It’s been 17 years since Tony Judt, the much-admired New York University historian, declared himself in favor of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
His article in the New York Review of Books came as a bitter shock to the American liberal establishment. The reigning orthodoxy was that a two-state solution — the creation of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state alongside the existing Israel state — was the best, most-likely-to-succeed way to resolve the long-running melodrama in the Middle East.
After a brief kerfuffle, Judt’s article faded into memory.
Now comes Peter Beinart — a Jew who keeps kosher, attends an Orthodox synagogue, is beloved by the liberal intelligentsia and has long been a supporter of two states for two peoples — announcing that he too has concluded that the two-state solution is dead, and that a single state of Jews and Palestinians is a much more promising path to peace. Beinart, a thoughtful and powerful writer who is a former editor of the New Republic, has long been critical of Israel, but has never gone this far.
In an article in Jewish Currents magazine Beinart says the 53-year-old Israeli occupation of the West Bank, continued settlement building and now the threat of partial annexation have made it clear that a two-state solution would mean “a fragmented Palestine under de facto Israeli control.” It is time, he says, to abandon the goal of a separate Palestinian state. While he doesn’t say that a binational, democratic state is the only possible answer (he also mentions the possibility of creating two separate but deeply integrated states), he writes hopefully and encouragingly about a single state in which both peoples would have a home and enjoy equal rights.
It’s obvious why that is so threatening to traditional Zionists: The creation of a single democratic state would inevitably mean the end of the Jewish state as we know it. How could the new country be truly democratic, egalitarian and binational — and officially Jewish at the same time? Beinart suggests that Jews and Israelis begin thinking in terms of a Jewish “home” rather than a Jewish “state.”
His critics dismiss him as utopian and naive.
To keep things in perspective, remember that there’s nothing particularly new about the idea of a single state; what’s unusual is who is promoting it. The idea itself goes back to before the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.
Even at the height of the Oslo peace process, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands and won Nobel Prizes for agreeing to separate the two peoples into two countries, there were those — especially Palestinians, including Edward Said and Haider Abdel Shafi — who never bought in.
In these pages, UCLA professor Saree Makdisi argued in 2008 (and often since then) that “there is no longer a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” UC Hastings professor George Bisharat made a similar case in 2019. Pollster Khalil Shikaki says that in 2011, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza preferred a two-state solution by a margin of 2 to 1. Today, the two-state solution and the one-state solution are virtually tied.
Even some left-wing Israelis agree that one state would be preferable.
Disillusionment with the two-state solution is not surprising. A Palestinian state once seemed imminent; now it seems remote. Peace negotiations fell apart years ago. The Palestinian Authority, established as a government-in-waiting, has lost the support of many Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu, who has consistently undermined the peace process, has been in power longer than any previous Israeli prime minister.
Meanwhile, the number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has grown steadily from zero at the time of the 1967 war to 650,000 today. Their widespread presence means that creating a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank would be extremely difficult — some say impossible.
But a single state seems at least as impossible.
For one thing, Israel is a nuclear power; would it voluntarily give up its sovereignty? Should it? And even if it did, would the new country be safe and peaceable? Hamas would continue to work for an Islamic state. The belligerent Jewish right wing and the remnants of a corrupt Palestinian Authority wouldn't disappear, nor would the legacy of bitter resentment between the two biggest ethnic groups in the country. Right now, the two populations are roughly the same size, but changing demographics could create new resentments.
There’s certainly a grand appeal to the idea of a multicultural, pluralistic, democratic state based on equal rights for all. Whether such a solution is realistic or achievable is ultimately for Palestinians and Israelis to decide.
Beinart’s article will be polarizing. Some say he’s betraying Zionism and endangering Jews everywhere. Others say he’s offering the only moral, modern, egalitarian alternative to a century of failed nationalism. Many will stick with a preference for a rejuvenated two-state option.
I count myself in the last of those categories, but Beinart's change of mind is bracing and provocative. It reminds us that the status quo is unacceptable, that Palestinian rights are still being denied, that forward movement has stopped dead and that new ideas are required if these two peoples are to find a way to live peacefully in the same small region of the world.