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One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State – A Journal Review of Potential Pathways to Peace in Israel-Palestine

Bisharat, George E., Maximizing Rights: The One State Solution to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Global Jurist, Volume 8, Issue 2, 2008)

Kelman, Herbert C., A One-Country/Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Middle East Policy, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Spring 2011)

Shikaki, Khakik, Willing to Compromise: Palestinian Public Opinion and the Peace Process (U.S. Institute of Peace, SR 158, January 2006)


On September 23, 2011, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, submitted the necessary paperwork to the United Nations in an effort to seek international recognition for Palestine as the sovereign territory of the Palestinian People. This move was met with both applause and condemnation at home and abroad. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a foolish move,” stating that “peace cannot not be achieved through unilateral moves”; rather, that “peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations with Israel.” With UN member states lining up on either side of the aisle in support or against such an attempt by the PLO, the debate over Palestinian state sovereignty reemerged back into the international spotlight as a major piece of the effort toward Middle East peace.

With this historic moment sparking debates across the globe as to the best way forward for Israel-Palestine, the obvious question that arises is what a final status will look like. In considering alternative futures, the debate can be thought of as coming down to one of two main options: a one-state solution, or a two-state solution. And while it is no secret that much of the world is strongly in favor of a two-state solution, it is certainly still worth exploring all ways forward, and arguments for and against each solution. As such, I will discuss three different articles on the road to final-status, examining not only the given arguments for their recommended end-state, but also how they recommend achieving their goals.

Considering a Two-State Approach to Final Status

The common line of thinking by members of the international community, as well as most Israelis and many Palestinians according to public opinion polls, is to work toward a two-state solution to the conflict. And while negotiations have failed time and time again to produce a viable final status, in A One-Country/Two-State Solution to the Israeli Palestinian Conflict, Herbert C. Kelman argues that such a solution is not only the right path to peace, but is truly the only realistic solution on the table given today’s political climate.

At the core of Kelman’s logic is what he sees as the choice between a two-state solution, and what he calls a “one-state non-solution.” In this sense, his argument for a two-state solution is quite simple and reductionist in nature. In the absence of support for a one-state solution, and given the seemingly overwhelming support for a two-state solution by both Israelis, Palestinians, and members of the international community, the only logical direction to move in is toward the realization of this end-state. As a matter of qualification, Kelman notes that when the State of Israel was being created in the late 1940s, he was in support of a one-state system wherein Israelis and Palestinians shared the historically contested land. However, given the current political climate, he fears that any attempting to create a one-state solution would only lead to the further escalation of violence.

Despite his callings for a two-sate solution and a belief in the prospect of the realization of this effort, Kelman notes the inherent difficulties to the process. Unlike many other authors, who simply avoid discussing the grievances of the Palestinian people, and rather focus on the core issues of contention such as the right of return, East Jerusalem as the capitol, and the location of borders, Kelman does note the level of frustration held by both parties – and particularly the Palestinians - as they suffer from fewer rights, a lack of trust in their own government, let alone the government of Israel. This state of affairs creates what he sees as a relatively high level of political ambivalence amongst both Israelis and the Palestinians toward the idea of engaging in the peace process and reconciliation. Yet, he maintains that there is room for what he calls strategic optimism: an optimism that is anchored in the realistic assessment of the situation, but actively seeks out all of the possibilities of movement toward peace and vigorously pursues them.

Of note in his writing is the amount of attention that he pays toward public opinion. In this sense, his logic is rooted in a society-driven model of analysis. In making his arguments he regularly references popular opinion polls, using them as supporting evidence for his recommendations. With this said, his subsequent recommendations on the peace process directly relate to the ability of political elites to convince their constituencies, and maybe even more importantly the opposing parties and their constituencies, of their willingness to engage in a meaningful conversation about key issues.

As a path toward a final status, Kelman calls upon each government to publicly lay out a joint vision of principled peace based on mutual recognition, a logic of historic compromise, and a positive vision of a common future. It is his hope that through such a public move each population will regain trust in the ability of their respective political leaders to successfully engage in negotiations, and end the mutual mistrust that has plagued the region for decades. It is Kelman’s vision that an agreement can be reached that creates two separate governments with relative autonomy over their land and polity, but is based on a geographical design that avoids the use of partition walls, and allows for coexistence and a sharing of a land that both cherish as part of their historical identity.

Considering a One-State Approach

At the opposite end of the spectrum when considering solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a one-state solution. In this case, all identity groups living on the body of land that includes Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip would become unified under one government, and arranged through a power-sharing agreement. This is the vision that George E. Bisharat advocates for in his article, Maximizing Rights: The One State Solution to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. While Kelman focuses heavily the current domestic and international political climate to make his case for a two-state solution, Bisharat examines the issue from an international law and human rights perspective, and ultimately makes the case that a one-state solution would best satisfy the most number of people in the region if properly implemented.

In making this argument, Bisharat advocates a number of broad points before coming up with direct recommendations as to the details of the peace process. First and foremost, he argues that a rigorous rights-based approach is necessary in order to find peace in the Middle East. Given the number of grievances held by both parties to the conflict, and the inability of either group to meaningfully engage with the other given the complexities of the legal status on the land, he sees the human rights approach as being the only way to address the conflict. And while he notes that not all of the specific points of contention between the stakeholders to the conflict can be settled along legal lines, that the application of international law would help to establish parameters that would help guide negotiations towards resolution.

Second, and most important to his case for a one states solution, Bisharat makes a utilitarian argument that a one-state solution based on international law would be able to maximize the legitimate rights, interests, and aspirations of the greatest number of Israelis and Palestinians. While the legal frameworks being suggested apply mostly to the positive and negative rights of Palestinians, the author makes the case that through such measures, Israel would gain increased acceptance in the region, and ultimately increased legitimacy and recognition by countries with whom they are otherwise becoming politically distant from. Bisharat sees this as ultimately proving beneficial for both parties. In making this argument, he notes that by contrast, a two-state solution based on partition would ignore the true grievances of both groups, leaving increasingly isolated in the region, and thus not creating a sustainable peace.

With these two arguments in mind, he notes the inherent difficulties to achieving such a solution given the current domestic and international political climate, as well as preexisting political leanings toward a two-state solution. Given that both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs enjoy international rights to self-determination, no legal means can be used to impose such a solution. Therefore, such a solution can only come about through an agreement between the two parties.

Finally, Bisharat notes that the inability to implement a one-state solution without the consent of both parties obligates those engaging in the peace process to truly consider the means by which a one-state solution would be encouraged – an issue which he dedicates a significant portion of the second half of his article to. Before making recommendations as to how to achieve a one-state solution, Bisharat provides concrete recommendations on issues pertaining to settlements, rule of law, civil liberties, and other constitutional issues. Through these recommendations, it is his hope that both parties will truly engage in a conversation about power sharing, so that the most number of people can enjoy the greatest amount of freedom.

Considering the Alternatives

Ultimately, what Bisharat argues for is a secular democratic society that he calls the “binational model.” In this case, Palestinian Arab and Jewish Israeli collective identity are formally recognized and made the basis of power-sharing arrangements. This power-sharing model, which is similarly argued for in the cases of divided societies by Arend Lijphart in his piece, Constructional Design for Divided Societies, ultimately requires a constitution that designs a system ensuring that all identity groups, which in this case would have to include Christians, members of the African community, as well as members of the nomadic Jahalin, are ensured fair representation in the Knesset (or whatever new parliamentary system is ultimately put into place). While such a model is by no means new to the discussion of an end-state solution to this decades long conflict, it does well in framing the debate in terms of human rights, and gives policymakers the ability to critically engage in what this alternative model of political structure would look like. The question then becomes – how would such a power-sharing agreement be implemented or accepted given the political climate?

Taking a similar approach to Kelman, Bisharat recommends that key political leaders, international organizations, civil-society actors, and other members of the international community engage in the process of moving the conversation toward this power-sharing model. He notes that the more difficult group to convince of such a solution would be the Israeli population, as they hold stronger and more ideological views on the best end-state, and is ultimately the group the most greatly effects western attitudes. However, the difficulty would truly lie in bringing the majority of both populations away from extremist groups, and towards a more nationalist perspective. This is an issue heavily discussed by both authors as they consider how to best convince both identity groups to support the peace process.

The Role of Public Opinion

The high level of mistrust that both parties have towards one-another, and in particular their willingness to engage in the peace process, was considered to be of significant value in both the writings of Kelman and Bisharat. As opposed to taking a statist perspective, by which governments make decisions and implement them in order to change society as they see fit, both authors take more of a pluralist perspective on what will create social change in the region. In this case, the authors see political leaders as being constrained by societal forces (Krasner). And in putting an emphasis on the role the each society plays in shaping the decisions and subsequent actions of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, we ought to explore the existing public opinion polling data in greater detail.

In the USIP Special Report, Willing to Compromise – Palestinian Public Opinion on the Peace Process, author and public opinion polling specialist Khalil Shakik draws a number of conclusions from polling data taken in East Jerusalem and the West bank. Most importantly, Shakiki makes the case that Palestinian public opinion has played a significant role in empowering and constraining leaders. This society-driven perspective on governance in the region echoes the recommendations given by both Kelman and Bisharat, as they propose how to best implement their respective plans.

Among other issues, one of the most routinely raised was the issue of a mutual mistrust that Israelis and Palestinians have toward one another. As noted by Kelman and Bisharat, there is a common tendency for both groups to believe that the other side is unwilling to negotiate, and that there is no partner for peace. However, Shikaki, argues that Palestinian public opinion in particular has become more moderate over time, and rather that their willingness to compromise is greater than it has been at any time since the start of the peace process. Through his polling data, he shows that both Israelis and Palestinians are in favor of a two-state solution, but argues that they lack any sort of normal interaction through which they could learn this about one another.

The other major finding presented by Shakiki has to do with the wavering trust that Palestinians have in the abilities of their own government to best represent their interests. He makes the case that when the peace process is failing, that Palestinians tend to move toward Hamas and other ideologically and Islamist driven political groups, which in turn has a negative effect on their relationship with Israelis. On the other hand, when the peace process is showing signs of progress, they lean towards Fateh and the nationalist movements. While the population has a great amount of influence over the government, we can see that the government also has the ability to change public beliefs and attitudes.

Through this examination of public opinion data, Shakiki does not take a side on the one-state vs. two-state debate, but rather presents trends in support for resolution to the conflict. What he does conclude, however, is that the time is ripe for a permanent-status agreement, and that political leaders, civil society actors, and international institutions should act quickly to capitalize on this opportunity. And while he does note the support for a two-state solution, through the discussion public opinion on democratic transition, we can see that a move to a one-state democracy may be within the realm of possibility, and that disregarding this as an option would be a error on the part of policymakers. Finally, that support for violence increases in an environment of increased distrust of the political authorities and subsequent pain and suffering, and decreases when the threat perception is reduced, Shakiki makes a solid case that both governments, as well as the international community, should act now in working towards final status.

Policy Implications and Conclusions

In considering the three articles presented, we can see both a macro and micro picture of the debate over the best solution to what many scholars have called an intractable conflict. In many ways, the arguments made by both Kelman and Bisharat are drawn from a similar line of reductionist logic. The main difference is that Kelman concludes that there is no alternative to a two-state solution given the political climate, whereas Bisharat concludes that there is no other alternative to a one-state solution given the process that a two-state solution would entail. By creating a partition between the two societies, Bisharat maintains that grievances would not be addresses, and thus justice and lasting peace would not be achieved. However, what is also noteworthy is that Kelman recommends that both identity groups share the land. In this regard, his recommendation is leaps and bounds past the status quo, wherein an 8-meter high dividing wall is being created to physically separate the two groups from one another. In this way, Both Kelman and Bisharat have provided the reader with very forward thinking recommendations on solutions to the peace process.

In returning to the work of Shakiki, it is safe to say that few articles as telling as this one are available, as much of the literature is focused on historical narratives, and framing the debate in a way that would create the outcome favored by the author. By strictly focusing on the desires of the population, Shakiki presents evidence as to trends in behavior, and is able to provide the reader with a set of cogent and likely implementable policy recommendations.

With life on the ground in East Jerusalem and the West Bank changing almost daily, it would be wise for policy-makers to consider each of these articles when coming up with solutions to this conflict. While I do not see a one-state solution as presented by Bisharat being implemented anytime in the near future, he makes a very good case for the implementation of human rights language into the peace process. And while Kelman’s recommendations come off as almost defeatist in that a two-state solution is the only option left on the table, it is hard to see around the current political climate and into a future where any other option is a recognizable possibility without significant social change taking place in the region. Regardless, all would be wise to heed the recommendations of all three authors, and work hard to bring both parties back to the negotiating table, regardless of the outcomes of the upcoming UN vote on recognized sovereignty for the Palestinian people.

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