It may be time for radical new thinking when it comes to Israel and Palestine, including consideration of options foreclosed by the two-state international consensus that has limited discourse for the last three decades.
For at least 20 years, experts on Israel and Palestine have warned that the window of time during which a two-state solution can be realized is closing as a result of changes made on the ground by Israel. Yet this warning is almost always framed within the context of calls for a return to two-state negotiations. What happens if the window of opportunity for two states is closed, however, is never discussed. But after decades of warning, it is time to push that discussion forward.
In a reality where establishing two states is increasingly unlikely, where non-Jews are dehumanized by the Israeli state and those in power, where the Jewish population of Israel is (or will soon be) a demographic minority in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and where the Israeli state has a monopoly on power, the insistence that only two states can protect the rights of Jewish Israelis is an open door to violence against Palestinians.
This isn’t an academic debate. The major parties in the coalition that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has crafted over the last decade, including his own Likud Party, officially oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. This opposition to two states has been matched by moves to secure Israel’s hold on the occupied Palestinian territory through land grabs and settlement growth.
Earlier this year, the goal of formally abandoning two states, establishing new settlements and moving up to 2 million new settlers into the West Bank was again publicly embraced by key members of the last government, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and ministers Gilad Erdan, Miri Regev and Yisrael Katz of the right-wing Likud Party, as well as Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett of New Right Party, among others, when they all recently signed a petition making these demands. In the lead up to the recent elections, Netanyahu also stated his goal of annexing the West Bank. While several of these politicians did not make it into the newly elected Knesset, overall, there was a significant shift rightward in these elections and this goal remains key to many members of the incoming government.
This isn’t only a problem of the political right in Israel. While both the center left Israeli Labor Party — which is the social democratic and Zionist party that ruled in Israel for decades — and the center-right Kachol Lavan party — which formed before these elections to offer an alternative to Netanyahu — call for an end to building in settlements outside of defined blocks, their plans do not stop settlement growth or the movement of settlers into the West Bank. The history of settlement growth under both left-wing and right-wing Israeli governments should have tempered expectations that the situation would change with a change in government.
Overall, the key call from the mainstream Israeli center is not for agreement and peace, but instead for separation. Both Labor and Kachol Lavan have stated this explicitly, while also stating that they do not see any possibility of a final peace agreement in the foreseeable future. Labor, Kachol Lavan and others support a continuation of the status quo that involves a de facto one-state reality, where Palestinians face systematic discrimination and oppression.
The Trump administration is exacerbating this situation. The recent U.S. move to recognize Israeli control over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights has emboldened the Israeli right, who have taken this a clear sign that their annexationist goals in the West Bank will not be rejected. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo intensified this situation when he recently refused to confirm U.S. support for two states.
At the same time, any call by Palestinians for a one-state solution is met with the accusation that those making such calls seek the destruction of Israel and thereby deny the rights of Jewish Israelis to a state of their own. This reaction refuses to engage with the content of the one-state calls made by Palestinians like activists Omar Barghouti, Ahmed Abu Artema and Ali Abunimah. Their calls are not for the establishment of an ethno-nationalist state that denies the rights of Jewish Israelis. Rather, they all call for the establishment of one democratic state in which all people’s rights are equally protected and respected.
This needs to be directly contrasted with reality as it exists in Israel today. Last year, Israel passed its “Nation State Law,” which officially declared the state to be the nation-state of the Jewish people alone, downgraded the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel and otherwise opened the door to discrimination against non-Jewish citizens.
In recent days, Netanyahu has also repeatedly stated that Israel is not a state of all of its citizens, but rather the state of the Jewish people alone. This matches with the Knesset refusal last year to consider a bill submitted by Palestinian parties in Israel asking that Israel be declared a state of all its citizens.
In a further move away from equality, the Knesset ruled that the Jewish Power Party could run in last week’s elections, and they appear to have won at least five seats in the Knesset. Jewish Power is a party that openly supports ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. It is a direct descendant of the banned Kach Party, which was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. Jewish Power politician Itamar Ben-Gvir keeps a poster of Baruch Goldstein — the perpetrator of a massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron that killed 29 Palestinian and injured 125 more — on his wall.
On the same day as the Jewish Power decision, the joint slate of Palestinian candidates from the Balad-United Arab List and left-wing Jewish-Israeli candidate Ofer Cassif (all of whom support equal rights for all people in Israel) were banned from running in the elections. This was later reversed by the Israeli high court and one Kach-affiliated candidate was banned from the elections. Still, the whole process is a sign of the increasing rightward shift in Israeli politics. In the end, Palestinian parties in Israel, Hadash-Tal and Balad won a combined 10 seats in the new Knesset.
With no desire for a two-state solution or Palestinian self-determination on the Israeli political right, and no plan for change on the Israeli political left, what remains is a de facto one-state reality defined by apartheid-like inequality.
In this context, the limited international focus on securing a two-state solution for the purpose of ensuring the maintenance of ethno-nationalist states — with emphasis on the importance of maintaining a Jewish state with a Jewish demographic majority — is dangerous.
If one looks to other situations where ethnic violence and ethnic cleansing have occurred, the former Yugoslavia being one example, the parallels between the institutionalization of hate in political systems and the normalization of violent rhetoric in those locations and in Israel today are clear.
With this in mind, there should be intense international concern regarding the political isolation of Palestinians, the passage of discriminatory laws, and Israeli politicians and media portrayals of Palestinians as an existential threat to the state and the rights of Jewish Israelis. It is not an overstatement to say that the grounds for significant violence against Palestinians have been laid.
There will be those who say that concerns over potential increases in Israeli violence are overblown. Some will also say that this is dangerously naïve, that the problem is not Israeli discrimination but Hamas and other Palestinian political factions. In this view, Israel must maintain its control for fear of Palestinian violence if the occupation ends.
This is fear that we must counter. It accepts the reality of present inequality, oppression and violence based on the assumption that in the future, the tables might be turned, that the situation faced by Palestinians today might be faced by Jewish Israelis tomorrow. But the reality of the present must concern us more than one possible future based on fear of Palestinians.
Unfortunately, at present in the U.S. and Europe, there is more political opposition to Palestinian calls for one democratic state than there is toward the oppressive one-state reality that exists. The apartheid-like, one-state reality is allowed to continue without consequence, but calls for one state based on equality for all are apparently a step too far, and are roundly condemned by political leaders and in the media.
Even if we don’t agree that one state is the best solution, it should be clear that the future state envisioned by many Palestinians, where Palestinians and Jewish Israelis live side by side in equality, is preferable to either the ongoing status quo or the apartheid future envisioned by the current Israeli government.
So, what do we fear and what do we oppose? Do we fear Palestinians’ call for a future in which all people live together in equality and refuse to listen to their ideas because they don’t fit into a comfortable two-state paradigm, or do we fear continued apartheid? Do we reflexively oppose thinking that is outside the current two-state consensus, or do we work to end the inequality of occupation and apartheid that Palestinians live under as second-class citizens, with openness to a future based in equality?
This shouldn’t be a difficult choice.