In Israel, the greatest risk of a one-state outcome to the Palestinian conflict comes from the Israeli government. Members of the right-wing coalition float proposals to annex the West Bank without regard for democracy or the national aspirations of the territory’s residents. But in the West, the most passionate one staters are on the left, and they are gaining traction. Because of this, proponents of a two-state solution must tackle detractors on the radical left with the same energy with which we confront the settlers and annexationists in Israel.Last Tuesday, Rashida Tlaib secured the Democratic nomination for Michigan’s thirteenth Congressional district. With no Republican challenger, Tlaib is likely to win the general election, and in doing so, she will bring an explicitly single state agenda into the halls of Congress. Despite an endorsement from the traditionally pro-two-state J Street, Tlaib explained in an interview earlier this week in no uncertain terms that she believes in a one-state solution with a full Palestinian right of return.
Tlaib lays out her platform from a rights-based angle, using the African-American struggle for equality as a model, and it is hard to argue with something couched in these terms. It is absolutely true that Palestinians in the occupied territories are stateless and experience hardship and humiliation under both the Israeli military administration and the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian citizens of Israel are entitled to the same legal and political rights as their Jewish peers, but in practice endure inexcusable discrimination.
In this context “one state, one man, one vote” not only makes sense, it feels glaringly obvious. By marrying “equality” with “one-state,” Tlaib and others also seem to imply that this is the only alternative to an apartheid scenario. As progressives in the United States challenge the Trump administration on the rights of women, immigrants, and ethnic and religious minorities, it is easy to draw analogies to the Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu has taken great care to ingratiate himself with President Trump, which only serves to validate such connections.
Of course, it is not so simple. Jews and Palestinians once lived in one political unit and under the same legal regime, during the British Mandate. That period saw internecine violence between the two groups, primarily — but not exclusively — initiated by Palestinians and targeting Jews. Attacks frequently struck civilians, not just Zionist politicians and military leaders seeking to build a Jewish state in Palestine. In one particularly notorious 1929 episode, a Palestinian mob killed nearly seventy Jews in Hebron. The 1936-39 Arab Revolt saw another spate of anti-Jewish violence. Britain’s infamous 1939 White Paper, limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine on the eve of the Holocaust, was a product of the Arabs’ revolt and aggressive lobbying. The official Palestinian leadership collaborated with the Nazis in the Middle East and in the Balkans, a disturbing fact obscured by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ridiculous and ahistorical assertion that Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al Husseini, not the Germans, conceived of the idea for the mass murder of European Jewry. Jews and Palestinians were not predestined for partition, but the events of the early twentieth century in Palestine left little other option. But these episodes seem to be lost on Tlaib, who only sees her grandfather’s stories through rose-tinted goggles: “We were doing so good. My neighborhood, Arab-Jew. We picked olives together.” The intervening seven decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict have done little to soften anti-Semitism in Palestinian society. The aftermath of 1948-49, and especially the Six-Day War, have hardened Israel and its army, doling out their own abuses toward the Palestinians.
Today, proponents of a single democratic state and Palestinian right of return must address a number of unanswerable questions. How would the rights of the Jewish minority be guaranteed? Where would extremist organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the PFLP fit into the new unitary state’s political system? How would militant groups be disarmed and the rule of law ensured? Would the new government be capable (or willing) to prevent reprisal attacks over old grievances? Who would get the keys to Israel’s nuclear arsenal, and what would be done to secure it? This is only the tip of the iceberg, but it should give pause to anyone looking for a quick fix. Rashida Tlaib is likely in sincere in her beliefs, which are informed by her own family’s trials. She has also weathered consistent verbal attacks from the most uncompromising elements of the Palestinian solidarity campaign. But I suspect some who advocate a single state are aware of these complications, and consciously choose to overlook them.
Of course, Israel cannot police Palestinians nor can it engage in an Orientalist “civilizing” mission to “fix” their society. Without drawing a false equivalency, Israeli society is hardly without racism and other ills. This all underlines the necessity of a two-state solution. That pursuit faces many hurdles, but it is the safest bet and only practical way for both populations to exercise their right to self-determination. It is not mutually exclusive with equality under the law, as Tlaib and others might suggest. Independence under two states means no Palestinian has to be governed by a foreign power, and it does not absolve Israel of responsibility for its Arab minority.
The Israeli right has a few notable supporters in the current American administration. However, its anti-democratic annexation program lacks broad political cachet in the United States and Europe. In the long run, there are bound to be fewer David Friedmans and more Rashida Tlaibs. The former’s opposition to two states is based on a contempt for liberal democracy and the latter’s one-state support stems from a failure to face reality. Different in almost every other way, both undermine prospects for a sustainable peace, and both should be challenged on those grounds.