What Kind of Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine Do We Want?

In CounterPunch on 12 October 2018 Jeff Halper presented the thinking of a new group of Israelis, both Jewish and Palestinian, promoting One Democratic State in Palestine (or Israel/Palestine, as Halper prefers) called the ODS Campaign. While any support for ODS is welcome, I believe Halper’s version contains some problems, while in any case offering a basis for debate about ODS.

First a bit of the history of the simple ODS idea, which describes a standard majoritarian democracy in Palestine (or all of Syria) limited by untouchable human rights. Its first proponents were Arab Ottoman subjects, many living in France, who fought and died for both independence and democracy. The Palestine Arab Congress, meeting in plenum seven times during the 1920s and usually chaired by Musa Kazim al-Husseini, opposed the British colonialists by repeatedly resolving that the indigenous wanted the freedom to become a representative democracy more or less like the British themselves had at home.

Figures such as Musa Alami, Jamal al-Husseini, Ragheb Nashashibi, Henry Cattan, and George Antonius, as well as the Palestinian political parties which formed in the 1930s, kept lobbying for this solution to the Palestine question right up until 1948. The British themselves in their 1939 ‘MacDonald’ White Paper foresaw a free democratic country with proportional representation as did, along with the US State Department, a large minority of the countries working on a United Nations solution in 1947. After the nakba, the PLO from the outset officially aimed for a secular democratic state, only in the 1980s accepting a deal with international powers to leave Israel alone in return for a ‘Bantustine’ on 20% of Palestinian territory – thus finally giving up the ‘One’ in ‘One Democratic State’.

The 2000s then saw a slew of articles and books devoted specifically to advocacy of ODS – by Ghada Karmi, Tony Judt, Edward Said, Mazin Qumsiyeh, Virginia Tilley and Ali Abunimah. Since 2005 a good dozen international ODS conferences have been held, accompanied by some anthologies and the formation of a few small activist groups that adopted the Munich Declaration as their one-page political program. Finally, since the loss of Jerusalem during 2018, the mainstream press is full of opinion announcing the death of the two-state solution and flirting with the adoption of the only alternative to the present single apartheid state between the river and the sea.

That is, there is nothing new, or even radical, in ODS. It calls for a bog-standard human rights-based democracy. What is needed now, with the wind at our backs, is for ODS supporters to thrash out our differences. This critique of Halper’s thought attempts that, it being understood that his views are not necessarily identical with those of the ODS Campaign as such, whose final program is still being developed.


The present political weakness of the two-state solution is a great chance for ODS, one recently grasped by Halper to lay out his ODS version in media such as HaaretzMondoweiss, Global Jurist and, most recently, CounterPunchHis view hopes to “stop short of a bi-national regime” such as the one he supported in earlier writings, while at the same time retaining Jewish-Israeli collective rights in Palestine.

  Starting with a critique of the two-state solution, his approach is to argue that Israel itself has scuppered the two-state solution by “settlement [and] annexation” in the West Bank – refusing for historical and security reasons to give up that heartland of Eretz Israel it calls ‘Judea and Samaria’. That is, the solution is not feasible or practical: whether or not it should happen, it can’t happen.

The better case against the two-state solution, however, is that whatever its chances of realization, it is unjust. It partitions the Palestinian homeland, leaves apartheid Israel intact, and leaves that majority of Palestinians who are in the diaspora out in the cold. In other words it is incompatible with Palestinian self-determination. (Halper refers as well, confusingly, to the two-state solution as an“option to decolonization”, implying that had Israel given the Palestinians a sovereign state on 20% of Palestine there would no longer be a need for decolonization.)

In any case emphasizing unfeasibility rather than undesirability, as does Halper, distracts from the ODS message that it is actually a very good thing that Israel and the U.S. won’t let it happen, rather than something to be bemoaned. I believe, moreover, that it’s wiser to quit spending our time burying the two-state solution and use that energy positively. Yes, the two-state solution’s shelf-life has expired, giving ODS a great springboard for moving itself from idea to action. But the job now is the positive one of describing and recruiting for ODS.


To date the ODS Campaign has advocated constitutional protection of certain “collective rights” over and above the individual rights of citizens, and for Halper the two most important such collectives are, as he puts it in his other articles, “Jewish Israelis” and “Arab Palestinians”. These are the “distinct collectives” named in his CounterPunch piece between which a “kind of treaty” must be made. “The ODSC program… protects the collective rights of all the peoples living in the country.” “Peoples” – not ‘people’, not other groups enjoying “freedom of association” – are the “collectivities” to which some rights should constitutionally adhere.

Leaving aside the important issues of exactly how these two collectives are defined (what about Arab Jews, or Druze, or individuals who don’t self-identify ethnically?) and which of their “rights” should be cemented into the constitution, Halper writes: “A kind of ‘deal’ or ‘swap’ becomes possible: we the indigenous will grant ‘belonging’ (legitimacy) to you settler colonists – which you will never get any other way – in return for your recognizing our indigenous sovereignty, narrative and rights.” Or: the “deal” is “settler legitimacy in return for native rights.”

In a word, the new state must be built on acceptance of Jewish-Israeli collective political rights in Palestine. This is the basic Zionist premise that Jews, or at least those now residing in Palestine, have citizenship rights asJews, collectively, by virtue of the religion or ethnicity which enabled them to legally enter Palestine in the first place.

I do not believe this can be squared with Palestinian liberation or self-determination, or with Halper’s own program of “decolonization” or, indeed, with democracy. To be sure, the ODS Munich Declaration welcomes as citizens in the re-united state the Jewish Israelis now in Palestine, but as individuals who were born in or immigrated to Palestine, not because of their religion or genes. Indeed such privileging them as an ethno-religious group explicitly contradicts the Campaign’s principle that “No group or collectivity will have any privileges…”

Unnoticed by Halper, even if we accept his reduction of the Palestinian populace to only two “peoples”, is that his “Jewish Israelis” and “Arab Palestinians” are defined on totally different criteria: While the one is biological, racial, or religious, the other is based on territory, on connection to and habitation of the actual land over millennia. In contrast to the “Jewish Israeli” collective it is diverse, including Moslems, Christians, and indeed Jews who lived there for centuries prior to the advent of Zionism. This is comparing apples and pears. Furthermore, while many Palestinians wish to identify the single emerging state as ‘Arab’, it is contested whether this should be defined only linguistically and culturally, or also ethnically.

In Halper’s opinion “Only a justice-and-peace process based on decolonization defines a political settlement in terms that address the deeper issues involved, and thus lends the claims of the weaker indigenous greater moral weight as well as equal political weight and visibility.” That is, Palestinian claims become merely “greater”, and the Jewish-Israeli ones are “equal”. Halper then writes that there must be “Indigenous/settler reconciliation”; the vision is of “indigenous/settler accommodation” rather than Palestinian liberation or self-determination. The astounding claim is that “parts of the settler narrative may be integrated into a new representative one…” Which parts, exactly, of settler-colonialism are worth retaining?Indeed, in his Global Jurist article he writes that this history must be “bracketed” during the discussion of the constitution, in other words ignored or put off, perhaps, until final-status discussions.

This is the parity fallacy, and constitutional recognition of the Jewish-Israeli “people” amounts in the end to the normalization and legitimization of a collective made up of settler-colonists. Perhaps Halper notices the irony of this within a declared program of decolonization. But mainly, in addition to flying in the face of indigenous self-determination and the illegitimacy of taking territory by force, it contradicts the bedrock that Palestine belongs to the Palestinians. Granting equal status to the two collectives constitutes co-ownership, one reflected in Halper’s preference for “Palestine/Israel” as the name of the new state. At any rate, starting thus from the premise of the equal rights of the two “peoples”, conquerors and conquered have ended up with equal political status.

This might be the softest Zionism ever formulated, but it retains the basic Zionist premise. It normalizes, if not Israel, then Zionism, contradicting even the effort by many Palestinians in Israel for “a state of its citizens”. And as so often, the Palestinians are being asked, even before negotiations begin, to pay for their natural human and political rights.


Halper is aware that these concessions to Zionism are a big ask for Palestinians, yet his pragmatic argument is that without special protection Jewish Israelis will never support ODS: “Ensuring collective and individual rights addresses Israeli concerns over their continued presence in the country…” In his Global Jurist article he more directly explains that this is the only way to“sell” ODS to Jewish Israelis. Perhaps. And it is understandable that to the extent that the ODS Campaign wants to address Israelis, perhaps some parts of their narrative must be adopted. But even a brief consideration of the question of how to “sell” ODS to Palestinians reveals that any hint of parity between the two groups perhaps fatally ruins its palatability for them or, for that matter, that part of the international public that does not endorse colonialism.

Whatever the costs and benefits of enshrining the Jewish ethno-religious collective in the future constitution – whether with or without quotas in the various branches of government (Halper in Global Jurist has proposed “a representative of the Palestinian community, a representative of the Israeli Jewish community, and a representative of the general electorate”) – is it necessary even tactically to continue the century-long attempt to talk the Zionism out of Zionists? Halper himself, after all, doesn’t believe rational argument will work: “decolonization must be forced on Israel [;it] will have to be imposed upon… Israeli Jews”– for instance through BDS. As formulated in his Global Jurist article, “convincing the Israeli Jewish public… is nigh impossible.”

But if this is true, the proffered Jewish-Israeli collective rights lose even their tactical political value. They become superfluous, because Israel must be “isolated” and pressured to abandon its apartheid state. So what is the point of making the ‘sell’ to Palestinians almost impossible by endorsing the rights of settler-colonialists?


The reasons why the totally secular model of ODS – for instance in the Munich Declaration and in the Movement for One Secular Democratic State– is both ethically preferable to and far less dangerous than one which gives standing to religion, or much less ethnicity, have been adequately adumbrated over the last several centuries, most recently in a superb rebuttal of Halper’s soft bi-nationalism written by Naji Al-Khatib and Ofra Yeshua-Lyth in Mondoweiss.

What is still too unclear, though, is the power of the contrasting ODS vision giving legal standing only to individual rights, as captured in the Munich Declaration on the model of the French, US-American, Swiss, Indian, South African and scores of other constitutions. These dispense with collective ethnic rights because they see the general danger of officially dividing society along such lines, in addition to protecting individuals from being pressed into perhaps unwanted ethnic categories. This lean constitutional formula has been very successful, and it should give pause to realize that Belgium and Lebanon, countries that enshrine cultural or ethno-religious collectives in their constitutions, have been less successful.

This vision of the state made up of its citizens has answered the problem of discrimination against linguistic, cultural, ethnic and religious groups, which is Halper’s concern. It cements the freedoms of association and assembly among with the other freedoms of religion, press, and general expression. Protection of the activities and collective life of any group defined on any criteria whatsoever follows unavoidably fromthese individual freedoms. The vision fulfils Halper’s demand for “respect for collective forms of cultural and religious association.” It is a confusion, therefore, when either Halper or the Campaign writes that “the Constitutional will protect collective rights and the freedom of association”. These are not two different things, and there is no need to slide into Israeli exceptionalism on this issue.

The 2012 Munich Declaration for ODS is also simpler than any vision which raises numerable questions about collectives, “consociational” or “confederal” democracy, and the dusty concept of ethnic “national rights”, whether Jewish or any other. The battles for universal suffrage, or against South African apartheid, upon which ODS should model itself derived motivational power from their simplicity: ‘one person, one vote’.


Halper also departs from older ODS visions in subjecting the Right of Return to some qualifications. He is careful to restrict it “to the degree that it is possible”, and instead of advocating return to their “homes”, as General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948 has it, they can return to vaguer “places from which they were expelled” or their “country” or “homeland”. Now 93% of Palestine was Palestinian- or state-owned in 1948, and one wonders why return to and restoration of these actual properties should be watered-down. It is not as if the Zionists are now already sitting at the bargaining table, making concessions perhaps pragmatically advisable. Right of Return is moreover the Palestinians’ strongest trump.

It is furthermore not true, as Halper writes, that the “Palestinian narrative” rejects the idea that “Jews constitute a nation that even has rights of self-determination”. Palestinian rejection has always been only of their right of self-determination on somebody else’s land – namely the Palestinians’ own. One can with sanguinity remain neutral on the question of a Jewish state, somewhere, but oppose it whereit has actually happened, namely in Western Asia: this of necessity meant military conquest, dispossession and ethnic cleansing. The same argument would apply to Christian, Moslem, Hindu or Buddhist colonialists.

Yet Halper regards Zionism as a “potentially legitimate movement for Jewish national rights”, avoiding this crucial issue of where and raising the unanswered question of what “potentialities” would make a Jewish state in Palestine “legitimate”.

A more general problem is the framing of ODS in the negative terms of decolonization – or anti-Zionism – rather than in terms of all the positive rights of all the Palestinians. An independent, self-sufficient narrative would simply derive ODS from these rights and our knowledge of the violent history of the British/Zionist conquest. ODS can be rigorously derived, for instance, from the four demands of the BDS movement, namely self-determination, right of return, full equality within Israel and full autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. ODS’s opener should be in simple positive terms the entire world can relate to, not the specific and negative ones of Jewish settler-colonialism.


Halper by contrast writes that “Any approach to ending settler colonialism in historic Palestine must begin with Zionism.” This is not only negative, but maybe we should begin with the Palestinians. Halper devotes most space to the history of Zionism, citing at length six early Jewish-Zionist settlers (and one Palestinian, Musa Alami, misspelled “Alawi”) who benignly advocated “acknowledging and accommodating Palestinian nationalism”. Creating the phrase “settler Zionism”, this culminates in the Israel-centric opinion that “The native must be ‘written back in’.”

Halper does recognize the limited role of a group of Israeli citizens, even if it includes many Palestinians: “A political struggle cannot be resolved without an end-game – and in the case of Palestine/Israel an end-game formulated and led by Palestinians, with strategic support from critical Israelis and the international civil society.” But the delegitimization of Israel and its eventual replacement (not “transformation”) by a democratic state should be explicitly presented as mere consequences, or by-products, of the realization of the rights of an indigenous group, not as the goal with which one begins the day.

Typical of his focus on Israel, at the beginning of his article Halper asks, “Is Zionism a legitimate national movement or simply another case of colonialism?” But his answer is not clear. Remnants remain of Jewish national (ethno-religious) rights in Palestine, contradicting both the settler-colonial analysis and a democracy of citizenship. No “brackets”, moreover, should remain around the Palestinian history of injustice.

Almost to the day twenty years ago Edward Said wrote in the New York Times Magazine the thought that underlies the secular vision based on individual human rights which, I think, is most likely to motivate the world to fight for justice for all Palestinians and the only solution compatible with that, namely ODS: “The beginning is to develop something entirely missing from both Israeli and Palestinian realities today: the idea and practice of citizenship, not of ethnic or racial community, as the main vehicle of coexistence.” The real job is the daily fight for acceptance of this idea of the equality of all individuals. To the extent it is won, minorities are ipso facto protected, and if it is not won, not even constitutional ‘guarantees’ for collectives will suffice. The Zionist narrative should in any case move over to the edge of the discussion where it belongs, and the return of Palestinians to their homes as citizens move into the spotlight.