A Two-State Solution Might Soon Become Out of Reach: What Then?
Interview with Khalil Shikaki 16 November 2012

A growing number of voices seem to be questioning the applicability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while more and more people are advancing this idea of a one-state. Generally, would you agree that the idea of a one-state is slowly emerging in the discourse and what are your thoughts about this issue?

Well there is no doubt that there is an increased Palestinian and Israeli interest in this situation that is called the one-state reality. It does not necessarily mean that Israelis and Palestinians are becoming more supporting of a one-state solution. But it means that a lot of people are expressing concern and warning that the two-state solution is losing its dynamism and becoming more and more unrealistic and unfeasible, mostly because of the realities on the ground that are being created day after day by the Israeli government. Unlike other realities, whether it is right-wing tendencies or divisions and so on, this reality, building settlements, confiscating Palestinian land, increasing the size of the settlement enterprise generally, both in terms of demography and in terms of territory, is the most important dynamic that has compelled Palestinians and Israelis to begin to raise questions, to worry, and sometimes to shift their attitudes. However, in reality, not much shifting has taken place.

Overall, both the leadership and the public are reluctant to seriously consider the one-state solution. On the Palestinian side a one-state solution is a threat to Palestinian nationalism, as it is a threat to Israel’s desire to maintain its Jewish character and this applies to established political parties and leaders as well as the Israeli Jewish public. In the Palestinian case this is also true both in terms of the various factions and parties as well as the leadership, but more importantly this is also the position of the Palestinian public. Less than 30 percent of Palestinians believe that a one-state solution is something worth fighting for.

Is this a recent poll you have conducted at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR)?

Yes, our most recent survey was conducted in September 2012, and it showed basically what we have known for many years. And that is that somewhere between 25 to 30 percent of Palestinians are willing to consider a one-state solution, while 2/3 or up to 70 percent are opposed to such a solution. On the Israeli Jewish side, the percentage of supporters is much less, less than 20 percent amongst Israeli Jews, with 80 percent or more of Israeli Jews opposed to such a solution. I must say that most of the organized Jewish peace camp within Israel is not in favor of a one-state solution, most of the left and center and even the extreme left, all of them are actually opposed to a one-state solution. Confronted with this one-state reality that is unfolding in front of their own eyes today, people in Israel do not concede this reality and embrace a one-state solution, instead they advocate that Israel should unilaterally take steps to advance the two-state solution, by pulling out settlers from Palestinian areas, by conceding more jurisdiction and control over the land. So those Israelis who are frustrated by the current status quo are not looking to find a solution in a one-state paradigm and instead they argue that Israel should work to keep the two-state solution alive.

Do you believe that the two-state solution is actually failing or is there perhaps one last change for it to work?

The two-state solution is failing; it hasn’t yet completely failed because as long as you have a majority of Israelis and Palestinians who support it, one cannot say it has failed. At this point no other solution has such a majority of support and this is unprecedented, we never had such strong public support among Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution as we do now. So under this condition you cannot say that the two-state solution is dead, maybe it is dying because even though a majority of Israeli and Palestinians support the two-state solution, the truth is that more than 2/3 of Israelis and Palestinians believe that the two-state solution is difficult to implement, that it is not likely to be implemented in the next five years, and more and more people on both sides believe that the two-state solution is not practical. But again, I would like to reiterate the fact that despite this pessimistic expectation on the part of the public on both sides, the public continues to support this idea of a two-state solution.

So it appears that a one-state solution is even more difficult to achieve than two states. Is a one-state solution something of an utopian idea therefore?

Well, it is not utopian, because an utopian idea is something that people support and want and consider ideal. This is not the case, neither the Israelis or the Palestinians consider the one-state solution as an ideal solution, both publics are highly nationalist and they want their national identity expressed in sovereign territorial manner. But here we must distinguish between two things. A one-state solution coming out from negotiations or coming out as a deliberate intention of Israelis and Palestinians, this is highly unlikely to be the case at least for the next generation. For the next generation the idea that there would be an intentional outcome called a one-state solution, in my view is highly unlikely. However a reality is already unfolding today on the ground in which Palestinians and Israelis who live in the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River already essentially live a one-state reality. You can say it is a reality in the making. As I said, on a daily basis this reality is consolidated, and perhaps five years down the road, five years of right-wing government in Israel which isn’t committed to a two-state solution, as this government is, means more and more realities will be created on the ground. So in a sense therefore, we have a one-state reality that is the unintended outcome of politics that don’t actually aim at creating a one-state solution, but nonetheless this is what they end up creating. A negotiated outcome that can be called a one-state solution is something different. I’m saying this negotiated outcome towards a one-state solution is not realistic for the next generation, but a one-state outcome is something that is very realistic, as I said it is already in the making and if one adds to that expectations for the next five years or so one can see why this one-state outcome might be the most likely for the foreseeable future.

And how would this one-state work?

For it to become a bi-national state this one-state would need to come out of an agreement, out of negotiations and we are not likely to see this in the next generation. However the reality on the ground will certainly be one in which there will be two political systems, two legal systems, one applied to Jews and one to the Palestinians. This system will discriminate against Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank in favor of Israeli settlers who live in the same area, and Palestinians might find themselves years from now fighting against this system, and many of them might actually shift their view and instead of fighting for independence and separation they might actually begin fighting for equality. This doesn’t mean that small groups among the Palestinians are not already doing that. There are already groups who are organizing, who are describing this one-state reality as a system of apartheid, and asking the Palestinians to move away from the two-state paradigm and embrace a one-state in which they fight for equal citizenship in one single state. These groups are mostly young intellectuals, who do not have a strong grounding in Palestinian nationalism, so their sense of national identity is not their most important driving force.

I want to add that there are some Palestinians who advocate the one-state solution for tactical purposes, not because they are convinced that this is the best way forward. There are people that believe that the Israelis today are highly comfortable with the status quo, that they will live with the status quo for as long as possible, that it poses no threat to their safety and security and that any other solution, including a two-state solution, would require a great deal of sacrifices on their part, sacrifices that they do not want to make. And so Palestinians perceive the Israelis as being too comfortable with the status quo and therefore think that the best way to change this is to create a high threat perception in Israel, and in order to create this threat some Palestinians say let us abandon the two-state paradigm, let us essentially demand a one-state solution and by doing so we would be creating that threat perception as most of Israeli Jews would prefer to make the concessions and sacrifices required by a two-state solution rather than those that are entailed in the one-state solution. So tactically some people who actually want and support a two-state solution, do advocate a one-state paradigm in the hope that the Israelis would feel threatened by that paradigm and would thereby show willingness to abandon the status quo in favor of a two-state solution.

So moving to the two-state formula, what do you believe would be the minimum necessary in order for a Palestinians state to be viable and sustainable? Because many seem to believe that the two-state option has been overtaken by the realities on the ground. Do you believe a Palestinian state would be sustainable?

Well, if the negotiators reach an agreement, one that would entail an Israeli withdrawal from the areas occupied in 1967, along with limited land swaps in some areas, such a solution would be acceptable to a majority of Israelis and Palestinians and that under the present conditions such a solution can be implemented. Israelis and Palestinians on both sides will support it and the realities on the ground that I described earlier, which are very oppressive, serious and damming realities, I think are nonetheless reversible. So I believe that a two-state solution is not out of reach yet, it might become out of reach soon though, given the current dynamics, both in terms of what is being done on the ground today and what is likely to be the case in the next five years or so, with more right wing control and governments in Israel, so if one looks at it this way, one can conclude that while we are still able to do something today about a two-state solution, this might not be the case five years down the road.

We haven’t talked much about Gaza and Hamas. How does Gaza fit into this debate about one or two-states?

Under the present conditions, Gaza constitutes 40 percent of the Palestinian population but only 6 percent of the Palestinian areas that were under Arab control in 1967. So some Israelis, in terms of cold calculations, find that it makes strategic sense for Israel to live in a one-state reality with the West Bank rather than with one that also includes the Gaza Strip because then that would immediately increase the number of Palestinians in this one-state reality by 1.5 million. So in terms of these cold calculations, this is more about demography, and for some Israelis, Israeli Jews would still outnumber Palestinian Arabs in the areas that would exclude the Gaza strip. But the reality is that this is only temporary, because sooner or later one of two things is likely to happen. More Palestinians in the West Bank means that sooner or later this demographic balance could change in favor of the Palestinians. And secondly the nature of the relationship between Israel and Gaza might change, I mean, given the fact that Gaza remains under Hamas and given the tensions between the two sides, conflict in the future cannot be ruled out, that Israel might at one point in the future re-occupy the Gaza Strip bringing under its control those 1.5 million Palestinians. This is not a farfetched scenario. The potential for conflict and re-occupation of Gaza by Israel is very real. And so Gaza remains essentially for now a question mark as to where it might go if a one-state scenario continues to be consolidated. Hamas certainly doesn’t want to be part of a one-state reality and therefore will try to defend its own independence and control in Gaza and will try to consolidate its sovereignty in the Gaza Strip. This would certainly be a counter dynamic to the one-state reality, but at the same time as I said the potential for conflict would remain great. So if you were an Israeli you certainly see the benefit or the advantage of separating the West Bank from Gaza, in the hope that in the West Bank, where Israel has much greater stakes and interests, both in terms of demography as well as territory, Israel would maintain the current status quo of occupation and one-state reality.

How important is the demographic issue when debating one-state or two-states?

Demography is a critical factor for both Israelis and Palestinians, but more so for the Israelis in particular since they are the ones that can make a decision. For the Palestinians the decision has been made, they want independence, they want sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, they have the overwhelming majority, there is no demographic threat as far as they are concerned, even if all the settlers decide to stay in the Palestinian territory and become Palestinian citizens there wouldn’t be much demographic tension. But in the case of Israel, the large number of Palestinians involved does constitute in the eyes of Israeli Jews a demographic “threat,” because it threatens the Jewish nature of the state they want. They want a state that has a Jewish character but adding 4 million Palestinians to their state, in addition to the 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs who are already citizens of Israel, means that basically soon there would be parity between Jews and Arabs and that is a very serious demographic threat as Israeli Jews perceive it. This is important because, this is exactly why over time a majority of Israelis have come to the conclusion that a two-state solution is imperative, that there must be a two-state solution. So again it’s about the various costs involved, because Israelis are comfortable with the status quo for now, but the idea of creating a Palestinian state, within the context of two-states, gradually emerged within Israeli society in part as a result of Israel’s demographic fears.

What are your thoughts on the Arab uprisings and how do you believe they might affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

For the time being I don’t think that the Arab uprisings will result in a greater push for resolving the conflict. The Arab Spring has shifted Arab attention away from the Arab-Israeli issues to more domestic issues, so the Arab Spring has essentially marginalized the Palestinian question and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In addition to that the Arab Spring has also removed from power leaders and regimes, such as Mubarak’s in Egypt, that have in the past contributed to managing Israeli-Palestinian relations, so in the short-term there will be much less attention paid and much less management of the conflict, leading it to further stagnation or a possible explosion into a major crisis. As to the long and medium term, there is no doubt that the rise of Islamism might create an environment that might not be conducive for Arab-Israeli peace. We already see today that the Israeli right wing’s perception of the Arab Spring is one that sees threats and uncertainty and this is leading right wing groups and leaders in Israel, like Netanyahu, to conclude that Israel cannot under these conditions of uncertainty make deals with the Palestinians, deals that might involve major Israeli territorial concessions that might weaken in their view Israel’s ability to maintain a strategic advantage. So the Arab Spring is pushing Israelis, the current Israeli government, into excluding negotiations from the options available to it in terms of dealing with the evolving reality. So in other words the Arab Spring has already had negative consequences in terms of how the Israelis perceive the region, leading to greater Israeli commitment to the status quo, and in terms of how the Palestinians see interest in their conditions in the Arab world, leading to greater Palestinian anger and frustration. Yet, in the long term, with the rise of Islamism, what might be feasible today might be less feasible tomorrow and therefore it doesn’t look like the Arab Spring will bring about greater support or impetus for a two-state solution.

Khalil Shikaki was interviewed by Andrea Dessì