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Two peoples, two states

Robert Nicholson | A one-state solution would be a disaster for both Israelis and Palestinians


Palestinian protesters and Israeli settlers clash outside the West Bank village of Mughayer on July 29. Associated Press/Photo by Nasser Nasser

Two peoples, two states
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President Biden’s visit to Jerusalem is now over, but it raised again the old question of peace in the Holy Land: Is the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, the best formula? Or is some kind of one-state solution—whether Jewish, Arab, or ethnically neutral—the better course of action? Growing numbers of people on both sides of the conflict are abandoning 30 years of a two-state consensus and embracing the one-state approach, but the facts are obvious: A one-state reality is the surest path to destruction for everyone.

The reason is simple, if uncomfortable: Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are simply too dissimilar to share a single state. This was the subtext of an insightful Washington Post column published by Ambassador Ronald Lauder, current president of the World Jewish Congress. Lauder’s main concern is the “demographic threat,” a code word for the numerical outpacing of Jews by Arabs in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Some Israelis believe that Israel should annex Judea and Samaria (what Palestinians and others call the West Bank), adding millions of West Bank Arabs to the two million Arabs already living as citizens in Israel. But Lauder sees such a decision as disastrous. In his words, if Israel “gives Palestinians full citizenship—and therefore full rights—it will no longer be Jewish. If it doesn’t do so, it will no longer be democratic. Either way, Israel, as a Jewish democratic state, will cease to exist.”

Lauder is no woolly-headed peacenik. Traced back to its root, his argument flows from Israel’s founding purpose as a Jewish state. “The basic premise of Zionism is that there should be one place on earth where Jews are the majority—so that this majority can exercise its right to self-determination within a democratic framework,” he writes. “If the Jews do not have a solid majority in their own land, Zionism will collapse.” One needn’t be a political scientist to see that he’s right. The religious and cultural gaps between the two sides are alone enough to justify concern: 80 percent of Israelis are Jewish, while 99 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are Muslim (one percent are Christian). Furthermore, about 10 percent of Israeli Jews belong to the “religious nationalist” camp that promotes a maximalist vision of Jewish sovereignty, while over a third of Palestinians support Hamas’s violent brand of political Islam.

On top of these differences, the two peoples have mutually antagonistic memories of 1948, the year of Israel’s founding. Jews will never accept Arab rule—or ethnically neutral rule, which, for demographic reasons, will lead to the same result—the disappearance of Israel as a Jewish state. 

Lauder notes that some Israelis are “confident that they can continue to rule over millions of Palestinians without any truly perilous consequences,” but he also notes—correctly—that they’re wrong. The small country of Lebanon on Israel’s northern border offers an example worth heeding. Back in the 1920s, Lebanese Christians struck a deal with the French to establish an independent state with expansive borders in which they would hold political hegemony over the country’s Sunna, Shia, and Druze communities, confident that their numbers and political skill would hold the line. And they did, for a while. But the underlying religious and cultural differences caused Lebanon to unravel just a few decades later in a civil war from which the country has never fully recovered. Faced with ever-declining numbers, Lebanese Christians are now political hostages to rival Muslim factions inside and outside the state.

There are plenty of problems with the two-state solution, not least of which is rampant pessimism for the idea among Jews and Arabs alike. But the idea’s underlying premise—that fundamental divides between Israelis and Palestinians demand the creation of separate political spaces—must be preserved. During his visit, President Biden was right both to affirm the two-state solution and the unfortunate fact that “the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations.”

Some evangelicals argue on biblical grounds that Jews must control Judea and Samaria, believing that the two-state solution is nothing less than an affront to God. Yet while Judea and Samaria are indeed the Jewish heartland, and while Jews should never again be banned from living there (as they were between 1948 and 1967), these territories are not essential for Israel’s security—at least not from the perspective of most Israeli and non-Israeli political leaders over time. 

God will fulfill his promises to the patriarchs in due time—of that we can be sure. For now, our duty is to support pragmatic solutions that offer the greatest possibility of Jewish flourishing in Israel.


Robert Nicholson

Robert Nicholson is president and executive director of The Philos Project.

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