There are a whole range of options for what one state for Israelis and Palestinians would look like, which fit broadly into two types. The first type, a bi-national state, would be a secular state governing two, Jewish and Palestinian, nations which would enjoy equal citizenship status and rights. Sovereignty would be based on either power-sharing between the two communities or on the basis of individual representation. Supporters, who are typically Palestinian, Israeli or international activists, journalists and academics on the left, acknowledge how hard this would be to implement – some low level, localized conflict would be likely.
The second type of ‘one state solution’ is broadly referred to as Greater Israel, in which the Israeli government would permanently extend its sovereignty over the Palestinian territories by some measure of annexation. Supporters, who are typically Israeli politicians and intellectuals on the far right, vary on whether Gaza should be included, on how much territory should be annexed and on whether Palestinians should be full citizens. In all cases, their aim is to establish one Jewish state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, arguing that this is the only way to guarantee Israel’s security. While the binational state is a distant prospect, the Israeli government already has the means to establish some form of Greater Israel if it decided to do so.
When placed together, these one state models do not look that different from the two-state solution. A Jewish state can be realized either by a separate Israeli state alongside a Palestinian one, or by a Greater Israel one state. Palestinian rights and privileges can be realized either by establishing a separate Palestinian state, or by a secular bi-national one state. Whether the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is split or kept whole matters less than on whose terms it would be governed. Solutions based on models of the state are not getting us anywhere new.
A real alternative
A real alternative would be to move the debate away from one state versus two states or from how to divide territorial sovereignty. The aim for a peace process would instead start by negotiating each side's national narratives and needs and then later address models of state.
A forward-looking agreement based on these needs would have to address difficult, sensitive and perhaps unavoidably unjust questions, such as: what are Jewish Israelis’ minimum needs in terms of symbolic and political representation - what could be other ways to preserve Jewish self-determination, apart from a Jewish state? What symbolic steps can Palestinians take to help Israelis feel secure? What is the minimum that Palestinians can accept in terms of refugee return, and how can Israelis endorse the Palestinian right to self-determination? Can both narratives of the conflict be reconciled? This list of questions is not exhaustive, and individual rights and beliefs can never be negotiated away. But these issues cannot be avoided.
Experts from both sides of the Green Line have already begun to think about how some of these questions could be addressed. At a Chatham House workshop earlier this year, working groups of Israelis, Palestinians and internationals debated how and whether the two sides’ national narratives about the Palestinian refugee issue could be reconciled.
While right of return is a core element of the Palestinian national narrative, so far it has clashed with the deeply held Israeli national narrative of Israel as a Jewish state. After two days of intensive discussions, twenty-two different potential ways to reconcile the narratives were proposed. These kinds of debates and potential alternative narratives now need to move out of expert forums into a more mainstream conversation. The media, politicians and educational institutions all have contributed to polarized views in both Israel and Palestine – they equally have the power to encourage publics to consider alternative positions.
Some will argue that starting with national narratives and needs is too ambitious and would prevent talks from ever getting off the ground. But for years talks have been increasingly disconnected from realities on the ground, all while the two sides move further away from each other. Tackling identity and self-determination questions head-on could be the only chance to restart a stalled process.