The debate between the "one-state solution" and the "two-state solution" is not a theoretical one. There can be no compromise; we must choose - because they dictate quite different strategies and tactics - not tomorrow, but today, here and now. The decision will be fateful.
When the situation looks black, utopias flourish. The one-state solution is such a fruit of despair. Perhaps each of us has despaired at some point and said: There's nothing to be done; the situation is "irreversible." But one should not turn despair into an ideology. Despair destroys the ability to act. Nothing is lost until we throw up our hands, which is no solution. Nor is it moral.
The idea of one joint state was old when I was a boy. It flourished in the 1930s, then it went bankrupt. Today, there are three questions concerning the one-state solution: 1) Is it at all possible?; 2) If it is possible, is it good?; and 3) Will it bring a just peace?

1. Is a One-State Solution Possible?

My absolutely unequivocal answer is: No.
Anyone connected with the Jewish Israeli public knows that the desire for a state with a Jewish majority, where the Jews are masters of their own fate, trumps all other aims, even the desire for a state in all of Eretz Israel. One can talk about one state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, a bi-national or non-national state; in practice it means the dismantling of the State of Israel. That must be said clearly, and that's what the public - certainly the Palestinian public, as well as the Jewish - quite rightly thinks it is.
We want to change many things about this state, its historical narrative, its definition as a "Jewish and democratic" state, the occupation outside and the discrimination inside. We want to create a new basis for the relationship between the state and its Arab Palestinian citizens. But it is impossible to ignore the basic ethos of the overwhelming majority of the citizens.
There is an illusion that this can be changed through external pressure. Will outside pressure compel 99.9% of the Jewish public to give up the state? No, nothing but a crushing military defeat will compel the Israelis to give up their state.
The majority of the Palestinian people, too, want their own state - to realize their most basic aspirations, to restore their national pride, to heal their trauma. Even the leaders of Hamas, with whom we have talked, want it. Anyone who thinks otherwise is laboring under an illusion. There are Palestinians who talk about one state, but, for most, it is simply a code word for the dismantling of the State of Israel. They, too, know that it is utopian.
There are also some Palestinians who believe that the possibility of one state will frighten the Israelis into agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian state. But the result of this Machiavellian thinking is quite the opposite: It pushes the Israelis into the arms of the right and raises the specter of ethnic cleansing.
All over the world, the trend is not towards the creation of new multi-national states, but towards the breaking up of states into national components. There is no example of two different nations deciding of their own free will to live together in one state, or of a bi-national or multi-national state really functioning - except for Switzerland, the proverbial exception that proves the rule.
To hope that after 120 years of conflict, into which a fifth generation has already been born, two peoples could transition from total war to total peace in a joint state, giving up all aspirations to independence - that is a complete illusion.
How is this idea to be realized? Supposedly it is to come about like this: The Palestinians will give up their struggle for liberation and their aspiration for their own state, and announce that they want to live in a joint state with the Israelis. Once this state is established, they will have to fight for their civil rights. People around the world will support their struggle, as they once did in South Africa. They will impose a boycott and isolate the state. Millions of refugees will return to the country, and the Palestinian majority will regain power.
How much time, how many generations, will that take? Can anyone imagine how such a state will function in practice? Would the inhabitants of Bil'in pay the same taxes as those of Kfar Sava; the inhabitants of Jenin enact a constitution together with those of Netanya; and the inhabitants of Hebron and the settlers serve in the same army and police force, and be subject to the same laws? Is that realistic?
Some argue that this situation already exists, that Israel already governs one state from the sea to the river. No, what exists is an occupying state and an occupied territory. It is much easier to dismantle settlements than to compel 6 million Jewish Israelis to dismantle the state.

In al Ram near the Qalandiya checkpoint.
(Photo by Mahfouz Abu Turk)

2. If It Were Possible, Would a One-State Solution Be a Good Thing?

My answer is: Absolutely not.
Let's examine this state, not as an imaginary entity, the epitome of perfection, but as it would be in reality. In this state, the Israelis will be dominant. They currently enjoy superiority in practically all spheres: quality of life, military power and technological capabilities. The annual income of an average Israeli is 25 times that of an average Palestinian: $20,000 as opposed to $800. The Israelis will see to it that the Palestinians will be the hewers of wood and the drawers of water for a long, long time.
It will be an occupation by other means. It will not end the conflict, but open another phase.

3. Would a One-State Solution Bring a Just Peace?

This state will be a battlefield, as each side tries to take over as much land as possible and bring in as many people as possible. The Jews will fight with every means to prevent the Arabs from becoming the majority and rising to power. In practice, this will be an apartheid state. If the Arabs were to attain majority and try to assume power, there will be a struggle that could lead to civil war, a repeat of 1948.
Even an advocate of the one-state solution must admit that the struggle will go on for several generations. Much blood may flow, and the results are far from assured.
The one-state idea is utopian. To realize it, one has to change the people, perhaps the two peoples. Communism has shown that utopianism can bring about terrible consequences. The vision of "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb" requires the provision of a new lamb every day.
Some cite the model of South Africa, but there is hardly any similarity between the two situations. In South Africa, neither the whites nor the blacks wanted a separate state of their own, nor did they ever live in two separate entities. The one state had already long existed, and the struggle was over power in this one state.
The bosses of South Africa were racists who admired the Nazis; it was easy to boycott their state. Israel, by contrast, is accepted by the world as the state of Holocaust survivors, and only small groups will boycott it. It is enough for Israelis to point out that the first step on the way to Auschwitz was the Nazi slogan: "Don't buy from Jews." Furthermore, an international boycott would arouse in many Jews around the world the deepest fears of anti-Semitism, pushing them to the extreme right.
In any case, experts on South Africa say that the effectiveness of the boycott is much overrated. The main factor that brought down the apartheid regime was the withdrawal of American support from South Africa as a bastion against Communism, once the Soviet Union had collapsed. The relationship between the United States and Israel is immeasurably more profound and complex, with deep ideological layers.

Two States: The Only Practical, and Therefore Moral, Solution

Fifty-eight years ago, when my friends and I first raised the flag of Israeli-Palestinian peace based on the two-state solution, we could be counted on the fingers of two hands. Now there is a consensus that it is the only realistic solution - among the U.S., Russia, Europe, Israeli public opinion, Palestinian public opinion and the Arab League. One has to realize the full importance of this: The entire Arab world now supports this idea.
True, some only pay lip service to it or use it to divert attention from their real aims. But when the whole world recognizes that this is the only practical solution, it will, in the end, be realized.
The parameters are well known and widely agreed upon:
1) A Palestinian state, to be established side-by-side with Israel.
2) Borders based on the Green Line, perhaps with an agreed-upon and equal limited swap of territories.
3) Jerusalem as the capitals of the two states.
4) An agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem. (An agreed number will return to Israel, the rest rehabilitated in the Palestinian state or their present places of domicile, with payment of generous compensations. The choices must be submitted to the refugees wherever they are, as partners in the final decision.
5) An economic partnership in which the Palestinian government can defend Palestinian interests. The existence of two states will mitigate, to some extent, the huge disparity between the two sides.
6) In the more distant future: a Middle Eastern union, modeled on the EU, that may include Turkey and Iran.
The obstacles, also well known, are big. But real obstacles to the two-state solution are small compared to the obstacles to a one-state solution, and can be overcome.
No doubt, the one-state idea gives its adherents moral satisfaction. Somebody said to me: OK, it is not realistic, but it is moral, and that is where I want to be. I say: That is a luxury we cannot afford. When the fate of so many human beings is in the balance, a moral stance that is not realistic is immoral.
It is not enough to point out that the one-state solution cannot be realized. This "solution" is also very dangerous:
1) It both results from despair and produces despair. It diverts efforts towards peace by creating the illusion that the real battlefield is abroad, not here.
2) It allows time to be lost irretrievably - decades, in which terrible things can happen to the Palestinians and to us, e.g., ethnic cleansing.
3) It divides the peace camp and deepens the gap between it and the public. It strengthens the right by frightening the public into losing sight of a sensible solution.
4) It undermines the fight against the occupation. If there is to be one state between the sea and the Jordan, the settlers can build settlements anywhere they like.
5) It strengthens the argument that there is "no solution" to the conflict. If the two-state solution is wrong and the one-state solution is not feasible, then the right is correct that there is no solution at all - an argument that justifies every evil, from eternal occupation to ethnic cleansing. No solution means no end to the occupation.
Once we achieve peace between two states, we will be free to argue over the next stage: amalgamation of the two states into one; two states as a permanent solution; or a gradual move, with mutual consent, towards a confederation or federation. (From our first meeting in 1982 until the end, Yasser Arafat spoke of a Benelux solution for Israel, Palestine, Jordan and perhaps even Lebanon.)
Experience shows that formally, the classic nation-state is here to stay, while in practice, many of its functions are being transferred to supranational structures like the EU. I assume that something similar will happen here in the end. But for now, we must address the immediate problem.
While an international consensus on the two-state solution has been reached by a process of elimination, in order to realize it, we must build support from the inside, among the Israeli public. My assessment is that although on the surface the situation is depressing and shocking - the settlements are getting bigger, the wall is getting longer, the occupation is causing untold injustices every day - we are progressing nevertheless. For under the surface, things are moving in the opposite direction. All the polls prove that the decisive majority of the Israeli public accepts the existence of the Palestinian people and the necessity of a Palestinian state. It more or less accepts that Jerusalem must become the capitals of the two states. The government recognized the PLO yesterday and will recognize Hamas tomorrow. In ever-widening circles, we see the beginning of a recognition of the other nation's narrative.
True, 120 years of conflict have accumulated in our people a huge reservoir of hatred, prejudice, suppressed guilt feelings, stereotypes, and most importantly, fear and an absolute mistrust towards the Arabs. These we must fight, to convince the public of the benefits to be gained from the establishment of a Palestinian state, that peace is worthwhile and good for the future of Israel. Together with a change in the international situation and a partnership with the Palestinian people, our chances of achieving peace are good.
I, in any case, have decided to stay alive until this happens.

Translated by Adam Keller, from opening remarks during a public debate between Avnery and Ilan Pappe in Tel Aviv, May 8, 2007, organized by Gush Shalom