Talk of confederation sounds wistful in the current environment, but any talk of peace does. What’s really naïve is to suppose that only bad faith or ideological fanaticism has caused the two-state solution to fall into disrepute.
The justification for the two-state solution is rooted, after all, in two persistent truths: first, that two separate national communities, each with a different language, historical grievance, sense of identity in the wider world, and dominant religious culture, have been squeezed by tragic events into a single small space. . . . Second, that a majority on each side prefers some form of compromise to a fight to the finish. . . . [But] moderate majorities “increasingly doubt its viability,” largely because they have grown jaded regarding the intentions of the other side, not because, in principle, they refuse the compromises two states would entail.
“The two-state solution is over,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters, responding to Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “Now is the time to transform the struggle for one state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.” As The New York Times subsequently reported, Erekat is hardly alone. The “over”-ness of “two states” — albeit with radical disagreements about the character of a hypothetical single state — has been claimed by ideological zealots, severe liberals, and exasperated peacemakers alike.
On the Palestinian side, one hears about the almost 700,000 Israeli settlers’ making annexation an established fact; on the Israeli side, about preventing recalcitrant Palestinian terrorists from firing missiles at Ben-Gurion Airport. For those of us living in Jerusalem, just speaking of two states, implying two capitals — but also, vaguely, some redivision of the city — invites skeptical, or pitying, stares from most Jews, as well as from Arabs, over a thousand of whom applied for Israeli citizenship in 2016.
The problem with “transforming the struggle” as Erekat suggests, however, is that every provisional argument against two states is an absolute argument against one. You can splice the word “solution” onto the words “one-state,” but this does not promise resolution of the conflict — certainly not in the way of South Africa, the model that seems to be in the back of many minds when a “one-state solution” is proposed (or, for that matter, when the term “apartheid” is thrown around). For all its trials, today’s South Africa emerged from a system of colonial racial enslavement in a country with a unifying language and a common, if tortured, history — white farm-owners, mine-owners, and industrialists lording it over black, native workers.
Colonial Zionist pioneers, in contrast, harmed native Palestinians by working toward Jewish cultural and economic self-sufficiency, and thus the methodical displacement of the Palestinian peasantry — which is why, at least since the Peel Commission in 1937, an arrangement like “partition” could be entertained. The Israeli occupation may be, in its own way, as cruel as apartheid. But comparable cruelty does not necessarily entail a similar political architecture. (I suspect Erekat knows this, but was hoping to shake Israelis out of their complacency.)