It will be 20 years ago this September that Israeli and Palestinian leaders reached a historic Declaration of Principles, the forerunner to the Oslo Accords, which were intended to lead to a permanent peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The homestretch was yet to be negotiated, but what awaited at the finish was clear: a Palestinian state next to the Israeli one – a deal based on the concept of two states for two peoples.
Now, many here feel they’re simply running in place. Some of the most prominent members of Fatah, the mainstream faction of the PLO and the axis of power for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, say the two-state solution is not longer viable. Instead, they’re campaigning for the creation of one democratic, secular state for Arabs and Jews, made up of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. On May 15, about 30 of them signed a statement promoting this concept, launching a “Popular Movement for One Democratic State in Historic Palestine.”
Radi Jarai, a political scientist at al-Quds University, is one of those Fatah members who long supported the peace process, which US Secretary of State John Kerry is now in the region trying to revive. But Jarai, like most Palestinians, grew bitterly disappointed as he watched the possibilities of dividing the land disappear by the year.
“We tried the two-state solution and it’s no longer realistic,” explains Jarai, one of the leaders of the one-state movement within Fatah. The one-state group is heavily weighted with university professors and other intellectuals. “We realized that the Israeli government, after the assassination of [Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin, has systematically worked in order to destroy the option of a two-state solution. Specifically, he says, the growth of settlements in the West Bank and Israeli building in East Jerusalem make it increasingly difficult to envision any contiguous tract of Palestinian land that could constitute a state alongside Israel.
“Abu Mazen [Abbas] negotiated for 20 years, and we find that every day we are farther away from a Palestinian state,” he adds. “Many Palestinians believe in this, as do some of our friends in Israel. Within this context, we are ready to live with the Israelis, with the Jews, without any kind of discrimination, in order to create one democratic state.”
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, is deeply troubled that some of his compatriots have bolted from Fatah’s vision. “I’m a Fatah Central Committee member and our position is two states, and to see some of my most respected colleagues sign on such a document and reorient our strategy to one state is very alarming,” he says. He blames the growth of settlements. “This is why we really want John Kerry to succeed,” Erekat adds. “When the highest elected people in Fatah sign such a document, which they did in defiance of the party strategy, it shows that people have lost hope in the possibility of two states.”
The idea appears to be a non-starter for most decision-makers in the Israeli mainstream, although it is being talked about on the left and right ends of the political spectrum, but often as more of bogeyman than a viable option. An official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government said that they take such a proposal as a sign that Palestinians still don’t accept Israel’s right to exist. “That is the fundamental problem in the peace process,” says the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Palestinian side still views the Jewish state as fundamentally illegitimate. They’re talking about peace without the Jewish state, and won’t find in us a parter for that.”
Proponents of the one-state plan say that rather than try to disentangle the Gordian Knot of people, communities, roads and services that already exists, everyone in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank should be given the same citizenship and live under a secular democracy. In fact, some on the Israeli right – including some maverick voices in the settlements – say they would prefer to become one binational state than to evacuate a few hundred thousand Jews from the West Bank. And just as many Israelis feel deeply tied to their ancient roots in the land they refer to exclusively by their biblical names, Judea and Samaria, many Palestinians find it hard to fathom ever agreeing to give up their deep attachment to the cities of the coastal plain, such as Acre, Haifa and Jaffa.
“This movement is emerging because of the vacuum in negotiations,” says Quaddura Fares, a veteran Fatah member and former minister in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Fares also grew disillusioned; he left the PA and now runs the Palestinian Prisoners Association, a non-governmental organization. Fares still supports the two-state solution and isn’t a signatory to the new one-state document, but understands why it’s gaining momentum.
“This group is perhaps more realistic than the official leaders,” Fares muses. “We continue to act for a Palestinian independent state in the 1967 borders, but despite that, it became a joke for the Palestinians. The majority feel that there are no options, that every gate has been closed. People believe that even if we will act by violence again, with an intifada, it will only bring a more complicated situation for everyone and solve nothing.”
So is a one-state solution remotely realistic? Many Israelis say it’s the worst possible scenario, because it would seemingly spell the end of the Zionist dream. Demographers have long predicted that by the year 2020, the Jewish state would lose its demographic edge. At least one demographer argues that there are already more Arabs than Jews in total living in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
For over a decade, Israeli politicians have warned with increasing alarm that if they don’t arrive at a two-state solution soon, they will have missed the boat: Palestinians will demand a one-state solution instead, and will try to label Israel an apartheid state in the interim. Even rightist former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used the demographic threat as the logic for pulling out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. It’s unclear as to whether Netanyahu feels equally moved by the demographic time bomb ticking at his door. But his Minister of Finance, Yair Lapid, closely watched as one of Israel’s new kingmakers, said in an interview with Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot this week that a there is nothing “more dangerous than a binational state.”
Barely a week goes by here without some pundit or politician raising the concept of a binational state, whether to embrace it – as has Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), a former Palestinian prime minister and one of the original Olso negotiators – or to insist, as did former Defense Minister Moshe Arens in a recent op-ed in Haaretz, that Israel already effectively is a binational state, a reference to the approximately 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arab. Arens says the answer is for the government to promote Jewish immigration to Israel, and hope that time is on their side.
“We have looked at this issue several times in the past,” says Tamar Hermann, a political scientist specializing in public opinion at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. “The level of support among Israeli Jews is very low. It’s somewhere between five to eight percent at the most, and this is divided between the extreme right and the extreme left.” Moreover, she says, binational states have been tried in Belgium, Lebanon, Cyprus, “and in almost all cases it collapses, so it is known to be very unstable.”
The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that just under a third of Palestinians, about 29%, support “a one-state solution based on equality for Arabs and Jews.” Over the past decade, according to pollster Dr. Khalil Shikaki, that figure has vacillated between 25 and 30 percent.
Diana Buttu, a lawyer and analyst who formerly worked on the PA’s negotiating team, thinks some of the momentum comes from utter frustration not just with Israel, but with the PA leadership. “Many are now feeling that the movement has shifted away from liberation and that Fatah is now quibbling over ministries and seats and so on,” she says. Buttu understands the anger of the Fatah leaders pushing the one-state plan, she says, “but I don’t feel that they will go very far as Fatah is very entrenched in its ‘negotiations until victory’ stance.”