This commentary is part of a Century International series exploring a shared future for Palestine and Israel that guarantees the fundamental rights of both communities. The Gaza war has exposed the bankruptcy of the existing policy frameworks. Our “Shared Future” series intends to spur conversation and promote new, better options for security, rights, and governance—for Palestinians and Israelis.

Among most U.S. and Western policymakers, “the two-state solution” remains a byword for a lasting, just peace between Israel and Palestine. But with each passing day, the idea is more disconnected from reality. Israel’s military is publicly planning an indefinite, direct occupation of Gaza. Israeli political leaders call for the permanent expulsion of Palestinians, exhibit A in South Africa’s genocide case at the International Court of Justice. Israeli settlers gobble up more land in the West Bank. Palestinians throughout the territories endure daily assaults on their fundamental civil and human rights. Meanwhile, American and allied leaders promote the idea of a future Palestinian “state” that would be completely submissive to Israeli military, economic, and political control—in short, not a state at all.

The idea of a two-state solution falls under the paradigm of partition: a system in which two groups of people—in this case, Israelis and Palestinians—live completely separately. But today, in practice, partition in Israel and Palestine is a fantasy. Israelis and Palestinians already live together in a one-state reality that Israel, with full U.S. backing, has created.

​​It’s time to adopt a new approach to describing Israel and Palestine that accurately captures the reality on the ground and offers better ways forward that respect the full spectrum of rights for Palestinians and Israelis. A group of Palestinian and Israeli scholars and activists have articulated just such an approach, which they call the “non-partition framework.” The non-partition framework acknowledges the existing reality, in which Israelis and Palestinians live in overlapping jurisdictions that fall, ultimately, under Israeli military authority, legal authority, or both. Non-partition models are varied, from several versions of the “one-state solution” to the no-state solution. But the common feature across this range of models is the recognition that Palestinians and Israelis already live together under a shared governance framework and political order, and will continue to do so in the future. The choice, then, is which non-partition model to pursue: a version of the unjust model that exists today, or something different that is fair and equitable.

Israel and Palestine are at a crossroads, because while a future of non-partition is all but assured, equal rights, peace, and security are not. On the current path, Israel is committed to the logic of ethnic cleansing, war, genocide, and land theft. But there is another way, however politically difficult it may seem at present: a future of shared sovereignty, return to ancestral lands, equality before the law, and democracy. To achieve this second, much preferable non-partition outcome, policymakers, especially in the United States, need to pivot to a more realistic understanding of the status quo, and stop treating Israelis and Palestinians as exceptionally unable to coexist.

Policymakers, especially in the United States, need to pivot to a more realistic understanding of the status quo, and stop treating Israelis and Palestinians as exceptionally unable to coexist.

The Partition Framework Has Failed

Many politicians and analysts across the globe still talk about the two-state solution as the only real option for peace between Palestine and Israel. Important to underscore is that different states understand the two-state solution in dissimilar ways, particularly when it comes to what a Palestinian state means. The majority of states, as was evident at the International Court of Justice hearings on the question of the legality of the Israeli occupation, believe that a two-state solution means a fully sovereign Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with full rights of self-determination, territorial contiguity, and East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. The United States and a few other Western countries, such as Canada and the UK, are much vaguer about what a Palestinian state would look like, and in their public statements largely evade all the key issues such as Jerusalem, Palestinian territorial contiguity and integrity, the Palestinian right of return, the question of self-determination, and demilitarization—among other things.

In a nutshell, the U.S.-led Western alliance views a future Palestinian state as, at most, practicing a limited sovereignty over very small and noncontiguous territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This outcome, while not amounting to anything close to two sovereign states, is in line with what the Israeli state wants. Israel has never wanted or agreed to a fully sovereign Palestinian state. As the powerful side in this asymmetrical power relationship, Israel views the so-called peace process as just another method through which it establishes or consolidates its control over all the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel seeks to create exclusive Israeli Jewish sovereignty over all the lands, with Palestinians becoming a minority that enjoys some limited degree of self-administration but never self-determination. Needless to say, this outcome does not meet the aspirations of the Palestinian people for liberation, sovereignty, freedom, and self-determination—and it certainly wouldn’t be a state.

Regardless of which kind of two-state solution is being promoted, every proposal is based on the idea of a partition between Palestinians and Israelis. But since this model cannot speak to the reality on the ground, policymakers must begin to talk about an alternative path. Luckily, scholars and activists have been thinking about and studying such an alternative path for decades, and the knowledge that has been generated on non-partition frameworks can serve as building blocks for a new policy discussion.

The Two Models of Non-partition

It is impossible to capture all the potential, specific non-partition models of governance in a short commentary. By way of introducing readers to this debate, it is more useful to think of two general models of non-partition, which are centered around the question of sovereignty. The first general model concerns exclusive sovereignty, whereas the second concerns shared sovereignty.

The first model, of exclusive sovereignty, describes the reality on the ground today, as well as the future toward which the Israeli state is building, with the active participation of the United States. Today, Israel practices exclusive sovereignty—in effect, if not officially—over all the lands from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Whether Palestinians live in what became Israel in 1948, or the fraction of the West Bank that’s under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction, they are ultimately subject to Israeli control. Even those Palestinians who live in Gaza are subject to Israeli measures, such as the ongoing siege that began in 2007. The Israeli state controls all aspects of Palestinian life: where they get to live and work; how and if they move across the land; where, if, and how they are able to cultivate their lands; which and how many resources they can have access to; if and where they get to be buried; how they are able to participate in politics; what sort of cultural, social, economic, and political institutions and associations they are allowed to build; and, in general, the life and death of Palestinians. Israel even seeks to regulate Palestinian marriage and love.

Examples of such Israeli interventions in Palestinians’ lives run the gamut from the mundane to the extreme. For instance, Israel has controlled the Palestinian population registry since 1967, where it has full authority over issuing Palestinian identification cards and passports. Israel thus controls Palestinians’ legal status—or lack thereof—which can tear apart families and cause other problems. Constructing or expanding homes requires Israeli-issued building permits that are virtually impossible for Palestinian to receive in Area C of the West Bank (some 60 percent of the territory), where the rejection rate for Palestinians is 95–99 percent. Sick people in the Gaza Strip require Israeli-issued permits to seek health care outside of the territory, and are often denied; in 2022, for instance, three sick children died while their applications for Gaza exit permits were either denied or remained under review. This is just a small snapshot of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation and control.

The Israeli state’s vision for the future can have varied outcomes, but in general the larger strategic goal can be gleaned—not so much from the Israeli state’s proclamations, but from its past and ongoing policies and actions. The evidence of Israel’s plans is in plain sight: Israeli policies that encourage illegal settlement expansions, and the siege of Gaza, which has now evolved into a genocidal onslaught.

Engineering Exclusive Sovereignty

Since 1967, Israeli governments, whether left- or right-wing, have steadily expanded and entrenched settlements in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem. Israeli governments did this even during the so-called peace process, making it impossible to create a sovereign Palestinian state. To put it simply, if Israel was serious about the two-state solution, it would not have steadily expanded settlements. Only a state that wants to deny another people’s right to a state would deliberately and coherently follow such expansionist policies.

The brutal besiegement and genocidal onslaught against Palestinians in Gaza further reveals Israel’s plan to make life impossible and the land uninhabitable for Palestinians to such an extent that it amounts to a forcible expulsionwhether at the point of a gun or under threat of starvation. Palestinians who have been forced to flee expect, justifiably, that Israel will never allow them to return. When a state completely destroys health care infrastructure, universities, schools, agricultural fields, cultural heritage sites, places of worship, over 70 percent of residential areas, infrastructure, and the economy, and kills or maims over 100,000 people—among other things—it is not doing so to conduct a counterterrorism operation, but is rather taking actions that destroy human life on the land. These policies have convinced many Palestinians that the Israeli state wants to secure an overwhelming Jewish demographic majority by reducing Palestinians to a small minority group from the river to the sea. Then, Israel would be able to officially claim exclusive Israeli Jewish sovereignty over the whole territory, based on demographics. Since Palestinians are not going to voluntarily leave their lands and homes, this vision can only be accomplished through genocide and mass expulsions. In the current war in Gaza, Israel hasn’t expelled Palestinians from Gaza on a mass scale—yet—but nearly 2 million people have been displaced, and with cities in ruins, it’s unclear where they could eventually return to. Thus, in this model, non-partition means the demise of the two-state solution and the creation of a one-Israeli-state reality at the expense of the Palestinian people and their aspirations.

These facts have led scholars in fields such as Palestine studies, settler colonial studies, decolonial studies, and Indigenous studies to argue that Israel is a settler colony: it is centered on the establishment of exclusive Israeli Jewish sovereignty, which necessarily means that Jewish Israelis become the majority inhabitants of all the lands. These complex academic debates can be simplified with the following question: does Israel want Palestinians and Israelis to share the land and share sovereignty, or does it hope to expel Palestinians and replace them with Jewish Israelis? Israel’s policies suggest the latter.

But the realization of this goal is far from inevitable. Adopting the right policies will prevent such a horrific outcome of genocide and war, which is why it is important to examine alternative paths that can, in fact, be achieved with sustained action and pressure from below that force policymakers to change their behaviour.

Shared Sovereignty

The second non-partition model, of shared sovereignty, promises a very different path forward. It is an alternative to settler colonialism, and is based on justice, anti-racism, and decolonization. Here, non-partition doesn’t mean the enforcement of the already existing one-state reality of exclusive sovereignty; rather, it refers to the creation of a new entity for Palestinians and Israelis. There are multiple options for what exactly the political, social, legal, and economic structures of the new entity would look like. From a federal state, to a confederal state, to different types of constitutions, to a no-state model, there are no shortages of ideas and ongoing debates around these questions.

This commentary focuses on the following necessary elements of the second model and what distinguishes it from the first. The shared sovereignty model completely removes the foundations of Israeli settler colonialism—the project geared toward the establishment of exclusive Israeli Jewish sovereignty. In its place, shared sovereignty becomes the guiding, organizing principle of social and political life for all the land’s inhabitants.

Shared sovereignty does not mean that each national grouping gives up their national identities, which is not at all likely to happen anytime soon, at any rate, even if one wished it to be the case. Rather, it is based on the recognition that each national group can lay equal claim to all the lands as their homeland. But in the constitution and in laws and policies, one group’s claim cannot exclude another’s. The structures of governance must be purposely designed in such a way to prevent the inevitable reappearance—and counterrevolutionary efforts to reestablish—the model of exclusive sovereignty.

Under shared sovereignty, people acknowledge that the land is not an object to be mastered and owned through force and violence.

Shared sovereignty is about the celebration of cultural, religious, linguistic, and other identity differences, not an attempt to mold such diversity into a homogenous nationality. Most critically, it is about emphasizing belonging to the land, not the nationalistic possession of the land. The land does not have to be exclusively owned by one homogenous national grouping. Shared sovereignty offers a way for the land to be shared among a multitude of identities. In the model of shared sovereignty, people acknowledge that the land is not an object to be mastered and owned through force and violence. Rather, the land is a grand gift for human beings to share with one another while also acknowledging the special bond that certain collectives have formed with a specific area of land.

Difficult but Not Impossible

What does shared sovereignty mean in practical terms? Let’s take the most contentious issue as an example: the difficult yet not intractable question of the Palestinian right of return. Dahlia Scheindlin argued in a 2020 Century International report that the Palestinian right of return is not unique or exceptional under international law. One of the reasons that some critics deem the Palestinian right of return an unsolvable problem, even if wrongly so, is that they are generally thinking about the issue within the partition paradigm. So long as we remain within the partition framework, the necessity for a Jewish majority in a Jewish state will always make the question of Palestinian return very difficult to address in a just and peaceful way. So how might the non-partition paradigm help us move past these difficult obstacles?

In practical terms, non-partition means that Palestinians will have the right to return to all the lands, and Israelis will have the right to stay on all the lands, as well. Not every Palestinian will want to return, and not every Israeli will want to stay, and that is okay. Some Palestinians have established their lives elsewhere and will not want to uproot themselves. Some Israelis will find the idea of sharing sovereignty intolerable and leave. Policymakers and leaders will have to accept that some people will not agree with this solution. Moreover, this process will not happen overnight. Experts in migration, social and health services, economic development, and community organizations will all participate in developing a reasonable and just process for this potentially massive movement of people. Critically, mechanisms for land redistribution will have to be created in order to address the injustices of land dispossession that Palestinians have suffered for more than seventy-five years. This will not mean the forceful taking of privately owned property. Approximately 93 percent of Israeli land, excluding the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is not privately owned but is rather owned by the Israeli state or by quasi-state agencies. Under the model of shared sovereignty, it will be possible to redistribute the land equitably in order to address past and current injustices. There are various models that can be adopted for land redistribution, but it would be very helpful for a long-lasting and healthy solution to base redistribution of land in the framework of communal ownership of land. Both communities have a long history of communal ownership, and communal ownership could be a critical way to establish joint values moving forward.

Palestinians in refugee camps from the West Bank and Gaza, as well as from Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere around the world, will be able to return to their lands and rebuild their lives and livelihoods. This solution would mean the end of “Jewish-only settlements” and, since Israeli communities will also have the right to remain on all the lands, it would prevent the emergence of Palestinian-only settlements.

After a period of transition that addresses structural injustices and economic inequalities, the structures of governance would slowly shed the transitional pieces when they are no longer needed. Inevitably, there will arise concentrations of one community or the other in certain urban areas, neighborhoods, towns, villages, and so on. That in itself will not be a major obstacle to non-partition, so long as the laws and policies do not institutionalize, as a right, the idea of communities living separate from others.

In my view, over time, such a desire for “homogenous national communities” will ease and, I hope, more or less disappear.

This particular vision for the right of return is not the only way to achieve a just solution to the question of Palestinian return, though it would be the best in terms of long-term peace and stability. There are a variety of other options and processes that could also achieve similar ends under the non-partition framework. Regardless of the specific process, the critical point is that in a just non-partition model, demographics lose their centrality in answering the question of the right of return; at the same time, a just non-partition model guarantees sovereign collective rights and belonging to the homeland for both Palestinians and Israelis.

A Progressive U.S. Foreign Policy

There isn’t one way to achieve this model of shared sovereignty, and Palestinians and Israelis should vigorously debate the pros and cons of each governance framework, transitional structures and models, and types of constitutions. But whatever specific path is taken, it has to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis cannot, in their shared laws and governance structures, infringe on the sovereign rights of one another. Achieving this aim will not be easy, and numerous challenges, many unforeseen from our vantage point today, will present themselves. But these difficulties pale in comparison to genocide and war. They are also far better than the indefinite continuation of the status quo, which relegates millions of Palestinians to live without equal rights or any meaningful political representation, in perpetuity.

If progressive anti-racist politics is going to stand for something in the arena of foreign policy, it should be the full backing of policy alternatives that center anti-racism, decolonization, legal equality, participatory democracy, and the equitable and fair distribution of wealth. This is what a just non-partition model promises to deliver.

Header Image: Palestinian women stand at Rekhav’am Observation Point at the Mount of Olives with Al-Aqsa Mosque in the background on December 29, 2023, in Jerusalem. Source: Maja Hitij/Getty Images