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Could a one-state solution for the Israel Palestine question actually work? 

Three Orthodox Jewish men look up at the vast concrete wall separating Isreal and Palestine
A one-state solution would need to overcome strong divisions between Israel and Palestine Credit:  Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It took Donald Trump only a few casual words to upend decades of US policy on the Middle East. 

Asked if he supported a one-state or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the American president all but shrugged. “I can live with either one,” he said.

That phrase could not have been uttered by any of his recent predecessors, Democrat or Republican. Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton all endorsed a two-state model, imagining an independent Palestine living alongside a safe and secure Israel.

But now that Mr Trump is at least flirting with abandoning the idea of two states it is worth asking: What would a one-state solution actually look like? And could it work? 

Trump open to one or two state solution in Middle East Trump open to one or two state solution in Middle East
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The two-state model has proved fiendishly difficult in the detail but its general outlines are clear. 

A new state of Palestine would be established in Gaza and in the West Bank with east Jerusalem as its capital, while Israel would get guarantees about its security and eventually peace with neighbouring Arab states.   

The idea of one state is harder to define but there are two broad scenarios for how it could happen. Let’s call them the citizenship model and the cantons model.    

The citizenship model involves Israel annexing all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem and taking in the roughly 2.5 million Palestinians who live there as Israeli citizens. They would get full voting rights and enjoy the same privileges and responsibilities as the Arab citizens who live inside Israel today. 

The newly enlarged Israel would be about 57 per cent Jewish and 39 per cent Arab, compared to the 75-21 Jewish-Arab split of today. These new demographics would have a profound impact on the country’s culture, politics and society. 

The citizenship model is a fundamentally optimistic idea. It imagines that Israelis and Palestinians could live together in peace in one country. And it has some high-profile supporters, including Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, who holds only ceremonial powers but is an influential voice. “Sovereignty over a certain territory grants citizenship to all who reside there,” he said recently.  

While the Palestinian leadership is firmly committed to the idea of two states it has said that the only other possibility it would even consider is “a secular and democratic state with equal rights for everyone” – which sounds promisingly close to Mr Rivlin’s model. The idea of one state is also gaining traction among some younger Palestinians who believe the two-state model died long ago.  

But there is a major stumbling block and it’s in Gaza. 

The only way for the one-state citizenship model to be accepted by the Palestinians and by the international community is if Gaza is included in the deal. 

The isolated Mediterranean exclave is home to around 2 million Palestinians, meaning that if the people of Gaza also become citizens of Israel then the country would be almost exactly half Jewish and half Arab.    

That scenario is completely unacceptable to the vast majority of Israelis, who want to live in a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. Even “liberal” one-staters like Mr Rivlin don’t go as far as suggesting that Gaza should be part of a new Greater Israel. 

And so the good intentions of the citizenship model shatter on the rocks of demographics. Which leaves a darker alternative: the cantons idea. 

In this scenario, which is favoured by the Right-wing of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, Israel would annex most of the land in the West Bank but not the major Palestinian cities like Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron. 

Gaza would remain an isolated, stateless pocket of its own. These small Palestinian “cantons” would be given some political autonomy but not statehood, and would be divided from each other by swathes of Israeli land. 

The result would be to dramatically increase Israel’s land size without significantly affecting its demographic balance. Under the cantons model, Israel would only have to grant citizenship to around 300,000 Palestinians living in sparsely populated areas of the West Bank, meaning the country would stay about 72 per cent Jewish and 24 per cent Arab.

Netanyahu: US has no better ally than Israel Netanyahu: US has no better ally than Israel
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This idea has been formally proposed by Naftali Bennett, the Israeli education minster and leader of the Jewish Home party, and is popular with much of Mr Netanyahu’s political base. It’s certainly more in step with the political tenor in Israel today than the citizenship model.   

But it is totally unacceptable to the Palestinians who call it an apartheid system, where Arabs are expected to live under Israeli rule but without citizenship or the right to vote.

The international community would also resist the cantons model and it would likely forever spoil Israel’s hopes of one day establishing normal diplomatic relations with Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia. 

At its core the cantons model will almost certainly fail to bring peace because it would be imposed on the Palestinians against their will. Many Palestinians could turn to violence, arguing that the path of peaceful negotiations had collapsed. 

Mr Trump has said he wants to see the Palestinians and Israelis agree on a solution so it’s hard to imagine how he could give his blessing to an arrangement the Palestinians totally oppose. 

So there you have it. Two systems for a one-state solution, one of them unworkable in terms of demographics and the other unacceptable to Palestinians and the world. 

When he looks at the details, Mr Trump may find the two-state solution isn’t so bad after all. 

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