Following his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, U.S. President Barak Obama has expressed new hope for peace in the Middle East. But some analysts worry the peace process may have stalled too long to be saved and are giving an old idea some new attention: The one-state solution.
It is an idea with roots in the 1920s and '30s, around the time that Jewish Zionists were calling for a return to their biblical homeland to create a Jewish state. But a handful of Jewish groups worried that this might lead to future strife between Jews and Arabs. They argued for the creation of a single Arab-Jewish confederation that would stretch from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Calls for a single state
In recent years, with the peace process at a seeming standstill, some academics and policy analysts have revived calls for a single state. They propose one nation that would encompass present day Israel and Palestinian territories, offering equal citizenship for Jews, Christians, Muslims and others.
Palestinian refugees head towards the buses that will take them to Syria after years in Al Tanf refugee camp between the borders of Syria and Iraqi, Feb 2010
Most significantly, it would solve the issue that the two-state proposals have not been able to work out: It would allow for the return of some 4.5 million Palestinian refugees now living outside of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Ali Abunimah is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. He is also the co-founder of the Web site, Electronic Intifada. He argues that a binational, one-state scenario isn't very much of a stretch from the reality in Israel today.
"You have on the ground already in Palestine-Israel about 11 million people," said Abunimah. "Half of them are Israeli Jews; half of them are Palestinians. There are about a million people mixed in there who wouldn't fit neatly into either category. And effectively, there's one government that runs the country - and that is the government of Israel. The problem with it is it's a government by, of and for half the people."
Abunimah believes there are compelling reasons for Israel to consider a single state solution. Israel, he says, is facing growing international isolation, religious divisions from within and threats to its security from without. A binational state, he argues, would offer peace, security and dignity for all.
'Idea not feasible'
Dr. Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based American Task Force on Palestine. He's also the author of What's Wrong with the One State Agenda. He says the idea is not feasible because only Palestinians would benefit in a single state scenario.
"What they are trying to do is to reverse the effects of the 1948 war and take back their country, as they see it," said Ibish. "It's an ideal scenario from a Palestinian point of view, and I certainly think it would be a good thing if it could be accomplished. But I think the problem is it doesn't offer anything to Jewish Israelis."
He says that the return of Palestinian refugees would place Israeli Jews in a minority. "First of all, it wouldn't be Israel," said Ibish. "Israel has historically been defined as a Jewish and democratic state. It certainly can't be that with the occupation. Even less can it be that in a single democratic state, because it wouldn't have a Jewish majority."
Ibish also believes that it would be impossible for so many factions to come under one political roof without ethnic or sectarian oppression.
"Supporters of the single state, like Mr. Abunimah, say, 'I want to show the Israelis that we will treat them better, as a minority, than they have treated us, as a minority.' Those are not words that inspire a lot of confidence," he said. "You look around the rest of the Middle East - to Iraq, to Iran, to Turkey, to Lebanon, to Jordan - and look at how ethnic and religious minorities are treated in the present Middle East, in both Arab and non-Arab states and Israel included, and I just don't see that any sensible society would volunteer for that status."
In addition to Palestinian opinions on the one-state or two-state debate, Israelis and others are vocal as well.
Carlo Strenger chairs the Clinical Graduate Program of the Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University. He also writes political commentary for Israel's Haaretz newspaper and international publications. He opposes the one-state scenario because, he says, he does not believe that two peoples so historically divided would be able to reconcile even their basic differences.
"Frankly, if I try to think about the opening session of the parliament of the new 'Israel-Palestine,' I wouldn't even see how they could manage the most basic things, ranging from the flag to the anthem," he said.
Strenger says a binational state would be plagued by battles for political primacy. "That, I think is a very, very bad starting point for a state that is supposed to function with any form of coherency and harmony," he said.
But the Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah says none of these arguments stand up. He cites the example of South Africa under white rule.
"They were terrified," said Abunimah. "They had grown up with an absolute demonization of black South Africans-exactly the sorts of arguments you get from Israeli Jews today about why you couldn't possibly have a one state solution."
He also rejects theological arguments against a single Jewish state. "My feeling is those tend to be more of a sort of justification or attempt to legitimize the status quo rather than the real motivation," said Abunimah. "I think the motivation is found in the desire to maintain - and the fear of giving up - power and privilege, and those are things that are quite universal, in a sense."
Ben Cohen is the Associate Director of Communications for the American Jewish Committee. He takes strong issue with comparisons between Israel and South Africa under apartheid.
"I think the apartheid analogy is wholly inappropriate," said Cohen. "Essentially, it's really a defamatory accusation. Nothing even remotely similar exists in Israel. I think that what you are talking about there is, in a sense, unequal development, possibly discrimination. And I think people use the word 'apartheid' not because they are concerned about the historical integrity of the analogy, but because they are trying to make a very cheap political point."
Everyone who participated in this report agrees on one thing: That a continued impasse in peace talks can only lead to escalations in violence and religious extremism under which both sides suffer.