The One-State Illusion: More is Less The Debate over Israel and Palestine

The one-state solution is an attractive ideal mistaken for a live option.

Most of the arguments for the one-state solution are not arguments about whether it’s possible.  They are argumentsabout whether the solution is just, and the two-state solution unjust.

These arguments establish the obvious. Of course the two-state solution is unjust.  It cements Zionist usurpation of Palestinian land.  It lets the perpetrators of this usurpation go scott-free, without so much as compensation for their victims. Worst of all, it perpetuates a state based on racial supremacy.  Israel’s notion of Jewishness, the determinant of who should hold sovereignty, is ultimately a biological.  It is based on kinship.   In practice, this kinship does not, as in other countries, depend on tracing family lines back to residence in the sovereign state, but simply on closeness to anyone considered ‘Jewish’ in the racial sense of the term.

What then of the one-state solution? I hear it’s very just indeed.   But what is it, exactly? Apparently it speaks of a society in which Jews and Palestinians enjoy the same democratic rights.  One Jew, one vote, one Palestinian, one vote.

In at least one respect, this sort of one-state solution is less just than the two-state solution. That’s because it leaves ‘Jewish property’, including the settlements, in place. Some advocates of the one-state solution are explicit about this, though they never seem to mention it when criticizing the two-state solution.   Others don’t speak of the settlements, or make vague references to adjudication – not a promising way to expel committed fanatics.

A just one-state solution has not been proposed by anyone engaged in the one-state-two-state debate.  I’m not sure  anyone in recent memory, including Hamas, has proposed it. A just solution would essentially repair the injustice done by Zionism. This would require far more than a democratic ‘binational’ state in Palestine. It would require that the Jews who came as Zionists to Palestine leave, and with them their descendants.  (This is not ethnic cleansing; the original Jewish population and their descendants would remain.)  Beyond this, it would require that massive compensation, in the billions, be paid to Palestinians who lost their homes and livelihoods.   This compensation would have to remedy not only dispossession, primarily a crime against property, but all the deaths and agonies the Palestinians have suffered because of the Zionist project. There would have to be criminal proceedings against thousands of Israelis who have committed human rights violations, and convictions would have to involve further compensatory payments. Israeli firms that profited from and/or supported the occupation would be subject to yet further punitive and compensatory damages.

Such a state would right, as much as possible, the wrongs of the Israel/Palestine conflict, but that of course doesn’t mean the one state would be a just state.  If one-state proponents are really so big on justice, why does it sound as if all we need is a single Palestinian state and justice will be done? Shouldn’t we be hearing about justice for poor and the marginalized in this wonderful new future? Does resolving an ethnic conflict somehow ensure economic and social justice for all?

Is this too much justice?  Either one-staters are as serious about justice as they claim to be, or they’re not.   If they are, then they should be addressing all types of injustice in Palestine.   But if they are willing to sacrifice justice to practicality, then it’s time to consider what’s practicable and what isn’t.

The two-state solution, despite some nonsense about the settlers being ‘too deeply entrenched’, is practicable. If Israel withdraws and the Palestinians get a sovereign state, the settlers will leave in a large hurry, just like the settlers who swore they would die before quitting Gaza. And a two-state solution will indeed leave Palestinians with a sovereign state, because that’s what a two-state solution means. It doesn’t mean one state and another non-state, and no Palestinian proponent of a two-state solution will settle for less than sovereignty.

This is not by any means to say that Israel will agree to a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state. But that’s just why the idea that Israel would concede a single state is laughable.   It is one thing to vacate the settlements. They represent and benefit a smallish minority of Israelis.  For many more Israelis, they are a great big headache.   The occupation is expensive; it earns Israel near-universal opprobrium; it requires semi-open borders which constrain security arrangements; above all it requires Israel to spread its forces all over the landscape rather than concentrate them for efficient military operations.

The two-state solution is practicable because many Israelis can accept it. A two-state solution doesn’t challenge what Israel is all about; indeed that is the moralistic objection to two states.   Israel is a Jewish state; it is committed to that. One-staters apparently believe that Israel will give up its reason for existence and at the same time expose itself not to the risk but to the certainty of being ‘swamped by Arabs’.   This in turn would indicate a willingness to accede to anything an ‘Arab’ majority might enact, including a full right of return and dispossession of Zionist usurpers.   Can anyone seriously imagine this? If it took thousands and lives and many years to get the settlements out of Gaza – not Israel, which is still sovereign there, but only the settlements. How long is it supposed to take before Israel gives up its existence, its rationale, and the security of all its Jewish citizens?

Well, never mind the time constraints. Maybe two-staters are too soft, too eager to see that ordinary Palestinians in the occupied territories are freed from their agonies.   Suppose, in the leisurely, bloody, starvation-ridden fullness of time, a single state gets implemented. Then we come to the oddest illusion of all:  that if you put two antagonistic peoples together in one state, their antagonism will vanish. Why? What issues are resolved?  Will Palestinians and Jews cease to compete for state power?  Will Israeli Jews, because they have lost their Jewish state, feel disposed to hand over their homes and businesses as well? Does binationalism turn men into angels?

Recent history suggests otherwise.   The binational state that bears closest comparison with Palestine is Lebanon,where many Palestinians now live. Even subtracting the toll exacted by Israeli invasions, the carnage there has exceeded by orders of magnitude that of the entire Israel/Palestine conflict. The most encouraging examples of binational states, Belgium and Czechoslovakia, are now dissolved or on the brink of dissolution. Then there is, or was, Yugoslavia.  Is there such warmth between Israeli Jews and Palestinians that we may expect a better outcome there than in these countries?

The fact is that a single state guarantees nothing. Notoriously, the democratic process does not ensure that the will of the majority really prevails.  Dominant economic groups know how to confuse, divide and conquer.  They may well, through a mixture or bribery and manipulation, remain dominant – why, in this day and age, does this need saying?   In Palestine, the dominant economic group is composed of Israeli Jews.   They may well push for further expansion of the settlements.  This expansion may well be reinforced by a repressive binational state apparatus with a permanent presence all over the occupied territories – where, in the name of justice, no square inch will be retained for exclusively Palestinian use.   Yes, there will be ‘Arabs’ in Haifa and Tel Aviv, just as there are today. There will also be Jews in Nablus, Jenin, and Ramallah, as well as everywhere else they can buy land from distressed Palestinians. This does not necessarily make for a love-feast.

It is no good promising that all the nice stuff will come later.  How?  Presumably a single state is supposed to bring justice, not after mass slaughter, but after elections. Really? Will millions of Jews just leave if a majority says they should? Will they agree to crushing compensatory payments?  Will they also agree to be sued or imprisoned for exercising what they consider their rights to self-determination and even survival?  If not, if the one-staters actually are thinking of a bloodbath, they should let us know, and tell us why they think a bloodbath will really bring justice to the Palestinians.

Against all this, one-staters keep repeating that a single state is just.   If appeals to justice were enough to get the Israelis to abolish Israel, there would never have been a problem in the first place.  Perhaps that is why the most recent expression of one-state ideology, The One State declaration, does not answer a single one of the hard questions the one state solution raises.

For example, most Palestinian property in Israel is now occupied by Jews, who firmly believe they have a right to their homes.  Will these people be expelled, or not?   Another example:  will the settlers be kicked out of their settlements? Will they be disarmed?  by what army? Will Zionists be expelled from the armed forces?  how? Not a whisper of an answer is to be found.   Instead we get generalities.(See  Perhaps this is why neither Fatah nor Hamas, who together must represent roughly 100% of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, have no time for binationalism.

That dispossessed Palestinians have a right of return is beyond obvious.  It it equally obvious that we should all love one another and gather all the poor and oppressed into our bosom.   What is less obvious is what should be done about it.

It is said that the two-state solution renounces the right of return.   This confuses the solution itself with the words that may accompany it. Indeed any agreement establishing a Palestinian state might involve the Palestinian representatives asserting such a renunciation. Both morals and historical realities put any such assertions in proper perspective.

Morally, the right of return is not some contractual entitlement, like a royalty agreement, that you can just renounce, any more than you can just renounce your right to free speech. If you have it, it stays with you.  Besides, the Palestinian leaders cannot on their own initiative annul the rights of the Palestinians themselves. Most important, in the real world, verbal renunciations don’t stand up to changing power relations.

For now, Israel will not honor a Palestinian right of return; to ‘demand’ it is the emptiest of gestures.  That right will be honored only if the Palestinians become powerful enough to enforce it.    If or when that happens, that some leaders verbally renounced the right will count for nothing. The Palestinians will be free to say:  this was never our will; this was a renunciation obtained under duress; those who renounced it should not have done so.   Or, more simply:  we may have renounced that right, but now things our different.   Right or no right, we want to go back to our homes, and we will apply pressure to return.  History is full of paper renunciations that, when times change, lose every iota of their force.

The longing for a single state is all too understandable, but the single-state ideology is not. It places a reliance on good will and moral argument that to me is literally incomprehensible.   Perhaps this veneer of optimism covers an unwillingness to recognize that violence, justified or not, has brought results – the evacuation of the Gaza settlements and Israel’s willingness to contemplate more evacuations.  Moral appeals, on the other hand, have brought nothing whatever.

Thousands of Palestinians suffered, sacrificed, even died for a sovereign Palestinian state. The two state solution offers that state on terms the Israelis might conceivably be induced to accept.   There is no chance at all they willaccept a single state that gives the Palestinians anything remotely like their rights.

In the name of realism, one-state ideologues abandon the goal of Palestinian sovereignty to pursue an illusion:  that the Israels will give all of Palestine to the Palestinians, yet inhabit all of Palestine as well. If others fight for a smaller but genuinely Palestinian state, they are called sellouts, collaborators, or cowards. Should this have any effect, it will be to fragment the Palestinians and get them not more, but less.

Editors’ note: Neumann’s article appeared in our CounterPunch newletter earlier this year, and provoked lively reactions from our readers. Starting with Kathy Christison’s Tuesday, we will be featuring three responses through next Thursday.  AC / JSC .

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at:







Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at