The Siren Song of ‘One State’

The Siren Song of ‘One State’

Amos Oz, the Israeli writer who was also a founder of the Peace Now movement, was once asked by a Norwegian journalist why Jews and Palestinians couldn’t just live as equal citizens in a single state. Oz countered by asking why Norway and Sweden couldn’t just merge into a single state, too, as they had been for most of the 19th century.

“Clearly, Mr. Oz,” the journalist replied, “you know nothing about the Swedes!”

I heard Oz tell this story many years ago, so it might have been a Swedish journalist talking about Norwegians. But the point is the same: If Norwegians don’t want to share a state with Swedes, if Scots may not want to share a state with the English, or Catalans with Spaniards, then how can anyone imagine Israelis and Palestinians, with rivers of blood between them, joining hands in a common political enterprise?

The idea is utopian in theory and would be disastrous in practice. It has no support among Jewish Israelis or Israeli-Arab leaders. As for Palestinians, a recent poll finds that, when given a choice of political alternatives, only six percent support it.

Peter Beinart, however, endorses it, and he seeks to start a movement on the left.

I won’t argue here with Beinart on the big picture or the details of his unworkable and unoriginal plan. (The Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi proposed the same thing in a Times Op-Ed in 2009.) But it’s important to point out the types of damage even a feckless proposal creates, provided it attracts a critical mass of support. Three points stand out.

The first is the damage to the hopes of a peaceful two-state settlement. Israelis have been most amenable to territorial concessions when they felt reasonably confident that Americans understood their security predicament (narrow borders, mortal enemies, ambivalent friends) and believed in the moral necessity of a Jewish state. It’s why the George W. Bush administration achieved more in terms of territorial withdrawals by hugging Israel close than Barack Obama’s administration did by deliberately trying to “maintain daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem.

This is not old history. Benjamin Netanyahu came close this summer to unilaterally annexing large parts of the West Bank, partly on the view that the delegitimization of Israel meant that it should take what it can get while it can get it. The more Israel is ostracized because it’s a Jewish state, the less amenable it will be to make concessions of any sort. Far from creating pressure on Israel to make way for a Palestinian state, as some advocates of a one-state solution fancy, Beinart and his fellow travelers are unwitting handmaidens to the Israeli right-wingers they claim to despise.

Next there is the damage to the Palestinians. Scores of Palestinians were killed in 2018 and 2019 in a long series of border clashes in Gaza, purportedly to demand their “right of return” to pre-1967 Israel. That demand, as left-leaning Israeli writers Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf demonstrate in their convincing and essential book, “The War of Return,” has been the central obstacle to reaching a peace settlement. Unlike the surrender of settlements (which Israel repeatedly proved willing to abandon in Sinai and Gaza for the sake of peace), it is the one demand no Israeli government can concede if it means to preserve the country’s Jewish character.

Anyone who demands that Israel withdraw from part or all of the West Bank needs to be equally forceful in demanding that Palestinians abandon this so-called right. One-state advocates achieve the precise opposite: They foster a crippling fantasy that the right of return need never be conceded because eventually Israel will be pressured into dissolving itself. That will never happen, but chances for peace will be missed in the future, as they were in the past, so long as the fantasy survives.

The final bit of damage is to the American Jewish community. For decades, the opinions and advice of American Jews mattered to Israel. But if the views of a significant segment of American Jewish opinion are soon to harden into a moralizing anti-Zionism, it will only persuade Israelis to reciprocate with indifference and contempt. Whatever else advocates of a one-state solution think they are doing, they are withdrawing from any meaningful dialogue with Israelis about the future of a Jewish homeland.

It used to be that Israelis depended on a secure and thriving American Jewry to help stand up their fragile state. Today it is American Jewry that is fragile, threatened by dwindling cultural influence, stagnant demographic trends, increasing alienation from the Democratic Party and abiding discomfort with the G.O.P., and rising anti-Semitism — sometimes masked as anti-Zionism — from across the political spectrum.

Should American Jews start looking for the exits — just as every other Diaspora community in history has done, and continues to do — they will be grateful to find a Jewish state that resisted the siren song of “one state.”

Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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