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The Farce of the “Two-State Solution” and the Socialist Perspective for Palestine

For decades, imperialist governments have been calling for a “two-state solution.” This is an obvious failure. But what would a socialist alternative look like? A debate with different socialist tendencies.

Nathaniel Flakin

December 16, 2023
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A mass of people crowd in front of a large building. Half the crowd is waving Palestinian flags and the other half is waving Israeli flags.
Photo Credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner

As Israel continues its assault on Gaza, with more than 18,000 people already killed, the whole world is discussing what a just solution to the conflict could look like. Imperialist governments keep repeating the same proposal they have made for more than 30 years (and really since the Peel Commission of 1937): the so-called two-state solution. U.S. president Biden claims that “a two-state solution is the only way to guarantee the long-term security of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people.” UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and French president Emmanuel Macron are similarly calling for concrete steps toward a Palestinian state.

As the three decades since the Oslo Accords have shown, the “two-state solution” is no solution at all. The Palestinian West Bank has been cut into tiny enclaves by Israeli settlements. Far-right settlers have uninterruptedly built heavily fortified encampments with the support of the Israeli military, in order to make any kind of contiguous Palestinian territory impossible. The 1993 accords were intended to devolve some of the IDF’s administrative duties to a collaborator regime in certain areas, while Israeli settlers colonized the rest of the West Bank and Gaza.

Even if it were possible to proclaim some kind of formally independent Palestinian state in the borders of 1967, such a state would remain desperately poor and totally subservient to the state of Israel, with no control over its own borders. Biden claims that two states would ensure “equal measures of freedom and dignity,” but as the experience with the Palestinian Authority has shown, it would at most give a liberal cover to the existing inequality and discrimination — it would be an Israeli colony akin to the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa.

More than 5 million Palestinian refugees live outside Palestine. They all have a basic democratic right to return to their homeland. They can’t all be crammed into the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli Jews make up a minority of the people of Palestine, yet the 1948 borders assigned them 78 percent of the territory. This “two-state solution” would thus just constitute a different form of apartheid from the one currently practiced — it would either trap Palestinian refugees in a ghetto or reject their rights entirely.

The “two-state solution” has never been more than an empty phrase used by imperialist governments to stall for time while Zionist settlers colonize the remainder of Palestinian land. Socialists around the world agree that this “two-state solution” is a farce designed to placate liberals while the Israeli government continues its program of ethnic cleansing. But what does an alternative look like? Should socialists call for one state or two states? Can there be any kind of solution to the conflict on a capitalist basis?

In this article, we will argue that a program of permanent revolution, with the aim of a unified socialist Palestine, is the only realistic option for ending the conflict. We are going to debate specifically with Trotskyist tendencies.

Trotskyist Tendencies

The early Trotskyists in Palestine opposed partition. Speaking with Jewish workers, they called for “common class war with our Arab brothers; a war which is an inseparable link of the anti-imperialist war of the oppressed masses in all the Arab East and the entire world.”

The Palestinian Trotskyists were mostly anti-Zionist Jews, and they called for a Socialist Federation of the Middle East that would guarantee equal rights for all peoples. This was what communists in Palestine had fought for going back to 1920. Yet Stalin, in one of his many betrayals, supported the partition of Palestine and gave military support to Zionism. The Trotskyists were therefore the only ones to continue the communist tradition. In the 1960s and 1970s, new radical left movements like the Israeli Socialist Organization (Matzpen), working alongside Palestinian leftists like the DFLP, continued this fight for a socialist Palestine based on equality.

The Trotskyists around the world consistently fought all forms of racism, antisemitism, and colonial oppression. During World War II, Trotskyists fought for the imperialist countries to open their borders to Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. The Zionists, in contrast, were interested only in founding a state in Palestine and thus refused to give any support to refugees headed anywhere else.

In the years after World War, the Fourth International, which had been founded by Trotsky, degenerated and collapsed. There are now many tendencies that trace their tradition back to Trotsky, yet many have given up the historical program and defend opportunist positions. This is reflected in the Palestinian question as well, and different Trotskyist tendencies fall far short of their programmatic heritage.

The “Socialist” Two-State Solution

Some socialists today believe that a just solution to the conflict can be provided by two states for two peoples, provided that these states are socialist. This position is defended by different organizations in the tradition of the South African Trotskyist Ted Grant, including International Socialist Alternative (ISA), the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), and the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), among others.1In the United States, the ISA is represented by Socialist Alternative, the CWI by the Independent Socialist Group, and the IMT by Socialist Revolution. The ISA is the only Trotskyist tendency at the moment with a functioning group in Israel, the Socialist Struggle Movement, known in Hebrew as Maavak.

All these organizations, with slight variations, have called for a “socialist two-state solution.” In a long article from 2013, Judy Beishon of the CWI argues for “two states — a socialist Palestine and a socialist Israel” on the basis of an “equal right of self-determination” for both peoples. The “socialist” two-state solution has all the same problems as the imperialist version: How could a socialist solution involve giving a huge majority of the territory to a minority of the people living in historical Palestine? Yet for the CWI, the essential question is formulating a program that is acceptable to the masses’ current consciousness, and they claim that “the idea of two states would meet with much greater acceptance than one state by a majority of workers on both sides of the national divide.” The CWI places a special focus on Israeli workers, arguing that “the idea of ‘one state’ in which they would become a minority is an anathema to most of them.”

It is an undeniable fact that a majority of Israel Jews support Zionism — many believe that Jewish supremacy in Palestine is essential. This should be no surprise for Marxists, given that being determines consciousness. Israeli Jewish workers have a very high standard of living compared to proletarians in the region, both within Israel and in neighboring countries. They thus receive some profits from colonialism. In Israel today, a clear majority of Israeli Jews not only support the war but have called for it to be intensified. This is to be expected in any colony: most white people in South Africa backed apartheid until the very end.

For socialists, it should be clear that we cannot base our program on the prejudices of an oppressor nation. As Trotsky wrote in regard to white workers in South Africa, “The worst crime on the part of the revolutionaries would be to give the smallest concessions to the privileges and prejudices of the whites. Whoever gives his little finger to the devil of chauvinism is lost.”

The desire to win over Israeli Jewish workers for a socialist program is laudable. But the ISA/CWI proposes doing this by making concessions to their chauvinism, promising that their privileges can be maintained under socialism. This is reminiscent of the early “Socialist Zionist” settlers in Palestine who believed they could create socialist communities, the kibbuzim, on the basis of ethnic cleansing. The collapse of all “socialist” pretensions of the Israeli state shows that socialism is incompatible with chauvinism.

Self-Determination

It is well known that Leninists defend the right of self-determination. But a call for “self-determination for everyone” represents a double misunderstanding of the communist program against national oppression. Lenin and the Communist International never called for self-determination for all peoples — they called for self-determination for oppressed peoples.

This was not an abstract principle but an attempt to unite the energies of oppressed people struggling against foreign rule with the proletariat’s struggle for self-emancipation. Calling for “self-determination for all,” including for an oppressor nation like Israel, makes a mockery of this principle. For the CWI, it has meant calling for a socialist Ulster: in the case of Ireland, recognizing the “self-determination” of right-wing Protestant settlers in the North necessarily means denying the Irish people’s right to self-determination.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks never called for self-determination for Russian-speaking people in Ukraine or other Soviet Republics, as this would necessarily come at the expense of the self-determination of nations that had historically been oppressed by Great Russian chauvinism. Today, Vladimir Putin is incensed that Lenin deliberately rejected the “self-determination” of an oppressor nation in Ukraine.

It would have been absurd to call for “self-determination” for the pieds-noirs in Algeria or the Boers in South Africa — this would simply be a “socialist” mantle for national oppression created by settler colonialism.

The second mistake is taking the right to self-determination as an absolute. As Lenin explained,

The several demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general-democratic (now: general-socialist) world movement. In individual concrete casts, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected. It is possible that the republican movement in one country may be merely an instrument of the clerical or financial-monarchist intrigues of other countries; if so, we must not support this particular, concrete movement.

And one must ask: How is the enforcement of Jewish supremacy in most of historical Palestine, even in a system that calls itself “socialist,” in any way compatible with a basic democratic program?

You might also be interested in: Palestinian Liberation and the Israeli Working Class

Winning Jewish Israeli workers for a socialist program means, above all, convincing them of the need to break with their own ruling class. They must abandon the Zionist bloc and throw their lot in with the workers and poor masses of the Arab world. That is the precondition for their own liberation. When the ISA/CWI claim that the demand for a “socialist Israel” makes it easier to win Israeli Jewish workers for socialism, then this is a very poor socialism indeed, on the basis of ethnic cleansing. At most, this is the “socialism” of the kibbuzim — an apartheid socialism that has nothing to do with the Trotskyist tradition.

Side Note: The IMT and the Spartacists

Several other tendencies defend a “socialist two-state solution” without using that term. The International Marxist Tendency (IMT) has defended the same position as the ISA and CWI, with slightly different formulations. Writing in 2005, as the Second Intifada was winding down, IMT leader Fred Weston wrote that in Palestine, “two separate territories would have to be worked out.” What would such territories look like? “A viable state for the Palestinians could be built out of the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan (where 60 percent of the population is Palestinian!), together with any parts of present-day Israel that could be feasibly integrated into such a state.” This is just a slight variation on the imperialists’ “two-state solution.” Especially the idea that Palestinians can just move to Jordan is one advocated by the Right for decades.

While we were working on this article, we discovered that the IMT has silently edited Weston’s text in the last few months. The quotes above can still be found on archived versions of the IMT website from this summer. The new version, however, calls for “autonomous territories” instead of “separate territories,” and a “viable territory” instead of a “viable state.” Clearly, the IMT seems to be shifting away from its earlier advocacy of the “two-state solution,” without explicitly changing its position. In a new article from October 2023, they appear to step away from a two-state solution but it’s not quite clear if they’ve repudiated their previous position.

Of course, it is welcome if they step away from their earlier chauvinism. But a serious Marxist organization can be judged by how it learns from its mistakes and corrects them in discussions with the vanguard — this kind of silent editing and new articles without acknowledging their past positions is the opposite.2We have noticed in other contexts in which Weston defends retrograde positions, and in this article, he repeats similarly right-wing slanders against the Palestinians, accusing the PLO of wanting to “drive the Jews into the sea!” IMT members should ask themselves if such views have a place in a Trotskyist organization, much less in the leadership.

Yet another organization that calls for a separate Jewish state in Palestine is the Spartacist League, which is often perceived as ultra-left yet aligns itself closely with Ted Grant on the right wing of the Trotskyist movement on important programmatic questions. It defends the call for two states with the neologism “interpenetrated peoples,” which means nothing but making the same concessions to chauvinism by deliberately confusing oppressor and oppressed people. The founder of Spartacism, Jim Robertson, got his start in Max Shachtman’s organization, and in contrast to Trotskyists at the time, he supported the creation of Israel.

The Nonsocialist One-State Solution

In the face of the ongoing horror in Gaza, several brave Israeli intellectuals like Ilan Pappé and Gideon Levy have been calling for a single democratic state in historical Palestine. This would grant equal rights for everyone “from the river to the sea,” as the slogan goes. Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert once declared that the principle “one man, one vote” would mean that “the state of Israel is finished.” Olmert, a far-right ethnonationalist (who by today’s standards is considered a moderate!) thus made clear that Zionism and democracy are fundamentally incompatible. The state of Israel explicitly defines itself not as a state of its citizens but as a state of the Jewish people.

This means that Israel is not, by any standards, democratic. Its laws deny the rights of indigenous peoples — and as we explained above, of the majority of the population. Israel’s right-wing government claims to speak for all Jewish people around the world. This is, according to the deeply flawed IHRA definition, a form of antisemitism. Basic democratic principles would mean equal rights for everyone living in Palestine.

You might also be interested in: Palestine, Marxists and the “One-State Solution”

The “one-state solution” as proposed by Pappé and others is a liberal democratic vision for Palestine. At a time when most self-described liberal democracies are aggressively supporting apartheid and a genocidal war, such a basic statement of democratic principles is a brave stance. As Pappé points out, there is already one state ruling over all of historical Palestine. It is simultaneously simple and radical to say that all these people should have equal rights.

Some socialists also defend the idea that a single, democratic, secular, but nonsocialist state is the way forward. Socialists in the tradition of Tony Cliff, grouped in the International Socialist Tendency (IST), call for this solution. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of Great Britain recently explained what a “single state solution” would look like (on page 11 of the PDF). As a model, they mention that “the threat of a revolution forced white South African leaders to dismantle apartheid laws that separated and disenfranchised black South Africans from white ones.” Yet the example of postapartheid South Africa shows that despite the abolition of explicitly racist laws, the inequality between white and Black people has actually increased. This shows the limits of such democratic victories under capitalism.

Socialists are the most consistent advocates of democracy, and hence we defend a “one-state solution.” But the biggest question is, who could be the social subject of such a radical transformation? Who will carry out such a program? It clearly cannot be the Israeli ruling class, who make fabulous profits from the occupation. Yet such an impulse will also not be expected from Jewish Israeli workers, who get crumbs from the tables of their rulers and thus have no immediate interest in sacrificing their privileges. The imperialists will do everything they can to prevent democratization, as this would mean losing their Zionist vassal in a geostrategically important region. The different bourgeois leaderships of the Palestinian liberation movement have similarly found a way to profit off the suffering of their people and do not defend strategies that would mean a radical break with the existing world order. The Arab bourgeoisies, while pretending to support the Palestinians, have all found arrangements with imperialism.

No, the only force that can conceivably fight for democracy are the workers and oppressed of the region. These forces are not represented by any government. Yet we are talking about hundreds of millions of people who are exploited by imperialism and the corrupt dictatorships it keeps in place, and who long for dignity and freedom. A revolutionary mass movement would tear down the borders erected 100 years ago by colonial powers. Such a revolutionary movement would form an alliance with other oppressed peoples, such as the Kurds.

Israeli Jewish workers would also be attracted by a perspective of such radical transformation of society. Despite their relative privileges, Israeli Jewish workers live in one of the most unequal capitalist societies in history, where poverty exists right next to fabulous wealth. A revolutionary movement in the Arab world, calling for a complete reorganization of social life, could break at least a minority of Jewish workers from Zionism.

A struggle for socialism would mobilize hundreds of millions of working and poor people, uniting them across national divides that have been imposed by imperialism. The experience of struggle, uniting around common interests in opposition to the different ruling classes, would create a real sense of international unity. This is what would make possible true coexistence and cooperation.

The Socialist Federation of the Middle East

As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described with his theory-program of permanent revolution, if a mass movement of workers and oppressed people fights for democracy, they cannot limit themselves to democratic goals. If the working class wins power across the Middle East, toppling the pro-imperialist dictatorships, they will be confronted with the fiercest opposition by imperialism and the local bourgeoisies. Workers’ governments will be compelled to take drastic measures against private property — and in this way, a “democratic” revolution will begin a socialist transformation. This is why the revolution is permanent.

As socialists, we must emphasize that the conflict can be solved by neither “one state” nor “two states.” Palestine is a tiny region — it can exist only as part of a global economic totality. This means being a dependent client of imperialism, as the Zionists have ensured for 75 years. Or, alternatively, Palestine can be part of an alliance of workers’ republics across the region. That is why we call for a Socialist Federation of the Middle East. Such a federation would centralize the economic activities of all the workers — while guaranteeing all peoples democratic rights to their own culture and self-governance. This would include rights for Jewish Israeli workers to organize their own affairs on a democratic basis.

A socialist Palestine, as part of a larger federation, would not exactly be “one state” either. As Lenin pointed out in State and Revolution, a state run by the working class is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word. Every state in history has been an instrument of a parasitic minority exploiting and oppressing the majority. But a workers’ state is run by the majority itself, with working people administering themselves, and therefore it is no longer an apparatus separate from the popular masses. In Lenin’s words, this is at most a “semistate” in the format of the Paris Commune, and this will wither away as socialist society develops. It is therefore not quite accurate to say that we are for “one state” in Palestine. We want a workers’ government, which is no longer a state in the traditional sense. Our goal is to have zero states: we want a global classless society in which people work together on the basis of solidarity.

Self-Determination?

To close, we would like to look back at the proud tradition of anti-Zionist Israelis from the group Matzpen of the 1960s and 1970s. These socialists displayed unconditional support for the Palestinian struggle against colonialism, with the perspective of a socialist revolution to overthrow Zionism and all forms of imperialist domination. Part of this struggle involved coordinating and debating with Palestinian leftists. Matzpen argued that Palestinians should state clearly that in a future liberated Palestine, Jews would have full democratic rights.

As part of this program, Jabra Nicola and Moshe Machover of Matzpen (the former Palestinian, the latter a Jewish Israeli) also called for the right of self-determination for all national groups living in a Socialist Federation of the Middle East. Controversially, they advocated the right of self-determination for Jews as well. Now, they added many qualifiers, and made clear that “the ISO [Matzpen] does not advocate a separate Jewish state.” But in a post-Zionist region freed of imperialism, they wanted to make sure each group had full democratic rights.

We would agree that a socialist Palestine needs to grant the fullest cultural rights and the greatest possible autonomy to all Jewish people who want to live there, as with any other people. Nicola and Machover explained that after the revolution, which will grant millions of Palestinian refugees a right to return, “there will still be a continuous territory inhabited by an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. In that territory they will exercise the right to self-determination. The right of self-determination has nothing to do with the borders of Israel, or with any other borders that can be drawn on the map at this moment.”

This obviously has nothing to do with the “socialist Israel” advocated by the ISA, the CWI, or the IMT. Matzpen was talking about limited territories where Israeli Jewish communities would remain in the majority, if they chose to do so, after the revolutionary destruction of the Zionist state. This would not infringe on the democratic rights of Palestinians — and hence it is a basic democratic right of Israeli Jews that every socialist would support.

As Lenin explained, however, the right to self-determination means nothing if not the right to secede — anything else is just an empty phrase. If a people cannot choose to form their own independent state, then they have no right to self-determination at all. In the case of Palestine, a separate state in which Israeli Jews make up the majority can only survive if it remains dependent on imperialism and in constant hostility with its neighbors.

With the greatest possible respect for the comrades of Matzpen, we think the formulation of “self-determination” for Israeli Jews can only lead to confusion (even if we agree with the logic of what Nicola and Machover were arguing). We advocate a socialist Palestine with full democratic rights for everyone who lives there — but a separate Israeli Jewish state would undermine the rights of the masses of the region to live free of imperialism.

Socialism in Palestine will grant the greatest possible autonomy to Jewish people. It will finally erase all the racial hierarchies that exist among Israeli Jews, allowing oppressed Jewish cultures to flourish. There is no way to maintain a state with a Jewish majority that does not involve violating the most basic principles of democracy.

For a Single Socialist Semistate

To conclude: as socialists, we support all struggles for democracy. This means that we give our unconditional support to Palestinian resistance against colonialism and apartheid, even while we are deeply critical of the main leaderships of the Palestinians.

We reject any attempt to legitimize inequality with the farce of the “two-state solution,” and doubly so when such a two-state solution is presented in socialist garb.

“From the river to the sea, we demand equality!” We support every proposal that calls for real democracy for everyone in the framework of a single democratic Palestine. But we make clear that such a vision can only be made a reality if the workers and oppressed organize independently of imperialism and all bourgeois forces. A democratic Palestine can be created only as part of a radical transformation of the entire region — and this, in our opinion, requires a socialist perspective.

Three-quarters of a century after the creation of Israel, we think that the Jewish Palestinian Trotskyists in the late 1940s had the only realistic vision for resolving the conflict: Palestinian, Jewish, and all other workers in the region must struggle together to break with imperialism and create a Socialist Federation of the Middle East.

Notes

Notes
1 In the United States, the ISA is represented by Socialist Alternative, the CWI by the Independent Socialist Group, and the IMT by Socialist Revolution.
2 We have noticed in other contexts in which Weston defends retrograde positions, and in this article, he repeats similarly right-wing slanders against the Palestinians, accusing the PLO of wanting to “drive the Jews into the sea!” IMT members should ask themselves if such views have a place in a Trotskyist organization, much less in the leadership.
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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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