Last Thursday, during both the question-and-answer period and the sporadic debates among audience members that followed Benny Morris’ lecture, I heard the same arguments for a one-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that have dominated the debate for the past four years. All tend to pivot on a single position: Israel, like any other democratic country, should be a state of all its citizens, not a Jewish one. While rhetorical emphasis on equality and democracy make this argument rather appealing, it conflates Israel’s treatment of its own citizens — both Jewish and not — with its policies toward Palestinian refugees. To understand the real implications of a one-state solution, it is necessary first to distinguish between the two issues and then to highlight the ramifications of a one-state solution for the futures of the Palestinian and Jewish peoples.
The first part of the argument suggests that Israel’s Jewish character makes it an anomaly amongst liberal democracies. But Israel does not stand alone in the international community as the only democratic country that officially recognizes an identity to which a sizable minority of its citizens does not ascribe. Just as England, Norway, Denmark and Greece are states of all their citizens while simultaneously proclaiming official Christian identities, Israel grants all of its citizens — including 1.2 million Arabs — equal rights and liberties while maintaining an official Jewish identity. The role this identity plays in Israel is limited to national holidays, the national anthem and the country’s flag. This is not to say that Israel, like any other country, cannot do more to make sure all of its citizens, especially minorities, experience full de jure and de facto equality. It can and must. But Israel’s Jewish identity does not make it any less democratic than those countries that are generally considered amongst the world’s most liberal states.
The argument’s proponents counter that Israel does not in fact have de jure equality for all its citizens because of its Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew who wishes to move to the state of Israel. But while this law gives preference to Jews, it does not privilege any Israeli citizen over another. It addresses the basis for citizenship, not the rights of existing citizens, and this type of law is shared by many other nations. While some countries, like the United States, primarily favor potential immigrants based on their expected economic contributions to the state, others, including Greece, Ireland and Germany, also grant automatic citizenship to members of specific ethnic and national groups. Israel is far from anomalous in having such a preference.
Proponents of the one-state solution confuse the discussion by highlighting the asymmetry between Israel’s Law of Return and its refusal to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees or generations of their descendants. To remedy this situation, they suggest Israel grant citizenship to all Palestinian refugees who desire such. But the asymmetry this position seeks to address has nothing to do with Israel’s policies toward its own citizens. Rather, it deals with immigration laws and proposes an answer to the question of how the Palestinian refugee problem should be solved.
Notwithstanding justifications for Israel’s treatment of Palestinian refugees, the bottom line is this: From a pragmatic viewpoint, granting Palestinian refugees citizenship in Israel proper could be one of the most catastrophic experiments in human history. Unfortunately, since the early 1900s — well before the State of Israel’s establishment — Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine have been engaged in one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. Like any conflict of such magnitude, what is needed is a separation of the two parties, not their marriage. The right of return, however, proposes that the two peoples, who have been killing each other for more than a century, share one state and engage in an experiment of human ability to overcome fear and hatred of a historical enemy.
There is no way to know with certainty what would ensue if Israel accepted a right of return and millions of Palestinians immigrated to Israel. Perhaps Jews and Palestinians would defy over 100 years of animosity and live in peace and harmony. Perhaps they would merely struggle for political power through democratic elections. Unfortunately, however, civil war is the most likely outcome. Similar situations in Yugoslavia, Lebanon and Sri Lanka — in which peoples with long histories of conflict were expected to coexist within a single country — all ended in chaotic bloodshed and the collapse of ordered government. Internal warfare and a breakdown of civil society are the unfortunate norms in such situations; peaceful coexistence is a fanciful wish.
While not without challenges of its own, a two-state solution, in which Palestinian refugees are granted a right of return to a separate Palestinian state and paid reparations for their losses, offers far superior prospects for success. It would allow both peoples to focus on their own development rather than the threats posed by the other, and it would allow for a cooling-off period that could potentially open the door to greater cooperation and tolerance between the two peoples. A one-state solution, contrarily, would be one of the greatest gambles in world history. It is imprudent at best and totally inconsiderate of the futures of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples at worst.
Ayalon Eliach is a senior in Trumbull College.