For nearly three decades, governments around the world have insisted that the best way to end the most intractable conflict in the Middle East is to trade land for peace, creating an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But these days, as Palestinians see prospects for the so-called two-state solution disintegrating, a growing number are mulling over a provocative alternative: a single binational state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.
The notion is the equivalent of a demographic Trojan horse, forcing Israel either to give Arab residents full voting rights — and jeopardize the Jewish identity upon which Israel was created in 1948 — or risk becoming an apartheid state under permanent sanction by the rest of the world.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned of the risk Wednesday in what he described as a “fundamental reality” for the two sides to consider: “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic — it cannot be both — and it won’t ever really be at peace.”
For Palestinians, the renewed calls to consider a "one-state solution" come as the peace process is at one of its lowest ebbs. Negotiations have been mothballed for three years, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are under steady expansion, and there are continuing calls by Israeli politicians to annex part of the West Bank.
President-elect Donald Trump’s victory and the prominence of patrons of the Israeli settlements in his close circle of advisors have only compounded the skepticism. A December public opinion poll found that two-thirds of Palestinians believe a two-state solution is no longer feasible.
The alternative, many argue, is an invitation to Israel to swallow Palestine.
“Many people support the idea,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian legislator and a former candidate for president. “If the two-state solution is physically unattainable, we have only one option: A struggle to gain full and equal democratic rights in one state, in the land of historic Palestine.”
Once limited to small groups of politically independent weekly protesters against Israel’s military occupation, the idea is now being widely discussed. Palestinian intellectuals, businessmen and political officials who long championed the two-state solution are starting to strategize about what some argue is an already existing one-state reality.
“Because of the lack of a political horizon, the inability of the sides to sit down together, because of the reality on the ground of expanding settlements and road checkpoints, people started to believe that the two-state solution is dead,’’ said Bashar Azzeh, a youth activist and marketing director at the Wassel Group, a Palestinian logistics company.
“Some people are saying: Let’s demand full human and civil rights rather than national rights; then maybe the international community will listen to us.’’
In Al Birah, Ramallah’s twin city, the municipal soccer stadium sits on a ridge just a few hundred yards from the red-roofed homes of the Israeli settlement of Psagot on the opposite hilltop. Wasfi Nawajah, a coach in a warm-up suit, complained that his southern West Bank village had no permits to build a gym, while the neighboring Israeli settlement was free to build sports facilities and expand.
“The Palestinians are only suffering from the peace process. The situation is tough. Many people are losing hope,’’ Nawajah said.
A poll this month by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found a nearly 10-percentage-point jump over the last three months of Palestinians who say the two-state solution is no longer viable. Support for a one-state solution has advanced in the same period to 36% from 32%.
“This is a major change, a significant erosion in the viability of the two-state solution,’’ Khalil Shikaki, the director of the polling center, said in a lecture at the Jerusalem Press Club. “Today, we don’t have majority support for the two-state solution. What has gone up is support for the one-state solution.’’
Slackening support can be found in Israel as well as in the incoming U.S. administration. Donald Trump’s nomination of David Friedman, a longtime patron of the Israeli settlement of Beit El, suggests the new administration might no longer champion negotiations toward a Palestinian state as did previous U.S. presidents.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who advocates annexation of 60% of the West Bank and “autonomy on steroids” for Palestinians in the remaining areas, in November declared the end of “the era” of the Palestinian state.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he remains committed to “two states for two peoples,’’ but when he was asked by an Israeli journalist on the eve of the 2015 election whether he expected the creation of a Palestinian state on his watch, he said no. The prime minister and his aides say Israel needs to reach security agreements with surrounding Arab governments before a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Most in Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party and Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Home party have never given up on the contention that Israel has a historical and even divine right to all of the biblical land of Israel. For larger swaths of Israel’s population, ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is seen as a security risk too big to take.
A one-state campaign would mark a sea change in strategy for the Palestinian leadership, which has been pushing for Palestinian statehood alongside Israel since the early 1990s. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has staked his political career on a nonviolent campaign to negotiate for a Palestinian state and has given no signs that he’s about to change. At a recent convention of his political party, Fatah, the dominant political force in the West Bank, there was no discussion of a shift in official strategy.
“We still believe that the two-state solution is the best solution,’’ said a senior Palestinian official who was not authorized to speak openly on policy. “However, if Israel chooses to annex, that’s the end of the West Bank. Once the idea of a two-state solution is over, the only thing you have left is one state.”
The notion of a single binational state — which would have roughly equal numbers of Arabs and Jews — has long been an anathema to many Israeli Jews because it would mean a radical makeover of Israel’s identity as a “Jewish state.’’
“It would mean the end of Zionism,’’ said the senior Palestinian official.
Israel’s Arab minority already accounts for 20% of the country’s population. Arab Israelis make up about 15% of the parliament, but because parties representing them don’t join government coalitions, only one Arab has ever served as a Cabinet minister. There has been only a single Arab on Israel’s Supreme Court.
In recent years, demographers have projected that the total number of Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will eventually surpass that of the Jewish population. On Thursday, the Palestinian statistics bureau said demographic parity would be reached by the end of 2017.
Though Israel’s leading demographers generally concur with the Palestinian numbers, Yoram Ettinger, a former diplomat from the Likud Party, has called those projections “demographic scaremongering” aimed at spreading “faintheartedness and fatalism” among Jews. He and some others contend the estimates of Palestinian population are inflated and the projections are incorrect; in fact, they say, Arab birthrates are declining and Jewish rates are increasing.
A binational state, many Palestinians believe, presents a new opportunity to pressure Israelis who fear becoming a minority in their own homeland. They envision waging a campaign evoking black South Africans’ struggle against white majority rule that would tarnish Israel’s democratic credentials.
“The meaning of a state in all of the occupied territories can have two alternatives,” Ziad Abuzayyad, a former Palestinian minister, told Israel Radio this month. “Either Israel becomes an apartheid state that ignores the Arabs, or it will give rights to the residents there and there will be a binational state. You decide.”
Sam Bahour, an American-Palestinian businessman, has argued that Palestinians must focus their energy on a campaign to gain more economic, movement and water rights, while not giving up on the possibility of establishing a separate Palestinian state at some point in the future.
“The thinking is very logical that we have reached a dead end on the practicality of two states, so people are reaching to think for alternatives,’’ he said in an interview. “No one has articulated what people are talking about in coffee shops into a political program. I don’t think [one-state] is political thinking; it’s frustration thinking.”
Indeed, Palestinian officials are reluctant to officially jettison support for a two-state solution because the idea still has the support of the international community. In recent years, the United Nations and international bodies have recognized a “state of Palestine” in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
For most Palestinians, that remains the dream. But many like Samer Abd al-Kareem Omar say they are willing to part with the dream of an independent state if it means economic prosperity, physical security and equality.
In a cafe full of water-pipe smoke across from Al Birah, Omar, a 40-year-old computer teacher, said his family lost several acres of agricultural land to the construction of Israel’s West Bank barrier. Omar traverses military checkpoints daily. For him, a single “undeclared state” already exists, he said.
“The two peoples live together. What is wrong with living on equal footing? This is the ideal situation,’’ he said. “People need to look after their future and their personal interests—national claims are not everything.”
Mitnick is a special Los Angeles Times correspondent.