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One State: An exile's clear-eyed view of how to end the Palestinian nightmare

Ghada Karmi’s argument that a single state is inevitable is compelling. But her analysis - that any transition will be chaotic and bloody with many deaths on both sides - is ultimately gloomy
A Palestinian man waves his national flag during clashes with Israeli occupation forces east of the West Bank village of Qalqiliya, on 31 May, 2022 (AFP)

Ghada Karmi was driven from her home in West Jerusalem as a child with her family in 1948. London-based, she has been a tireless and fearless advocate for the Palestinian people since 1967.

“What drives me,” she told the audience at her recent book launch, “is that I want to go home. I want to spend the years that are left to me in my own country.” 

Karmi’s 2002 memoir, In Search of Fatima, is one of the most powerful and eloquent accounts of the Palestinian exile experience and, indeed, of the immigrant experience generally.

Her latest work, One State: The Only Democratic Future for Palestine-Israel, is political rather than personal. In it she seeks to map a way out of the impasse Palestinians currently find themselves in, rejecting the two-state solution that has been the standard template for the last half-century. 

A trained doctor, Karmi has a wonderfully uncluttered intelligence. She writes with a lucid, unsentimental clarity reminiscent of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou’s dissection of the African-American predicament.

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Zionism, she says, “was a project that was bizarre and, on the face of it, unworkable: namely to set up an ethnically defined, Jewish-only collective, existing on a land belonging to another people and to their exclusion”.

She points out that the Israeli right has always been more honest than the Israeli “left” and “liberal” Zionists in recognising the implications of this.

“Let us not fling accusations at the murderers,” declared Moshe Dayan, Israel’s chief of staff, at the funeral of a young Israeli killed by an Arab “infiltrator” in 1956.

“Who are we that we should argue against their hatred? … We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a home.”

'The Palestinians are still there'

The Israeli historian, Benny Morris, went further. “If the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews,” he wrote, “it will be because Ben-Gurion [Israel’s first prime minister] did not complete the transfer of 1948. Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself.”

Wholesale expulsion aside, the only solution was for the Palestinians to dissolve into the waters of history, to become a demographic irrelevancy, like Native Americans within the United States

Karmi book cover

But Karmi points out: “The Palestinians are still there - damaged, fragmented, occupied and oppressed, to be sure - but still there.”

After 75 years of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, half of the population between the Jordan and the sea remains Palestinian. 

“Seven decades of Israeli effort to destroy them and resolve the original Zionist dilemma have not succeeded.”

This book is uncomfortable for Palestinians as well as Zionists. The two-state solution, she argues, was always delusional.

It consigned Palestinians to just 22 percent of their original territory. And the Palestinian proto-state was cruelly constrained, existing by the grace of its far more powerful, and hostile, neighbour. Karmi’s own 2015 memoir, Return, is a heartbreaking account of the ultimately futile compromises this inevitably entailed.

Arafat signed the 1993 Oslo Accords, she believes, in part to salvage the PLO from irrelevancy, but also in the naive belief that a Palestinian entity, no matter how small and powerless, must inevitably be the first step towards ever greater Palestinian power and self-determination.

PA - jailer to its own people

In practice, the Israelis simply accelerated the construction of settlements, leaving the Palestinian Authority acting as little more than jailer to its own people in a series of isolated Bantustans.

“If a Martian had dropped down onto the West Bank,” writes Karmi, “he would have understood Israel’s strategy at a glance and drawn the obvious conclusion from it: that there was no possibility of the chequered landscape he saw becoming one contiguous state for anyone.”

Karmi is bewildered at the West’s determination to pretend it remains a viable option. 

Israeli border guards take aim at Palestinian protesters following the nationalist 'flag march' through Jerusalem, at the Israeli-controlled Huwara checkpoint near Nablus, 29 May 2022 (AFP)
Israeli border guards take aim at Palestinian protesters following the nationalist 'flag march' through Jerusalem, at the Huwara checkpoint near Nablus, 29 May 2022 (AFP)

Instead, Karmi advocates that all parties acknowledge the reality that, in practice, a single state has existed in the territory of former mandate Palestine ever since 1967. 

Her solution would place “liberal” Zionists in a quandary. No longer would the conflict be a supposedly intractable territorial dispute. Instead, it becomes a civil rights struggle.

Karmi advocates that all parties acknowledge the reality that a single state has existed in the territory of former mandate Palestine ever since 1967 

To oppose the Palestinian demand for equality would expose them as advocates for ethnic supremacy. Yet to accede would mean the abandonment of what, in practice, has always been the core of the Zionist project - a “Jewish state”.

It lays bare Zionism’s central, unresolved dilemma.

Writers like the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, the very embodiment of “liberal” Zionism, are only too aware of this, and lament the demise of the two-state solution for precisely this reason. 

It means “the perennial question is now unavoidable” he has written: “Does Israel grant equality to all those it rules?”

It’s a question liberals wouldn’t even ask in any other context. But Freedland dodges an answer and does not support any measures, such as boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS), that would enable Palestinians to bring meaningful pressure on the Israelis to grant them full civil, political and human rights. 

Compelling argument

So how might Karmi’s single, democratic state be achieved?

She acknowledges there is no reason to expect Jewish-Israelis to abandon their power and privilege from a position of strength. Equally, she accepts that many Palestinians remain deeply wedded to the concept of their own state, and reluctant to live alongside those who have brutalised and oppressed them for three-quarters of a century.

Here her analysis comes abruptly to an end. “It is not the purpose of this book to set out a blueprint for the building of a unitary state,” she writes. Her aim is “to start a debate amongst Palestinians and Jews about the one-state solution, to unify them around the concept, while at the same time ensuring that it became part of the mainstream discourse.”

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Karmi’s argument is compelling. But her analysis is ultimately gloomy. She believes a single state to be inevitable. The alternative is that the Israelis sit with their boot on the throat of the Palestinians indefinitely. But she believes that the process is likely to be “bloody”.

Unlike white South Africans, whose self-belief was wavering by the 1980s, Zionists’ sense of moral legitimacy remains unshakeable, supported, as it is, by almost the entirety of the West’s media/political establishment. 

An “orderly transition,” Karmi writes, is unlikely. Change will only come about “through chaos, displacement, the creation of new refugees and the deaths of many people on both sides”. 

While writing this book Karmi was expelled from the UK Labour Party for antisemitism. She is a fierce critic of the Israel lobby. Her case exposed the Labour Party’s continuing - perhaps wilful - inability to distinguish between traditional antisemitic conspiracy theories and the entirely legitimate right of Palestinians to identity and criticise the many powerful and influential organisations outside of Israel that work to undermine their struggle for freedom and self-determination.

That this courageous, intelligent and thoughtful woman - driven from her homeland because she belonged to the wrong ethnicity and denied the right to return for the same reason - has now been designated a racist by supporters and apologists for the very state that exiled her, is frankly obscene, and indicative of a political party that has lost its way morally on this issue. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Richard Sanders is an award winning TV producer specialising in history and news and current affairs. He has made more than 50 films, mostly for Channel 4. He has written for a number of publications including The Daily Telegraph and the Boston Globe and is also the author of two history books.
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