Unlike South Africa, Israel is a colonial-settler project which necessarily involves the dispossession of the indigenous population

One-state, two-state illusions

Winning the Hebrew working class in Israel is vital; so is wider regional change. Towards that end we need a minimum programme of demands, insists Moshé Machover

I am not going to talk about one state or two states in the abstract: that is, I am not saying that at no point in the future some kind of resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict may happen, or that it may perhaps take the form of one state, two states or any other blueprint. Instead I want to address the so-called two-state and one-state ‘solutions’, as they are presented today - in the form that they are advocated by various people currently. I am going to argue that both are illusions, but for different reasons.

The ‘two-state solution’ is illusory because, even in the unlikely event that it is somehow implemented, it cannot provide a resolution of the conflict. If you look at the actual details of what is proposed, they can only mean a continuation of that conflict, albeit in a somewhat different form - but, in any case, it is almost impossible to imagine that it will be implemented. As for the ‘one-state solution’, if certain of its versions were implemented - if they could be implemented under present circumstances, that is - then it may resolve the conflict. The problem with it is that the present set of conditions that prevail in the Middle East do not allow it to be implemented. I think, however, before looking at this or that proposed solution, it would be best to address three points.

Firstly, what are the minimum conditions that a resolution of the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinian people must satisfy? Secondly, I am going to say something about the nature of the conflict, which is very often obscured in most mainstream discussion, and, thirdly, I would like to address the issue of the necessary preconditions for a proper, long-term resolution of the conflict; how a resolution may be achieved and by what route.


So, first of all, let me formulate briefly a sort of ‘minimum programme’ - or a set of minimum conditions as to what would count as a resolution of the conflict. The minimum conditions will include equal rights for all, including equal personal rights, and, secondly and importantly, equal national rights for both groups involved.

I would like to specify what I mean by the national groups involved, because this is often obscured to some extent by talking about ‘Jews and Arabs’ or ‘Jews and Palestinians’. To be specific, on the one side we have the national Palestinian collective: that is to say, the Palestinian Arabs - both those who are citizens of Israel and those who are subjects under Israeli rule in the 1967 occupied territories, as well as refugees elsewhere. On the other side is the Hebrew or so-called Israeli Jewish national group. I exclude in this the Zionist idea of the Jewish people all around the world constituting some kind of national entity that should have some rights in Israel-Palestine. This is not what I mean by equal rights for two national groups.

I repeat: the national groups that should have equality in any proper resolution of the conflict are the Palestinian Arab national group and the Israeli Jewish or Hebrew-speaking national group actually present in Israel-Palestine.

Why do I insist on equal national rights for both groups? Simply because any situation in which one is denied equal rights, and is underprivileged or dominated by the other, cannot last and cannot be regarded as a resolution of the conflict. Any such configuration would provoke resistance - and the resistance would be met with repression, as it has in the past.

I would also add to this minimum programme the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, from which they were expelled in the Nakba - this is quite simply an elementary right that is a basic concept of justice, as well as prescribed under international law: the right of refugees to return to their homeland. So anything that is far from (or even a little short of) this minimum set of conditions is simply not acceptable as a possible resolution of the conflict. Since the rest of what I am going to say is on the negative side - why so-called ‘solutions’ involving one or two states are really illusions, if for different reasons - if we want to advocate something positive, then I believe it must be this minimum programme.

I do not think it is a good idea, politically and educationally, just to be negative by saying this or that is impossible, even if it is true. You have to indicate what you advocate as minimum conditions for the resolution of the conflict, and here a very simple set of minimum conditions - equal rights for all individuals; equal national rights; and the right of the refugees to return to their homeland - is, I think, what we should positively advocate. Anything that falls short of this does not qualify as a resolution of the conflict, whether or not it is possible.

Nature of conflict

Secondly, I would like to say something about the nature of the conflict - which I think needs specifying, because there is a lot of misrepresentation and confusion about it.

If you look at the mainstream media, the way the conflict is represented is as two national groups fighting over some territory: that is to say, claiming possession of or rights over a piece of land. One of them may be stronger than the other (obviously Israel is a nuclear-armed state, has a formidable army, etc, and is by far the stronger of the two sides), but the conflict is presented as though it is between two nations like, let us say, France and Germany in the not so distant past - or the many other territorial wars fought in the last couple of centuries. Now the reason why this kind of misrepresentation abounds is because it has some surface plausibility and this is due to the fact that, although the conflict is basically a colonial one, as I shall argue, it is unique among all colonial situations, in that both sides - the colonisers and the colonised - have crystallised as national groups.

Let me explain what I mean by this: in modern times, since the end of colonial slavery there have been two kinds of colonisation. Kautsky used the following terminology.

First, a colonisation in which the main labour force, the main producers, were the indigenous people and in which the economy was based on their exploitation. This he called an ‘exploitation colony’, of the type that was established mainly in Africa and was then abandoned - the most recently decolonised being South Africa. These are examples of where settlers built up their political economy on the exploitation of indigenous labour.

The other type, of which Australia is a very obvious example, is a colonial situation where the main direct producers were themselves settlers: that is to say, the colonial political economy was based on the self-work of some of the settlers. Kautsky called this type a ‘work colony’, but his terminology is based on what the settlers did: they actually worked and formed the main labour force. I prefer the term, ‘exclusion colony’, because it focuses on what the settlers did to the indigenous people: they excluded them.

In this type of colony the indigenous people were simply surplus to requirement. They were not needed, were regarded as a nuisance and indeed in some of these places they were completely or almost completely exterminated (eg, in Tasmania). As far as I know, there is no instance of an exploitation colony in which the settlers themselves formed a new nation: they remain a quasi-class. Eventually what happened was either the territory was decolonised and the settlers were ejected - as happened, for example, in Algeria, when the French settlers headed back to their metropolis and hardly any of them remained in the colony; or they may have merged with the indigenous population. This happened in several places, especially in Latin America: for example, in Brazil, which was partly a slave-based colony, but also one based on indigenous labour.

The general rule is that, where there was an exclusion colony, as in Australia and some parts of North America, the settlers formed the new nation. But in every case other than Palestine the indigenous people did not constitute a single national group. If you look at the situation in Australia, for example, the indigenous people consisted of a large number of groups with different languages - certainly nothing remotely like a single nation - and it was the same in North America.

The closest this ever came to happening outside Palestine was in New Zealand, where the indigenous people did have one common language. I am not an expert on New Zealand’s history, but, as far as I know, while the indigenous people had one common language, they did not form anything like a single nation of the type existing in a modern state.

The only case in which not only the settlers form the new settler nation (as in Australia, North America and so on), but where the indigenous people also constitute a single nation, is Palestine. I will not go into the reasons here why this is the case: I simply want to state that this is evidently what happened. Because of this unique situation - where both settlers and indigenous people formed new nations - the colonial conflict appeared as a binary national conflict: one nation against the other. However, this is only the surface appearance.

It is not a symmetric conflict between two national groups, but it is - if you look at the actual history and nature of the conflict, as it has unfolded over more than 120 years - clearly a conflict between colonisers and indigenous people, which has assumed the misleading form of a binary national conflict. I think it is very important to keep this in mind, when considering what might count as a possible resolution of the conflict.

What conclusion do we draw from this clarification about the nature of the conflict? Since it is of a colonial nature, its resolution can only be one of decolonisation: so we should look at any proposed resolution of the conflict in these terms. By the way, in this connection I would like to refer you to an article I wrote in the Weekly Worker entitled ‘The decolonisation of Palestine’,1 which expands on some of the ideas that I will now discuss - including the exceptional nature of this colonial conflict.


Now let me address the two so-called ‘solutions’ that have been proposed - first of all, the two-state solution.

One of the many things that is wrong with it is precisely that it addresses the conflict on its superficial level, as a conflict between two national groups: let them each have a state of their own and that will resolve the conflict. Of course, this is based on a misapprehension of the real nature of the conflict. It is also a resolution that is in practice virtually impossible to envisage being implemented. Zionism is a work in progress, based on the claim of the Zionist regime (which is wed to the Zionist project of colonisation) to complete the colonisation of Palestine.

The Zionists claim to have a right to the whole of the territory of Palestine - at the very least between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. That applies to both main camps of the Zionist movement: the one originally led by Ben-Gurion, the so-called ‘labor Zionism’, which has now dwindled into insignificance; and the revisionist wing of Zionism, led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which is now the dominant power in Israel. Both of them claimed the right of the Jewish people - in their terms - to the whole of Palestinian territory in between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, except that the rightwing, revisionist Zionists also claimed a right to the other side of the Jordan - to what was the Emirate of Transjordan from 1921 to 1946 and is today the kingdom of Jordan. In principle revisionist Zionism claimed the right to colonise also the Transjordanian part of what used to be Palestine before it was partitioned by Churchill into Cisjordanian Palestine, under the British mandate, and the protectorate of trans-Jordanian Palestine.

Looked at like this, the Zionist project is still a work in progress, which is being extended into new domains through the colonisation by Israel of the West Bank; and the proposed, projected colonisation of the Gaza Strip is part of this project. That is to say to create a situation where Jews colonise the whole space between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. In terms of achieving this aim, Israel is not merely a product of Zionist colonisation, but an instrument, a means for its further extension and expansion. Israel has been colonising the West Bank furiously under governments dominated by labor Zionism and by the inheritors of revisionist Zionism.

At the same time Israel has been negotiating, on and off, and in bad faith, about the implementation of a two-state solution in response to pressure from the so-called ‘international community’, which really means the United States and its camp followers. Under labor Zionism the tactics was to engage in negotiations, and to drag them on endlessly by putting forward one condition after another in order to delay and prevent any kind of agreement about a two-state solution. This has been compared to two people negotiating over how to divide a pizza, while one of them is eating slice after slice!

And in fact if you look at the situation on the ground, there is nowhere where a Palestinian state alongside Israel could be instituted. There is simply no territory left which is contiguous and makes sense as a territory for a state alongside Israel. Israeli governments have actually been very explicit in their outright opposition to any kind of Palestinian state, however emaciated or emasculated it might be. Benjamin Netanyahu is on record as saying simply ‘no’ to any Palestinian state, but no other major Zionist party has ever officially agreed to a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

People are under the false impression that former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in making the Oslo agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, agreed to a two-state solution. That is quite false: that Oslo agreement had not a single word about a Palestinian state if you actually read its text. Moreover in presenting the Oslo agreement to the Knesset for ratification very shortly before he was assassinated, Rabin made it clear that what he was thinking of was not a Palestinian state, but “something less than a state” - in fact it could not be anything approaching a state in the proper sense of the word.

Currently there is very strong international pressure on Israel to implement a two-state solution, but it is very unlikely that the United States - certainly under Donald Trump, who is very probably going to be the next American president, or under the present regime of Joe Biden - is going to be able or willing to impose even the so-called Palestinian ‘less than a state’ on Israel. But suppose that the Biden idea of a two-state solution is somehow imposed on Israel, what would be the result? Well it would not be anything like an equal solution and it would be completely remote from the minimum conditions for a resolution of the conflict. You would have a nuclear-armed regional superpower, Israel, occupying most of the territory next to a demilitarised Palestine. The US has specified very explicitly that the Palestinian so-called state envisaged would be demilitarised.

So you would have a demilitarised Palestinian state with a big population of messianic Israeli settlers, because no Israeli regime is going to be able to evacuate the settlements from the West Bank. Such an evacuation would lead to civil war inside Israel, so no existing or prospective Israeli government could actually implement it. You would have the settlers remaining under so-called Palestinian state power, and they would do what they are doing now: that is to say, expand their settlements on Palestinian land and come into conflict with the Palestinian population surrounding them.

The Israeli army would still be in a position to come and intervene on their behalf, as it is does now. In fact the situation that exists now between the settlers, backed by the Israeli army, would continue under this so-called two-state ‘solution’. It would lead to what the occupation has led to in recent history: ie, what you would have in fact is not a two-state solution - you would have an Israeli state with an ‘Indian reservation’ next to it. That is what would result, even if that proposal could be implemented - which is, in any case, very, very unlikely. So, even in this unlikely outcome, what would be instituted is not two proper, sovereign states of equal power, but one Zionist state with a subsidiary next to it - a Bantustan, if you want to use the (somewhat inappropriate) South African analogy (I would prefer the analogy with the North American model of Indian reservations).


What about the one-state ‘solution’? Some versions that are being proposed actually do satisfy the minimum conditions I outlined earlier. They do presuppose the overthrow of the Zionist colonial regime, but the question is: can this be implemented under present circumstances?

What I mean is that under the world system of capitalism that exists at the moment I think this is unlikely. Unfortunately, the overthrow of the Zionist regime - which is a precondition for the resolution of this colonial conflict - is, like the ecological crisis, something which cannot possibly be resolved under capitalism. The reasons for this I have elaborated on many occasions (I refer you to the article I cited, published in the Weekly Worker in June 2016). The problem with the decolonisation of Palestine is that the Zionist regime cannot be overthrown from the outside, as there is simply no force capable and willing to do so.

And internally the situation in this colonial conflict is very different from, for example, what existed in South Africa, in which the indigenous labour force, which was vital for the political economy of the country, was an internal force which had leverage to overthrow the apartheid regime. There is nothing like that in the existing situation in Israel-Palestine, where the overthrow of the Zionist regime cannot be realised without the participation and support of the Israeli masses themselves - primarily the Israeli Hebrew working class.

Under capitalism there is no way in which this overthrow of the Zionist regime can be expected to be supported by the Israeli Hebrew working class, for the simple reason that this would mean this class exchanging its present position of an exploited class, but with national privileges vis-à-vis the Palestinians, for a position of being a class still exploited by capital, but without the national privileges. This is not a deal that is likely to have support from the main force that can overthrow the Zionist regime.

The only chance of the Israeli working class supporting the overthrow of Zionism is in a situation in which we have a transformed region of the Arab east, which would offer the Israeli working class the exchange of its present position as an exploited class with national privileges to a class without national privileges, but being part of the ruling class of a socialist region. That is something that would make sense. I am certainly not saying that this is likely and is going to be realised any time soon. There is no sign of that - although we have seen a sort of preview of it, perhaps, in the big upheavals of the 2010-12 Arab Spring. But the actual overthrow of the current regimes in the region - the various reactionary Arab regimes as well as the Zionist regime - is not something that is going to be forthcoming very soon.

If we want to put forward something positive, then I think the best thing to do is to promote the minimum conditions for a resolution. I think it would be dishonest to advocate the one-state solution in the present situation, without saying that it presupposes a socialist revolution, which is not forthcoming in the immediate future; let alone the two-state solution, which is an illusion and a deception.

If we want to put forward something positive, then the message we can project is that of the minimum programme: we demand equal rights for all on the individual and national level, as well as the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.

This article is based on the talk Moshé Machover gave to Communist University in March 2024 – see video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=62XWBz8v5gE

  1. June 23 2016: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1112/the-decolonisation-of-palestine.↩︎