A Jewish/Zionist Case for a Just, Bi-National/Federated (“Two-State Plus”) Outcome for Israel and Palestine

Image of the author, Rabbi Gerry Serotta, participating with West Bank Palestinians in the fall olive harvest near Nablus in a program coordinated by Rabbis for Human Rights.

Photo by Gerald Serotta

Rabbi Gerry Serotta, participating with West Bank Palestinians in the fall olive harvest near Nablus.

“I believe the plethora of settlements and annexation of East Jerusalem destroyed the possibility of a reasonable and fair division of the Land of Israel between the two peoples…As someone who supported it for 50 years, I know well all the arguments in favor of the two-state solution, and it’s because of that that I feel a right and even a moral obligation to question this stance when I see its growing helplessness in the face of the West Bank’s gloomy reality.” 

A.B. Yehoshua Haaretz, Dec 20, 2021

“I strongly believed in a Two-State Solution. It wasn’t equitable or just, but Palestinians were willing to live with it because it gave us hope for the future. Now after years of Israeli government sabotage and ineffective Palestinian leadership, the Two-State Solution is no longer possible with 700,000 settlers on the West Bank, with Gaza an open air prison, and with Israel declaring itself to be a Jewish state, formally turning Palestinian Israelis into second-class citizens…The Two-State solution has now become an excuse to keep Palestinians in a permanent bantustan-type status.”

Mubarak Awad in a communication through Non-Violence International, January 21, 2022

I am an American Jewish activist who has also publicly supported mutual recognition of the right of self-determination between the Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Arab peoples for some 50 years. I similarly feel a weighty obligation to respond to the ongoing daily agony of both peoples. Most days that agony is felt more acutely by Palestinians living under brutal occupation. But the mutual suffering degrades the Israeli Jewish people on a moral level every day that it continues.  

While there may be more death and victims of violence in Palestine on a daily basis than among Israeli Jews, every single death and stunting of human potential that can be prevented requires all of us who care to look as fiercely as we can for alternatives. This suffering was exacerbated by the settlement project in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, but it has origins on a much deeper emotional level. The logic of partition never addressed this issue, whether in 1947 or within the Oslo process that led to the acceptance of the “Two State Solution” (2SS) on the part of portions of the leadership of both peoples.

Those who care about seeking a just solution need to respond to the emotional needs of both sides. They need to answer the following question urgently: does advocacy on behalf of the Oslo version 2SS in our current reality advance the path toward a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians?  Or has it become a quixotic dream that frustrates and demoralizes those who struggle for a durable solution? 

The 2SS follows the logic of partition, but separation has never been the only model. From the time I first began my involvement I have always preferred the language of mutual recognition to the emphasis on partition. I began my involvement in the Israel/Palestine issue when many Jews (including Prime Minister Golda Meir) were arguing that there was no such identifiable entity as the “Palestinian” Arab people.  At the time there were many Palestinians mirroring this argument with their view that Jews were a religious minority, not a people worthy of recognition.  

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The last 55 years of occupation have demonstrated the fallacy of this thinking. At least now the consensus is clear (except to religious extremists on both sides) that these are two peoples, each of which defines their homeland as including the territory west of the Jordan to the Mediterranean. The Talmud says that when two persons lay hold to a garment and each swears that the whole garment is theirs then the solution is to divide it. But this doesn’t work with a baby, and seems to have failed to work with a land that is so deeply connected to family, history, and the lived experience of two peoples.  

As a Jew I fear that we live in an era when the opportunity to create a humanistic and just Jewish national polity will be destroyed either by violence or moral decay. As a Zionist, I also believe that the relationship of my people to the land connected with our history can both be a source of inspiration and spiritual creativity for us and can also enhance the unique contribution we make among the nations. This possibility, too, is receding before our eyes. As a Rabbi I am deeply distressed by the daily contradictions of the demands of a just God with the behavior of people who claim to be my co-religionists.

This thought exercise is an attempt to address from the perspective of an American Jewish activist what is specifically required of us at this point in time–if we care about three things:

  • the survival of a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel, 
  • the lives and welfare of Palestinian Arabs with whom we share the land and whose right to national self-determination is no less valid than ours, and
  • a commitment to Jewish values of justice and concern for all of God’s creation. (Of course, these values are not unique to Judaism.)

It is the last of these points that motivates me most strongly to offer the following ideas. I simply cannot accept that thousands of years of Jewish thought and deep spiritual longing can be met through a modern “Jewish” nation state that dominates another people and deprives them of basic human rights. I refuse to consider the Palestinian Arabs as the enemy of my people.

I see four primary areas that need to be addressed.

  1. Is there a reason to continue to vigorously support and advocate for the 2SS without a potential logical corollary, some form of confederation between the two states that we might define as a “2SS 2.0”?
  2. Is there an alternative which could meet the objectives of providing peace, security, and justice to both peoples – one that will deal realistically with both the question of the future of the settlements and also the divisions within and the loss of legitimacy of the current Palestinian leadership?
  3. Is spending time refining and advocating for such an alternative a worthwhile endeavor given current realities? Will the “right” analysis and a logically coherent proposed solution make any difference? 
  4. What concrete, short-term steps might be taken to encourage any proposed solution?

I have been impressed most recently by two brief and convincing attempts to seek a path of mutual recognition: Palestinian human rights attorney Jonathan Kuttab’s Beyond the Two-State Solution (published by Non-Violence International) and Israeli academic Omri Boehm’s Haifa Republic:  A Democratic Future for Israel (published by New York Review of Books).  

Both authors argue in favor of what is typically called a “one state solution,” but by their descriptions might more accurately be described as a bi-national state.  Both call for universal suffrage and respect for human rights. Both models include a robust attempt to provide support for the flourishing of two national and cultural identities and to dialogue between them.  

The two approaches differ most prominently in the role they outline for the current internationally recognized borders. While each proposal suggests that there would be access to the entire land for both peoples, Boehm essentially sees the 1967 borders as demarcating a line between two federated states, whereas Kuttab treats the entire territory as a single unit. Boehm also traces the pedigree of his bi-national Zionism to both left-wing and revisionist circles, bringing together the thought of Martin Buber and the program of Menachem Begin

Both books also emphasize what is no doubt a crucial element that must be addressed, i.e., the deep wounds of the 20th century and consequent fears of each people. These must be recognized, memorialized, and then overcome if there is to be a genuine mutual recognition. Ultimately both peoples will need to study and mourn the Shoah and the Nakba, even though these tragedies have little obvious in common. I urge people concerned to find a way forward to read both of these books.

  • Why or why not continue to advocate for the 2SS?

It is impossible to complete a sophisticated analysis of the history of the formulation of the 2SS in this short piece. Advocacy for a “two-state solution” emerged gradually after the 1967 as an alternative to the retention of the territories occupied by Israel in that war. Immediately following the war, significant Labor Party leaders (e.g., Ben Gurion, Eshkol) advocated the return of the territories ASAP. Others promoted a “Jordanian option” and/or partial retention of the territories (Allon Plan.) Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Deputy Meron Benveniste produced a plan (in 1968!) to divide Jerusalem into Jewish and Arab boroughs. However, in those years the newly re-established PLO was advocating for a “secular-democratic state in all of Palestine.” 

Within the Israeli mainstream only the Mapam Party and former Labor Secretary General Lova Eliav, together with some important military and intelligence leaders (e.g., Meir Pail, Matti Peled,) supported recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people to a national home within Eretz Yisrael.   In the diaspora beginning in 1973, the new organization Breira promoted mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian national self-determination, but the mainstream Labor government and its allies in the Jewish community vigorously opposed and ultimately shot down the organization and never contemplated the concept of “two states.” In those years both Peres and Rabin also publicly condemned the idea and even the possibility of dialogue with the PLO.

Contemporaneous US administrations from Nixon (Rogers Plan) onward (including the Reagan Initiative) opposed settlement activity as illegal. International Jewish leaders like Philip Klutznick (BBI and World Jewish Congress President,) Nachum Goldmann (former President of both WJC and WZC,) and Pierre Mendes-France called for a settlement freeze in 1982, yet the 2SS concept had little mainstream support in the diaspora.  In fact organizations like New Jewish Agenda and Americans for Peace Now only began to expressly support the 2SS formula around that time.

Perhaps ironically the 2SS only gained support when it became the official position of the PLO in 1988. Israeli and US government positions subsequently viewed the 2SS as a valid objective of policy. The continuation of the Oslo Process brought the US into the center of negotiations at Camp David II. Failure there, with a portion of the blame shared to varying degrees among Arafat, Barak, and Clinton, has been replicated over and over since 2000. However, the 2SS increasingly became a kind of hopeful branding of the idea that there is, in fact, a solution, primarily among US political leaders, dovish Jews, and ultimately many Arab world leaders. (It is also true that majorities of Israelis and Palestinians supported the concept until fairly recently.)  

Virtually none of the steps that would lead to a 2SS was ever implemented and the occupation and settlement project continued, with only sporadic brief interruptions. George W. Bush was the first US President to call for a Palestinian State directly (in 2002,) though US support for the 2SS is framed in the Clinton parameters. Of course, the Trump backed away from support of the 2SS, and the US Ambassador to Israel did everything he could to undermine it.

The 2SS at its most generous envisioned a Palestinian state more or less on the 1967 borders, i.e., 78% of the territory west of the Jordan as the State of Israel and 22% as the State of Palestine, divided between Gaza and the West Bank.   One could always hope and dream that if this solution was ever reached, a peace agreement would over time enable some greater element of equity (perhaps through a confederation.) However, the promotion of settlements by all Israeli governments since 1967, the annexation of large areas around Jerusalem (without the enfranchisement of its Palestinian residents,) and the failure for 55 years to prevent settlement expansion, whether through negotiations or through international pressure by governments and NGO’s, has led to a deeply entrenched status quo.  The 2SS has become a two-state slogan.

Those who continue to advocate for a 2SS seem to be convinced that somehow this status quo and the political power dynamics at play within Israel/Palestine and the US political system can all be overcome, and the settlement project can be reversed in a way that can rescue the 78/22 division of the land. But recent developments, such as the signing of the Abraham Accords and the election of a new Israeli government whose platform opposes any discussion of solutions, further entrench the status quo.  The new accords only reinforce the fact that since at least 1948 (and one could argue never,) no Arab country or entity has demonstrated serious concern for the fate of the Palestinian Arab community as a separate national entity. 

In addition to the power wielded by AIPAC in support of the Israeli government position, representatives of untold millions of Christian fundamentalists with substantial political influence have increased support for the occupation. Powerful “Christian Zionist” organizations promote settlements and the annexation of the entire territory, hoping for the end-time wars which are part of their theology.  

Those of us who find the status quo unacceptable, either because we are Zionists who support the self-determination of the Palestinian people and/or because we seek justice for all who suffer, need to look for alternatives. We must do this even though some of us might also agree with what AB Yehoshua said in Haaretz: “…if a political force could prove to me in word and in deed that it is possible after all to separate into two states, in a way officially acceptable to both sides, I’d pursue it through fire and water”.

We need to pursue, advocate, and support a re-direction of energy away from the format of the 2SS that has been advocated for decades. We are challenged by at least three sources of emotional resistance within the community of dovish Jewish supporters of Israel that need to be addressed:

  1. The timing is awkward – J Street (since 2007) and others have been advocating with deep moral commitment for the 2SS for the past couple of decades. For example, there is a current campaign in to support Rep. Andy Levin’s “2SS Act,” which has garnered support of about 20% of House Democrats (and no Republicans.)  Levin’s bill includes strong provisions to place restrictions on use of aid to Israel that encourages settlement and other obstacles to a solution. But realistically those same provisions doom the bill’s chances of gaining further support.  It is fair to ask whether the strategy behind this effort makes sense, as its failure only underlines the bi-partisan opposition.  For its supporters the 2SS is basically the “brand name” for the product that defines that there is in fact some possible solution.   Pointing out that promoting the 2SS is a kind of willful blindness to reality and that there might be other models has been challenging in the absence of clear alternatives.
  2. The power of the “demographic argument” and the metaphor of “divorce” has been the legacy of the Labor Party and many dovish intellectuals. But this premise, that we must separate in order to live together, is deeply troubling, morally problematic, and constitutes a self-fulfilling obstacle to other options for a solution. Of course, some on every side of the conflict insist that this is the meaning and legacy of Zionism–that Jewish self-determination cannot thrive or even survive without a clear demographic superiority. Since there already exists near parity in population of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs in the land, this argument leads inexorably to the logic of transfer or ethnic cleansing, unfortunately not an unknown reality in Israel’s history. We need to find a way to live together in mutual respect, not find ways to create “a good divorce”. The desired outcome will determine the strategy and the design of a solution.
  3. Admitting that we “lost” the battle to the settlers and their supporters is deeply disappointing and frustrating. Any realistic solution will leave a significant number of settlers where they are and could be seen to justify their program retrospectively. The behavior of many settlers has been repugnant. They deserve ignominy, not the ability to remain in their stolen property. Those who opposed them will have to own our failures, although the tragic loss of life on all sides of the conflict has many authors. But the facts on the ground are there and the resistance of settlers to living under Palestinian sovereignty must be accounted for if that is the model that emerges.
  • Alternatives to the 2SS – Confederation (i.e. Two-State 2.0) vs. Federation

There exists no shortage of cogent versions of the 2SS building upon Oslo with very clear solutions to the outstanding “final status” issues (e.g., Geneva Accords, Beilin-Abu Mazen Plan, The Peoples Voice of A. Ayalon and S. Nusseibeh, and the Arab Peace Initiative.) Many factors are responsible for the failure of diplomacy to lead to the implementation of any of them. We can once again find fault on every side, including those who chose violence in order to thwart these efforts (assassination of Rabin, second intifada, settlers, and the structural violence of an occupation, etc.). Is there any likelihood that this opposition is likely to diminish?  Is time on the side of the 2SS, with even the current post-Netanyahu Israeli government committed in principle to avoid even a discussion and a strong right-wing opposition committed to destroying it?

Obstacles to implementing the 2SS have only increased over the years. Yet dovish supporters of Israel continue to argue its merits. For many years I joined calls for the 2SS. Particularly when addressing Palestinian or Arab audiences, I would always describe it as the “least unjust” option for preventing bloodshed and enabling Palestinians and Israeli Jews to begin addressing how to create a long-term solution. From my perspective we needed a first step – one that would reflect not a need for separation but a means for both to recognize the legacies and the traditions of the two peoples – and then to work for greater justice in a process of truth and reconciliation. 

I expected and hoped that the end result would be an eventual “confederation,” which naturally seemed to require the existence of two independent states to achieve.  The idea is not new as it essentially was advocated in 1970 by Lova Eliav in Eretz HaTzvi and supported by Abba Eban when he referred to the BeNeLux model (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxemburg) of a three-way confederation (including Jordan.)  In 1970 this was a bold and aspirational model that could have restored the pre-state bi-national approach to Zionism as advocated by Buber, Magnes, Simon inter alia in Brit Shalom/Ichud. But that was before the settlement project became entrenched.

Prominent J Street and other 2SS supporters have publicly stated that they also could envision and support the prospect of a confederation. However, in their view a confederation could logically only come after the implementation of a 2SS, and that simply returns the argument to the same impasse. A confederation after implementing a 2SS appears to have been precluded by the same powerful political forces and essentially irreversible facts on the ground that we have discussed.

In contrast, the conceptual approach of federation (as distinguished from confederation) starts in an alternative fashion with the facts on the ground. Currently there exists one controlling authority in the entire territory -- a one state reality, albeit one with terribly destructive and immoral policies varying in severity depending on the area. Dividing this territory and separating the populations is hardly the most logical, let alone the more pragmatic or more just approach to lead to anything remotely resembling a shared coexistence.  

Is there a conceptual path which builds on the minimum necessities for both peoples to feel that their needs for security and self-expression (including their ties to all of the land) can be met? Each of the books I mentioned above outlines concretely what that genuine solution would entail and suggests political as well as cultural/psychological steps that would need to be part of the process.

I find that among the most impressive qualities of their analyses is the different ways the two authors approach the emotional/psychological issues. They are not the first scholar-activists to emphasize the centrality of the narrative of both peoples as well as their history. For example, in one point of an eleven-point summary of the nature of his proposed one state Federation (pp. 150-153,) Boehm includes the following: “Both the Holocaust and the Nakba will be commemorated in public, jointly by Jews and Palestinians, under the auspices of joint research institutions”. In his proposal, Kuttab (p.48) suggests that “The vision is for a new entity…(that) would embrace and validate the essential elements of both Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism, while rejecting those elements in each movement which degrade or deny the Other”.

The approach outlined by these authors has some parallels with incipient joint political efforts within Israel/Palestine (such as the Eretz L’Kulam One Land-Two States program) as well as a number of inter-communal efforts like Family Circle/Bereaved Parents Forum, Combatants for Peace, Neve Shalom/ Wahat al Salam, and other organizations committed to non-violence and co-existence. Their members would clearly support efforts to find common ground.

A recent proposal by Yossi Beilin and Hiba Husseini, calling for a “Holy Land Confederation” is a creative version of a “2SS 2.0” that attempts to deal with the inadequate “justice” of the basic 2SS by allowing a very significant number of Palestinians to return as residents within the borders of Israel (corresponding to the number of settlers within the borders of the Palestinian state.) I think it is incumbent on those who would still advocate for a 2SS to follow this example of envisioning an outcome that addresses at least some of the inequities and the challenges of the results of 55 years of occupation and the injustices which preceded 1967. The 2SS, if it is to survive in any fashion, needs to be reframed as a means and not an end and it needs to be a 2SS 2.0 with a clear vision of a solution not based on irreconciliable differences.

Other colleagues in Israel/Palestine have offered some context for this two-state plus model. Some argue that for purposes of national pride and dignity even a brief period when a sovereign independent State of Palestine is declared and recognized might be important. Palestine-Israel Journal Co-editor Hillel Schenker observed in a recent communication with me that “a return to what you call bi-national Zionism should be the eventual goal. However, that would have to take place via a first stage resolution of the conflict based upon a two-state solution that would not be based on “divorce” or “separation” (my emphasis added to Hillel’s point), but rather cooperation between two sovereign states, recalling the fact that the original Partition Plan also included the element of an economic union between them, and some form of shared solution for the Old City of Jerusalem, the Holy Basin”.

Describing the contours of a vision that would be acceptable to both sides could, on the one hand, be dismissed as simply a utopian intellectual exercise. On the other hand, conflict resolution models might call it creating a political horizon.  The absence of a convincing political horizon is one of the major factors that has frozen the conversation and the politics. Federation and bi-nationalism seem to me to be more likely to produce a win-win result than any of the alternatives.  

  • Is the effort to find alternatives to the 2SS worth it?

For several reasons, this question troubles me most of all the issues with which I struggle:

  1. I respect and care deeply about people who remain committed and devote their lives in full good conscience to advocating for the 2SS. Any contribution to undermining their work troubles me greatly. Yet I still argue that this advocacy may be counterproductive at this stage, unless its supporters will emphasize that there must be a 2SS 2.0 vision of a solution and specify their model.  
  2. I am not sure that “right line-ism” is worth the effort. To argue for bi-National Zionism requires an effort to fight the “post-Zionism” concept in Israel or a perceived “anti-Zionism” of allies, some of whom certainly agree with the critique expressed here but seem to want to separate their program from any relationship to Zionism. It will be a challenging, uphill battle to resurrect the approach of Buber, Magnes, and their colleagues.  One might even ask whether the concept of “Bi-Nationalism” represents a discredited concept or rather, as I see it, represents a vision that can motivate both peoples to (finally) understand and accommodate each other’s narrative.
  3. Is there any coherent strategy that could create a momentum in support of this approach that would garner both significant elite and grassroots support, given the divisions within Israel and within the deeply divided Palestinian people in the West Bank, Gaza, and its diverse diaspora?
  4. I deeply fear that the Israeli/Palestinian struggle is not amenable to any of the solutions that have been designed by political scientists and public servants who have greater wisdom than I.

Nevertheless, I fear more that silence = death in this, as in many other contexts, and that evil can only triumph when good people are silent. Therefore, I am working on how to publicly express a critique of the 2SS with all the cautionary notes mentioned above. I do not outline here either specifics of a grass roots organizing, educational strategy or the timing of a longer-term political strategy that will clearly require staging. I will mention some short-term steps that seem most helpful, primarily on the intercommunal level.  

I have also not addressed a time frame for implementation of any possible model.  Each of the short book length proposals I mentioned above discuss the process and desired institutional political arrangements. These longer-term issues are political science and conflict resolution questions beyond the scope of this paper.  The fears of both sides and the deep cultural wounds cannot be erased overnight and will take years if not decades to resolve. But I maintain that a joint vision of two peoples living together on the same homeland is the only solution.  I hope that a reframing of aspirations that can be shared by both peoples will be helpful in the foreseeable future. As we read in the Biblical Book of Proverbs, “Where there is no vision the people perish”.

  • Short Term Concrete Steps toward advancing a better outcome (if not a solution):
    • In Israel, “be the change we advocate” in concrete political terms – members of Meretz, the Joint List, and others committed to a just bi-national solution in whatever form it takes, would be strongly supported by the formation of a true “Arab-Jewish” Party. A call for support for this effort by Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI) and other Jewish and Palestinian organizations in their diasporas, by joint dialogue groups, and by religious leaders would be very important and helpful.
    • With respect to the challenges on the Palestinian side, former head of the USAID office for the Palestinian territories, Larry Garber, suggested the following two points in a private communication: 
      • Support for efforts to create democratic political legitimacy for the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza - so long as the Palestinians remain institutionally divided and dubious about the legitimacy of their leadership, I don't think progress on the existential issues that you raise is possible. 
      • Continue to press Israel to promote the principles of equality enshrined in its declaration of independence - this represents the low-hanging fruit that may begin the needed shift in psychology and culture (and which may be partly underway with the participation of Raam as a member of the Israeli government). 
    • In Israel and the diaspora build upon the moving and spiritually grounded joint observance of Yom HaZikkaron initiated by Combatants for Peace and the Bereaved Families Forum and encourage public respect for the narratives of both communities by observing both the International Day of Holocaust Remembrance and the Nakba Day together. A third observance might be a commemoration of International Human Rights Day (December 10, date of UN ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’  
    • Some kind of “We Refuse to Be Enemies” proclamation of mutual recognition of the two national movements and their right to self-determination in Palestine/Eretz Yisrael – celebrities, religious leaders, and eventual grassroots of both peoples.   
    • Other forms of public actions and declarations which support cooperative solutions as distinguished from the prevailing model of separation or partition.    

[A shorter version of this article appeared in the Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 27, Nos. 1-2.]

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