Is it already too late for the two-state solution, as some analysts have been arguing for some years, and is a one-state solution - promoted by the "new realists" - the alluring alternative to which we should now be investing our commitment?
These questions have a particular resonance for me as, way back in the summer of 1972, I explored these very options in a pamphlet that concluded that the two-state framework was the only logical and sustainable basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the interests of both peoples. So certain was I of its desirability and inevitability that I admonished my publisher, the London-based Fabian Society, for delaying publication until January 1973, by which time, I cautioned, this solution may already have been put into effect!
As it turned out, I was a little hasty both with that prognosis and with my warnings over the next few years that time was about to run out. Now, however, it is different. Today, we really are in the last chance saloon, for reasons that are daily becoming more evident. But why should this concern us, when waiting in the wings is the increasingly fashionable one-state alternative? The simple answer, as argued below, is that this option is not just a fantasy but a dangerous fantasy, for it invites us to imagine that the real alternative to two states is not perpetual conflict but some sort of harmonious, egalitarian utopia which miraculously bypasses a complex of intractable problems. While we engage in fanciful debate, the clock keeps ticking and the precipice gets closer.

Two Viable States - It Can Be Done

The pressing need at this point in time is for a serious, concerted, global effort to resolve this quintessentially previous-century conflict once and for all, based on two viable states and a comprehensive regional settlement. While this would call for uncharted political will and creative mindsets on the part of the principal regional actors and resolute leadership at the international level, it can be done - to borrow a phrase from U.S. Senator Barack Obama. It will depend, above all, on the determination of the incoming president of the United States and on his motivational and inspirational powers, for it is he who holds the master keys to the last chance saloon.
Over the past four decades, we have witnessed two powerful, conflicting trends. On the one hand, the intellectual and political argument for two states has effectively been won at virtually every level. From a handful of advocates some 40 years ago, there now exists worldwide support for this outcome. Even Hamas has indicated its preparedness to do a deal based on the 1967 borders. This would be a strange time indeed to abandon the whole idea.
On the other hand, even as the Israeli government firms up its rhetorical commitment to two states, the feasibility of an authentic Palestinian state has been constantly chiseled away by the changing facts on the ground - the maze of settlements, bypass roads, military posts, forbidding barriers and the progressive isolation of Arab East Jerusalem from its Palestinian hinterland. There were around 5,000 settlers in the West Bank in the early 1970s; nowadays the figure is in the region of 250,000, or roughly double that number if East Jerusalem and environs are included. Already, according to UN figures, some 38% of West Bank land is controlled by the settlements and other Israeli infrastructure.

Sometimes "Realities" Can Be Reversed

Yet not all "realities" are permanent. Sometimes they can be reversed, at least up to a point. It wouldn't be the first time in history such a thing has happened. Indeed, it was said after the 1967 war that severing the West Bank from the East Bank was unimaginable! More ominously, what may soon be irreversible is the impact these changes are slowly but surely having at a deeper level - on the Palestinian psyche.
After years of agonized internal debate, Palestinian opinion in the West Bank and Gaza, for the past two decades, has regarded the two-state formula as the pragmatic solution to the conflict. More recently, however, a new mood is gathering - if only at the margins for now - that pragmatism is starting to favor one state for both peoples, even if it means engaging in a bitter long-term struggle with uncertain consequences and reaching for an objective the Palestinians themselves don't necessarily favor or truly believe is attainable. In short, there is a growing sense that they have no alternative. So we need to be respectfully cautious in deeming one state a "fantasy" or an "illusion." Yet it warrants these tags for more than one compelling reason.

A "Democratic Secular" State?

First, there is a profound lack of visceral enthusiasm, currently and historically, among Palestinians and Israelis for one combined state for both peoples. On the contrary, such a prospect is widely viewed as deeply threatening. Their respective struggles - reflecting their respective histories - have been for national independence and self-determination in their own states.
Although in the past, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) charter envisaged one "democratic secular" state of Palestine, it was explicitly to be "Arab" in character and would include only those Jews - defined exclusively in religious terms - who arrived before the "Zionist invasion" (variously interpreted as 1917 or 1948). In other words, it would include very few of them. There is little evidence or reason to suppose that Palestinians today are any more ready to drop their demands for national independence and self-determination and share common statehood, instead, with another people in a combined non-Arab - and non-Muslim- state. Is it even reasonable to expect this of them? What they desperately need and yearn for - and for which they are entitled to receive full support - is an end to occupation and Palestinian sovereignty over the evacuated territories. One state profoundly deflects from this vital goal.
In parallel, an attempt to eradicate the Israeli state and its predominantly Jewish character is liable to revive the Jewish fear of genocide, or minimally of discrimination and persecution, and meet with fierce resistance. It is hard to imagine Israeli Jews voluntarily sacrificing their hard-won national independence to become a minority again in someone else's land.

Israel/Palestine Is Not South Africa or Ireland

To put it another way, Israel/Palestine is not South Africa. Nor is it Northern Ireland. Nor is it directly analogous to a host of other international or historical trouble spots. Each conflict has its own peculiar features and, for a solution to work, it needs to spring from the inside-out rather than be imported from the outside-in. South Africa and Northern Ireland, each in its own way, were essentially civil-rights struggles. Israel/Palestine is primarily a clash of two national movements - even if there is a heavy-duty civil rights dimension as well - and any proposal that disregards either national imperative - let alone both of them - is incongruous and bound to fail.
The second reason to consider one state unrealistic is that there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts in the region over the past 50 years to merge separate entities in which Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, North Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Tunisia have all featured at various times. If such attempts failed abysmally among peoples who in some way perceived themselves as sharing a common language, culture, religion and a sense of history and destiny, on what ground would we anticipate a different outcome between two peoples who share none of the above traits and who have been bitter foes for the best part of a century? It may be a nice dream to believe it would somehow work, but a dangerous sentiment on which to build the future of millions of people and possibly the peace of the world.

Which One-State Solution?

Thirdly, there is not just one but many versions of a united state and very little effort has been made to put flesh on the skeletons of any of them. It is one thing to obtain agreement on - and attract superficial support for - the high-flying rhetoric, but a lot of it falls away once it comes down to the substance. Depending on the proponent, "one state" could be unitary, federal, confederal, bi-national, democratic, secular, cantonal (Switzerland), multi-confessional (Lebanon), Islamic (Hamas), Arab (PLO Charter) or Jewish (Greater Israel). Some of these terms are frequently used interchangeably even though many of them are mutually inconsistent, even fiercely contradictory. So it is up to the supporters of each option to take up the challenge of elaborating on the details of their particular proposal if they wish it to be taken seriously as an authentic alternative to two states. This is no time to hide behind clich├ęs.
In particular, the proponents of a "secular democratic" state will need to show how in practice its version will not be tantamount to the continuation of occupation under another name, will not perpetuate and exacerbate the existing economic and social imbalances, will not lead to the political domination of either people over the other, will not foster an "apartheid-style" entity and will not be treated with deep suspicion by other states in the region who may view authentic democracy and secularity - if this is what is meant - as alien and threatening. Crucially, they will need to explain how the national imperatives of both peoples will, hey presto, melt away. These are serious questions that cannot be glossed over.

Towards a Bi-national Confederal State?

A genuine bi-national confederal state - by giving expression to the collective identities - could in important respects be closer to a two-state model than to a unitary "secular democratic" state, but its supporters would need to show why it will be more robust than, say, Belgium and Canada, the two bi-national examples often cited in favorable comparison, but which are both fragile entities, periodically in danger of dissolving into their national constituent parts. The fate of the multi-national constructs of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are not encouraging in this respect, either.
This discussion points to a conclusion with an ironic twist in its tail. On the one hand, an imposed unitary-state scenario that fails to reflect the wishes or accommodate the needs of both peoples could provoke a Palestinian secessionist movement and thus act as the unintended midwife of two separate, hostile states further down the line. On the other hand, a negotiated two-state agreement that puts Israeli and Palestinian societies on a more equitable constitutional footing could give rise to closer horizontal relations and structural ties and to a gradual pooling of sovereignties where this is viewed as advancing their common interests.

Two States - An Essential Step in the Process

In the past, we did not speak of two states as a "solution" but as an essential step in the quest for solutions to the many outstanding problems between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis already had their state. Palestinian statehood was the vital missing parameter. Similarly, we did not necessarily see two states as the end of the process. It would be up to the two peoples to determine, democratically and non-coercively, how they would want to shape their future constitutional relations. There have been many changes over the past few decades, but these two imperatives are no less valid today than they were 40 years ago.
How the future will pan out is of course yet to be seen, although no doubt it will all have been obvious in retrospect. Perhaps the most likely distant scenario for these two embattled peoples is some form of voluntary bi-national confederal - or conceivably federal arrangement, possibly including Jordan and, later, maybe other states, too - with each constituent element retaining its national identity and essential zone of sovereignty. One route to this eventual destination will cost countless lives and create ever more rancor. The other path will skip that stage by allowing developments between neighboring Israeli and Palestinian states to evolve peacefully and take their natural course. If we fail to seize this opportunity while the opportunity still - just - exists, future generations will justifiably look back at us with the contempt we will so richly have deserved for the nefarious legacy we will have passed on to them. <