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What is the “One-State Solution,” and Why is it Unlikely to Work?

SIS professor Guy Ziv answers questions about his new article on the history behind the idea of a “one-state solution” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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One of the immediate consequences of the ongoing Israel-Hamas War, sparked by the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, has been the reemergence of conversation—often heated—about the best, long-term solution for both Palestinians and Israelis in the region. This conversation usually centers on what is known as the two-state solution; however, there are voices that want to debate the merits of a one-state solution.

SIS professor Guy Ziv has a new, peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Peace and War Studies titled “The Long Israeli-Palestinian Impasse: Is the ‘One-State Solution’ the Answer?”. In it, he argues that the “one-state solution” has dramatically different interpretations by its proponents that amount to irreconcilable positions. He discusses the unpopularity of a one-state solution among most Israelis and Palestinians, and he argues that, unless steps are taken by the Israeli government to keep the two-state solution alive, Israel may become a binational state with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remaining unresolved. We caught up with him to ask a few questions about the long history of both the conflict and the proposals for ending it.

In some respects, your new article serves as a history lesson for those unfamiliar with all but the most broad-brush strokes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even those who have a broader understanding of seminal events like the Yom Kippur War or the partition of 1948 may be surprised to learn that the idea of a single state for both Jews and Arabs dates to the early 1900s—including a rather radical, early 20th century Orthodox Jewish writer who advocated for intermarriage between Jews and Muslims as a way to solve the conflict. Why is it important for people to understand this history now?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, at its heart, a conflict over land. It’s a conflict over two peoples claiming to be the rightful owners of a small sliver of land. Should this territory be divided between the two peoples? Or should it be shared by both peoples? When we debate the “one-state solution” versus the “two-state solution” today, we must understand that these are ideas that have derived from earlier debates between the majority of Zionists who supported partition—the basis for the two-state solution—and a small minority of Jews who backed binationalism, which is the basis for the one-state solution.
In basic terms, what is a Zionist state, and why would a one-state solution in Israel necessarily mean that Israel would no longer be a Zionist state?
Zionism is an ideology that promotes Jewish statehood; it’s the liberation movement of the Jewish people. For Zionists, Judaism isn’t merely a religion, it’s a nationality. The establishment of the State of Israel was the realization of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state that would enable Jews to live freely and safely. Only a relatively small proportion of Jews in the 19thcentury joined this movement. With the violent antisemitic pogroms of Czarist Russia at the turn of the century, followed by the Nazi Holocaust that decimated world Jewry, this minority of Zionists became a majority. Most Jews, including those residing in the United States—the largest diaspora—identify as Zionists. A one-state solution is incompatible with Zionism because Israel would cease to be a Jewish state. It would become, instead, a binational state in which Jews would likely become the minority.
More recently, there are prominent Likud members who advocate for a single state. These arguments have a basis in the belief that biblical lands in the West Bank should remain a part of Israel, but this view also includes the idea that democracy—which includes Palestinians as full citizens of Israel—is an important goal in and of itself. Critics say this view is delusional. In 2023, with a war raging in Gaza, do you believe there is a good argument that a one-state solution should be debated alongside the more common two-state argument?
I consider a one-state solution in any of its variants to be delusional. The one-state solution, as envisioned by its left-wing intellectual adherents, is dramatically different than the one-state solution being promoted by those on the far-right in Israel. Equality for Jews and Arabs, on the one hand, and Jewish supremacy, on the other hand, are irreconcilable positions. None of the disparate visions of the one-state solution, moreover, has the support of either Israelis or Palestinians. I haven’t seen a single poll that points to substantial support for this solution. Not one. A single state that would satisfy the national aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians is simply not feasible; the Hamas massacre, its aftermath, and how this war is perceived by Israelis and Palestinians further point to the impracticability of the one-state option.
The slogan “from the river to the sea” has been in the headlines lately, but as your article makes clear, it holds various meanings for people in the region. It’s also, perhaps unfortunately, very catchy and easy to chant. How do Israelis generally view this slogan?
The governing Likud party, which is based on right-wing Zionist ideology, once promoted the same idea, but it discarded it decades ago. Although some defenders of the pro-Palestinian “from the river to the sea” chant, such as Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), argue that it is an innocuous aspirational call for “freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence,” the majority of Israelis, supporters of Israel, and world Jewry views this slogan as a call for the annihilation of Israel. A mid-November survey found that 75% of Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip support a Palestinian state from the river to the sea, as opposed to either a one-state or two-state solution for two peoples. In other words, for the vast majority of Palestinians, the “from the river to the sea” slogan means precisely what it says it means. It’s regarded as deeply offensive to Israelis and their supporters abroad.