“As someone who supported it for 50 years, I know well all the arguments in favor of the two-state solution, and it’s because of that that I feel a right and even a moral obligation to question this stance when I see its growing helplessness in the face of the West Bank’s gloomy reality.”
— A.B. Yehoshua, Haaretz, Dec 20, 2021
I strongly believed in a two-state solution. It wasn’t equitable or just, but Palestinians were willing to live with it because it gave us hope for the future. Now, after years of Israeli Government sabotage and ineffective Palestinian leadership, the two-state solution is no longer possible with 700,000 settlers in the West Bank, with Gaza an open-air prison, and with Israel declaring itself to be a Jewish state, formally turning Palestinian Israelis into second-class citizens.
“The two-state solution has now become an excuse to keep Palestinians in a permanent Bantustan-type status.”
— Mubarak Awad in a communication through Nonviolence International, January 21, 2022
I am an American Jewish activist who has publicly supported mutual recognition of the right of self-determination of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples for some 50 years. I similarly feel a weighty obligation to respond to the ongoing daily agony of both peoples. Most days that agony is felt more acutely by Palestinians living under brutal occupation. But the mutual suffering degrades the Israeli Jewish people on a moral level every day that it continues. Every single death and stunting of human potential on both sides that can be prevented requires all of us who care to look as fiercely as we can for alternatives.
This suffering was exacerbated by the settlement project in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, but it has origins on a much deeper emotional level. The logic of partition never addressed this issue, whether in 1947 or within the Oslo process that led to the acceptance of the “two-state solution” (2SS) by some of the leadership of both peoples.
Those who care about a just solution must respond to the emotional needs of both sides. They must answer the following question urgently: Does advocacy on behalf of the Oslo version of the 2SS in our current reality advance the path toward a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians? Or has it become a quixotic dream that frustrates and demoralizes those who struggle for a durable solution?
The 2SS follows the logic of partition, but separation has never been the only model. I have always preferred the language of mutual recognition to the emphasis on partition. I became involved in the Israel/Palestine issue when many Jews (including Prime Minister Golda Meir) were arguing that there was no such identifiable entity as a “Palestinian” people. At the time, many Palestinians mirrored this argument with their view that Jews were a religious minority, not a people worthy of recognition.
The last 55 years of occupation have demonstrated the fallacy of this thinking. At least now the consensus is that these are two peoples, each of which defines their homeland as including the territory west of the Jordan to the Mediterranean. The Talmud says that when two persons lay hold to a garment and each swears that the whole garment is theirs, the solution is to divide it. But this doesn’t work with a baby and has failed to work with a land that is deeply connected to family, history, and the lived experience of two peoples.
As a Jew, I fear that we live in an era when the opportunity to create a humanistic and just Jewish national polity will be destroyed either by violence or moral decay. As a Zionist, I also believe that the relationship of my people to the land connected with our history can both be a source of inspiration and spiritual creativity for us and also enhance the unique contribution we make among the nations. This possibility, too, is receding before our eyes. As a rabbi, I am deeply distressed by the daily contradictions of the demands of a just God with the behavior of people who claim to be my co-religionists.
This thought exercise is an attempt to address from the perspective of an American Jewish activist what is specifically required of us at this point in time — if we care about three things:
• the survival of a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel
• the lives and welfare of Palestinians with whom we share the land and whose right to national self-determination is no less valid than ours
• a commitment to Jewish values of justice and concern for all of God’s creations.
I simply cannot accept that thousands of years of Jewish thought and deep spiritual longing can be met through a modern “Jewish” nation state that dominates another people and deprives them of basic human rights. I refuse to consider Palestinians the enemy of my people.
I see four primary areas that need to be addressed.
1) Is there a reason to continue to vigorously support and advocate for the 2SS without a potential logical corollary, some form of confederation that we might define as “2SS 2.0?”
2) Is there an alternative that could meet the objectives of providing peace, security, and justice to both peoples – one that will deal realistically with both the question of the future of the settlements and also the divisions within and the loss of legitimacy of the current Palestinian leadership?
3) Is spending time refining and advocating for such an alternative a worthwhile endeavor, given current realities? Will the “right” analysis and a logically coherent proposed solution make any difference?
4) What concrete, short-term steps might be taken to encourage any proposed solution?
I have been impressed most recently by two brief and convincing attempts to seek a path of mutual recognition: Palestinian human rights attorney Jonathan Kuttab’s Beyond the Two-State Solution and Israeli academic Omri Boehm’s Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel.
Both authors argue in favor of what is typically called a “one-state solution” but might more accurately be described as a bi-national state. Both call for universal suffrage and respect for human rights. Both models include a robust attempt to provide support for the flourishing of two national and cultural identities and for dialogue between them.
The two differ most prominently in their approach to the internationally recognized borders. While each suggests that there would be access to the entire land for both peoples, Boehm essentially sees the 1967 borders as demarcating a line between two federated states, whereas Kuttab treats the entire territory as a single unit. Boehm also traces the pedigree of his bi-national Zionism to both left-wing and revisionist circles, bringing together the thought of Martin Buber and the program of Menachem Begin.
1) Why or why not continue to advocate for the 2SS?
It is impossible to complete a sophisticated analysis of the history of the 2SS in this short piece. Advocacy for a “two-state solution” emerged gradually after 1967 as an alternative to the retention of the territories occupied by Israel in that war. Immediately following the war, significant Labor Party leaders (e.g., Ben-Gurion, Eshkol) advocated the return of the territories ASAP.
Within the Israeli mainstream, only Mapam and former Labor Secretary General Lova Eliav, together with some important military and intelligence leaders (e.g., Meir Pail, Matti Peled) supported recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people to a national home within Eretz Yisrael. In the diaspora beginning in 1973, the new organization Breira promoted mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian national self-determination, but the mainstream Labor government and its allies in the Jewish community vigorously opposed and ultimately shot down the organization and never contemplated the concept of “two states.”
Perhaps ironically, the 2SS only gained support when it became the official position of the PLO in 1988. Israeli and U.S. Government positions subsequently viewed the 2SS as a valid policy objective. The continuation of the Oslo process brought the United States into the center of negotiations at Camp David II. Failure there, with a portion of the blame shared to varying degrees among Arafat, Barak, and Clinton, has been replicated over and over since 2000. However, the 2SS increasingly became a kind of hopeful branding, primarily among U.S. political leaders, dovish Jews, and ultimately many Arab world leaders, of the idea that there is, in fact, a solution. But the 2SS has become a two-state slogan.
Those who continue to advocate for a 2SS reason that the status quo and the political power dynamics at play within Israel/Palestine and the U.S. political system can all be overcome, and the settlement project can be reversed in a way that can reaffirm a 78/22 division of the land. But recent developments, such as the signing of the Abraham Accords and the election of a new Israeli Government whose platform opposes any discussion of solutions, further entrench the status quo. The new accords only reinforce the fact that no Arab country or entity has demonstrated serious concern for the fate of the Palestinian people as a separate national entity.
Those of us who find the status quo unacceptable, either because we are Zionists who also support the self-determination of the Palestinian people and/or because we seek justice for all who suffer, must consider alternatives, even if we hope a 2SS will still be possible. We are challenged by at least three sources of emotional resistance within the community of dovish Jewish supporters of Israel that need to be addressed:
I. The timing is awkward. J Street (since 2007) and others have been advocating with deep moral commitment for the 2SS for decades. Many cling to the 2SS because it suggests that there is in fact some possible solution. Pointing out that this is a kind of willful blindness to reality is challenging in the absence of clear alternatives.
II. The power of the “demographic argument” and the metaphor of “divorce” has been the legacy of Labor and many dovish intellectuals. The premise that we must separate, is both morally problematic and constitutes a self-fulfilling obstacle to other solutions. Some on every side of the conflict insist that this is the true legacy of Zionism — that Jewish self-determination cannot thrive or even survive without clear demographic superiority. However, since there already exists near parity in population of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs in the land, this argument leads inexorably to the logic of transfer or ethnic cleansing, unfortunately not an unknown reality in Israel’s history. We must find a way to live together in mutual respect, not find ways to create “a good divorce.” The desired outcome will determine the strategy and design of a solution.
Admitting that we “lost” the battle to the settlers and their supporters is deeply disappointing and frustrating. Any realistic solution will leave a significant number of settlers where they are and could be seen to justify their program retrospectively. Many settlers deserve ignominy, not the ability to retain their stolen property.
2) Alternatives to the 2SS – confederation (i.e., two state 2.0) vs. federation
There exists no shortage of cogent versions of the 2SS building upon Oslo with very clear solutions to the outstanding “final status” issues (e.g., Geneva Accords, Beilin-Abu Mazen Document, The Peoples Voice of A. Ayalon and S. Nusseibeh, and the Arab Peace Initiative.) Many factors are responsible for the failure of diplomacy to lead to the implementation of any of them. We can find fault on every side, including those who chose violence in order to thwart these efforts (assassination of Rabin, second intifada, settlers, the structural violence of the occupation, etc.) Is there any likelihood that this opposition is likely to diminish?
Obstacles to implementing the 2SS have only increased over the years, yet dovish supporters of Israel continue to argue its merits. For many years, I joined calls for the 2SS, describing it as the “least unjust” option for preventing bloodshed and enabling Palestinians and Israeli Jews to begin addressing how to create a long-term solution. From my perspective, we needed a first step – one that would reflect not a need for separation but a means for both to recognize the legacies and traditions of the other -- and
then work for greater justice through a process of truth and reconciliation.
I expected and hoped that the end result would be an eventual “confederation.” This idea is not new. It was advocated in 1970 by Arie (Lova) Eliav in Eretz HaTzvi and supported by Abba Eban when he referred to the Benelux model (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg) of a three-way confederation (including Jordan.) Prominent J Street and other 2SS supporters have publicly stated that they also could envision and support the prospect of a confederation. However, in their view a confederation could logically come only after the implementation of a 2SS, and that simply returns the argument to the same impasse.
In contrast, the conceptual approach of federation (as distinguished from confederation) starts in an alternative fashion with the facts on the ground. Currently there exists one controlling authority in the entire territory — a one-state reality, albeit one with terribly destructive and immoral policies varying in severity depending on the area. Dividing this territory and separating the populations is hardly the most logical, let alone the more pragmatic or more just approach to anything remotely resembling a shared coexistence.
Is there a path that builds on the minimum necessities for both peoples to feel that their needs for security and self-expression can be met? The books I mentioned above outline what that solution would entail and suggest political as well as cultural/psychological steps that would need to be part of the process.
For example, in a summary of the nature of his proposed one-state federation (pp. 150-153,) Boehm writes: “Both the Holocaust and the Nakba (catastrophe) will be commemorated in public, jointly by Jews and Palestinians, under the auspices of joint research institutions.” In his proposal, Kuttab (p.48) suggests that “the vision is for a new entity…(that) would embrace and validate the essential elements of both Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism, while rejecting those elements in each movement which degrade or deny the Other.”
The approach outlined by these authors has some parallels with incipient joint political efforts within Israel/Palestine (such as the Eretz L’Kulam One Land-Two States program) as well as a number of inter-communal efforts like Family Circle/Bereaved Parents Forum, Combatants for Peace, Neve Shalom/ Wahat al Salam, and other organizations committed to nonviolence and coexistence.
A recent proposal by Yossi Beilin and Hiba Husseini, calling for a “Holy Land Confederation,” is a creative version of a “2SS 2.0” that attempts to deal with the inadequate “justice” of the 2SS by allowing a significant number of Palestinians to return as residents within the borders of Israel (corresponding to the number of settlers within the borders of the Palestinian state.)
Other colleagues in Israel/Palestine have offered some context for this two-state plus model. Some argue that for purposes of national pride and dignity, even a brief period when a sovereign independent State of Palestine is declared and recognized might be important.
3) Is the effort to find alternatives to the 2SS worth it?
For three reasons, this question troubles me most:
I. I respect and care deeply about people who remain committed and devote their lives to advocating for the 2SSYet I still argue that this advocacy may be counterproductive unless its supporters emphasize that there must be a 2SS 2.0 vision of a solution and specify their model.
II. I am not sure that “right line-ism” is worth the effort. To argue for bi-national Zionism requires an effort to fight the “post-Zionism” concept in Israel or the “anti-Zionism” of allies, some of whom agree with the critique expressed here, but want to separate their program from any relationship to Zionism. It will be a challenging battle to resurrect the approach of Buber, Magnes, and their colleagues: Does bi-nationalism represent a discredited, utopian concept or a vision that can motivate both peoples to (finally) understand and accommodate each other’s narrative?
III. Is there any coherent strategy that could create a momentum in support of this approach that would garner both significant elite and grassroots support, given the divisions within Israel and within the Palestinian people in the West Bank, Gaza, and its diverse diaspora?
Nevertheless, I fear more that silence = death in this as in many other contexts and that evil can only triumph when good people are silent. Therefore, I am working on how to publicly critique the 2SS with all the cautionary notes mentioned above.
I have also not addressed a time frame for implementation of any possible model. Each of the proposals mentioned above discusses the process and desired institutional political arrangements. These longer-term issues are political science and conflict resolution questions beyond the scope of this paper. The fears of both sides and the deep cultural wounds cannot be erased overnight and will take years if not decades to resolve. But I maintain that a joint vision of two peoples living together on the same homeland is the only solution. As we read in the Biblical Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
4) Short-term concrete steps toward advancing a better outcome (if not a solution):
I. In Israel, “be the change we advocate” in concrete political terms – members of Meretz, the Joint List, and others committed to a just bi-national solution in whatever form it takes would be strongly supported by the formation of a true “Arab-Jewish” party. A call to support this effort by Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI) and other Jewish and Palestinian organizations in their diasporas, joint dialogue groups and religious leaders would be very important and helpful.
II. As for the challenges facing the Palestinians, former head of the USAID office for the Palestinian territories, Larry Garber, suggested the following in a private communication:
a) Support efforts to create democratic political legitimacy for the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. As long as the Palestinians remain institutionally divided and dubious about the legitimacy of their leadership, I don't think progress on the existential
issues that you raise is possible.
b) Continue to press Israel to promote the principles of equality enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. This represents the low-hanging fruit that may begin the needed shift in psychology and culture (and which may be partly underway with the participation of the United Arab List in the Israeli Government.)
III. In Israel and the diaspora, build upon the moving and spiritually grounded joint observance of Memorial Day initiated by Combatants for Peace and the Bereaved Families Forum and encourage public respect for the narratives of both communities by observing both the International Day of Holocaust Remembrance and the Nakba Day together. A third observance might be commemoration of International Human Rights Day.
IV. Some kind of “We Refuse to Be Enemies” proclamation of mutual recognition of the two national movements and their right to self-determination in Palestine/Israel by celebrities, religious leaders, and eventually grassroots of both peoples.
V. Various public actions and declarations that support cooperative solutions as distinguished from the prevailing model of separation or partition.