The Two-State Solution Is Still Our Only (Distant) Hope

A protest marking “Land Day” along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Photo: Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Israel’s campaign in Gaza has already claimed the lives of an estimated 10,000 Palestinians. Hamas is still holding more than 200 souls hostage, while a quarter-million Israelis remain internally displaced after the terrorist group’s rampage devastated their communities.

Faced with this deepening geopolitical crisis, Americans have tried to help in the only way we know how: by squabbling over the meaning and propriety of ambiguous protest slogans.

The past few weeks have witnessed a surge in pro-Palestinian political demonstrations. At many of these marches, protesters have chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” To the Anti-Defamation League, and many others in the Jewish community, that phrase is tantamount to a call for Israel’s violent destruction and the ethnic cleansing of the region’s Jews.

Thus, when Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American congresswoman, shared a video featuring that slogan, she was met with condemnation from many of her Democratic colleagues and censure by the House of Representatives.

This was grossly unfair. There is little question that “From the river to the sea” implies the elimination of Israel as currently constituted; for Palestine to exist as a free state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, it must subsume Israel’s current territory. Yet not all visions for Israel’s dissolution into a single, region-spanning state entail the mistreatment of its Jewish population. Rather, many progressives advocate for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict through the establishment of a single binational democracy from the river to the sea. As Tlaib put the point, “‘From the river to the sea’ is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.” Tlaib’s bona fides as an opponent of ethnic cleansing in all its forms is unimpeachable. Earlier this year, she evinced opposition to the forced relocation of even illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Ultimately, the imprecision of Tlaib’s slogan matters less than the merits of its underlying vision.

If the past few weeks have demonstrated anything, it’s that the costs of an unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict are exorbitant. For decades, attempts to reach a permanent political settlement have centered on the two-state solution, which would establish an independent Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank and Gaza. Yet since negotiations over a two-state solution commenced in the early 1990s, the prospects for peace have only dimmed. Thirty years ago, Palestinians were reluctant to settle for a state on a mere 22 percent of their historical territory. Since then, the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has further narrowed the borders of a hypothetical Palestine. Over the same period, right-wing zealots have come to dominate Israeli politics while Hamas has gained power in Gaza and growing admiration in the West Bank.

In this context, it is reasonable to ask whether a different approach might be more conducive to justice and peace. And a democratic one-state solution is appealingly simple to implement: Instead of haggling over land swaps and settlement evacuations, Israel could simply enfranchise every adult that currently lives under its sovereignty.

This vision has considerable merits. If properly executed, a “one-state solution” would be more righteous than the two-state alternative. Nevertheless, in my view, the dream of a binational democracy from the river to the sea is politically quixotic. The ideal has scant support among Palestinians and is anathema to the Israeli public. Advocacy for democratic binationalism may help create political space for a two-state solution. And once peace is achieved through such a framework, it may be possible to work toward a confederation, which would integrate the independent nations of Israel and Palestine into a broader supranational entity akin to the European Union. And yet as implausible as the two-state solution looks in this moment, it remains far more conceivable than the Knesset voting to end Israel’s existence as a majority Jewish state.

The case for one state.

There are two primary reasons to prefer a “one-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict. First, there are many daunting obstacles to a two-state solution that the democratic binational approach would bypass. Second, some of the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people could be rectified by a one-state solution but not by a two-state one.

For Palestinians, a two-state solution that provides their nation with an independent state in Gaza and the West Bank constitutes a historic defeat in many respects. The U.N.’s initial partition plan in 1947 would have awarded the region’s Arabs 44 percent of its territory. At the time, Arab Palestinians considered this proposition unjust and not without reason: Their community constituted two-thirds of the region’s population and owned the vast majority of its land. Yet a Palestinian state confined to the West Bank and Gaza would be about half the size of the U.N.’s initial allotment while also being noncontiguous.

Acquiescing to such an austere state was no small concession for the Palestinians. And once they made it in the Oslo accords, the Palestinian leadership grew reluctant to accept any further constraints on their national project, such as limitations on the sovereignty of a putatively independent Palestinian state or the forfeiture of West Bank neighborhoods populated by Jewish settlers.

Even under the leadership of relatively liberal governments, however, Israel has been adamant that a two-state solution must involve both tight constraints on Palestine’s sovereignty and the annexation of many Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In 2000, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s peace proposal mandated that a Palestinian state would need to accept Israeli troops along its eastern border with Jordan for 12 years. And that plan also entailed Israel’s annexation of 9 percent of the West Bank in exchange for a fraction of as much land from inside Israel. One can certainly question Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat’s decision not to make a counteroffer to Barak’s proposal. But it is not hard to understand why Palestinians weren’t content with a tiny, noncontiguous state so lacking in sovereignty that it could not bar Israeli troops from its territory.

And yet the concessions likely required for a two-state solution today would be even more profound. In 2000, there were 365,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Today, that figure is more than 650,000. Much of this population is clustered just outside Israel’s border. But others are spread out in settlements that cut up large swathes of the West Bank. Such settlements are served by roads that Palestinians are not allowed to drive on and that deliberately isolate disparate Palestinian communities from each other.

The fact that Israel’s settlement expansion has undermined the two-state solution is not an accident. The Israeli right, under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, is adamantly opposed to an independent Palestinian state and sees settlement expansion as a means of preempting one.

Meanwhile, Israeli commitment to limiting Palestinian sovereignty has only grown more emphatic since the Second Intifada. In 2020, Netanyahu declared that Palestine should only be afforded international recognition as a state if it consents to “complete Israeli security control everywhere.”

In the current context, then, a two-state solution would either require Israel to uproot hundreds of thousands of its own citizens from the West Bank or Palestinians to accept an even more emaciated version of their national project. And after October 7, Israel would also surely demand constraints on an “independent” Palestinian state’s autonomy over security and defense that would call its sovereignty into question.

Needless to say, a one-state solution cannot resolve the problem posed by Israel’s commitment to quarantining and tightly policing the Palestinian population. There is reason to believe that support for violent extremism among Palestinians would fall considerably upon their receipt of democratic equality. But that fact is unlikely to carry much weight in Israeli politics today.

This said, a one-state solution would resolve the problem posed by Israel’s settlement project. Granting Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank full citizenship in Israel would constitute an end to the occupation and a beginning of Palestinian self-government, albeit in the context of a multiethnic democracy. And it would achieve these things without requiring the resettlement of a single Jew in the West Bank.

What’s more, a one-state solution would also circumvent another major obstacle to the two-state settlement: the political divide among Palestinians. At present, Hamas is clinging to power in Gaza while Fatah controls the Palestinian Authority and West Bank. Absent a unified Palestinian leadership with the legitimate authority to sign a peace deal, there is no way to reach an agreement. But theoretically, the Israeli government could unilaterally grant citizenship to all Palestinians.

The greatest virtue of the one-state approach, however, is that it offers unique forms of reparation for Palestinians harmed by Israel’s creation. Many residents of the West Bank and Gaza descend from people displaced by Israel during its war of independence in 1948. These refugees long to return to their ancestral villages. And in many cases, they are separated from family within Israel proper. A democratic binational state would enable these people to return to their families’ hometowns and to travel freely between Gaza, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah. Under the two-state framework, by contrast, the bulk of Palestinian refugees would be consigned to Gaza and the West Bank.

Nevertheless, its substantive merits notwithstanding, a democratic one-state solution is politically fantastical.

The binational solution is more popular with western progressives than with Israelis or Palestinians.

The fundamental problem with the democratic one-state solution is that it attracts little support from Palestinians and overwhelming opposition from Israeli Jews.

In an Arab Barometer Survey of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank taken earlier this year, 54 percent of respondents favored a two-state solution while just 9 percent backed a binational state. Other surveys have found similarly tepid interest in binationalism. A 2018 poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research also found just 9 percent support for a binational democracy. By contrast, 17 percent of that survey’s Palestinian respondents favored a one-state solution in which Jews were expelled from Israel. There are some polls and question framings that elicit a higher degree of interest in binationalism, but support never exceeds much more than 33 percent.

This majority opposition is reflected in the positioning of Palestinian leaders. The Palestinian Authority remains committed to two states, as do major Arab Israeli parties. And even Hamas has evinced more interest in a two-state solution along the Oslo lines than it has for a democratic binational state.

In the West, many progressive activists see the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. And there are many commonalities between the injustices of Israel’s occupation and South African apartheid. But there are also major disanalogies between the two cases, not the least of which is that democratic equality was the central demand of South Africa’s liberation movement while it simply isn’t for the Palestinian one. For Black South Africans, there was no tension between the pursuit of national self-determination and enfranchisement in a multiethnic state: Since their group constituted nearly 90 percent of South Africa’s population, mere democracy would in practice guarantee their ethnic group’s domination of political life. By contrast, in a democratized Israel, the Palestinians would need to share power with a Jewish population nearly as numerous as themselves (and much more economically powerful).

Indeed, for a binational democracy to function, constitutional provisions would need to ensure that a Palestinian electoral majority could not enact large policy changes without the consent of Jewish parties. All working models of binationalism include such mechanisms for consensual governance. In Belgium, where the Flemish and Walloons share a binational state, the parliament cannot advance important legislation if 75 percent of either group’s elected representatives oppose it. Given the extraordinary tensions between Palestinians and Israelis, a binational Israel-Palestine would need to have minority veto rights at least that strong. For these reasons, mere democratic equality would not be sufficient for realizing the aspirations of Palestinian nationalism.

Of course, democratic equality in Israel would constitute a massive increase in the typical Gaza or West Bank Palestinian’s political power and personal freedom. So there’s reason to suspect that if that prospect ceased to be a far-fetched hypothetical and became an actual offer from the Israeli government, Palestinian opinion might shift in favor of it.

The more insurmountable obstacle to a democratic one-state solution is Israeli opposition. In a 2021 poll, 71 percent of Israeli Jews described that proposition as “unacceptable.” After Hamas perpetrated the largest mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust, it seems likely that the number of Israeli Jews who are comfortable sharing a democracy with a Palestinian majority has gone down.

In any event, there’s little reason to believe Israeli opposition to a (democratic) one-state solution is subject to change. After all, the most fundamental premise of Israeli nationalism is that Jewish safety and dignity can only be ensured by a majority-Jewish state. And of course, this perspective is rooted in traumas both age old and extremely recent. A large percentage of the Israeli public are Mizrahi Jews, whose families’ experience in being a minority within predominantly Arab states culminated in their ethnic cleansing in 1948. From the perspective of most Israeli Jews, the enfranchisement of Gaza and West Bank Palestinians would constitute nothing less than national suicide.

Given Israel’s political demography, meanwhile, hostility toward binationalism is liable to grow over time. Contrary to voting patterns in the U.S., Israel’s younger generations tend to be more right wing than its older ones, in part because of the disproportionately high birthrates of the ultra-Orthodox.

The reality is, if the Israeli public were comfortable with forfeiting Jewish political supremacy, and perceived no security threat in living side by side with all Palestinians, then the two-state solution would have been implemented long ago. In such a world, Israel would be happy to concede the Palestinian right of return and allow an independent Palestinian state to have genuine sovereignty, including the right to form its own military and bar Israeli troops from its territory.

But that isn’t the world we live in.

Of course, proponents of the one-state solution don’t imagine Israel embracing it out of sheer goodwill. Rather, they envision Palestinian resistance and international pressure bending Israel toward justice, much as the anti-apartheid movement did for South Africa. And it is surely true that such pressure is a precondition for any remotely just resolution of the conflict.

Yet the idea that Israel can be coerced into forfeiting Jewish self-determination is implausible. Israel is a wealthy country with nuclear weapons and one of the world’s most powerful militaries. It also enjoys a strong relationship with the globe’s preeminent power. Advocates for Palestine are making some headway within the Democratic Party. But these gains are often exaggerated. In a recent University of Maryland poll, just 9 percent of Democrats said that the U.S. should “lean toward” the Palestinian side of the conflict. That figure was notably higher among young Democrats, but still totaled only 16 percent among them. Further, to say that America should favor the Palestinians is not to say that Israel should cease to exist as a Jewish state. Even among the Democrats’ most stalwart supporters of the Palestinian cause, the predominant prescription for the conflict’s resolution remains two states.

What’s more, coercing Israel into forfeiting its animating project would require extraordinary measures. Israel has a $500 billion GDP and does not actually require American military aid for its self-defense. So withholding such aid — a measure that remains far beyond the bounds of political possibility in the present moment — would be grossly inadequate to the goal of achieving binationalism. The U.S. would likely need to withhold all support for Israeli security interests in the region and impose biting sanctions to make the status quo truly oppressive for Israelis. And even then, such measures might well inspire a more defiant Israeli nationalism; sanctions do not have a great track record of persuading countries to give up on their core interests and ambitions.

Finally, even if the movement for Palestine orchestrates an overwhelming international pressure campaign against Israel, Israel is far more likely to respond by pursuing a two-state solution than a binational one. “Even if you demand one state, and even if you generate enough pressure on Israel, Israel will retreat to two states,” Yehuda Shaul, founder of the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, told Vox in 2021. “Once we end the occupation and retreat to the Green Line, no one will support your struggle anymore. It doesn’t matter what you demand; what matters is the geographic and demographic reality on the ground.”

Under international law, Israel has a right to exist as a state within its pre-1967 borders. Israel could therefore respond to a punishing pressure campaign by unwinding its settlement project and granting autonomy to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. At that point, it would be in rough compliance with international law, and its critics would struggle to sustain consensus for maintaining pressure until Israel conceded binationalism.

To achieve such compliance, Israel would have to resettle at least 200,000 West Bank settlers (the rest could plausibly be accommodated through land swaps, according to some experts). That is no easy feat. But it’s silly to think that the Israeli electorate would sooner concede Jewish national self-determination than uproot a bunch of fanatics who constitute a tiny fraction of its population. If push ever came to shove, Israel would displace settlers before it agreed to share a democracy with all Palestinians.

The 1.5-state solution.

All this said, advocacy for alternatives to the two-state solution could still serve the cause of peace. It is possible that a mass movement for binationalism could help nudge Israel toward the concessions necessary for two states. And the promotion of certain alternative models could actually help the Israelis and Palestinians overcome the obstacles to a two-state agreement.

Specifically, the confederal solution — a hybrid of the one- and two-state approaches — has promise as both a utopian end goal and a prompt for outside-the-box thinking about how to make the Oslo model work.

Under the confederal solution, Israelis and Palestinians would each have their own states. But those two states would be united in a confederation, and the borders between them would be open, such that any Palestinian could choose to live as a permanent legal resident of Israel and any Israeli could choose to live as one in the West Bank or Gaza. Regardless of where an Israeli or Palestinian citizen lives, however, their votes in national elections would count only in their home nations.

Thus, Israel could honor Palestinian refugees’ right of return without jeopardizing its status as a Jewish-majority democracy. Palestinians could return to their homes within Israel proper while exercising their right to political representation within the Palestinian state. Similarly, some number of Jewish settlers could remain in the West Bank without compromising Palestinian autonomy there.

In today’s context, the confederal solution faces many of the same forbidding obstacles as the binational one. Even before October 7, Israel considered the free movement of Palestinians within the West Bank to be an intolerable security threat. Wholly open borders between Gaza and Israel at this moment is (understandably) unthinkable to the typical Israeli voter.

But a two-state solution could theoretically borrow concepts from the confederal model in order to facilitate an agreement. Israel does not need to concede open borders to grant the right of return to a larger number of Palestinian refugees than in past negotiations on the condition that their votes will count in the Palestinian state.

As a utopian vision for the conflict’s long-term endpoint, meanwhile, the confederal solution offers a means of reconciling (1) the mutual desire of Israelis and Palestinians to have their own dedicated nation-states with (2) the ability of all the region’s peoples to move and live freely throughout its territory.

The two-state solution could plausibly serve as one stop on the path to confederation: Once the national aspirations of the Palestinian people have been satisfied, relations between them and Israelis might steadily improve. Gradually, the populations might develop sufficient trust to loosen their borders with each other in much the way that France and Germany have done through their integration into the European Union after centuries of conflict.

At the moment, any proposal for peacefully resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict can look hopelessly naïve.

The Palestinians lack a unified, legitimate leadership. Even if Israel improbably succeeds in entirely destroying Hamas and imposing the Palestinian Authority’s rule on Gaza, the PA would lack the popular support necessary for it to make concessions on behalf of Palestinians writ large. The PA is already widely reviled in the West Bank for its corruption and complicity in the West Bank occupation. If it became the face of an Israeli puppet government presiding over a bombed-out Gaza, it would only lose what remains of its legitimacy.

In Israel, meanwhile, Netanyahu’s coalition is far more interested in ethnically cleansing the Palestinians from the West Bank and northern Gaza than it is in a two-state solution.

Nevertheless, there is some basis for hoping that the current crisis could lead the next Israeli government to reengage with the peace process. To many Israelis, the October 7 attack illuminated the hazards of the settler project. One reason why it took so long for the IDF to chase Hamas back to Gaza that day was that a large number of Israeli troops were bogged down in the West Bank, providing security services to illegal settlements that are threatened by the (justified) resistance of Palestinian communities. This reality, combined with the humiliation of an Israeli right that presided over the biggest security failure in the nation’s modern history, could yield a new, relatively moderate government interested in working out some kind of peace deal.

Of course, such a development would not solve the problem posed by the Palestinians’ lack of legitimate political leadership. And absent extraordinary international pressure, Israel is unlikely to offer a two-state proposal that is anything but one-sided.

Nevertheless, as dim as the prospects for a two-state solution are at this juncture, those for a democratic one-state solution are even worse. For now, the conflict’s most likely outcome looks to be the perpetual subjugation of the Palestinian people from the river to the sea. That should outrage us more than any given pro-Palestinian chant. And we should channel our outrage in the directions most likely to yield a modicum of peace and justice, rather than those that best express our personal political ideals.

The Two-State Solution Is Still Our Only (Distant) Hope