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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: The ‘one-state solution’: a danger to the peace process

Key points

  • The ‘one-state solution’ envisages the abandonment by the Palestinian national movement of its goal of a state alongside Israel, and the replacement of this with the demand for the establishment of a single state in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. 
  • The one-state solution is currently re-emerging within Fatah partly because frustration at the slow pace of negotiations is leading to a re-examination of earlier stances. Moreover, there is a sense that Fatah leaders are attempting to use the one-state idea as a useful rhetorical device in the negotiations, to place pressure on Israel and lead to a softening of the Israeli bargaining position.
  • The current talk of the one-state solution within Fatah is unlikely to progress beyond the declarative level. The recognition by the PLO of UN resolutions relating to the conflict has brought more tangible gains to the Palestinians than did nearly three decades of commitment to the one-state solution. 

Introduction

In recent weeks, a certain amount of media coverage has been given to statements by prominent Palestinian figures suggesting a possible turn towards the policy option known as the ‘one-state solution’.  Among the well-known Palestinian nationalists who have hinted at a possible turn towards this idea are Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), former prime minister of the PA and current head of the negotiating team with Israel, and Professor Sari Nusseibeh, former head of the PLO in Jerusalem and a prominent Palestinian intellectual.  Qurei recently told Fatah supporters in Ramallah, ‘The Palestinian leadership has worked to establish an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 [pre-Six Day War] borders, but if Israel continues to resist making this a reality, then the Palestinians’ demand for the sake of the Palestinian people will be a solution of one state for both nationalities.’[1] Nusseibeh, meanwhile, interviewed by Haaretz newspaper, expressed himself in the following terms: ‘It so happens that Fatah, in particular, the mainstream party and the only viable alternative to extremes on the left or on the right, now needs a strategy, an ideology. Because the ideology that Fatah has adopted over the last 15 years – a two-state solution – seems to be faltering, and with it, Fatah is faltering. So it is time maybe to rethink, to bring Fatah around to a new idea, the old-new idea, of one state.’[2]

What is the practical significance, if any, of these statements and others like them?  What is the one-state solution, and what are the implications for Israel of its re-emergence to a prominent place in the Palestinian discussion?

What is the one-state solution?

The policy option of the one-state solution conceives of the abandonment by the Palestinian national movement of its goal of a state alongside Israel, and the replacement of this with the demand for the establishment of a single state in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  In most versions of this idea, the state in question is visualised as a unitary democracy, though some versions foresee a binational type arrangement.[3]  The difference between these two options is that binationalism would include built-in rights for both national groups. Palestinian nationalism has traditionally not supported such an outlook. 

Since the single state is seen to include the ‘right of return’ of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, such a state would include a large Arab and Muslim majority, and hence would mean the end of the Jewish sovereignty represented by Israel.  The one-state solution derives from the outlook found among Palestinian nationalism that Israel is the product of an illegitimate European colonial project, and that Jews constitute a religious community, rather than a national group.  Consequently, the divestment of Israeli Jews of their sovereignty is not considered by proponents of the one-state solution to impinge upon the general principle of the right of states to existence and of nations to self-determination. 

The one-state solution is often seen as a new development, a product of the despair and pessimism regarding the peace process following the collapse of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the summer of 2000.  This is only partially true.  Sari Nusseibeh, in the statement quoted above, accurately refers to it as the ‘old-new idea, of one state.’[4] The one-state idea formed the strategic goal of the Palestinian national movement from its emergence as a separate organisational trend in the 1960s until its embrace of the two-state solution in 1988. 

The 1964 Palestinian National Covenant and the revised Palestinian National Charter of 1968 – usually seen as the ‘founding documents’ of Palestinian nationalism – are unambiguous statements of the one-state solution. In these documents, the strategic goal of Palestinian nationalism is presented as the nullification of Israel’s sovereignty, and the creation of a single, Arab state in the entirety of former Mandate Palestine.[5] This stance is justified by a view of Israel as a movement of European colonisation.

This stance was further ratified in the 1968-1970 period. At this time, the PLO formulated the idea of the ‘non-sectarian, democratic’ state which was to form its key demand.[6]

This demand was a call for the reversal of UN Resolutions 181 and 242. The first of these required the division of the territory of former Mandate Palestine into two states – one Jewish and one Arab.  Resolution 242, meanwhile, recommended a negotiated peace between the sides, based on Israeli withdrawals from territories captured in the 1967 war.  The PLO’s one-state demand placed it outside of this framework, and made the movement an opponent of the Middle East peace process which began in the late 1970s.

The result of the PLO’s opposition was that no negotiations between Israel and Palestinian nationalism were possible, and a situation of stalemate ensued.  In 1988, in Algiers, the PLO chose to reverse its historical stance, recognising Resolutions 181 and 242; later, in Geneva, PLO leader Yasser Arafat made a statement abandoning and condemning terrorism.  This decision by the PLO was the culmination of a long process of discussion in the movement. It appears to have been the outbreak of the Intifada in late 1987, and the desire to capitalise on the international support and attention this gave the Palestinian cause, which precipitated the decision. 

These declarations were an effective endorsement by the PLO of the two-state solution desired by the international community.  The result of this declaration was the rapid beginnings of negotiations between Israel and the PLO, the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the ongoing contacts between the two sides which continue today. 

Why has the one-state solution re-emerged and what are the implications of this?

The one-state idea has essentially disappeared from Fatah’s agenda, but has remained on the fringes of Palestinian nationalism.  A version of it is the strategy of Hamas.  Smaller secular nationalist groups such as the PFLP also support it.  Support for a two-state outcome in Fatah has been a key factor in making possible the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.  Within Fatah circles, the re-emergence of the older idea is likely in part the product of the breakdown in negotiations after 2000.  Fatah-associated publicists such as Michael Tarazi and Diana Bhuttu began to advocate for the idea in the post-2000 period.[7] The argument they made was that the two-state solution has become an effective impossibility, because of the extent of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, and that therefore advocacy for the one-state solution was simply the recognition of an existing reality. 

Yet, as Israel sought to demonstrate through the disengagement plan of 2005, the presence of settlements deep in populated Arab areas is reversible, where Israel considers that it is in its national and security interest to carry this out.  Also, as indicated in the Clinton Parameters of December 2000, it is possible with land swaps to conceive of the creation of a Palestinian state, and at the same time to leave certain Jewish communities adjoining the Green Line in place. Rather than a certainty in either direction, it is a point of political debate and will as to whether a point of ‘no return’ has been reached which has made the two-state solution no longer feasible.[8]

The one-state solution is re-emerging within Fatah partly because of frustration at the slow pace of negotiations, which has led some to re-examine earlier stances. Moreover, there is a sense that Fatah leaders are attempting to use the one-state idea as a useful rhetorical device in the negotiations, to place pressure on Israel and lead to a softening of the Israeli bargaining position.

Many analysts on both sides point to the extent to which the PA leadership is engaged structurally and economically in the peace process, making its abandonment unlikely.  This is particularly the case in the current period of broader regional polarisation, with pro-western states arrayed against Iran and its clients.  Fatah is involved in a deep, practical and financial relationship with the EU and the US.  The abandonment of the two-state solution and a return to the advocacy of the destruction of Israel would effectively mean the termination of this relation.  Additionally, Fatah’s key selling point to its constituency is the notion that the movement can bring national independence for the Palestinians; therefore, it cannot afford to simply relinquish its primary raison d’être. Furthermore, both sides ultimately desire self-determination, which envisages national fulfillment through separate, independent Israeli and Palestinian states. Hence, the current talk of the one-state solution within Fatah is unlikely to progress beyond the declarative level. 

Still, the latest statements are a cause for concern for all those committed to a successful conclusion to the peace process.  An editorial in the ‘National’ newspaper published in Abu Dhabi last week related to the latest statements by Qurei and Nusseibeh. The paper refers to the one-state idea as a ‘fantasy’ and continues: ‘Pursuing this fantasy could deal a deadly blow to the national aspirations of the Palestinians and postpone indefinitely any peace agreement.’   The editors conclude that ‘Rejecting the two-state vision would be a mistake of historical proportions.’[9] This is an accurate assessment. 

Conclusion

The Palestinian house is currently divided, and Palestinian politics is turned against itself.  But the recognition by the PLO of UN resolutions relating to the conflict has brought more tangible gains to the Palestinians than did nearly three decades of commitment to the one-state solution and radicalism.  The existence of the PA and its internationally-recognised leadership remain the best hope of the Palestinians for statehood and of Israelis for a resolution to the conflict.  Yet the latest statements hinting at a return to the historical dead-end of the one-state solution have raised concerns among supporters of the peace process on both sides.

 


[1] Jerusalem Post Staff, ‘Qurei: Palestinians might demand citizenship,’ Jerusalem Post, 11 August 2008.  http://www.jpost.com

[2] Akiva Eldar, ‘We are running out of time for a two-state solution,’ Haaretz, 22 August 2008.  http://themarker.captain.co.il

[3] See http://www.radicalmiddle.com for an archive of articles advocating the one-state solution.  

[4] Op Cit. Nusseibeh. 

[5] Palestinian National Charter, 1968, http://www.yale.edu.

[6] Alain Gresh, The PLO: The Struggle Within (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1988), p. 49. This formulation was a use of common terminology among self-proclaimed ‘anti-imperialist’ movements at the time.  It disguised the Arab ethnic nationalist and largely Muslim nature of Fatah.  In this regard, it is noteworthy that the slogan is sometimes incorrectly translated as ‘democratic, secular state.’  Arafat himself made clear that the term ‘secular’ was not intended here.   

[7] Michael Terazi, ‘Two peoples, one state,’ New York Times, 4 October 2004. http://www.globalpolicy.org

[8] See Dennis Ross, ‘Don’t play with Maps,’ New York Times, 9 January 2007 for a discussion of the Clinton Parameters http://www.nytimes.com.  See also http://www.peacelobby.org/clinton_parameters.htm

[9]  ‘The Two-state solution: better than fantasy,’ The National, 25 August 2008.  http://www.mideastweb.org


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