Trump’s use of the phrase opened up a debate about its many meanings.
by David Makovsky
It’s fitting that the Israelis and Palestinians, who cannot agree on how to solve their conflict, don’t even agree on its terms. Take the phrase “one-state solution,” which recently popped up in the news when President Donald Trump mentioned it in a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What is the “one-state solution”? It means very different things to different people.
Israeli settlers and their sympathizers see a one-state solution as meaning Israel should be sovereign not just over Israel according to pre-1967 lines, but also over the entire West Bank (what some refer to as Greater Israel).
To some Palestinians, a one-state solution means no Israel whatsoever, but rather a binational state in Israel and the West Bank. In using the term, they invoke definitions established in the early 20th century, when Jews were a minority in the region and the presumption was that any “one state” based on demographics would be Palestinian. The same assumption underlies many contemporary calls, particularly by leftist academics and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporters, for a one-state solution based on “one person, one vote.”
However, neither definition is realistic, because neither people is going to disappear. The first definition assumes the Palestinians will melt away, or at least become willing to live under Israeli rule. The second definition assumes Israel will agree to disband its nationalist framework and thus self-destruct. Understandably, then, people do not react to the “one state” idea with equanimity. Neither approach is going to happen, or should happen.
It’s easy to see why the first definition is unfair to Palestinians, but what is the problem with the familiar-sounding “one person, one vote”? The answer is that most Mideast nations are not yet what are called “post-ethnic” states, nor will they be any time soon. In most, the primary identities are largely ethnic and religious, not citizenship-based. This is not unique to Israelis and Palestinians: Virtually no multi-sectarian state in the region is at peace. The one-state framework has not solved multi-ethnic or multi-sectarian conflict; rather, the conflicts have turned inward. The bloodiest conflicts in the region are in systems where one sectarian group seeks to gain internal advantage over the other. Think killing fields in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Of course, each conflict has its own dynamic and needs to be handled with extreme caution. I am not advocating breaking up those states. But why start another one-state approach in a place where you already have a deep-seated conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? These two peoples speak different languages, and each feels traumatized by what it considers the long-term misdeeds of the other. Joining them in a state would be a recipe for constant bloodshed in a relentless internal battle for advantage. It should be avoided at all costs.
The good news is that mainstream Israelis and Palestinians actually know this, so the idea of “one state” is a nonstarter. Even those to Netanyahu’s right apparently understand its dangers. In a little-noticed radio interview in Israel in late February, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, an ally of right-wing Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, conceded that annexing the entire West Bank would lead to the “end of the Jewish state”—seemingly recognizing that the collapse of the Palestinian Authority would probably result in demands for “one person, one vote” by an Israeli Arab/Palestinian population that could nearly triple in size almost at once.
Even talking about a one-state solution does Israel no favors: When Trump mentioned “one state” at the February press conference, Netanyahu studiously avoided endorsing the idea, making clear that Israel does not want to annex 2.75 million West Bank Palestinians. This makes sense not just substantively but strategically: Arab states—whose support for peace efforts both the U.S. and Israel say they want—are unlikely to facilitate negotiations if the intended route is an Israeli-endorsed one-state approach. The famously risk-averse Arab governments want to be seen at home as advocating on behalf of the Palestinians, not capitulating to Israeli demands. If the Israelis indicate that “one state” is something they want—regardless of exactly what they mean by it—Arab leaders will reap no political advantages from remotely associating themselves with such a process.
Given all these improbabilities, Trump’s comment may have been an offhand bid to remain publicly noncommittal for now rather than signal a genuine policy shift. The administration did not conduct a major policy review beforehand that would justify such a momentous change. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to two states the day after Trump’s comment.
The real controversy that Netanyahu must grapple with—as he suggested in the press conference—centers not so much on choosing one state vs. two but on defining a two-state solution’s character. This challenge is one of the main reasons why previous peace talks collapsed. Netanyahu has long insisted that the combination of Hamas-driven Palestinian rejectionism and dangerous regional instability means Israel must be granted overriding security responsibility over any future Palestinian state, noting that many other countries have accepted similar limitations on sovereignty. The Palestinians agree that their state will be non-militarized, but they have rejected other elements of Netanyahu’s security demands.
The one-state/two-state shuffle obscures these underlying issues—but it also overshadows the fact that Trump once again expressed a desire to broker a final-status agreement during his presidency. There is no domestic political constituency pushing him toward such involvement, so his repeated calls for it seem like a genuine signal of executive-level interest in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process.