Is the idea that Palestinians can gain full citizenship rights within Israel any more idealistic or unlikely than Palestinians managing to force Israel to cede territory?

Recently, Palestinians seem to have become increasingly interested in the idea of a “one-state” solution. Rather than fighting for an independent country, this strategy calls for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to gain citizenship rights in Israel. Despite this position becoming steadily more popular, especially among the young, it is not yet widely accepted; only about one-third of Palestinians support a one-state solution.

There are good reasons for Palestinians to start emphasising a one-state solution, despite its many potential problems.

Governments tend be to be very uncompromising with demands for autonomy or statehood if they believe the creation of a new state will hurt their external security. 

Such security concerns are deeply entrenched in the Israel-Palestine dispute. Though there are other reasons for Israel disallowing an independent Palestine, the criticalness of balance-of-power considerations to the equation means that a Palestinian strategy focused on rights promises better results than one focused on territory.

The centrality of security in separatists conflicts

When states are faced with nationalists’ demands for independence or autonomy on their territory, they have a decision to make: do we resist the movement or concede territory to it? 

As I show in my new book, a state’s security concerns, or lack thereof, help determine this choice. To understand why, it helps to see secession, or the slicing of a country’s territory, as a large and rapid loss of power by the state experiencing it. 

First, the state loses relative power to the national group, who win the military, economic, demographic, and institutional benefits of statehood.

Second, because of its losses of territory and population, the state becomes weaker relative to existing regional or global rivals.

Such an adverse shift in the balance of power is only acceptable to states confident in their future security. 

Conversely, other states are warier of the security consequences of border changes. They may fear war against its new neighbor, as Ethiopia experienced against Eritrea in the 1990s, or consider themselves vulnerable to predation from already-established states. 

Either way, if the state fears future war, it will attempt to forestall such an eventuality by blocking secession.

This theory accounts for one of Israel’s main concerns in giving up land to Palestinians: the security implications of a Palestinian state. 

These fears are based on living in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the world, second only to South Asia in conflict levels, and one where Israel fought several wars against Arab states early in its life. 

Moreover, Israeli leaders, especially on the right, have subsumed Palestinian nationalism under the rubric of general Arab hostility to the state. 

Consequently, Israel fears that a Palestinian state would develop further security problems for it, if not by its leaders then non-state actors located there, or alternately, by existing states taking advantage of new vulnerabilities.

This is not to say that domestic factors are unimportant. Consistent with scholarship that highlight the importance of veto points in self-determination disputes, Israel’s rightward turn since the 1970s — accelerated since the mid-1990s — has resulted in religious-nationalist settlers and their supporters fiercely resisting any idea of Palestinian independence. 

Nonetheless, external security, and the international environment more generally, remains prominent in any discussion of Israeli policy vis-a-vis a Palestinian state.

The tragedy of separatist politics

The idea that the Palestinians must assure Israel of its security to win a state can appear, in the words of one Palestinian scholar I interviewed, “twisted logic.” 

Are the Palestinians not a stateless minority oppressed by a powerful state enjoying a regional nuclear monopoly, as well as the unflinching backing of the world’s only superpower? This seemingly-reasonable viewpoint conflates absolute with relative power.

Israel is assuredly more powerful than, and continues to assert dominance over, the Palestinian nation. However, a Palestinian state would make Israel’s security environment more challenging, at least marginally. 

Even if the leaders of an independent Palestine were intent on peace with Israel, the thorny question of non-state actors using such a state as a base for attacks would be left unanswered. Consider how Hamas, hardly a friend of Israel’s, is struggling to excavate ISIS from Gaza.

Indeed, the tragedy from the point of view of common Palestinians is that there is only so much they, and their leaders, can do to placate Israel.

 Israel’s history of conflict with Arab states in its early years – which Palestinians bear little responsibility for – has left it suspicious of any changes in the regional balance of power.

Even if the Palestinians give up claims to a state military – which they have since Oslo – there are elements of independence that they simply cannot negotiate away, such as the existence of “hard” international borders, which necessarily reduce Israeli security. This, in a nutshell, is the tragedy of separatist politics.

A one-state solution?

When governments disallow an independent state, or even autonomy, they usually encourage the second-best option available to dissatisfied national groups – assimilation. Naturally, this “assimilation” is on the terms of the central state, but at least there is a de jure invitation to full citizenship.

Aside from the so-called “1948 Palestinians” – those Palestinians that remained in Israel’s territory after the 1948 war – the assimilation option is not presently available to the Palestinian people. 

In addition to being physically impeded by walls, checkpoints, and blocked roads, Palestinians do not enjoy basic rights granted to “problematic” national groups elsewhere. 

Kurds can vote in Iraqi elections and Catalans can vote in Spanish elections but Palestinians, at least those living in Gaza and the West Bank, cannot vote in Israeli elections. This disjuncture in rights between “full” citizens and those Palestinians under occupation has led many, both within and outside the country, to express deep fears of an “apartheid” Israel.

This, then, is the context for questions within Palestinian society regarding the advisability of a one- or two-state solution. 

Winning “assimilation” rights, while an enormous challenge, may be easier than compelling Israel to concede territory, given the security challenges associated with the latter. 

A bi-national, democratic state where all citizens, regardless of ethnicity, religion, language, creed, or sexual orientation enjoy full and equal rights may rightly strike some as a pipe dream. But a one-state solution is no more quixotic than the notion of a relatively powerless national group forcing a change in borders against the most powerful state in the region, backed by the most powerful state in the world.

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