A few weeks ago the NY Times’ Thomas Friedman, surveying the mess that is the Middle East today and reflecting on US policymakers’ proclivity for wishful thinking, dropped a bombshell:
Start with Israel. The peace process is dead. It’s over, folks, so please stop sending the New York Times Op-Ed page editor your proposals for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. The next U.S. president will have to deal with an Israel determined to permanently occupy all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including where 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians live.”
So, according to Friedman, the unique solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict promoted by decent, liberal minded people in the US and much of the rest of the world is just not gonna happen. There will be no Palestinian state alongside Israel because Israel is dead-set against it and there is no reason to expect that reality to change. Friedman is a major figure in the US foreign policy establishment and one whose views on the Middle East in particular are taken seriously. His pronouncement is a big deal.
J-Street, the leading US voice of decent liberal opinion on Israel/Palestine, reacted quickly and emphatically to Friedman’s bombshell. J-Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami re-affirmed his conviction that
…failure to realize the vision of two states is the single greatest threat to the survival of Israel.…
Failure is not an option….
That there is not a path today to [a two-state solution] is not a fact to be accepted or bemoaned.
It must be the call to arms for all those who care deeply about the existence of a state for the Jewish people.” [emphasis in original]
Ben Ami, in turn, was challenged by Philip Weiss, founder of the anti-Zionist website Mondoweiss. Weiss published the observations of one of his correspondents, Stephen Low, who accused Ben Ami of a refusal to face reality. The two-state solution has been negated not only because of Israeli intransigence but because of “the physicality of a one-state reality. It’s virtually impossible to travel anywhere in the West Bank and not see at least one settlement (almost always on a hill) and more often two or more. “
Low derides Ben-Ami’s “call to arms’ in defense of the two-state solution:
Who’s he talking to? The most right-wing, exclusivist coalition in Israel’s history? An Israeli society revealed by survey after survey to be more fearful and hateful than ever before? Don’t depend on Israel’s youth, because while America’s younger generation is becoming more progressive, Israel’s youth, militarized since birth and carefully prepped for conscription, are becoming more aggressive.”
Low’s implicit solution is a democratic state in all of Palestine, a state that guarantees all of its citizens equal rights, including the right to vote. Given the population balance in Palestine (with Gaza included, currently about 50-50 Jewish-Arab) such a state would effectively mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
In addition to the democratic two-state solution advocated by J-Street and Ben Ami and the democratic one-state solution favored by Mondoweiss and Low, there is of course a third, non-democratic possibility, which is effectively under way: the extension of Israeli rule to all of Palestine. The West Bank would become a neo-colonial anachronism: an Apartheid state, with the majority of its occupants living separately from and under the subjugation of their neighbors, citizens of the “mother” country next door. This is the favored “solution” of the Israeli right, even if its smarter spokesmen don’t say so explicitly. This outcome is morally unacceptable, so we are left with just two morally palatable options. Unfortunately, each of the two seems practically impossible to achieve.
Take the two-state solution. Low is right: the Israeli absorption of the West Bank seems effectively irreversible. I recall a credible analysis over a dozen years ago that maintained that a fully autonomous, contiguous Palestinian state would require the repatriation of some 37,000 Jewish West Bank settlers (assuming they wouldn’t want to live under Palestinian Arab rule). I haven’t seen any recent such estimates, but the number of Jews who would have to be moved has undoubtedly increased several fold. Is this realistically imaginable? Recall the bitter resistance put up by the under 10 thousand Jewish settlers in Gaza when Ariel Sharon decided that their outposts had to be eliminated. Multiply that by ten. A genuine two state solution would provoke massive, potentially violent resistance among Jewish settlers, not a few of whom are motivated by a fanatical, messianic belief in their God-given right to Judea and Samaria. According to one skeptic, “Israel will not be able to move even 10,000 settlers, let alone 100,000, without creating a bloodbath.” Can we really believe that any Israeli government will try?
But what about the democratic one-state solution? Can we realistically expect the state of Israel to participate in its own effective dissolution? If a two-state solution risks provoking violent resistance from settlers, how would they react to the prospect of living in a bi-national democratic state destined to have an Arab majority? Israelis, even on the right, have long given lip service to a two-state solution. The idea has at least formal legitimacy in Israel. The dissolution of the state of Israel has none. And even if it did, could we realistically expect Israelis and Palestinians, mortal enemies (often in a very literal sense) for decades, to live together peaceably as equals in a stable democracy? The whole scenario seems utterly implausible.
So, to sum up, we have three possible solutions to the long-running impasse in Israel/Palestine. One option is the morally repugnant one-state solution pursued by the Israeli right (and, it must be said, increasingly accepted by the Israeli public at large). But the two more acceptable alternatives both face apparently insuperable obstacles. The best that we can do is to ask which of the two is less implausible. I have long believed that the two-state option, while far from ideal, was the best practical way to achieve peace in Israel/Palestine with the least amount of disruption and injustice to all. I wasn’t confident in that belief, but I couldn’t imagine a democratic one-state solution happening. I still can’t. Most of the obstacles to a two-state solution stand even more firmly in the way of a democratic bi-national state. Implausible as the two-state solution is, the alternative is even more so. Yes, Ben-Ami is engaged in wishful thinking, but I don’t see anything better.