White House shift on a two-state solution could be enormously damaging to Israel

If statehood is off the table, and if Palestinians are told they will never have the same rights as Israelis with whom they share territory, what is left to negotiate for?

Israelis celebrating this apparent shift in American policy should think twice

An unequal bi-national state would be far less secure. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Donald Trump's casual acceptance of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may do much more harm to Israel's future security and stability than anything former President Barack Obama — a man many right-wing Israelis believe was hostile to Israel — did in eight years.

"So I'm looking at two states and one state," Trump said this week, during a Washington press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "And I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like."

The so-called two-state solution envisions the birth of an independent Palestinian state alongside an independent Israel. It's an outcome supported by much of the world, including Canada, and it is the official policy of the Palestinian Authority.

Longtime policy

It's been the official policy of the United States, too, since at least 2002, when President George W. Bush publicly endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state. Following Trump's comments, America's ambassador to the United Nations attempted to clarify that Washington still supports a two-state solution, but it seems President Trump isn't overly committed to the idea. As with so much in Washington these days, it's hard to know exactly what is going on.

A one-state solution would see the creation of a single state in what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It has proponents among irredentist Israelis who reject the idea of Palestinian nationhood and believe that Israel has the right — for many, the God-given right — to all those territories. Trump may believe the same, or maybe he's just currying favour among Israelis and American Jews who do.

But Israelis celebrating this apparent shift in American policy should think twice. It's enormously damaging to Israel.

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A unified state that incorporates Israel, the West Bank and Gaza would contain similar numbers of Jews and non-Jews (Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Muslims and Christians).

If that new state operates democratically, Jews would not dominate its government, and Israel's foundational identity as a Jewish state would be upended. For that reason and others, there are some Palestinians who welcome the idea of a bi-national state. Their imagined country need not be small and fragmented but incorporate all of what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Democracy in Israel

But an enlarged state in which all residents have equal rights likely isn't what Trump — and much of the Israeli right — have in mind when they talk about a one-state solution to the conflict. Rather, we know that the Israeli hard right envisions formal Israeli sovereignty from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, perhaps with Palestinian pockets whose residents enjoy some self-government in between, but no universal enfranchisement.

A Palestinian resident of Ramallah would not be able to vote for who sits in the Israeli parliament. Jews living nearby would. It would be difficult for Israel to claim to be a democracy then.

That's just fine for those Israelis who believe Israel's Jewish identity and its security is far more important than the political rights of non-Jews. Some among the Israeli settler movement say it would be better if non-Jews left anyway.

But many other Israelis believe democracy is as intrinsic and foundational to Israel's identity as its Jewish character. An Israel that abandoned that would abandon part of its soul.

An unequal bi-national state would also be far less secure. In part, this is because non-democratic states provoke dissent and often violence. If statehood is off the table, and if Palestinians are told they will never have the same rights as Israelis with whom they share territory, what is left to negotiate for?

Such an outcome would also undermine support from many of Israel's international allies, including its most important one: America. Trump isn't going to run the place forever, and many American Jews would not back a non-democratic Israel.

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert recognized that a decade ago.

"If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished," he said in 2007.

"The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us, because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents."

Netanyahu says Israel has no greater friend than President Trump. Israelis, and their allies abroad, shouldn't believe him.  

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Michael Petrou is a journalist and historian. He’s a fellow-in-residence in Carleton University’s Bachelor of Global and International Studies program and an adjunct professor in its Department of History. He’s also a fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies and was the 2018 Martin Wise Goodman Canadian Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.


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