‘One State or Two?’ Israel-Palestine debate needs a reality check

By Jamie

20 September 2013

Hussein Ibish and Saliba Sarsar have written a good take-down of Ian Lustick's recent New York Times op-ed on the alleged death of the two-state solution, which they accurately characterise as

"a very good illustration of how far fantasies about alternative scenarios can be taken when they proliferate on the page in what appears to be an unstructured stream of consciousness."

Unsurprisingly from two American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) officials, their critique purveys fantasies of its own, blaming failure to achieve a two-state settlement on "radical minorities" thwarting the desires of the "large majority" of Israelis and Palestinians. In fact polls show that most Israelis reject the international consensus two-state settlement, while Hamas, which Ibish and Sarsar misrepresent as demanding "Palestinian/Muslim... rule over the whole of historical Palestine", has, with some but increasingly slight ambiguity, accepted it.

But they are right to point out that Lustick's piece offers, in place of an overwhelming and enduring international consensus on ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state, a collection of vague hopes whose realisation is left to the agency of "time", "blood and magic" (how exciting!). And in the meantime? Decades of occupation, "ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror". Inexplicably, some in the solidarity movement have trumpeted this grim recipe—enchanted by the "magic", perhaps, and forgetting about the blood.

In response to this and other bloviating on "one state versus two states", reasonable people will be tempted to dismiss, with Noam Sheizaf, the whole debate as a "waste of time":

"[P]lease, no more one-state vs. two states. An honest approach to politics... must begin with a real evaluation of the current reality on the ground (de facto one state, albeit not a very democratic one), and the creation of political force for change".

Sheizaf is surely right that the endless debates and exchanges and conferences serve no good purpose, because with few exceptions they consist of posturing and theorizing without reference to political reality. As he points out, and as Noam Chomsky has observed before with respect to the belated appearance of one-state advocacy in mainstream media, this empty pontification is not innocent:

"people argue about solutions because it is (a) easy; (b) fun, especially for intellectuals; and (c) helps them avoid tough political choices".

However, Sheizaf's proposed alternative—to focus strictly on describing and assessing the existing situation on the ground, and avoid talking about solutions—makes no sense. What is the point of evaluating "current reality on the ground" except in the service of trying to change it? And if we're trying to change it, why not discuss how best to do that? Lisa Goldman, writing for Open Zion, makes the same faulty leap. Having suffered through a One State-Two State debate between Yehuda Shenhav and Peter Beinart, she notes, as politely as possible, that:

"it seemed to circumvent the real elephant in the room—which was the urgency of the situation on the ground".

In other words, more self-serving philosophising. Shenhav's book received a favourable review on Mondoweiss, which noted in passing its failure to spell out how his proposed alternative to a two-state settlement might be achieved. "Perhaps it's not Shenhav's role as an intellectual," it quickly offered in extenuation, "to offer" paths forward. Shenhav himself certainly doesn't seem to feel that burden, if reports of his performance in the Beinart debate are accurate:

"Shenhav came out slashing, jokingly referring to himself as a 'lunatic'. Where Beinart stood still, Shenhav walked all over the place, wagging his finger... Shenhav said he’s no politician and doesn’t know how to get from his proposed solution to the real deal."

Again, though, this posed no apparent problems for Mondoweiss, which welcomed Shenhav's emissions as a "breath of fresh air".

But Goldman's frustrated conclusion—that the question of how to resolve the conflict should be put on ice—hardly follows:

"One state or two states? It's a theoretical argument at this point, and that will probably be the case for a long time. But it is fact that 2.5 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank live under military occupation, without basic rights like freedom of movement, access to sufficient water and due process in a court of law. This is what needs to change first—and urgently. Then we can talk about sharing or dividing the land."

How exactly is the occupation going to "change" except through some sort of settlement? If an acceptable settlement will only be realised by a popular Palestinian-led movement mustering international support with sufficient leverage to impose terms on Israel, and if some proposed solutions to the conflict are more likely than others to provide the basis for such a movement, then there is no getting around the fact that those seeking an end to the occupation and the conflict need to choose the correct demands behind which to mobilise. That calls for debate, but, crucially, debate that is mindful of on-going Palestinian suffering; animated by a sense of urgency; oriented towards practical questions of how a tolerable solution might be achieved; and rooted in political reality. 

Update (21/09/13): In his book, Shenhav acknowledges excluding "important dimensions" from his "utopian analysis"—"power, fear of change, the disengagement from the current regime of privileges... the particular interests of each group", the fact that "the international community does not support the one-space solution". At the last minute his publisher insisted he recognise gravity and the laws of motion, which was bad news for a bold chapter examining the cultural implications of an Israeli-Palestinian sky colony. Shenhav defends his decision to "imagine reality" rather than rationally assess it on the grounds that the "role of the intellectual" is to "understand reality exactly as it is, and, at the same time, utterly reject the facts of it". Shenhav is of course free to "utterly reject the facts"—but should a movement aiming to bring about political change do likewise? (Shenhav, Beyond the Two-State Solution, pp. 163-65; thanks to Norman Finkelstein for bringing these quotes to my attention)

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7 Comments on "‘One State or Two?’ Israel-Palestine debate needs a reality check"

By Michael N Moore, on 21 September 2013 - 18:03 |

There are almost 600,000 Israeli “settler” colonist. Israel recenlty estimated that one-third are armed Zionist fanatics and two-thirds are opportunist who will leave if you pay them enough compensation. The situation appears to be designed to be a fait accompli and an example of Bismark’s comment that the really big issues can only be settled by blood and iron. Israel might agree to stop the “settlers” at the Arabian Gulf. HA!

My point is that settler societies take on hard line racial-religious fervor and constantly press for the advantage and dominance of the settler group over indigenous groups. This was resolved in the US and Australia against tribally divided hunter-gatherer tribes with no antibodies to Western disease. In French Algeria the settlers were removed. In places like Northern Ireland the conflict can contiue for centuries. Sine the Palestinians are not dieing of smallpox, the situation will either end like Algeria or Northern Ireland. No good choices.

By JamieSW, on 21 September 2013 - 19:28 |

Michael: Palestinian negotiators have presented a map which would permit over 60% of the nearly 550,000 settlers to remain on less than 2% of the territory. Estimate on the percentage of the rest that would put up forceful resistance vary, but there are good reasons (estimates from Israeli security officials, poll data) to think that only a small minority would resort to violence. So I don’t agree that there are “no good choices”: there exists a feasible settlement supported by an overwhelming international consensus, the implementation of which would end Israel’s occupation and see the establishment of a Palestinian state. I think it would be a good decision to mobilise behind that settlement and force its realisation.

By Michael N Moore, on 22 September 2013 - 13:00 |

As we saw in the US. The ruling elite in a setler society protect themselves by holding out the promise of free land and endless opportunity. There is also an economic Ponzi scheme element to settler societies. They require a constant infusion of new people to starve off economic collapse. Any peace settlement would throw a spanner into the works of these trends.  As we saw with Rabin, the result of any actual peace negotiations will be assassinatoin by settler fanatics.

The most likely result of the Israel-Palastinian situation is a Northern Ireland type of situation with centuries of on again, off again bloody conflict. I don’t see an Algerian Pied Noir type evacuation, but one never knows the future.  By the way, Ian Paisly in Northern Ireland has a formed a “Friends of Israel” group and visited Israel promoting their similar situations.

By Ed Lewis, on 22 September 2013 - 14:29 |

Jamie, I just want to clarify what you’re arguing for here, as I was a little uncertain after first reading. What I think you’re saying is that the debate about solutions, in particular one state vs two, does need to be conducted, but it needs to be conducted differently - with more reference to political reality. Is that right? What made me uncertain was how critical you are of the current debates around solutions, and the Chomsky quote which, taken on its own, implies that debating solutions is a bad idea. 

By JamieSW, on 22 September 2013 - 21:20 |

Ed: the blockquote above was from Noam Sheizaf, not Chomsky. But Chomsky also argues, in the linked article, that the sudden appearance of arguments for a one-state solution in the late 90s was connected with the fact that by that point it was no longer achievable. And while that sort of claim is impossible to prove, it makes sense: advocating a one-state solution, for example, gets rid of the need to confront Israel’s settlement expansion.

I agree with both Noams that most of the one state/two-state debate is unhelpful. But contrary to Sheizaf, I think that a genuine debate, followed by decisions, about which program to adopt is crucial, because that determines everything else. So in that respect, I disagree with Sheizaf (and not with Chomsky).

By Ed Lewis, on 23 September 2013 - 16:30 |

Thanks Jamie, that’s what I thought. 

I’m interested to know a bit more about what you a genuine debate, that paid more attention to political reality, would look like, but up to you if you care to elaborate. . 

By Michael N Moore, on 24 September 2013 - 19:01 |

I recommend a new book, “Israel in the Second Iraq War” by former CIA analyst Stephen C. Pelletiere, PhD. The book’s subtitle is “The Influence of Likud”. The author shows how, more than anything else, the Iraq war was a product of the ideology of the Likud Party in Israel. Likud appears to have recycled hundred-year old British imperialist attitudes towards the Arabs (e.g. Born to be herded about by imperial powers like UK/Israel/US). Pelletiere refers to the US Neo-Conservatives more accurately as “Likudniks”.

In the argument over whether Halliburton and the Saudi’s or AIPAC kicked off the war Pelletiere provides a sophisticated analysis of the Likud-revived ideology of imperialism that germinated into the Iraq war and the proposed Syria/Iran war.

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