Can the Two-State Solution Be Saved?

Debating Israel’s One-State Reality

Dangerous Delusions
Michael Oren

Anyone seeking to understand why U.S. policy in the Middle East keeps failing—especially on the Israeli-Palestinian issue—need only read “Israel’s One-State Reality” (May/June 2023) by Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami. The essay suffers from the same refusal to face facts that led the United States to launch abortive wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya and reflects the same devotion to ideological nostrums that convinces Washington, time and again, to brand dictators as reformers and allies as pariahs. The result is a scattershot argument that blames Israel for the death of the two-state solution and urges the United States to shun its closest friend in the Middle East in order to force it to abandon its Jewish identity. Along the way, the authors rehash fashionable academic libels of Israel, deny the Palestinians agency, and offer no pathway to peace.

A cogent postmortem of the two-state solution would have begun by asking whether it was ever really alive. The answer is no. The reason relates not only to the 450,000 Israelis who have settled beyond the borders established after the 1967 war and the rise of the Israeli right but also—and more fundamentally—to Palestinian opposition. Well before a single settlement was established, the Palestinians violently rejected the two-state offers of 1937 and 1947. Their rejection of two-state plans in 2000, 2001, and 2008 merely reiterated this long-standing Palestinian policy.

Because they deny that the Jews constitute a people, Palestinian leaders have never accepted the United States’ formula of “two states for two peoples.” They never committed to the “end of claims, end of conflict” principle integral to any peace agreement, and they never ceased seeking to destroy Israel’s Jewish character through the return of millions of Palestinian refugees. No Palestinian leader has ever demonstrated the will or the ability to reconcile with Jewish statehood, and none would likely survive long if they did. The Palestinians have given no indication that they intend to build the kinds of stable, transparent institutions that form the foundations of a modern state, that they remain committed to creating the “secular, democratic” polity envisioned by the charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, or that they can sustain sovereignty over any areas allotted to them without ushering in chaos. Realizing these facts, many Israeli leftists have concluded that the Palestinians never actually wanted a two-state solution; they wanted only Israel’s dissolution.

A clear-sighted examination of the demise of two states would also have traced Israeli public opinion from the early 1990s, when most Israelis favored that outcome, to today, when far fewer do. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005, which the Israeli government undertook in the hope of peace, yielded only thousands of terrorist rockets targeting Israeli civilians. The glow of the Oslo accords in the mid-1990s was similarly eclipsed by the suicide bombings of the second intifada between 2000 and 2005 and the murder of 1,000 Israelis—more than ten times the losses the United States suffered in the 9/11 attacks, as a proportion of the population.

Finally, a sound analysis would have acknowledged not just the election of Israel’s most right-wing government in history but also the lack of a legitimate and capable Palestinian leadership. And it would have accepted that even centrist Israelis would rather live with a status quo that has proved corrosive but sustainable for 56 years than die in a failed multinational state such as Iraq, Lebanon, or Syria.

If Palestinians are discouraged by Israeli settlement building, Israelis are disgusted by Palestinian textbooks that teach children to slaughter Jews. Consequently, many Israelis recognize what the philosopher Micah Goodman calls “Catch-67,” the belief that although the absence of a Palestinian state might challenge Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, the creation of a Palestinian state threatens its very existence. A Palestinian state run by a president who for the past 17 years has been too frightened of his fellow Palestinians to stand for reelection is likely to devolve into a Gaza-like terrorist state overnight, bringing every Israeli town within rocket, perhaps even rifle, range.

Browbeating an ally will not help Washington bolster its dwindling influence in the Middle East.
But it is not just the authors’ analysis that is flawed; so, too, are their recommendations. They believe that by slashing the annual $3.8 billion in aid it sends to Israel, the United States can force the country to forfeit Jewish independence. The notion is ludicrous. Although Washington once supplied almost half of Israel’s defense budget, that share is now less than one-fifth. And U.S. aid to Israel remains broadly popular among Americans, many thousands of whom work in industries it subsidizes.

Similarly risible is the authors’ suggestion that Israel could be pressured into relinquishing its Jewish identity if Washington ceased defending it at the United Nations. In 2022, the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council condemned Israel more frequently than they condemned all other countries combined; the threat of a more lopsided record would hardly prod Israelis into sacrificing their identity. And browbeating an ally will not help Washington bolster its dwindling influence in the Middle East, underscored in early 2023 by China’s mediation of a rapprochement deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

A better course would have been for the authors to consider how even a diplomatically depleted United States could help the cause of peace. It could seek to strengthen the Palestinian economy and infrastructure, launch technological and infrastructure projects, and help increase the number of Palestinian workers entering Israel each day. Simultaneously, the United States could resist efforts to change the status quo—precisely the Biden administration’s position—until political conditions allow for stronger initiatives. Meanwhile, viable alternatives to the two-state solution could be considered, including plans for federations, condominiums, and trusteeships.

The authors ignore all such options. Although they stress the need for “possible alternatives,” they explore the only plan that is patently unworkable. Instead of striving to understand Israel’s complex reality, they rail against “Jewish supremacy,” a term coined by the Nazis and later adopted by the Ku Klux Klan; implicitly support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel; and cite Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and professors of Middle East studies—all considered blatantly anti-Israel by many—to label Israel an “apartheid state.” Failure to grant full citizenship and equal rights to all Palestinians in the occupied territories “will complicate Israel’s relations with the rest of the world,” the authors claim, ignoring Israel’s burgeoning ties with China, India, and African countries. By refusing to assign virtually any responsibility to the Palestinians—for rejecting peace offers, for valorizing terror, for sending payments to imprisoned murderers of Jews—the authors reduce them to props in an Israeli morality play.

The article should be required reading in any course on the United States’ tragic history in the Middle East. It helps explain how American policymakers who think like the authors could convince themselves that democracy could be imposed on the region by force, that the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was a peacemaker, and that Iran could become a responsible regional power. It shows how failure to confront Middle Eastern realities not only impedes peace but often leads to disaster.

MICHAEL OREN is a former Member of the Israeli Knesset, Deputy Minister in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, and Israeli Ambassador to the United States. He is the author of 2048: The Rejuvenated State.

Don’t Abandon Two States
Martin Indyk

Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami make a strong case that Israelis and Palestinians now live in a “one-state reality” that encompasses all the territories that Israel controls. Indeed, after 56 years of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, this increasingly ugly situation—which, in the authors’ words, is “based on relations of superiority and inferiority”—has eclipsed the hope for a negotiated two-state solution.

It is hard to see what could change the status quo. A third intifada appears to be looming, but even if a renewed paroxysm of violence were to alter Israel’s calculus about the cost of its current policies, much more would be needed before a two-state solution might be possible again: new leadership on both sides, a rebuilding of trust between the two peoples, a reconciliation between the Islamist Hamas organization and the Palestinian Authority, and an end to violence, incitement, and settlement expansion. None of these requirements are in sight.

Yet something must change, not just because Palestinians deserve “equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity, and dignity,” as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken often declares. Change is also necessary because the status quo is eating away at Israel’s Jewish character and democratic soul and is eroding support for the country among liberals in the United States, especially in the American Jewish community and the Democratic Party.

But the answer is not to abandon the two-state solution in favor of pursuing equal rights for Palestinians in a binational Israeli state. The Palestinians have struggled long and hard to gain overwhelming international recognition of their right to national self-determination. To forsake those efforts for a struggle for individual rights would be a terrible mistake. Doing so would condemn the Palestinians to a never-ending conflict with Israeli Jews, who are not about to agree to turn the Jewish state, which they have similarly struggled hard to build, into a binational state in which Palestinians would constitute a majority. Abandoning the two-state solution would also be a gift to the settler movement and those on the right and far-right in Israel who support it. They have long endeavored to block a Palestinian state, the better to claim all the territory in the West Bank for themselves. And it would be a gift to Iran and Hamas, both of which seek their own one-state solution.

The status quo is eating away at Israel’s Jewish character and democratic soul.
The authors admit that if the United States and the rest of the international community pressed for equal rights, they “might also push the parties themselves to seriously consider alternative futures.” One theoretical possibility, they note, is the resurrection of the two-state solution. Another is the termination of “Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians,” which is the precondition for any two-state solution. So the authors want to have it both ways.

Nevertheless, they believe the most urgent task is to achieve equal rights for the Palestinians within Israel, including, presumably, voting rights. To achieve this, they advocate a series of draconian measures to isolate and condemn Israel in international forums, to brand it as a proto-apartheid state, to condition and sharply reduce U.S. military and economic aid (even though the United States does not, in fact, provide Israel with economic aid), to give up on promoting the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab governments known as the Abraham Accords, and even to impose targeted sanctions on Israeli leaders. In short, they would have the United States transform Israel from a strategic ally into a pariah state. They admit that “the political backlash would be fierce,” which raises the question of why any American politician who wants to gain or stay in office would pursue this approach. But if they are serious about these steps, why not explicitly wed them to the objective of resurrecting the two-state solution? That outcome would have a much better chance of securing Palestinian rights than a quixotic effort to delegitimize Israel and force it to abandon its Zionist identity.

Getting from today’s one-state reality to a two-state solution is the challenge. Since the Biden administration is committed to achieving a two-state solution, it needs to take more vigorous steps to restore both sides’ belief in the possibility of achieving one. At the top of the list must be preventing Israel from consolidating the one-state reality, especially through settlement activity. The administration should not just oppose the Netanyahu government’s intention to legalize more than 100 illegal settlement outposts but also threaten to stop shielding Israel from retribution in international forums for its settlement policies if it goes ahead with the plan.

Getting from today’s one-state reality to a two-state solution is the challenge.
In the 60 percent of the West Bank that Israel controls completely, the Biden administration should press the Netanyahu government to hand territory over to the Palestinian Authority so that Palestinian cities and towns can grow. This is provided for in the Oslo accords, to which the Netanyahu government recommitted Israel in the Aqaba Joint Communique in February 2023. The Biden administration also needs to lead an international effort to bolster the institutions of the Palestinian state-in-the-making, beginning with its security services, banking system, and educational and health-care structures.

Already, the Biden administration has succeeded in recruiting Egypt and Jordan to help lay the groundwork for an eventual resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It should do the same with Saudi Arabia, which has indicated that it will fully normalize relations with Israel in return for a security guarantee and arms sales from the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is lobbying U.S. President Joe Biden to accommodate these requirements, but Biden should consider doing so only if Israel and Saudi Arabia are both willing to take positive steps vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

It is not time to abandon the two-state solution. Rather, the time has come to reinvigorate it.

MARTIN INDYK is the Lowy Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel under President Bill Clinton and U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under President Barack Obama.

Hard Truths Are Not Enough
Dahlia Scheindlin

In their essay—as in their chapter in The One State Reality, the recent volume they co-edited (and to which I contributed)—Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami leave defenders of the Israeli and Palestinian status quo with nowhere to hide. What they dub the “one-state reality” may not be identical to apartheid, in their view, but people know the spirit of apartheid when they see it.

As unflinching as the authors are, however, at points they do not go far enough. For instance, they note that Israel maintains a “draconian blockade” of Gaza, controlling the territory’s coastline, airspace, and boundaries. This is correct, of course, but understates how Israeli control both harms Palestinian society and perpetuates itself. Israel severely restricts the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza, effectively controlling the economy. Israel also controls the territory’s electricity supply, the allocation of frequencies for communication networks, and even the population registry that regulates where Gaza residents can live. It has used this authority to stymie industry, housing construction, medical care, sewage treatment, and water purification in a region where neighborhoods have been repeatedly demolished by war.

Thus, the problem is not just who controls Gaza, but how it is controlled: Israel’s mode of control destroys Palestinian social and political cohesion and feeds military confrontation, thereby justifying perpetual Israeli domination.

If the authors understate the corrosive, self-perpetuating effects of the one-state reality, they overstate the case for a tougher U.S. policy—which, to be clear, I support. They warn that the one-state reality threatens Palestinians in ways that could destabilize the Middle East, leading to solidarity protests across the region. But the cataclysmic events of the last decade—the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria, Iran’s expanding sphere of influence—had nothing to do with the plight of the Palestinians. The last time masses of Arab citizens rallied for the Palestinians was never. To be sure, if the United States took a harder line on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, that could slightly improve American credibility in the region, but it would come at an enormous political price for any American politician or party that dares to lead such a process. The definite political costs of a tougher U.S. policy on Israel—which cannot deliver a peace agreement on its own—might well outweigh the potential benefits for U.S. leaders.

There is no democracy for those living under occupation, but nor is there democracy for those doing the occupying.
Similarly, the authors argue that Israel will lose legitimacy if it continues to beat back the Palestinians through “brute strength.” Yet even they admit that pro-Palestinian movements around the world are deeply fragmented; the younger generations of Palestinians are leaderless. Transnational solidarity movements do not threaten normal life in Israel; they are little more than a political nuisance. Worse, they can fuel Israeli hasbara, or pro-Israel messaging, and the proliferation of anti-boycott laws in the United States. In short, Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories was never likable, but its critics’ biggest mistake was believing that it was unsustainable. I made this mistake myself.

Leaving aside considerations of realpolitik, there are pressing reasons for Israel to change course and for the United States to care that it does. Israelis hate to admit it, but the bitter struggle over proposed judicial reforms and the state of Israeli democracy now gripping the country cannot be separated from the issue of Palestinian rights. There is no democracy for those living under occupation, but nor is there democracy for those doing the occupying. Israel is sacrificing the core values of equality, human rights, and representation of the people under its control. The country’s Supreme Court has repeatedly legitimized policies of occupation; Israelis now defending the court in the name of democracy cannot flee the contradiction forever.

For its part, the United States should be troubled by the fact that Israel flouts international law, legitimizes territorial conquest, and thwarts Palestinian self-determination. Washington’s support for those policies only lends credibility to the Vladimir Putin school of international relations, which portrays the rules-based international order as a farce.

The Palestinians, too, need to define a new national aim.
The authors’ U.S. policy prescriptions are valuable, but their effectiveness would depend on the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. Neither are passive participants in this conflict. The authors assert that “leaders on both sides do not lead,” but this is not true of the Israeli side; leading by obfuscation is still leading. In fact, Israel’s current government has been clearer than most of its predecessors about seeking total and irreversible Jewish control over the occupied territories. The United States should insist that Israel openly state its political vision for the Palestinians. Let Israel choose the words to describe permanent control over a subcaste of about five million civilians who lack rights and representation.

The Palestinians, too, need to define a new national aim. This will help reinvigorate both U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and Palestinian solidarity movements. The leadership of the Palestinian Authority still officially supports a two-state solution, but surveys show that most Palestinians (like most Israelis) do not, and they despise the Palestinian Authority to boot. Yet no alternative unifying vision for national self-determination has gained ascendance.

Without realistic endgames on either side, it is no surprise that the United States can’t get the parties closer to a solution. Once both lay out their visions, the United States can develop a strategy, not just tactics, to narrow the gaps between them—or between their political aims and basic standards of democracy and human rights.

DAHLIA SCHEINDLIN is a Tel Aviv–based Policy Fellow at Century International and a columnist at Haaretz.

Change Must Start With the Palestinians
Asad Ghanem

The “one-state reality” described by Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami is a product of Israeli policies that have been aided by the inaction of Arab states and abetted by almost reflexive U.S. support for the Jewish state. Yet this condition of Israeli domination and ethnic supremacy has also been enabled by the Palestinians themselves. Their role in shaping the grim reality of their homeland is missing from this otherwise insightful essay.

The fractiousness of the Palestinians and their failure to organize a unified national movement has played a central part in reinforcing an unjust system that has been in place since what the Palestinians call the nakba, or “catastrophe,” in which the majority of Palestinian Arabs were forcibly uprooted in 1948. The inability to formulate a shared vision for the country they seek to establish has prevented the Palestinians from garnering international support and persuading many Israelis to back their cause. Such a shared vision is necessary to move from something akin to one-state apartheid to something that at least resembles a one-state democracy in all of historical Palestine in which equal rights could be ensured for all Palestinians and Israelis.

The failures of the Palestinian national movement are often blamed on external factors—chief among them British colonial policies, Israeli aggression, and Arab regimes’ lack of commitment to the Palestinians. But internal factors have also contributed. The Palestinians have not only struggled to build a coherent national movement; they have failed to remain steadfastly committed to their own cause despite the horrors done to them by the United Kingdom, Israel, and Arab regimes.

These shortcomings are especially glaring when one compares Palestinian organizational efforts over the last seven decades with those of the Jewish community in Palestine before 1948 and those of other Arab nationalist movements in the region—especially those in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria—during the struggle against colonialism. Whereas the leaders of these nationalist movements succeeded in rallying the bulk of their societies around clear political objectives, Palestinian elites failed to do so. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership continues to flounder today. Seventy-five years have passed since the nakba, but the Palestinians have made little progress toward achieving their goals.

The Palestinians must rally around a single national project.
In the last two decades, the Palestinian national movement has all but disintegrated. The Palestine Liberation Organization, once the beating heart of the movement, has largely disappeared from the scene. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, is seen by many Palestinians as being controlled by Israel, effectively serving as a tool to normalize Palestinian existence within a single state dominated by Israel. And in Gaza, the Islamist Hamas organization comes very close to cooperating with Israel in order to manage the day-to-day affairs of the Palestinian population there. Meanwhile, the competition between the two Palestinian quasi governments helps Israel maintain control and solidify its dominance.

Broadly speaking, the Palestinians are divided into four groups with fundamentally different aims and objectives. Most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza aspire to create an independent Palestinian state in those territories. The Palestinians in refugee camps throughout the region and in the diaspora primarily aim to return to their homeland, regardless of its official status. Most Palestinian citizens of Israel seek equality within that country. And finally, Palestinians in east Jerusalem, who are caught between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, want to see Jerusalem as the future capital of an independent Palestinian state, which seems less and less likely to happen. But in a one-state reality controlled by Israel, all these groups have hit a dead end.

The first step on the road to a better future is for the Palestinians themselves to change. They must transcend their geographical and ideological differences and rally around a single national project. The only configuration that can advance a gradual democratization process and deliver practical solutions to all Israeli Jews and to all Palestinians—whether they reside in a refugee camp, the diaspora, the West Bank, Gaza, or Israel—is a single, binational state. Building one should be the goal of all Palestinians.

Such a transition may take many years, but Palestinians must be the ones to initiate it. Otherwise, today’s one-state reality will endure.

ASAD GHANEM is Professor of Political Science at the University of Haifa.

The No-State Solution
Robert Satloff

Foreign Affairs should be congratulated for publishing this breathtakingly tendentious essay by Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami because it exposes the authors’ pseudo-academic argument as little more than political advocacy.

Why is this advocacy and not scholarship? Because in its eagerness to market the catchphrase “one-state reality,” it neglects to mention the hard borders between Israel, Hamas-controlled Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority–controlled urban areas of the West Bank, which make it impossible for anyone—Israeli, Palestinian, or third-country national—to traverse the length and breadth of this supposedly single state and quite dangerous for anyone even to try. Because to make its case, it avoids inconvenient facts, such as the impressive advance of Arab Israelis within Israeli society in recent decades and the rejection of the “apartheid” label by many leading Arab figures on both sides of the Green Line, including the Knesset Member Mansour Abbas, the rights activist Bassem Eid, and the peace activist Mohammed Dajani. Because it disparages the state of Israel’s democracy, which is older than those of about half the countries in the European Union, and makes only passing reference to the remarkable vitality of the country’s civil society, underscored by the huge nationwide protests against proposed judicial reforms that began in early 2023. And because, without a single reference to Hezbollah missiles, Hamas rockets, or a potential Iranian nuclear bomb, it leaves the unsuspecting reader to wonder whether Israel’s neighbors are Andorra, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland.

There is much in the essay about the regression of peace diplomacy since the failed Camp David summit in 2000, including the rightward turn of Israeli politics in response to the suicide bombings of the second Palestinian intifada, the expansion of Israeli settlements, and the apparent effect these developments have had on American attitudes toward Israel. But on closer inspection, the article is not really about the Palestinian issue at all. In the tall tale the authors tell, Palestinians make little more than cameo appearances, bearing responsibility for neither their decisions nor their fates.

The real point of this essay is to target Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, a status established not just by events in British-controlled Palestine in the early decades of the twentieth century but also by a UN General Assembly resolution approved in November 1947 by a large majority of the world’s independent countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union. “Israel’s commitment to liberalism has always been shaky,” the authors write in the article’s most revealing passage. “As a Jewish state, it fosters a form of ethnic nationalism rather than a civic one.” That argument flows easily into this policy advice: “A better U.S. policy would advocate for equality, citizenship, and human rights for all Jews and Palestinians living within the single state dominated by Israel.”

The real point of this essay is to target Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
Strip away the outrage at Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians—about which there is plenty to critique—and the authors’ goal becomes clear: to paint Israel itself as illegitimate, a country born in colonial sin and raised to maturity as an illiberal, ethnonationalist state that deserves not just to be condemned but also to be replaced. As much as the authors dress up their alternative with the language of human and civil rights, there is no getting around the perversity of advocating a solution that does away with the world’s lone Jewish state.

Thankfully, the American people do not support the destruction of Israel and consistently elect presidents, senators, and representatives from both parties who support a thriving Jewish state. Indeed, the authors seem almost apoplectic that U.S. President Joe Biden, who is proud to call himself a Zionist, appears “fully committed to the status quo,” which includes support for a strong Jewish state and an eventual negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It bears noting that “the deal of the century” put forward by his Republican predecessor—although flawed in many ways—still proposed the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel on most of the territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

The fact that the authors’ views were rejected by Washington and Moscow 75 years ago, were rejected by the once unthinkable number of Arab states now at peace with Israel, and would be rejected by both Biden and former U.S. President Donald Trump—two leaders who do not agree on much—says something about how far out on the fringe these views are. Yet they are still worrying. After all, the authors teach at major American universities.

They are right that Israel’s current government includes some radicals with hateful ideas, that Israeli society is still grappling with fundamental issues of identity, and that Israelis (like Palestinians) suffer from a paucity of effective leadership. But as Americans well know, those last two issues are not unique to the Middle East, and solutions to them are likely to evolve over many years. As for the first issue, after 37 Israeli governments in 75 years, a version of Mark Twain’s quip about New England weather seems apt: if you don’t like Israel’s coalition, wait a few months. But the authors have a very different diagnosis and a very different cure. In their view, the Jewish state itself is the problem, and getting rid of it is the answer. Let’s call their proposal what it is: the No Israel Solution.

ROBERT SATLOFF is Segal Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Barnett, Brown, Lynch, and Telhami Reply
Michael Barnett, Nathan J. Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami

As expected, our article generated strong feelings and deep disagreements. We argued that a one-state reality already exists; that it is akin to apartheid; that the invocation of an improbable two-state solution now merely serves as a smokescreen to obscure this reality; that U.S. policy has uniquely enabled the entrenchment of a single state; and that Washington should stop providing cover for Israel’s current policies and start demanding basic rights and protections for Jews and Palestinians alike, including by imposing sanctions on Israel for violations of human rights and international law. We did not advocate for a one-state solution, which under present conditions could only mean a deeply unjust political regime based on Jewish supremacy. Instead, we described the reality as it exists today.

Remarkably, the responses to our article did not seriously contest our central claim—that a single, deeply entrenched state now controls all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Moreover, there was little disagreement about the unjust nature of that reality (although some of our critics find it tolerable). Many bemoan this situation and would like it to be otherwise, but most recognize that it is not.

Whether such recognition is seen as a good or a bad thing is a quite different question. Our goal was to state clearly the facts that supporters of Israeli policies and many U.S. officials would much prefer to remain unspoken. Policy must be based on clear-eyed analysis rather than ideological narratives, political conveniences, or wishful thinking. For some, a description of the unjust reality is evidently more upsetting than the unjust reality itself.

Our critics differ with us and with each other less on the question of the present reality than on questions about the past and the future: Who is to blame and what should be done about it? We are not interested in litigating the collapse of the peace process. There is enough blame to go around. Israeli governments, Palestinian leaders, and successive U.S. administrations all contributed to this outcome by enabling Israeli settlement construction, infrastructural development, administrative and legal fiat, and institutional decay in the Palestinian territories.

The two-state solution was once the best hope for a fair and just end to the conflict, but it is no longer realistically on offer. Martin Indyk is more optimistic than we are about the prospects for reviving two states. Like us, he seeks to avoid the blame game, acknowledge existing reality, and find a way forward. But he still pins his hopes on a destination to which he cannot identify a path.

At one time, Indyk’s arguments might have been more persuasive, especially if U.S. diplomacy had been accompanied by the muscular measures toward Israel—official condemnation, reductions in aid, and even sanctions—that he now comes close to endorsing. But after decades of diplomatic failures and the emergence of a single state that looks very much like apartheid, advocates of a two-state solution have a much higher bar to clear. The strongest argument for two states has always been that it was the only realistic alternative. Now it appears utopian and out of reach. We do not advocate a one-state solution under the current conditions, since such an arrangement is unlikely to ensure basic human rights and justice for the Palestinians anytime soon. But nor do we believe that anyone is well served by continuing to pursue a long-lost dream that has allowed leaders to avoid dealing with ugly realities.

For some, a description of the unjust reality is evidently more upsetting than the unjust reality itself.
Dahlia Scheindlin offers an incisive addendum to our portrait of those realities, particularly in the Gaza Strip. Her explanation of the ways in which Israel continues to control the territory reinforces our core argument, and we are happy to accept her reframing. Ironically, critics elsewhere have suggested that we overstate the degree to which Israel controls Gaza, since it shares a border with Egypt—as if Israel’s close coordination with the Egyptian government (and not with the Palestinian leadership of Gaza) on the management of that border is not exactly what states typically do. Scheindlin also usefully reminds readers that deeply unjust arrangements can endure for far longer than we might like to believe. We emphatically agree.

Asad Ghanem provides another valuable addition, elaborating on how the failures of the Palestinian national movement both helped to prepare the foundation for the one-state reality and later capitulated to it. Only time will tell whether a revitalized Palestinian national movement could challenge this reality and move toward a one-state democracy, as Ghanem suggests.

The most revealing responses come from Michael Oren and Robert Satloff, who offer polemics instead of arguments. Israel certainly faces many security and political challenges, but its leaders have more choices than Oren or Satloff suggest. Both critics could have seriously reflected on Israel’s present reality and offered possible paths forward. That they did not says something about the difficult position staunch supporters of Israel now find themselves in. They can neither rebut the existence of the one-state reality nor openly embrace the apartheid-like politics that flow from it. And so they insist on denying facts and decrying the dramatic shifts in political and policy discourse that have brought our views into the mainstream.

Oren’s response will resonate with those who support Israel’s current path but persuade few others, since it says nothing about the substantive issues at stake. He takes particular issue with our use of the term “Jewish supremacy,” which he attempts to associate with Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan. As Oren well knows, the term is used routinely by Israeli Jews across much of the political spectrum, including by at least one former Israeli defense minister and one former Israeli foreign minister. And how would Oren describe the undeniable structural superiority of Jews over non-Jews in the entrenched one-state reality? His anger would be better directed at those who consciously seek to build a society in which Jews enjoy rights and privileges denied to others.

The most interesting part of Oren’s response is his frank confession that he never believed the two-state solution was viable. And yet he blames its failure on the Palestinian people and their leaders, arguing that we understate the degree to which they sought to use the peace process as a stealth instrument to destroy Israel. But it was not Palestinians who built scores of Jewish settlements housing hundreds of thousands of Israelis across the West Bank, erected a vast array of checkpoints impeding Palestinian movement, built roads and infrastructure exclusively for the use of settlers, and established legal and military regimes that control the lives of everyone in the territory. Oren got what he wished for, and what the Israeli government that he represented worked for when he served as its ambassador. He should be more willing to grapple with the results.

Oren mostly agrees with us about the likely course of the future, although he favors the trends we deplore. In the one-state reality we all see, Palestinians might be rewarded with fewer restrictions and more jobs if they accept their lot without making a fuss. Oren offers this as a preferred policy for an indefinite future. Left unsaid but made clear nonetheless is what happens if Palestinians do not react as he wishes (exercising, as one might say, their agency). In this case, Oren implies that the Palestinians will experience only more harshness from an Israel that continues to drift to the right—and that they should be blamed for their own victimization.

For his part, Satloff takes issue less with our message than with the messengers, attempting to disqualify us from the debate by suggesting we harbor ill intentions. But insisting that we seek the destruction of Israel does not make it true. We all previously supported the two-state solution. We all saw it as the most feasible way to accommodate Jewish and Palestinian national aspirations. And if the two-state solution miraculously became possible again tomorrow, we would not hesitate to back it.

Contrary to Satloff’s assertion, we did not question that Israel’s existence is legally rooted in international law and recognition by other states. We simply insist that the same international law that establishes Israel’s sovereignty and legitimacy obligates it to behave in certain ways in the territory it controls. Israel fails to meet those obligations not because of a temporary occupation but because of an effective annexation of territory that deprives most of its inhabitants of basic human rights. If Satloff believes that such occupation is essential to Israel’s nature, then he should be willing to clearly articulate and defend that position.

Throughout his response, Satloff imputes views to us that we did not express and do not hold. He would prefer to have an argument over whether Israel should be eliminated (a case we did not make and do not support) than to engage with our analysis of today’s one-state reality. If we are dissatisfied with Israel’s extreme right-wing government, he quips, we should just wait for the next one. But Benjamin Netanyahu has served as prime minister for 13 of the last 14 years, and his only real competition comes from the right. Satloff wants to celebrate the opposition of Israeli civil society to Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul but neglects to mention that it has for the most part declined to criticize the occupation. He highlights three Palestinians who do not agree with our analysis; we could name rather more than three who do. More to the point, none of these criticisms touch the core of our argument.

One legitimate criticism we have heard, from Scheindlin and others, is that the policy options we put forward are unrealistic, that the U.S. government is unlikely to heed our advice, and that, even if it did, our suggestions are unlikely to lead to a happy outcome. This is fair. Washington’s long-standing support for Israel and a half-century occupation have left few good options, and the Biden administration does not seem interested in changing course right now. But our goal was not to lay out detailed policy prescriptions that would likely be adopted today. Rather, it was to widen the range of political possibilities by illuminating the ways in which U.S. policies have enabled—and continue to enable—the entrenchment of an apartheid-like one-state reality.

Washington’s knee-jerk reaction to unsettled times is to push to revive fruitless negotiations. Instead, it should dismantle its “special relationship” with Israel and start holding the country to account. The United States should acknowledge that it cannot possibly have “shared values” with an apartheid-like state. A shift in language could change the narrative at home and create policy options down the road.

Washington should also stop shielding Israel from criticism at the United Nations and other international organizations for its violations of international law, including its construction of settlements. The Biden administration need not spend so much time and energy defending actions that it ostensibly opposes. Despite its full foreign-policy plate, the administration has sought to expand the Abraham Accords through an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In the absence of a meaningful Israeli policy change toward the Palestinians, such normalization would only further entrench the unjust one-state reality.

Washington’s knee-jerk reaction to unsettled times is to push to revive fruitless negotiations.
Finally, the United States should work with European countries to defend Palestinian rights and protect those who are subject to arbitrary and harsh rule. Human rights are essential for protecting Palestinian lives, land, and dignity. The United States has an obligation to help enforce those rights, including with sanctions.

The starting point for addressing today’s grim reality should not be controversial: a demand for equal rights and protections and a political process that could begin to move Israel closer to providing them. Even the pro-Israel Biden administration has pledged to promote “equal measures of freedom, justice, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it in December 2022. Yet too little of that commitment has been evident in practice.

In the long term, only two broad outcomes can ensure equality for Jews and non-Jews alike: two sovereign states or one state with full equality. We would endorse either of these outcomes over a single state that entrenches Jewish supremacy, as would most of the American people, polls show. Making that unambiguously clear through policies and actions may force Israelis and Palestinians to begin to find a way to coexist with dignity and equality. Above all, Washington should stop enabling a deeply unjust one-state reality.

MICHAEL BARNETT is University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

NATHAN J. BROWN is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

MARC LYNCH is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

They are the editors of The One State Reality: What Is Israel/Palestine?

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