(Unequal) One State Reality (Democratic) One State Idea


I would include this on a syllabus and am recommending here this professional collection of relatively short but richly sourced “memos” exploring the guts of the One State Reality in Israel and Palestine by social science and Israel and Palestine experts. Straightforward is the common assumption that there is an unequal, undemocratic one state reality of permanent occupation/de facto annexation in the West Bank territories ruled by Israel (military rule, consolidation of lands, settlements, systems of segregation). Raised also are serious questions about the stability of that one state reality and critical weak points re: the realization of the democratic one state idea.

The critical weak points are more interesting because they are not uncontestable. What is contestable is not the notion that there is an unequal one state reality, but that the one state reality is stable and “permanent.” I am not convinced that there is no scenario under which Israel would give up the vast majority of West Bank territories. To that point is that the entire one state scheme depends on the de-nationalization of one and/or two national communities. Is national identity as constructed or “imagined”? Could Israeli Jews and Palestinians see past national and cultural difference for social and political commonalities. Lastly is the depressing realization that creating a democratic one-state reality could take another one hundred years.

A possible takeaway is that one can recognize the existence of the (undemocratic) one state reality while maintaining serious doubts about the (democratic) one state idea.

Below is a digest of the material that I found most useful:Israel/Palestine: Exploring A One State Reality,  edited by Marc Lynch, Nathan Brown and Michael Barnett (POMEPS Studies, 41, July 2020)

–Ramifications of One State Reality (Editors Intro)

The editors set up the parameters of and questions raised by the issue:

“The deeper questions revolve around the emergent political entity itself. What kind of Israeli and Palestinian politics would evolve within a recognized one-state reality? How sustainable are dual institutions and differentiated citizenships? How permanent and irreversible are the sorts of physical barriers and settlement developments which have created these facts on the ground? Do fears of Apartheid or the fears for democracy of an effective Jewish minority still matter in a world increasingly shaped by global populism and anti-democratic forces? Which social forces would be empowered and disempowered by alternative political arrangements? Would reconciliation or co-existence at the individual or communal level be possible under new political institutions? What would such a reality mean for engagement by the Jewish diaspora and the Palestinian diaspora? What would be the role of religion and religious actors in such an Israel? What are the normative or legal obligations for justice after decades of occupation? What would become of the institutions and legacies of the Palestinian Authority? If the West Bank becomes increasingly integrated through annexation, what happens to Gaza?”

One State Reality (Ian Lustick)

The common assumption throughout the special issued is framed by Ian Lustick re: the one state reality in Israel and Palestine.

“If a solution is a pretty picture of the future combined with a plausible way to get there based on interest-driven policy decisions, then there is no “solution” in sight. There is, however, a reality. There is today one state, the State of Israel, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It is an apparatus of power, recognized by the international community, whose policies and actions decisively affect the lives of everyone in the area. Travelers from Amman crossing the Jordan River via the Allenby Bridge report the end of the inspection process as marked by a “Welcome to Israel” greeting from Israeli officials. Indeed the State of Israel collects taxes from West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, determines who enters and leaves those areas, who enjoys rights to property, and who can live, build, or even visit where. Even the Trump-Kushner-Netanyahu “plan” or “vision” for the future testifies to the one-state reality. While labelling the future it delineates as featuring two states, the description it offers shows in remarkable detail that there does and will exist only one state between the river and the sea. That state is Israel, with full prerogatives to decide what half a dozen walled in ghettos will be permitted to call themselves, with an effective monopoly of force throughout the land, and with full rights to deploy its military power when and as it sees fit inside any of the ghettos. In its current form, the Israeli state is no group’s “pretty picture.” Neither its operating rules nor its institutional contours are what any group, in the past, strived to bring about. It was achieved by no one’s carefully implemented plan. It is not a solution but an outcome—a one-state reality.”


Once the one-state reality is accepted as political ontology, exciting opportunities for rethinking old slogans, worries, conflicts, and obsessions are opened to analysts and activists. Why be concerned with more Jews moving to West Bank settlements if that means less pressure on Arab communities in the Galilee? Why object to the “unification of Jerusalem” if it offers the eventual prospect of a capital shared by all Palestinians and Jews living between the river and the sea? Why discourage Arabs in East Jerusalem from voting in municipal elections out of fear that by doing so they could “legitimize the occupation,” when their votes might advance equality, living conditions, and democratic values, to say nothing of demonstrating a pathway into the future based on Jewish-Arab alliances? In that regard, why continue raising the “demographic demon,” as a specter capable of frightening Israelis into leaving the territories, when Israeli rule of those territories is permanent? Under the circumstances of a one-state reality, frightening Jews with the presence of Arabs only bolsters the Israeli right-wing by Jews discouraging Jews from discovering the vital social, economic, and political interests they share with Arabs, both those currently enfranchised and those who, eventually, can be enfranchised.”

–Constitutional Arrangements

“Waking Up to the One-State Reality,” Yousef Munayyer

Munayer’s most original contribution here relates to possible constitutional arrangements as way forward in realizing the idea of a democratic one-state.

“In place of that legal patchwork, which has been used to protect the rights of some and to deny the rights of others, a new constitution could recognize that the country would be home to both peoples and that, despite national narratives and voices on either side that claim otherwise, both peoples have historical ties to the land.

A new constitution could define as citizens all the people living in the land between the river and the sea and also for repatriated refugees and create pathways to citizenship for immigrants. All citizens would enjoy full civil and political rights, including the freedom of movement, religion, speech, and association. All citizens would be equal before the law: the state would be forbidden from discriminating on the basis of ethnicity or religion. In sum, it would require a reorientation of the concept of citizenship in the state, from a category of exclusion, to a category of inclusion.

In order for such a state to function, those constitutional principles would have to be considered foundational, and they would be subject to a very high bar for amendment- -much higher than other laws, perhaps 90% or greater. This would ensure that basic rights could not be altered by means of a simple majority and would prohibit any one group from using a demographic advantage to alter the nature of the state. Other mechanisms for robust checks and balances should be considered.”


“Israel, Palestine, and the prospects for denationalization,” Nadav G. Shelef

A one state solution would require the de-nationalization of one and/or two national communities, but Shelef thinks the prospects are dim.

Shelef identifies 3 types of De-nationalization:  

[1] Substitution “The first form of denationalization involves a political project to substitute membership in one national community for membership in a different national community by changing the criteria used to decide national membership…In the Israeli-Palestinian context, outcomes that envision all individuals currently living within the bounds of Mandatory Palestine as equal members of a single state without any special status for the groups within it (Jewish or Palestinian), tend to assume that, to succeed, these individuals would substitute a self-understanding of their relevant political community as the “Isratine” nation (to use Qaddafi’s term) for their self-understanding as primarily members of the Israeli or Palestinian nations.”  

[2] Replacement The second form of denationalization replaces the politically relevant national (and therefore both imagined and limited) community with one that is either not limited or not imagined. Whereas denationalization by substitution focuses on activating other nominal national identities, denationalization by replacement focuses on activating non-national identities. Radicals in both nations also assume that denationalization by replacement will occur when they “permit” Palestinians or Jews, depending on who is making the argument, to remain in the state they dominate as long as the other group organizes its identity along religious or local, rather than national, lines. Ironically, a similar assumption is made by some, usually on the other side of the political spectrum, who assume that the salience of national identification as a whole will decline, thereby solving the root cause of the conflict.”

[3] DownshiftThe third form of denationalization involves shifting away from the fundamental nationalist goal of achieving collective control of the nation’s political destiny. In an extreme form of denationalization by downshifting, a group stops mobilizing for any collective control of their political destiny, effectively transforming itself into a “mere” ethnic group (for this distinction between nations and ethnic groups, see, e.g., Connor, 1978). In a more moderate (and likely) form, groups mobilized to achieve national self-determination downshift their goal from independent sovereignty to autonomy within a state controlled by a different national group. This form of de-nationalization is considerably more relevant for nations that do not yet have sovereignty, though, in principle, it could also apply to already sovereign nations. The successful emergence of a single state in the area of Mandatory Palestine based on some consociational arrangement between Jews and Palestinians assumes that at least one, if not both, of the nationalist movements in the Israeli-Palestinian space will denationalize by downshifting.”

Prospects: “Here, I turn from the theoretical unpacking of denationalization to considering briefly the four main denationalization possibilities. This explicit consideration of denationalization shows that the even if the “surgical” option of territorial division appears increasingly less likely to be implemented, the prognosis of the alternative treatments is also not optimistic. Although theoretically possible, the denationalization of Zionists, Palestinian nationalists, or both, required by outcomes that do not engage in territorial division do not seem any more likely.

To begin with, the various denationalization projects currently active in Israel and Palestine remain minority positions. Fewer than 20% of Israeli Jews and fewer than a third of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip support one-state solutions; solutions that would, by definition, require some form of denationalization. The fact that such solutions garner a relatively small following, even among the Palestinians who have comparatively more to gain from them, suggests that denationalization projects have a steep hill to climb. While these constituencies are large enough that they may “trap” political movements into supporting a form of denationalization, the deep religious, ethnic, and ideological divides within this population makes it less likely that proponents of denationalization will be able to appeal to all of them simultaneously, reducing the likelihood of this particular pathway. In other words, in the current context, it is hard to see how movements supporting denationalization win the domestic political battle.

Second, a single state imposed from the outside could presumably use the tools available to any state in order to, over time, denationalize the population by substituting a different nationalism for Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. As noted above, to succeed, such an effort would need to both overcome the inevitable attempts of spoilers to derail such a project and to erase the economic distinctions between Jews and Palestinians in order to drain (existing) nationalist mobilization of its appeal. While not impossible, this would be a daunting task. Other potential denationalization projects are even weaker. Attempts to replace national identification with nonnational identities, for example, do not have much traction in either society. In fact, the main attempts to promote a religious identity in place of a national one experienced the triumph of nationalism over religious identification. Among Palestinians, the emergence of Hamas in the late 1980s reflected the cooptation of religious identity by Palestinian nationalism. Among Jews, the Haredim, once fiercely anti-nationalist and insulated from mainstream Israeli society, are increasingly adopting a nationalist perspective. Indeed, about half of the Jewish population that self-identifies as Haredi also identifies as Zionist. In other words, denationalization by replacement is unlikely to take place any time soon.

Denationalization by downshifting seems a bit more likely, though it too faces significant hurdles. Abandoning the desire for self-determination, something that has been the very raison-d’etre of Palestinian nationalism since the 1960s and something that has actually been achieved by Zionists is a steep demand to make of both. At the very least, more work needs to be done to understand the conditions under which groups that have sovereignty become willing (or resigned) to give it up. We also know relatively little about how and why movements for selfdetermination change their goals, and how autonomy rather than independence becomes constructed as appropriate. At a minimum, our relative ignorance about these processes should make us less sanguine about the prospects of political projects – like annexation or the formalization of the one-state reality – that assume that denationalization in such contexts would automatically occur.”

–Creating a one democratic state in Israel and Palestine will take another 100 years

Ian Lustick predicts, Processes of democratization, through which masses of historically distrusted, despised, or feared inhabitants are enfranchised, don’t happen over periods of months or years. Consider how long it took for blacks in the United States to move from slavery through Jim Crow and the civil rights movement to something approaching a multi-racial democracy. It took eighty years, following Ireland’s annexation by Britain, for Irish Catholic enfranchisement and the transformation of politics in the United Kingdom that resulted. Black South Africans struggled for generations to gain political equality. In virtually all advanced industrial societies, mobilization for female suffrage took just as long to come to fruition. Israel cannot and will not decolonize by ending its dominion over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it can still decolonize—by respecting the equal rights of all in the state that rules them to full and equal citizenship. Unfortunately, it will likely take at least as long to transform the kind of one-state that Israel is, as it took Israel to become the one-state that rules all those living between the river and the sea.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to (Unequal) One State Reality (Democratic) One State Idea

  1. Bernard Bohbot says:

    Dear, Mr. Braiterman,

    As a left-wing Zionist who is rejected by many of my fellow “progressive Zionists”, as I dare criticize the Palestinians once in a while, I must confess that I find this “intellectual exercise” totally meaningless – that includes Beinart’s essay on the revival of cultural Zionism.

    1) It’s just not true that the settlements are so entrenched that there can be no viable Palestinian state. Around 80% of the settlers live on 4% of the West Bank. As for those living in the midst of the West Bank, why can they become part of a Palestinian state, just like the 200,000 French settlers who remained in Algeria after 1962?

    2) Arguing that Israel alone is responsible for the current stalemate is sheer nonsense. The Palestinians said no to the Clinton parameters in 2001, to Olmert’s offer in 2008, and to the Kerry/Obama framework in 2014.

    3) Those who are truly interested in peace should demand that the next US Democratic administration imposes a peace plan on BOTH through a binding UN Security Council resolution, as neither Israelis nor Palestinians want peace. The rest is gossip…

    Bernard Bohbot

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