Why a One-State Solution Won’t Work
Interview with Aaron David Miller 16 November 2012

As someone who has been personally involved on the diplomatic front in trying to negotiate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a prolific writer on various aspects of this predicament, can you outline your thoughts and objections to this idea of a one-state solution?

Well first of all the one-state solution is not a solution it’s an outcome, and the tragic reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict right now is that there are no solutions readily available; there are only outcomes. Now when we talk about outcomes we talk about the least bad outcomes and right now it seems to me that the two-state solution is too big to succeed and too complicated to succeed but also too big to fail. That is to say it has garnered so much legitimacy and authority within the international community, within the Palestinian and Israeli communities and within the American diplomatic establishment that abandonment of it seems to me to be highly improbable. If there were a compelling alternative that can actually be worked on by the parties themselves or even an outcome or a solution that the international community would be prepared to endorse then I would be a little less pessimistic about its chances for success, but the one-state solution is not anything that anyone could actively try to promote or work towards and that is why it is an option not a solution. It is fundamentally flawed because it fails to answer the mail on the three or four requirements of what is necessary to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Number one; what is required here is not a marriage but a divorce by way of an amicable separation, and the one-state solution suggests a marriage, it suggests a merging of Israeli and Palestinian identities in some not very well thought through concept of a one-state entity that would somehow harmonize and accommodate Israeli and Palestinian needs. But the fact is that the Middle East is without any precedent for a successful, stable entity of that character, in fact what you have is all of the arguments brought up by the proponents of two-states, you have Lebanon which is a classic case in point, Lebanon can no longer harmonize its sectarian and political identities into one state where the central government exercises authority and the various confessional groups can surrender power to the state on the assumption that it will be exercised wisely on their behalf. Cyprus might be a solution, but even in Cyprus you essentially have partition, Iraq is tending towards decentralization, Syria the same, so there is no example in the Middle East today of anything that remotely resembles what those who argue for a one-state would be suggesting for Israelis and Palestinians. Number two; proximity is the problem that Israelis and Palestinians have, they are literally living on top of each other, and as one of our great political thinkers, Benjamin Franklin once said “proximity breeds children, but it also breeds contempt”. The problem that Israelis and Palestinians have is not that they don’t understand one another, they understand each other all too well, and what that means is that they must separate into two separate and discrete national identities, there is no other solution other than two-states, no matter how imperfect, flawed or improbable it looks today. There is no other solution that really deals with the proximity issue nor is there any other solution that deals with the reality that nationalism is still the most violent form of organization and of political entities in the world today. So, while I would never say to you right now that we are on the verge, or anywhere close, of achieving a conflict ending agreement, the fact that we cannot achieve two-states should not impel us to embrace a solution that virtually has no chance of success, and secondly we would probably sow the seeds for a conflict that is worse than the one we already have.

So you see talk of this one-state as something of a utopian idea?

Well it is a prophetless, pointless, meaningless exercise and its driven by frustration on the Palestinian side, by tremendous resentment of Israel’s occupation among those who cannot produce, either, on the Palestinians side, because they lack a military strategy to end the occupation by force, which they do, or they lack a diplomatic strategy to essentially unify the Palestinian national movement, truly unify it, I mean the issue now is not even one or two-states its three states, what you have right now is a three state approach. You have Israel with its residual authority in Gaza and the West Bank, you have the Palestinian Authority which is a dysfunctional although admirable entity which has done quite a bit in terms of state building and then you have Hamas which is consolidating its power and control in Gaza and the longer that separation continues the longer that consolidation and the hardening of those political, economic and physiological lines will be. You couldn’t even convince the Palestinians of a one-state solution today. So, to end this point, this issue of a one-state option comes up periodically, it is in my judgment totally without merit, it is a default position of those who have either given up or given in. And I understand the frustration, because I think the notion of negotiating two-states right now between this Israeli government and this Palestinian Authority is virtually unthinkable, but that’s no reason to embrace a solution that is even more implausible, and frankly is not a solution at all. It is not going to be embraced by the mainstream players who will likely determine the future state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a thought experiment at best.

So let’s shift back to the two-state solution, do you in fact believe that a future Palestinian state would be sustainable?

Well, it’s all doable. It’s doable if you have Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are prepared to pay the price. We overcomplicate this, we truly overcomplicate it. You give me an Israeli leader who is prepared to meet Palestinian requirements on Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees and a Palestinian leader who is prepared to meet Israeli needs and requirements on the same issues plus a recognition of Israel as the nation of the Jewish people, the so-called fifth element, which has now become a fundamental part of the negotiating process at least on the Israeli and, I suspect, the American side too, you give me leaders who are prepared to do that and you can have a two-state solution, but you don’t have those leaders, you just don’t have them. And without the kind of ownership that is required on the part of Israelis and Palestinians there is little or nothing an international mediator, however well intentioned, can do on this matter.

So broadly speaking the blueprint for a two-state solution in already there on the table, the reference points on borders, Jerusalem and refugees are all there, what is lacking is both a third party mediator that is willing to put pressure on both sides and a realization by Israeli and Palestinian leaders that compromise is the only way forward?

First of all I don’t accept this proposition, that everybody knows the solution so somehow it should make it easier to get there, it’s an illusion. I was one of the twelve Americans at Camp David which was the last truly serious negotiation that Israelis and Palestinians had on these matters and let me tell you we were not close to an agreement then [2000] and we are not close to an agreement now. So the notion that somehow everybody generally knows what the party’s requirements are trivializes the difficulties in getting there. It’s never been a matter of the absence of cleaver diplomatic formula and cleaver fixes on these issues, it’s the absence of political will, and whether or not, at a practical level, these needs and requirements can actually be reconciled, we assume that they can, we assume that on Jerusalem both sides will reach a common position, but that may or may not be the case, we just don’t know. And it’s the same on every other issue. Now on territory, where most work has been done, arguably the gaps have narrowed, but even there really difficult issues remain and need to be joined. So it trivializes the whole thing, we want to make ourselves feel better by assuming somehow that everybody knows the following; there have to be two-states, Jerusalem will have to be the capital of both states, there will have to be security arrangements that meet Israeli security needs and the Palestinian desire for sovereignty and there has to be some resolution of the refugee issue which deals with a variety of aspects, compensation, rehabilitation, absorption, some historic recognition by the Israelis of the refugee problem, some limited return of refugees to Israel proper perhaps, unlimited return to a Palestinian state, but these are general principles, and once you state those there is still a lot of work to be done.

You don’t have much hope for the near future?

It depends what you mean by the near future. If you mean over the next six months, no I have no faith, but look, the government of Israel has just called for new elections which will probably be held in January or February. You have other priorities in this region, it is burning and boiling, you have Syria, concern over the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Iran which is a big issue, on which there is going to have to be some clarity before the Israeli-Palestinian issue could be taken up seriously. Then there is concern over instability in Jordan, I mean everywhere you turn there is another headache.

So the Arab Spring has further overshadowed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Yes, I think it has complicated it greatly.

So in this interim period, if we continue going on in the foreseeable future, for three, four, five years, with new facts on the ground being established in Israeli settlements, with land in the West Bank becoming less and less, are we not moving towards some kind of a one-state reality?

No, what you are moving toward is varying levels of conflict and accommodation that will continue to characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have to understand something, violence and disruption and dislocation has been part of the peace process since its inception. In fact the farther the peace process goes the more upsets and violence there is. This has proven to be the case in almost every agreement reached between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Arabs. So no I don’t think that it paves the way for a one-state solution, what it paves the way for is additional conflict. Not a one-state reality, look, the Palestinian problem right now is five different problems, you have Gaza which is a separate and particular problem, you have Palestinians of Jerusalem which are trying to carve out their own practical arrangements to deal with the Israelis, you have Israeli Arabs – Palestinian citizens of Israel – which the State of Israel will have to come to terms with in some way, and then you have the West Bank which has varying degrees of authority, and finally you have the Palestinian diaspora. If you argued to me that the Palestinians were a unified actor capable of harnessing their strategy then we could have a discussion maybe talk about the absence of a two-state solution leading to another solution, but you don’t have that, you have five pieces of Palestine which are not unified and in light of that situation the Israelis will exploit that situation and deal with each one of these pieces separately, I mean there is much higher probability of that then there is of some kind of Armageddon like conflict or push for a one-state solution.

But I was talking more about the reality that while there is the PA in the West Bank, it is virtually powerless and according to many in effect today there is a one-state reality from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, setting aside Gaza that is.

No that is not true. First of all you have 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza, and as far as the West Bank is concerned you have state institutions that are just not going to collapse. I don’t believe this business of the PA which is going to return the keys to the Israelis. You have the makings of de facto political entity in the West Bank and the international community has every stake in wanting to keep it alive, as do the Israelis. So no I don’t see that Israel will somehow inevitably be forced to accommodate all these Palestinians. I have also never understood, and I can’t get any answer even from my Palestinian friends, how Palestinians would make a claim to status within Israel proper. I’ve never understood this, I mean I understand how Palestinian citizens of Israel can. They are 20 percent of the population of Israel and while they have rights that are guaranteed by law the Israelis discriminate against them socially and economically, but I have never understood by what logic the Palestinians in the West Bank would want to create a one-state, would actually make a case for one-state or on what legal and political basis would they lay their claim to citizenship in one-state. I’ve never understood this.

So today what we have in Israel and the West Bank does not resemble a de facto one state in your mind?

No but it’s not, because you have donors pledging separate funds to the Palestinian Authority, you have separate Palestinian security services, you have Palestinians paid not by the government of Israel but by the Palestinian Authority, however dysfunctional it is, it’s not the situation that existed before 1994 [and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority].

Aaron David Miller was interviewed by Andrea Dessì