, and with it, Fatah is faltering. So it is time maybe to rethink, to bring Fatah around to a new idea, the old-new idea, of one state.'[2]

What is the practical significance, if any, of these statements and others like them?  What is the one-state solution, and what are the implications for Israel of its re-emergence to a prominent place in the Palestinian discussion?

What is the one-state solution?

The policy option of the one-state solution conceives of the abandonment by the Palestinian national movement of its goal of a state alongside Israel, and the replacement of this with the demand for the establishment of a single state in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  In most versions of this idea, the state in question is visualised as a unitary democracy, though some versions foresee a binational type arrangement.[3]  The difference between these two options is that binationalism would include built-in rights for both national groups. Palestinian nationalism has traditionally not supported such an outlook.

Since the single state is seen to include the ‘right of return’ of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, such a state would include a large Arab and Muslim majority, and hence would mean the end of the Jewish sovereignty represented by Israel.  The one-state solution derives from the outlook found among Palestinian nationalism that Israel is the product of an illegitimate European colonial project, and that Jews constitute a religious community, rather than a national group.  Consequently, the divestment of Israeli Jews of their sovereignty is not considered by proponents of the one-state solution to impinge upon the general principle of the right of states to existence and of nations to self-determination.

The one-state solution is often seen as a new development, a product of the despair and pessimism regarding the peace process following the collapse of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the summer of 2000.  This is only partially true.  Sari Nusseibeh, in the statement quoted above, accurately refers to it as the ‘old-new idea, of one state.'[4] The one-state idea formed the strategic goal of the Palestinian national movement from its emergence as a separate organisational trend in the 1960s until its embrace of the two-state solution in 1988.

The 1964 Palestinian National Covenant and the revised Palestinian National Charter of 1968 – usually seen as the ‘founding documents’ of Palestinian nationalism – are unambiguous statements of the one-state solution. In these documents, the strategic goal of Palestinian nationalism is presented as the nullification of Israel’s sovereignty, and the creation of a single, Arab state in the entirety of former Mandate Palestine.[5] This stance is justified by a view of Israel as a movement of European colonisation.

This stance was further ratified in the 1968-1970 period. At this time, the PLO formulated the idea of the ‘non-sectarian, democratic’ state which was to form its key demand.[6]

This demand was a call for the reversal of UN Resolutions 181 and 242. The first of these required the division of the territory of former Mandate Palestine into two states – one Jewish and one Arab.  Resolution 242, meanwhile, recommended a negotiated peace between the sides, based on Israeli withdrawals from territories captured in the 1967 war.  The PLO’s one-state demand placed it outside of this framework, and made the movement an opponent of the Middle East peace process which began in the late 1970s.

The result of the PLO’s opposition was that no negotiations between Israel and Palestinian nationalism were possible, and a situation of stalemate ensued.  In 1988, in Algiers, the PLO chose to reverse its historical stance, recognising Resolutions 181 and 242; later, in Geneva, PLO leader Yasser Arafat made a statement abandoning and condemning terrorism.  This decision by the PLO was the culmination of a long process of discussion in the movement. It appears to have been the outbreak of the Intifada in late 1987, and the desire to capitalise on the international support and attention this gave the Palestinian cause, which precipitated the decision.

These declarations were an effective endorsement by the PLO of the two-state solution desired by the international community.  The result of this declaration was the rapid beginnings of negotiations between Israel and the PLO, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the ongoing contacts between the two sides which continue today.

Why has the one-state solution re-emerged and what are the implications of this?

The one-state idea has essentially disappeared from Fatah’s agenda, but has remained on the fringes of Palestinian nationalism.  A version of it is the strategy of Hamas.  Smaller secular nationalist groups such as the PFLP also support it.  Support for a two-state outcome in Fatah has been a key factor in making possible the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.  Within Fatah circles, the re-emergence of the older idea is likely in part the product of the breakdown in negotiations after 2000.  Fatah-associated publicists such as Michael Tarazi and Diana Bhuttu began to advocate for the idea in the post-2000 period.[7] The argument they made was that the two-state solution has become an effective impossibility, because of the extent of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, and that therefore advocacy for the one-state solution was simply the recognition of an existing reality.

Yet, as Israel sought to demonstrate through the disengagement plan of 2005, the presence of settlements deep in populated Arab areas is reversible, where Israel considers that it is in its national and security interest to carry this out.  Also, as indicated in the Clinton Parameters of December 2000, it is possible with land swaps to conceive of the creation of a Palestinian state, and at the same time to leave certain Jewish communities adjoining the Green Line in place. Rather than a certainty in either direction, it is a point of political debate and will as to whether a point of ‘no return’ has been reached which has made the two-state solution no longer feasible.[8]

The one-state solution is re-emerging within Fatah partly because of frustration at the slow pace of negotiations, which has led some to re-examine earlier stances. Moreover, there is a sense that Fatah leaders are attempting to use the one-state idea as a useful rhetorical device in the negotiations, to place pressure on Israel and lead to a softening of the Israeli bargaining position.

Many analysts on both sides point to the extent to which the PA leadership is engaged structurally and economically in the peace process, making its abandonment unlikely.  This is particularly the case in the current period of broader regional polarisation, with pro-western states arrayed against Iran and its clients.  Fatah is involved in a deep, practical and financial relationship with the EU and the US.  The abandonment of the two-state solution and a return to the advocacy of the destruction of Israel would effectively mean the termination of this relation.  Additionally, Fatah’s key selling point to its constituency is the notion that the movement can bring national independence for the Palestinians; therefore, it cannot afford to simply relinquish its primary raison d’être. Furthermore, both sides ultimately desire self-determination, which envisages national fulfillment through separate, independent Israeli and Palestinian states. Hence, the current talk of the one-state solution within Fatah is unlikely to progress beyond the declarative level.

Still, the latest statements are a cause for concern for all those committed to a successful conclusion to the peace process.  An editorial in the ‘National’ newspaper published in Abu Dhabi last week related to the latest statements by Qurei and Nusseibeh. The paper refers to the one-state idea as a ‘fantasy’ and continues: ‘Pursuing this fantasy could deal a deadly blow to the national aspirations of the Palestinians and postpone indefinitely any peace agreement.’   The editors conclude that ‘Rejecting the two-state vision would be a mistake of historical proportions.'[9] This is an accurate assessment.


The Palestinian house is currently divided, and Palestinian politics is turned against itself.  But the recognition by the PLO of UN resolutions relating to the conflict has brought more tangible gains to the Palestinians than did nearly three decades of commitment to the one-state solution and radicalism.  The existence of the PA and its internationally-recognised leadership remain the best hope of the Palestinians for statehood and of Israelis for a resolution to the conflict.  Yet the latest statements hinting at a return to the historical dead-end of the one-state solution have raised concerns among supporters of the peace process on both sides.

[1] Jerusalem Post Staff, ‘Qurei: Palestinians might demand citizenship,’ Jerusalem Post, 11 August 2008.  http://www.jpost.com

[2] Akiva Eldar, ‘We are running out of time for a two-state solution,’ Haaretz, 22 August 2008.  http://themarker.captain.co.il

[3] See http://www.radicalmiddle.com for an archive of articles advocating the one-state solution. 

[4] Op Cit. Nusseibeh.

[5] Palestinian National Charter, 1968, http://www.yale.edu.

[6] Alain Gresh, The PLO: The Struggle Within (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1988), p. 49. This formulation was a use of common terminology among self-proclaimed ‘anti-imperialist’ movements at the time.  It disguised the Arab ethnic nationalist and largely Muslim nature of Fatah.  In this regard, it is noteworthy that the slogan is sometimes incorrectly translated as ‘democratic, secular state.’  Arafat himself made clear that the term ‘secular’ was not intended here.  

[7] Michael Terazi, ‘Two peoples, one state,’ New York Times, 4 October 2004. http://www.globalpolicy.org

[8] See Dennis Ross, ‘Don’t play with Maps,’ New York Times, 9 January 2007 for a discussion of the Clinton Parameters http://www.nytimes.com.  See also http://www.peacelobby.org/clinton_parameters.htm

[9]  ‘The Two-state solution: better than fantasy,’ The National, 25 August 2008.  http://www.mideastweb.org

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Forward to the past

Jonathan Spyer

Haaretz, August 29, 2008

In recent weeks, a number of prominent Fatah figures have suggested that their movement might abandon its commitment to a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and return to the pre-1988 demand for Israel’s replacement by a single state in the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

They claim that Israeli policy in the West Bank is forcing them to reconsider their commitment to partition. In fact, though, what used to be known as the “democratic, secular state,” and is now called the “one-state solution,” has been the end-goal of modern Palestinian nationalism for the greater part of its history. Its reemergence into prominence should come as no surprise. It is the natural product of Palestinian nationalism’s characterization of the conflict.

The one-state solution is depicted by its adherents as a non-ethnic, non-nationalist alternative to the ethnic nationalism represented by Israel. Israel, according to Virginia Tilly, a prominent Western supporter of the one-state idea, rests “on the discredited idea, on which political Zionism stakes all its moral authority, that any ethnic group can legitimately claim permanent formal dominion over a territorial state.”


This formulation is dishonest. Ahmed Qurei and Sari Nusseibeh, two of the prominent Palestinians with apparently growing sympathy for the one-state idea, are also members of an overtly nationalist movement emerging from a distinctive Arab and Muslim cultural context.

The Palestinian Authority in its constitution describes the Palestinian people in ethnic and religious terms, as “part of the Arab and Islamic nations.” This document declares Islam as the official religion of the Palestinian state, and cites Islamic sharia law as a “major source for legislation.” Thus, whatever argument the one-staters have with Israel, it isn’t based on a principled objection to ethnic nationalism. But then, why is this claim of the “non-national,” civil rights nature of the one-state demand being made?

The reasons for the conceptual lack of clarity at the root of the one-state idea are both pragmatic and conceptual. Pragmatically – an open, public commitment to the denial of the other side’s national rights would be counterproductive. It would upset the Europeans and Americans, who largely foot the bill for the Palestinian national project.

It is apparently hoped, however, that rebranding Fatah-style Palestinian nationalism using the language of the U.S. civil rights movement of 50 years ago might cause at least some observers not to notice that the one-state solution coincidentally involves the disappearance of a legally constituted Jewish state, and the consequent termination of the right of self-determination of Israeli Jews. In other words, despite its non-ethnic, non-nationalist basis, the one-state solution also includes the full realization of the program of Palestinian nationalism.

This attempt at obfuscation is fairly ludicrous. On the conceptual level, however, the current revival of this idea is of greater interest. It shows the extent to which mainstream Palestinian nationalism continues to see the conflict with Israel as one between a project of colonization and a liberation movement.

Despite the short period of ostensible commitment to partition in the 1990s, Palestinian nationalism did not undergo any revolution in thought, toward reformulating the conflict as one between rival national groupings that each possess a basic legitimacy. This, of course, was the formulation of its supposed partners on the Israeli left.

But this idea found and finds no echo among the Palestinians. Fatah remains convinced that the conflict is one between a usurping, colonial entity and an indigenous resistance movement. This explains the ease with which plans involving the disappearance of the Israeli Jewish collectivity can be dreamed up. The Rhodesians in southern Africa, the pieds noirs in Algeria – all of them disappeared. So why should their local equivalents imagine their fate to be any different? In this interpretation, the denial of the national rights of Israeli Jews by turning them into a minority in an Arab and Muslim state is no denial at all, because belonging to a historically illegitimate collectivity does not confer rights. The trouble is, of course, that Israeli Jews are neither Rhodesians nor pieds noirs. They therefore decline to play the role allotted them in the thinking of Fatah.

Should Fatah actually elect to return to its old militant stance of 40 years ago, it will be transformed into a less religious and less serious imitation of its Islamist rivals. The most likely prognosis, though, is that this will not happen. In real life, Fatah leaders fear Hamas more than they fear Israel, and in any case they are deeply embedded in a type of patron-client relationship with the West. Thus, the period ahead will witness a tide of verbiage, vague threats and accusation, readily recycled by Fatah’s friends in Western academia and the media.

Fatah turned down chances at partition, ultimately because its leadership never fully freed itself from the conceptual straitjacket of the one-state solution. The movement is now threatening to retreat further back down the road it traveled in the 1990s, to the point at which its journey began in the late 1960s. The wearying spectacle of a rejectionist nationalism trying to dress itself up as Martin Luther King, Jr., is the latest strange product of the Middle East’s unique blend of tragedy and farce.

Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.

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One state definitely not an option

Yossi Alpher

Bitterlemons.org, August 18, 2008

On both sides of the green line and, indeed, wherever people think about solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a lot of old/new thinking is taking place. Old, because there is really nothing new under the sun when it comes to solutions for Israelis and Palestinians. But new, because after 15 years of concentrated and largely fruitless efforts to solve the conflict with a negotiated two-state solution, we now encounter more and more discussion of alternatives.

Essentially, the dismal current status and future prospects of the Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace process are encouraging discussion among some Palestinians of reverting to the one-state solution championed by the PLO in its early years and by Hamas. Meanwhile, among Israelis discouraged with the peace process, the Gaza-West Bank split is spurring consideration of solutions based on the existence of two Palestinian entities separated by Israel (in effect, a three-state solution) or of variations in which Israel and Jordan divide the West Bank and Israel and Egypt possibly deal jointly with the Gaza Strip.

Most of these ideas are patently unrealistic. Discussion of them often reflects despair, not pragmatic strategic thinking.

Beginning with three-state solutions, it is difficult to assess how deep and long-lasting the Gaza/West Bank, Hamas/Fateh split really is. Virtually all Palestinians insist that it has to end and that the two territories must eventually be rejoined, whether within a two-state solution or as part of a single bi-national state. But a historical review of the course of Palestinian dispersal since 1948, including the 1948-1967 period during which Gaza was ruled by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan, can only conclude that yet another phase of division and fragmentation is a possibility. Here a lot depends on Hamas and militant Islam in general and the evolution of their approach toward the existence of Israel. With its current extremist ideology toward Israel, Hamas can perhaps be tolerated in Gaza but certainly not in the West Bank. This points to the possibility of Gaza emerging as a separate Palestinian entity within some sort of three-state or three-entity setup.

Israeli variations on a three-state solution, championed primarily by settler ideologues and others on the right wing, are patently unrealistic insofar as they call upon Egypt and Jordan to relieve or lighten Israel’s Palestinian “burden” by annexing, administering or enlarging (into Sinai) Palestinian territories. Neither Cairo nor Amman has evinced the slightest readiness to comply. Nor does Washington appear inclined–based on the wishful thinking of some Israeli right wingers–to somehow compel them to do so.

But Israeli right-wing wishful thinking pales compared to that of Palestinians who appear to believe that if they advocate a one-state solution it could somehow become a reality. Put simply, the vast majority of Israeli Jews would not agree to live in a bi-national Israeli state. Hypothetically, if for some cataclysmic reason they could no longer live in a Jewish, democratic state in their historic homeland, they would prefer renewed dispersion and Diaspora to life in a bi-national Arab-Jewish (essentially Muslim-Jewish) state that by definition would not be Zionist and would almost certainly quickly relegate Jews to the status of a persecuted minority. Nor do Israelis intend to let that “cataclysmic reason” come to pass.

Precisely because Palestinians who proffer a one-state solution do not have a Jewish negotiating partner, the threat to somehow revert to this position (most recently voiced by PLO chief peace negotiator Ahmed Qurei) unless Israel is more forthcoming in two-state solution negotiations is totally counter-productive. Not only does it not soften the Israeli negotiating position–it generates indifference or even hostility. In traditional “stick and carrot” terms, the Palestinians making this threat are beating themselves with their own stick.

Perhaps most important for Israel and its supporters, failure of a two-state solution does not mean that the alternative is a one-state solution. Precisely because there is no such alternative, other options more readily suggest themselves, ranging from temporary conflict management to three states or entities. Nor does failure today mean that tomorrow we cannot try again to arrive at a two-state solution, which remains the best option for all.

True, there are a few Israeli Jews on the fringes of society who either advocate or would comply in a one-state solution. They include anti-Zionist leftists and ultra-orthodox as well as settlers who believe they can survive in a Jewish, non-democratic state in which Arabs are perpetual second-class citizens. I would not recommend to Palestinians that they rely on any of these fringe Jews as potential partners.

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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