President Donald Trump hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today at the White House and made some news when asked whether he backs a two-state solution—just not the news you may have heard. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” the president said. “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians-if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
Contrary to some breathless reports, then, Trump did not drop American support for the traditional two-state solution but rather indicated his openness to alternatives should Israelis and Palestinians agree to them. Given that crucial qualification, Trump’s statement did little to advance the one-state solution as traditionally understood. That’s because decades of polling shows that while Israelis and Palestinians narrowly support a two-state outcome, they are decidedly opposed to a one-state endgame, which many see as a recipe for strife and civil war. Most recently, a joint 2016 survey by Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and the Israel Democracy Institute, found that 68% of Palestinians oppose the one-state solution, as do 64% of Israelis. Forcing both populations into a single entity is a non-starter for most of the people on the ground.
Does this mean that the hubbub over Trump’s remarks is entirely overblown? Not necessarily—because a straight binational one-state solution does not exhaust the possible alternatives to the classical two-state model. In fact, hybrid solutions that combine elements of separate states within a single shared political unit have been on the rise for some time. These models have been put forward by proponents as diverse as leftist academics, European Union officials, and Israel’s right-wing president. And with Trump’s remarks today, they may now finally have their moment.
Back in 2013, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning in the U.S. State Department under Obama and a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, offered a radical alternative to the simple one-state and two-state formulas. She called it “Condominialism”:
The core idea is that Israelis and Palestinians would be citizens of two separate states and thus would identify with two separate political authorities. Palestine would be defined as a state of the Palestinian people, and Israel as a Jewish state. Under “condominialism”, however, both Palestinians and Jews “would be granted the right to settle anywhere within the territory of either of the two states, the two states thus forming a single, binational settlement community”.
Think about that for a minute. As Nieli describes it, Palestinians “would have the right to settle anywhere within Israel just as Jews would have the right to settle anywhere within the territory of the Palestinian state. Regardless of which of the two states they lived in, all Palestinians would be citizens of the Palestinian state, all Jews citizens of Israel”.
In August 2015, Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin went further than Slaughter and voiced support for an Israeli-Palestinian “confederation” encompassing two entities with open borders and a shared army. A classical liberal who speaks fluent Arabic, Rivlin has been a staunch advocate for Palestinian rights within Israel, for which he has received both international plaudits and domestic death threats. His confederation proposal was applauded by the far-left—then picked up even more unexpected backing.
The following October, European Parliament President Martin Schultz—now a chief left-wing challenger to Angela Merkel for chancellor of Germany—similarly raised the prospect of an alternative to the traditional two-state paradigm in a speech in Dusseldorf. “Peace in the Middle East is possible only if the mother of all conflicts, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, is resolved and both peoples live together in two states or a confederation,” he said.
What might such a confederation entail? This past Spring, academics Dahlia Scheindlin and Dov Waxman sketched one version in the Washington Quarterly of the Elliot School of International Affairs. They summarized their scholarly piece in The Guardian:
[D]espair is rooted in the mistaken notion that there are no other options. But there is another way. It combines elements of both one-state and two-state solutions. It is a confederal approach, proposing two sovereign states, with an open border between them, freedom of movement and residency, and some limited shared governance. Call it the two-state solution 2.0.
The 1967 ceasefire lines would be the basis for a border, but a different kind of border, not today’s 9m concrete wall, but one aimed at allowing people on both sides to cross freely, to visit their holy places, to work, shop, socialise – in short, to breathe.
In addition to proposing an open border, another key distinction between this approach and the traditional two-state solution is the idea of de-linking citizenship and residency. While each state would decide its own citizenship policies, including laws of return, citizens of one state could be permitted to live as residents in the other (as in the European Union), with each state setting limits on the number of non-citizens granted residency…
A final significant difference between the traditional two-state solution and a confederation is the idea of establishing some joint institutions and legal mechanisms to facilitate cooperation between the two states, not only in security matters but also in areas such as economic development and management of shared resources (water, for example). This would help promote economic equality and prosperity, instead of fostering conditions for state failure if a new Palestinian state was simply left to fend for itself. Close security cooperation would be essential. But it would take place between two independent states, unlike today’s security cooperation, where the Palestinian Authority is widely perceived by Palestinians to be acting as the contractor of a foreign military ruler.
Scheindlin and Waxman also applied their paradigm in detail to the thorny issues of settlements, Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem, outlining how a confederation would offer new tools for solving these previously intractable problems by blurring borders and allowing citizens full freedom of residency and movement in the entire geographic area of Israel/Palestine.
Unlike the simple one-state and two-state solutions, these newer hybrid solutions have not been extensively negotiated by the parties or polled among their publics. But at a time when Israelis and Palestinians have proven unable to agree on a two-state solution yet remain adamantly opposed to a one-state alternative, these compromise candidates may well offer the key to progress, if developed and pitched to the respective populations.
Whether by design or more likely by sheer accident, then, Trump may have opened the door to more creative thinking about solving the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.