The international community has struggled for two decades to navigate Israelis and Palestinians toward an oasis of peace and stability. Yet it is increasingly clear that this oasis -- the two-state solution, whereby each of the two peoples would exercise sovereignty within their own state -- is in fact a mirage that continually recedes into the distance, always remaining just beyond reach.
In fact, a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state will not be realized any time in the foreseeable future, and quite likely never will be. The obstacles to meaningful Palestinian statehood are constantly mounting, most tangibly in the form of Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Some 600,000 Jewish settlers now reside there -- three times as many as at the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1993, and their numbers are growing rapidly.
Continuing to chase the two-state mirage under these circumstances will only enable continuing Israeli colonization of the West Bank and entrench a new form of systematic ethno-religious discrimination, where only Jews enjoy full rights -- to travel, housing, employment, education, and other basics of a free life.
As it stands, there is one effective sovereign between the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and the Jordan River to the east: Israel. It is the Israeli government whose actions most impact the lives not only of its 7.6 million citizens, but also of its 4.3 million subjects in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As this functionally unitary state will not be divided, the question that looms is: on what principles will it be organized, ethnic privilege for Jews, as it is now, or equal rights? Ethnic privilege for Jews is currently institutionalized not only in the segregated Jewish communities Israel has established in the West Bank, but also in more than 35 laws within Israel that bestow benefits exclusively to its Jewish citizens.
A growing number of forward-looking Palestinians and Israelis are rejecting Jewish ethnic privilege as both ethically insupportable and politically unsustainable, and are opting for equal rights. That is the position of a number of the participants in a "one state" conference held recently at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School. Recognizing that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are destined to live together, the conference participants were seeking ways to share power equitably between the two communities.
Not all support for a single state emanates from progressive thinkers, however. Members of Israel's right wing are also beginning to seriously mull the advantages of a single state: no borders would have to be drawn, Jerusalem would remain undivided, and Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank -- at least if desegregated -- could remain where they are. Current Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, for example, stated in a 2010 interview in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "I would rather Palestinians as citizens of this country over dividing the land up." He further advocated "true partnership" between Jews and Palestinians and relations based on mutual respect and absolute equality.
Right-wing politicians in the United States appear to be following suit. Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, in a recent exchange with a young voter captured on Youtube.com, characterized the West Bank as "Israeli country" and asserted that "All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis, they're not Palestinians. There is no 'Palestinian.'" As a descriptive matter, of course, he was flatly wrong -- Palestinian residents of the West Bank are not citizens of Israel and have no vote in Israeli elections. But as a normative statement, Santorum's could be read as endorsing the inclusion of Palestinians into the Israeli body politic.
In February the Republican National Committee passed a resolution sponsored by national committeewoman Cindy Costa of South Carolina that claimed "peace can be afforded the region only through a united Israel governed under one law for all people." Elsewhere the resolution denied that Israel was "an occupier of the land of others," clarifying that the area to be governed under "one law" includes the West Bank. Two state legislatures, in South Carolina and Florida, have passed resolutions in the last year supporting a one-state solution and identifying the West Bank as part of Israel.
By abandoning the still-born two-state solution, the emerging Israeli and American conservative advocates of one-state achieve a form of progress. But real, on-the-ground progress will follow only if the state that ultimately emerges is solidly based on the principle of equal rights. Inequality, in contrast, is a formula for perpetual conflict.
It pays to remember that possibly the largest, and surely the safest and most prosperous Jewish community in the world, is in the United States. We abandoned racial privilege and formally committed ourselves to equal rights in adopting the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. Is a true democracy -- one in which all, not some, enjoy full rights of citizenship -- really so threatening to the interests of Israeli Jews? Would not a truly democratic state joining Jews and Palestinians become the "light unto nations" that Israel was always meant to be?