The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Opposition to a ‘one-state’ solution is often rooted in bigotry

A woman holds the Palestinian flag at a pro-Palestinian rally in Louisville on Sunday. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
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H. A. Hellyer is a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar in Washington and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the Middle East to bolster the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and to lay the groundwork for the resumption of long-stalled peace talks. Blinken took the opportunity to express support for a “two-state solution,” which is what much of the international community also, at least rhetorically, calls for.

But a much-discussed alternative is the “one-state solution” — i.e., encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to coexist as citizens in one state, with equal rights and responsibilities. This notion is constantly dismissed. During a recent online discussion, Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli foreign minister, declared the one-state solution was “something that we cannot afford.” The statement was deeply problematic — and on one level, quite frankly, if taken to its logical conclusion, was underpinned by racist undertones.

I’m personally agnostic about both the two-state vs. one-state solutions. I am far more concerned about what any solution would entail for the rights and responsibilities for individual citizens. A two-state solution could fulfill those rights, but it could also quite likely deny many of them. That’s why it’s imperative that any approach centers rights and responsibilities at the heart of any future U.S. policy on engaging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the vehemence against a one-state solution is appalling because it is rooted in a notion that Palestinians and Israelis simply cannot live together. It’s important to note the pushback often comes from partisans of Israel, not pro-Palestinian campaigners. The insinuation is simply this — Palestinians in particular, but Arabs more generally, are simply not capable of living in a diverse society.

Livni, for example, proposed during earlier negotiations that “Israel cede towns where some 300,000 Palestinian citizens reside to a future Palestinian state.” As my colleague Zaha Hassan puts it: “The threat of mass displacement is real.” In this vision, coexistence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians cannot exist in the same territory — the Palestinians should be moved. Or harassed at a sufficient level that would encourage their “voluntary” departure as part of policies that the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem already consider as akin to apartheid. Indeed, in recent days, Israeli police have reportedly begun a crackdown on hundreds of Palestinian youth activists with Israeli citizenship who have protested against Israeli policies.

The bigoted notion that Arabs can’t live in diverse societies is easily disproved, of course. Millions of Arabs live in democratic countries such as Tunisia, or in many others as immigrants. Moreover, Palestinian citizens of Israel themselves are vibrant participants in current Israeli civil society, to the extent they are able considering widespread systematic discrimination according to Israeli human rights groups and international organizations such as Human Rights Watch.

The issue for Arabs isn’t about a lack of respect of diversity, which, where it exists, is a symptom of a larger problem — that larger problem being authoritarianism, lack of good governance and accountability. In the case of Palestinians and Israelis, focusing on abstract notions surrounding diversity obscures the direct impact of the heart of the issue, which is the illegal occupation.

As an observer, analyst and resident of the wider Arab world on and off for most of my life, there’s an uncomfortable connection to a wider discourse here, particularly against the background of the Arab Spring revolutionary uprisings over the course of the past decade. For years, the people of the region have tried time and again to struggle for accountable good governance in the aftermath of the establishment of post-colonial states. They’ve struggled against authoritarianism, autocracy and dictatorship, and with a variety of results. The argument that is so often thrown in their faces is: “Arabs aren’t ready for democracy.”

If that sounds like a deeply racist proposition, it’s because it is. People will make good decisions and bad ones. In Europe, we’ve experienced the mainstreaming of the far-right in so many different countries via the ballot box, an objectively “bad” outcome, but no one would suggest that this means Europeans aren’t “ready” for democracy. In the United States, the Trumpian era led to the platforming of such an incredibly vicious discourse that it resulted in the storming of the Capitol — something that huge swaths of Republican voters and elected representatives refused to condemn, but no one declared that Americans aren’t ready for democracy.

When Israel denies Palestinians the chance for full democratic participation and equal rights, it is, either indirectly or directly, encouraging the entrenching of authoritarianism. It sends the message that Arabs must be kept under control because they simply can’t be trusted. Those who so fervently oppose the one-state solution fear a state where the fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens are upheld.

If that sounds racist, it is. And we have heard it before: “If the principle of permanent residence for the Black man in the area of the White is accepted, then it is the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it in this country.”

Those words were uttered by P.W. Botha, who served as prime minister of apartheid South Africa from 1978 to 1984.

Again, I remain philosophically agnostic vis-a-vis a two-state vs. a one-state solution. But can a one-state solution be “afforded”? Yes, it can — and to deny even the theoretical possibility altogether is simply bigotry.


An earlier version of this column misidentified Tzipi Livni as a former prime minister. She is a former foreign minister. This version has been updated.

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