The first formal proposal to divide the land of British-controlled Mandatory Palestine into two nation-states, one Jewish and one Arab, was put forth by the Peel Commission in 1937 following serious clashes between Arabs and Jews. With just a few exceptions, leaders from both the Zionist and the Arab camps rejected this plan.
Ten years later, leaders of the yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, voted to accept the 1947 United Nations (UN) partition plan, which gave the Jewish state a much larger territory than the Peel Commission had offered. The Partition Plan gave a future Jewish State 56% of Mandatory Palestine versus the 15% that the Peel Commission had presented. But although the Jewish Agency, representing Jewish leadership in Palestine, backed the UN partition plan, the only Arabs to endorse it were members of the Israeli Communist Party. The Party has held a two-state position to this day.
Following the armistice lines of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Israel controlled 78% of Mandatory Palestine; Egypt, Syria and Jordan took control over the rest (respectively, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank plus East Jerusalem.) These boundaries, now known collectively as the “green line,” have subsequently informed nearly every discussion about the formation of two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Before 1967, every peace effort had bypassed Palestinians and focused on reconciliation between Israel and the larger Arab world. This was largely due to the absence of a single entity representing all Palestinians. The establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) changed this. Founded in East Jerusalem on May 29, 1964, the PLO brought together many Palestinian factions under one umbrella organization. Its founding charter–the Palestinian National Covenant–called the establishment of Israel “illegal and null and void” and for the liberation of indivisible Palestine “with its boundaries at the time of the British Mandate.” This covenant would prove to be deeply problematic for decades.
After the 1967 Six Day War, Israel took control of all of Mandatory Palestine. A nascent Israeli peace movement emerged as Israelis began to engage directly with Palestinian nationalists in the recently captured territories, and to express concern that unilateral annexation was a danger to Israeli democracy. Israelis formed a number of small groups linked to the umbrella Ha‘tnua Le’shalom U’bitachon (Movement for Peace and Security) under the slogan Tov shalom mi’Eretz Yisrael hashlema–“Peace is better than the complete land of Israel.” The motto was a pun on the Israeli movement to annex all of the territory into “The Complete Land of Israel, ” Eretz Yisrael HaShleyma, which advocated expanding Israel’s borders to include all of the West Bank and Gaza.
The Movement for Peace and Security challenged Israelis to question whether the occupied territories were more of a burden than a bargaining chip, but did not explicitly call for immediate evacuation. In contrast, Smol Israeli Hadash, or SIAH (“The Israeli New Left”) did call unequivocally for the recognition of Palestinian national rights and for Israeli withdrawal from all or most of the territories. SIAH disbanded in 1973, due to disagreement over whether to engage in national elections or to continue as a non-parliamentary group. Most of the electorally inclined allied with the Moked (Focus) Party headed by Meir Pa’il.
Many individual Israelis made valiant efforts for peace immediately following the Six Day War. Among the most notable was Labor MK Arie Eliav, deputy trade and industry minister,who at one time was believed to be the successor to Prime Minister Golda Meir, resigned from the Knesset in 1967 because “our future, for better or for worse, will be determined in the West Bank and in Gaza, and I don’t know anything about them… I’ve only met Arabs through the sights of a gun.” He spent six months touring the territories to better understand Palestinian issues. Unfortunately, his proposal for a national authority to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem was ultimately rejected.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding Prime Minister, gave a speech before members of his own Labor Party less than one month after the Six Day War, in which he urged the return of all of the occupied lands except East Jerusalem. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Ben-Gurion elaborated on his position in a Knesset debate:
“We could, militarily … have occupied all of the western land of Israel. And then what would happen? We would become one state. But that state would want to be democratic, there would be general elections – and we would be in the minority. Thus, when the question arose of the wholeness of the land without a Jewish state, or a Jewish state without the wholeness of the land, we chose a Jewish state without the wholeness of the land.”
Kibbutz movement activist (and later editor of The Palestine-Israel Journal) Dan Leon organized tours of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem based upon dialogue with Palestinians. Immediately after the Six Day War, renowned Israeli scientist and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that Israel must liberate itself from the “curse of dominating another people,” and argued that prolonged occupation would “bring about a catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole.”
Both prior to and since the Six Day War, one voice stands out as an unwavering, vocal advocate for two states—former MK and peace activist Uri Avnery. He initially proposed this idea in 1949, promoted it in his magazine Haolam Hazeh (“This World”) in the early 1950s, and made two states part of the platform of the political party of the same name that he founded in 1965. For many years, Avnery was the lone Zionist voice for a Palestinian state in the Knesset, where he represented the Haolam Hazeh – Koah Hadash (“This World – New Force”) Party. On the fifth day of the Six-Day War, Avnery wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, urging him to offer the Palestinians the opportunity to create an independent state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which had just been occupied by the Israeli Army. He elaborated on this idea in a book published after the war and was publicly censured by the PLO. Just a few years later, however, the PLO renounced their criticism and Avnery became the first Israeli to meet with a PLO representative.