Deconstructing Ian Lustick’s ‘two-state illusion’

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Ian Lustick

Ian Lustick

Editor: Ian Lustick is the man of the hour. The author of the seminal 9/15 piece in the NY Times called the Two State Illusion, which says the partition paradigm is over, is on Capitol Hill right now, debating the two state solution with Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, and Yousef Munayyer on Lustick’s side. Watch the livestream here. I’m sure they’ll have a video up later. In eight days Lustick will be talking with Max Blumenthal at the University of Pennsylvania. Meantime, Jerome Slater has published a lengthy piece on his blog, deconstructing Ian Lustick’s two-state illusion argument. Here is the first third of that piece.

On September 15, the New York Times published published Ian Lustick’s long analysis of the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace process, entitled “Two-State Illusion.” In bringing to the attention of the general public the diminishing prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace settlement, there is no doubt that Lustick—and the Times—have performed a very important public service.

Even so, there are three important problems in Lustick’s analysis. The first is that he is dismissive and condescending to supporters of a two-state settlement; indeed, some of his tone and language essentially questions their intelligence and even their motives. Second, some of his arguments are internally inconsistent. And most importantly, Lustick does not make a persuasive case for his central argument: that there might be an attainable and superior alternative to an Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement if only the negotiations for such settlement were abandoned.

I will proceed by reprinting the Lustick piece, interspersing it with my own comments, italicized.

“Two-State Illusion,” by Ian S. Lustick

THE last three decades are littered with the carcasses of failed negotiating projects billed as the last chance for peace in Israel. All sides have been wedded to the notion that there must be two states, one Palestinian and one Israeli. For more than 30 years, experts and politicians have warned of a “point of no return.” Secretary of State John Kerry is merely the latest in a long line of well-meaning American diplomats wedded to an idea whose time is now past.

True believers in the two-state solution see absolutely no hope elsewhere. With no alternative in mind, and unwilling or unable to rethink their basic assumptions, they are forced to defend a notion whose success they can no longer sincerely portray as plausible or even possible.

It’s like 1975 all over again, when the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco fell into a coma. The news media began a long death watch, announcing each night that Generalissimo Franco was still not dead. This desperate allegiance to the departed echoes in every speech, policy brief and op-ed about the two-state solution today.

Here Lustick is attacking a straw man: Just who are these two-state advocates who hold to a “desperate allegiance” to“an idea whose time is past,” and who have “no alternative in mind and [are] unwilling or unable to rethink basic assumptions?” That doesn’t accurately describe any serious two-state advocate with whom I am familiar—all of whom fully recognize that currently such a settlement is no longer realistically attainable. At the same time they—perhaps I should say we–consider that the only alternative to a two-state agreement (other, that is, than the continuation of the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians)would be the creation of some kind of binational democratic single state. The problem, however, is that such a state has even less chance of being accepted by the Israelis than a two-state settlement, and it is far more likely to end in bloody communal conflict than in a just and democratic peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Continuing with Lustick’s essay:

True, some comas miraculously end. Great surprises sometimes happen. The problem is that the changes required to achieve the vision of robust Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side are now considerably less likely than other less familiar but more plausible outcomes that demand high-level attention but aren’t receiving it.

Strong Islamist trends make a fundamentalist Palestine more likely than a small state under a secular government. The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project, through war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum, is at least as plausible as the evacuation of enough of the half-million Israelis living across the 1967 border, or Green Line, to allow a real Palestinian state to exist. While the vision of thriving Israeli and Palestinian states has slipped from the plausible to the barely possible, one mixed state emerging from prolonged and violent struggles over democratic rights is no longer inconceivable. Yet the fantasy that there is a two-state solution keeps everyone from taking action toward something that might work.

But what is Lustick’s argument here? He begins by saying that it is more likely that Palestine will become a fundamentalist Islamic state and that Israel will somehow “disappear as a Zionist project” than that there will be a two-state settlement between a largely Jewish and Zionist Israel alongside a non-fundamentalist Palestinian state. The prediction about Palestine is offered with no evidence and no supporting argument; the prediction about the death of Zionism in Israel is quite unpersuasive, regardless of “war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum,” for the overwhelming majority of Israelis—including most Israeli liberals who deplore the occupation—have no intention of giving up Zionism.

Then, Lustick’s next sentence (“While the vision” etc.) strongly implies that in a “mixed state”–usually referred to as the one-state solution– “prolonged and violent struggles for democratic rights” between the Jews and the Palestinians would be more likely than smooth and peaceful transition to a true binational democracy.

Possibly so, but then Lustick’s next sentence seems to contradict this assessment, for he asserts that the two-state “fantasy” is what “keeps everyone from taking action toward something that might work.” But what is this “something?”  Apparently that it would be better to abandon fruitless negotiations so that a binational democracy state can emerge after prolonged communal warfare.  No wonder he doesn’t want to clearly spell this out–it would surely not hold much appeal to most Palestinians or Israelis.

About Jerome Slater

Jerome Slater is a professor (emeritus) of political science and now a University Research Scholar at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has taught and written about U.S. foreign policy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for nearly 50 years, both for professional journals (such as International Security, Security Studies, and Political Science Quarterly) and for many general periodicals. He writes foreign policy columns for the Sunday Viewpoints section of the Buffalo News. And his website it

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