One-state in Palestine: equality, democracy and justice

Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?

March 6, 2017
7 min read


Omar BarghoutiOmar Barghouti Palestinian human rights defender and independent researcher

(Photo by Justin McIntosh, via Wikicommons)

At a recent press conference with Netanyahu, Trump casually evoked the one-state formulation as a serious option for ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His guest was hardly able to contain his elation.

After all, given Trump’s avowed bias towards Israel’s hard-right regime, the most reasonable interpretation of his position is that the US will explicitly approve the Israeli agenda of consolidating a single state, a Greater Israel that buries the question of Palestine for good.

Long before Trump came on the scene, Israeli governments have been consistently implementing a ‘strategy of territorial seizure and apartheid‘, creating the current reality whereby Israel controls the entire territory of historic Palestine while denying the indigenous Palestinian population their equal rights by policy and law.

Now, formally pulling the plug on the defunct two-state solution altogether, the thin and worn-out mask of democracy is torn.

While denying even the theoretical rights of the Palestinian people, and in flagrant defiance of international law, Israel is colonizing at full speed what is left of the lands owned by Palestinians, accelerating its gradual ethnic cleansing of entire communities, particularly in Jerusalem and the Naqab (Negev) desert.

In due course, this will not only reveal the nature of Israel’s regime against the Palestinians as one that combines occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid; it may inadvertently trigger the mother of all unintended consequences.

Emancipated of the illusions of a two-state deal, the absolute majority of Palestinians will seek the most just, ethical and sustainable solution to the question of Palestine, and this cannot but entail decolonization.

Decolonization should not be understood as a blunt and absolute reversal of colonization, putting us back under pre-colonial conditions and undoing whatever rights have been acquired to date.

It should instead be regarded as a negation of the aspects of settler-colonialism that deny the rights of the colonized population.

A secular and democratic single state in historic Palestine (in its British Mandate borders) is the most just and morally coherent solution to this century-old conflict.

It offers hope of reconciling the ostensibly irreconcilable – the inalienable rights of the indigenous Palestinian people, particularly the right to self-determination, and the acquired rights of the indigenized former colonial settlers to live in peace and security.

Inspired in part by the South African Freedom Charter and the Belfast Agreement, the far more modest One State Declaration, authored by a group of Palestinian, Israeli and international academics and activists, affirms that “the historic land of Palestine belongs to all who live in it and to those who were expelled or exiled from it since 1948, regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin or current citizenship status”.

The system of government that it advocates is founded on “the principle of equality in civil, political, social and cultural rights for all citizens”.

Israel and Zionists worldwide reject such a call for equality as an “existential threat” because it undermines the institutionalized system of racism that privileges Jewish citizens by law and forms the foundation of Israel’s regime.

While the replacement of a similar system of apartheid with democracy and equal rights in South Africa was celebrated by the world as a triumph for justice, the mere suggestion of equality and democracy in the Israeli case is still often dismissed as negating Israel’s assumed “right” to maintain its ethno-religious supremacy— its “right to be a Jewish state”.

There is a rich diversity of opinion among Jewish communities worldwide on the concept of how to define a Jewish people, but the question remains, regardless, whether a Jewish people has the right, at the expense of the indigenous population, to maintain a “Jewish state” in British Mandate Palestine.

Joseph Levine, of the University of Massachusetts, addresses this sensitive subject arguing that the very idea of a Jewish state is “inherently undemocratic”, “morally problematic”, and “a violation of the right to self-determination of its non-Jewish citizens”.

A Jewish state in Palestine, no matter what shape it takes, is by definition exclusionary. It cannot but contravene the inherent rights of the land’s indigenous population and perpetuate a system of racial discrimination that ought to be categorically opposed.

Israel’s “unholy alliance” with the far-right in Europe, as well as the fact that Trump’s white supremacist supporters cite Israel’s exclusionary foundations to defend their own xenophobia and nationalism – “a sort of white Zionism” – are both phenomena that are exposing the often-obscured contradiction between Zionism and liberalism: the reality that Zionism is fundamentally at odds with liberal ideals.

These and other dynamics are making the inclusive Palestinian quest for justice in a unitary democratic state – the quest for equal rights – more understandable and even more appealing.

After all, accepting Jewish Israelis (subject to a process of ethical decolonization) as equal citizens and partners in building and developing a new shared society is the most magnanimous rational offer that any oppressed indigenous population can present to its oppressors.

Only by shedding their colonial privileges, dismantling the structures of oppression and accepting the restoration of the rights of the indigenous people of the land (including the right of Palestinian refugees to return, to reparations, and to the right of all Palestinians to unmitigated equality) can settlers be indigenized and therefore entitled to participation in the building of a future common state.

The indigenous population, on the other hand, must be ready, after justice has been reached and rights have been restored, to forgive, and to accept the former settlers as equal citizens, neither masters nor slaves.

In that future society, cultural particularity and diverse identities should be nourished by society, protected by law.

Palestine was, for centuries, a fertile meeting ground for diverse civilizations and cultures, a land that fostered communication, dialogue, acculturation. This heritage, almost forgotten under the hegemony of Zionist colonial rule, must be revived and celebrated.

By emphasizing equal humanity as its most fundamental principle, the vision of a secular, democratic and unitary state promises an end to the fundamental injustices that have plagued Palestine for so long and that have made it nearly impossible until now to envision an ethical coexistence.

Omar Barghouti has advocated for the secular democratic state solution for more than three decades. This article reflects his personal analysis and does not represent the views of the BDS movement.


Omar BarghoutiOmar Barghouti Palestinian human rights defender and independent researcher


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