North Africa, West Asia

‘Two states’ or ‘one state’ with full citizenship for the Palestinians: a misleading dichotomy

These options distract people from the real priority: to find (or strengthen) practical forms of pressure in support of international consensus.

Lorenzo Kamel
11 August 2014

In a new book entitled Will The Middle East Implode? (Polity, 2014) Mohammed Ayoob claims that “is too late to implement a two-state solution […] the real battle likely to be waged on this issue is about the nature of the one-state solution, whether it will be a genuinely bi-national, democratic state with equal rights for all or an apartheid state with one religio-national group dominating the rest of the population”. Similar opinions are increasingly to be heard in the Palestinian territories. Khalil Shikaki, director of Ramallah’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), for instance, maintains that Israel will be soon forced to choose between two options: “The consolidation of a one-state reality, which would then force it to become an apartheid state, or grant Palestinians full citizenship”.

These and other similar claims, however, ignore or downplay a third scenario that appears far more realistic in the absence of a credible outside multilateral intervention: Israel will annex Area C of the West Bank and will offer the Palestinians “autonomy on steroids”. Such a scenario, recently proposed by Israel’s Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett, does not require any war, or the removal of most of the population residing in the area: the relatively few Palestinians that in the coming dacades will still reside in Area C will get the option of receiving Israeli citizenship.

Channelling energies in the right direction

Some argue that to continue to support the two states solution is, from the perspective of the Israeli government, a way to buy time. Others believe that it is necessary as a price put on the status quo. Both standpoints have something to offer. However, to set aside the wide consensus on the principle of self-determination of both peoples, one of the few important results achieved by the Palestinians in recent decades, without first obtaining a practical and realistic alternative is a political suicide that will further affect the lives of millions of people.

The claim that a binational state or the two states solution are the only, or even the main, alternatives currently on the table is a dangerous illusion that risks drawing attention away from the real priority: to find (or strengthen) practical forms of pressure in support of international consensus.

At this point the reader might ask why, despite the huge international consensus on the principle of self-determination of both peoples, we are still enmeshed in the present deadlock. The point is that to refer to international consensus is not enough. Support in favour of international consensus, in fact, does not express itself in a univocal way.

These days, two major political actors are working to foster international consensus: the US and the EU. The discourse in the US largely ignores the Palestinian debate and local realities. The position of the Obama administration is that the two parties involved must start (or resume) direct negotiations “without preconditions”. This was also the reason given by the US in February 2011 to justify their veto against a UNSC resolution that held the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be “illegal”. The other fourteen members of the Security Council voted in favour of that resolution.

From a symbolic point of view, the US veto had serious consequences. The message that it sent was that the settlements issue and the exploitation of the natural resources (water, stone, gravel) in the Palestinian territories are topics of negotiation. More than this, Washington’s standpoint was further problematic because both Israel and the US administration continue, on the other hand, to require various pre-conditions from the Palestinians; from recognizing the State of Israel to the rejection of any abstract or concrete support for armed struggle: i.e. the reasons why Hamas has been excluded from the political process.

Conversely, the EU is applying a more consistent and nuanced approach. While keeping a special relationship with Israel (the only non-European country currently invited to participate in Horizon 2020) and distancing itself from extremist groups, Brussels is increasingly determined to be consistent with international consensus, humanitarian law, as well as with its own internal policies. The EU guidelines barring loans to Israeli entities established or operating in the Palestinian territories will not bring a fully-fledged peace or the fulfilment of international consensus on the issue, but it will represent one step in that direction. Several other similar steps have been taken by different actors, and many others will follow: it is there, and not in depicting a misleading dichotomous reality, that anyone committed to a lasting solution should invest her/his energies.

To support these steps and the principle of self-determination for both peoples is not a way to reject other alternatives. The two-state solution, in Uri Avnery’s words, “is the first floor, and the federation is the second, one may imagine that the third floor will be a regional union, on the lines of the present European Union […] Federation presumes partners of equal status, if not of equal strength”. In other words, whoever wants to build a new edifice cannot start from the roof, but must build from the first floor. [1] 

Can the status quo be changed?

The possible dismantling of the Palestinian National Authority could theoretically put an end to the interim agreement that twenty years ago divided the West Bank into three areas: Area A (under full security and civil control by the PA), Area B (civil control by the PA and security control by Israel) and Area C (full Israeli control). In realistic terms, however, the Israeli authorities will succeed in annexing sixty percent of the Palestinian territories (Area C), leaving out what it is not of their interest, unless three main conditions are fulfilled.

First, Palestinians need representative bodies able to shape the political vision, strategies, and leadership necessary to foster their aspirations. The attempted establishment (April 2014) of a Palestinian national unity government formed of technocrats, the carnage witnessed in these last few days in the Gaza Strip, and the joint delegation of Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian factions that gathered last August 6 in Cairo for diplomatic talks are all developments that make the end of political fragmentation both possible and necessary.

Second, the armistice lines between Israel and the Palestinian territories were approved by a written agreement between the parties and were formally adopted under the terms of two UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolutions (62 and 73). There is an almost complete international consensus that these lines should represent, with few and agreed changes, a border between two states. It is now time to clarify if the Israeli presence beyond that lines represents an occupation. If not, Palestinians cannot continue to be subject to a military power that, in Eyal Benvenisti’s words, “has established a distinct military government over occupied areas in accordance with the framework of the law of occupation”. If yes, the provisions contained in the Fourth Hague Convention – including the prohibition against transferring civilians into occupied territory – must be consistently applied.

These aspects are relevant also in relation to the Gaza Strip. If the latter is not occupied, then Israel’s blockade of Gaza should be considered illegal and an act of war against the flag state of any ship interdicted by Israel (e.g. the Mavi Marmara). As pointed out by Kevin Jon Heller, Professor of Criminal Law at SOAS, “blockade is only permissible in international armed conflict (see the Civil War cases in the US), and in the absence of occupation the only possible conflict between Israel and Gaza is non-international”.

Thirdly, any peace process has to be based on the assumption that the two parties are far from being equal and that the current situation will not be reversed in the absence of outside multilateral intervention and forms of pressure. In this respect Europe can and should do much better, as shown by its harsh response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.[2] As argued by Nurit Peled-Elhanan, “it took the EU a few weeks, not years, to make its stance against Russian actions crystal clear. Just this week the EU took a further bold step in suspending the funding of new public-sector projects in Russia by the EU’s lending institution, the European Investment Bank”.

There are only two, bad, alternatives to these kinds of multilateral approches. The first one is the sadly well-known “aggressive unilateralism” that both sides have shown on so many occasions. The second is what the Austrian-born Jewish philosopher Martin Buber termed “monologue disguised as dialogue”, that is a dialogue “in which two or more men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources”. Buber wrote these words in 1947. In 2014 they look truer than ever.

[1] According to a joint Israeli Palestinian poll carried out in June 2014, 62 percent of Israelis and ‫54‬ percent of Palestinians support the principle of self-determination of both peoples. See PCPSR, 8-15 June 2014. Available at: A survey realized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) argues that only 10,1 percent of the Palestinians support the one-state solution, while 60 percent are in favour of “reclaiming all of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea”. See WINEP, 25 June, 2014. It must be added that these surveys involved a very limited percentage of the local population and reflect a wide distrust toward the creation of a Palestinian state deprived of most of its essential attributes and resources. Finally, it is important to stress that while fully supporting their right to self-determination, many Palestinians are convinced that discussing the one or two-states solution is risky, because it can distract attention from the real priority: Palestinian rights and equality of treatment. They prefer to invest energies in organizing and supporting a growing number of grassroots movements to attain these rights.

[2] The widespread claim that “Crimea has always been part of Russia” is at best simplistic. Tsar Alexander II of Russia, like Stalin a few decades later, deported hundred of thousands of Crimean Tatars. As a consequence “Crimea was no longer a Muslim land. At least 300,000 Tatars had emigrated, leaving their lands to be filled with Slavs and other Christians”. See J. McCarthy, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, Darwin Press, Princeton 1995,  p. 17. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData