Israel Palestine: A Constitutional Democracy

03/06/2015 01:09 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

The only possible solution to the problem of Israel and Palestine, it is generally assumed, is to recognize the two peoples and divide the land between them. The only question, it appears, is where to draw the line and what happens to people who end up on the wrong side.

But this solution has been failing for almost 70 years. There is no line to be drawn. The premise of two discrete peoples is out of touch with reality.

Let's start instead with a different premise. In Israel, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza there are a total of over 12 million people, with diverse identities and complex interrelations. Each is entitled to full human rights, including religious liberty; freedoms of expression and association; equal opportunity regardless of ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, etc.; and due process of law.

What to do? This is not a unique problem. Quite the contrary, it is the problem faced in the formation of nations everywhere. The solution is constitutional democracy.

What is constitutional democracy? It is a form of democracy constrained by constitutional principles.

Democracy is a system of government based on equal respect for all persons, including equal opportunity to participate in political debate. On most issues, if consensus cannot be reached, everyone has equal opportunity to vote and the majority rules.

Constitutional democracy sets limits on majority rule. The majority cannot ban your religion, forbid the expression of your opinions, or restrict your employment on the basis of your race or sex. Fundamental human rights cannot be voted away. Democratic constitutions protect minorities against discrimination by the majority.

Democratic constitutions also protect freedoms of social identity and affiliation, thus enabling groups of all sorts to thrive. People may identify as Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Christians, secular humanists, libertarians, socialists, lawyers, musicians, teachers, students, workers, women, political activists, or whatever else they please, and most will have multiple intersecting identities.

The concept of Israel Palestine as a single democratic country that serves all its people has been around a long time and has been taken seriously by many. Perhaps its most important exposition is Ali Abunimah's One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.

There are many who object, however. The objections come in two major categories.

First, there are those who insist that at least part of historic Palestine be an Islamic state. This is the sort of state in which they want to live, and they have their reasons. But many Palestinians are Christian, and many of those who are Muslim do not want to live in an Islamic theocracy. We cannot satisfy all wants.

Second, there are those who insist that at least part of historic Palestine remain a Jewish state--one that officially favors Judaism over other religions and officially favors persons of Jewish ancestry over Palestinians and others. This is the sort of state in which they want to live. I grew up with the idea of Israel as the Jewish state and understand it well. But it is not possible to satisfy all wants.

If only we could get the Rolling Stones to mediate. "You can't always get what you want," the Stones reminded us, "you can't always get what you want"--and then added, "but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need." Constitutional democracy may not be what most people most want, but it gives everyone what they need.

In the long run, moreover, most citizens of constitutional democracies come to see recognizing the equal liberty of others not just as the price they pay for their own liberty but as a good thing in itself. Mutual respect creates the sort of community in which we all want to live. In the end we all do get what we want.

We won't see a constitutional democracy emerging in Israel Palestine any time soon. But the project of partitioning Israel and Palestine has reached its predictable dead end. To make progress we must pursue a new ideal with potentially broad appeal--a single constitutional democracy equally committed to all its citizens.