Walt, Munayyer, and Mearsheimer offer one state scenarios, and my response

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Swimming pool in Ma’ale Adumim settlement, not far from Palestinian villages that lack water. Photo by Scott Roth

Jerome Slater first posted this valuable exchange over the two-state solution with John Mearsheimer, Yousef Munayyer, and Stephen Walt.

No serious observer doubts that a two-state settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is currently all but dead, thanks to the continuing Israeli occupation, repression, settler expansion, and creeping ethnic cleansing in the West Bank. An increasing number of activists and academic specialists on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict regard this process as irreversible. Consequently, many now advocate a “one-state settlement,” meaning the creation of a binational democracy in all of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, with equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity: the democratic republic of “Isratine,” as some have called it.

I have been very skeptical of both the feasibility and desirability of such a single binational state: I can’t imagine circumstances in which Israel will agree to it, I don’t think it is likely to be a democracy, and I think it is more likely to exacerbate the Jewish-Palestinian conflict than to end it. (I develop the argument at length in a forthcoming article in the journal Political Science Quarterly, entitled “Zionism, the Jewish State Issue, and an Israeli-Palestinian Settlement.”)

In the last few days I’ve had several email exchanges with three leading scholars of the conflict who believe that a one-state outcome is nearly inevitable–Steve Walt, John Mearsheimer, and Yousef Munayyer, the Palestinian-American scholar and activist who heads the Palestine Center in Washington. I think this debate will be of interest to many readers, so I have received permission from Steve, John, and Yousef to publish the most important parts of our email exchanges.

I began the exchanges by writing the following comment:

There is no serious doubt that the only reason that there hasn’t been a two-state settlement along the well-understood lines has been Israeli intransigence–i.e. not that of the Palestinians, including Hamas.  It is probably true that the two-state settlement is all but dead because of that intransigence.   However, the argument that the one-state position must address is this: every factor that accounts for Israeli intransigence on a two-state solution makes a democratic one-state solution, with a probable Palestinian majority,  doubly hard to imagine.  And if, by some miracle, Israeli attitudes should somehow change, that would make a two-state settlement attainable long before it could make a one-state settlement possible.
       What, exactly, is the counterargument to this assessment?

Walt responded:

I believe the main argument would run like this: even if Israeli attitudes were to change in the next decade or so, the two populations are by now sufficiently intermingled that it would be impossible—as a practical matter–to disentangle them.  The Palestinians will eventually shift from demanding independent statehood to demanding political rights within Israel, which Israeli Jews will resist at first (and for a while).  They will eventually be forced to accommodate these demands, however, because the alternatives (ethnic cleansing or permanent apartheid) will be untenable globally. This doesn’t make a one-state solution easy to implement at all, it just means that we’ll end up with a not very functional single state.  

I’m not saying this WILL happen, only that this is the basic logic that those forecasting one state seem to have in mind.

I responded:

Perhaps.  On the other hand, “untenable globally” in this context seems to mean morally and politically untenable in the eyes of the international “community.”   The problem is that the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians already has been morally and politically anathema  (untenable) for many years now, with not the slightest impact on Israel or the U.S., which is the only member of the international community that counts for anything in Israeli eyes.   
       So, if you are right that’s the logic of the one-staters, they have a mighty thin reed to lean on.    For that reason, I still think the best strategy is serious pressure on Israel to agree to a two-state settlement—and, moreover, a two-state settlement is likely to be far more stable and less utopian than one state. 
      Put differently, sustained pressure on Israel is the only hope; as remote as the possibility that such U.S. pressures will materialize, the possibility that even serious and sustained pressures would force Israel to agree to anything resembling a one-state democracy with equal rights for the Palestinians is, for all practical purposes, unimaginable. 

Similarly, Munayyer has argued that if the Palestinians give up the chimera of the creation of an independent state in the occupied territories, Israel will be forced to agree to a binational state. In our exchange, he put it this way:

If the two state outcome is exposed for fantasy, and Palestinians en masse demand civil rights, it is hard to see a sustained, western objection. This will force Israeli decision makers to do the math; what costs them more power sharing or relinquishing the land? It is hard math to do, in part because the cost of power sharing is much harder to determine when new political realities will create a completely different political landscape from which coalitions are formed. Yet, with every passing day, the cost of relinquishing the land continues to increase.

Joining in these exchanges, Mearsheimer wrote the following:

I think the main problem with your argument is that there is no way the US is going to put serious pressure on Israel to accept a two-state solution. Obama tried and failed miserably; it wasn’t even close.

I might add that to create a viable Palestinian state would require us to put enormous pressure on Israel, because we would have to reverse so many facts on the ground and because the hardliners are so powerful in Israel. In my opinion, there is no chance this is going to happen. We now have and will continue to have for the foreseeable future a Greater Israel.

And by the way, as time goes by, it will become even more difficult to move toward a two-state solution as the settlement enterprise will grow even larger.

On the one-state solution, I think there is no question that Israeli Jews will mightily resist democracy inside Greater Israel. That situation will cause all sorts of problems for the Israelis and give them powerful incentives to expel the Palestinians. I worry a lot about that outcome and hope that the Palestinians have the good sense not to play into Israel’s hands.

You think there is a good chance that Greater Israel can maintain itself for the foreseeable future, even if it is not a democracy and is indeed an apartheid state. After all, they have been able to maintain the occupation all these years. You may be right; one does marvel at how Israel has been able to avoid serious sanctions for its past behavior toward the Palestinians.

Still, I think you are wrong. The world has changed and is changing in ways that will make it impossible over the long term to maintain an Israel that is an apartheid state, and here I am talking the next thirty or so years. Very briefly, here are my reasons.

1. Israel has benefitted greatly from the illusion that there will be a two-state solution; that will soon be over.

2. Greater Israel will be (is) an apartheid state and that will be hard to miss and very difficult to defend — I would argue impossible over the long term.

3. The face of Israel is undergoing a fundamental transformation with the steady drift to the right, the growing racism, and the growing numbers of ultra-orthodox. That, coupled with apartheid, will make it hard for Israel to sell itself as a “Western society,” as it has done so well in the past.

4. The internet makes it almost impossible to miss what is going on in Israel.

5. Israel’s “new historians” have made it clear what the Israelis have done and are doing to the Palestinians and that has generated a huge amount of sympathy for the Palestinians around the world. Israel in the past was very adept at selling itself as the victim. Now they look like brutal victimizers and the Palestinians look like the victims.

6. The lobby is powerful, but it now has to operate out in the open and engage in smash-mouth politics. That is not good; as Steve Rosen said, “A lobby is like a night flower; it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”

7. The American Jewish community is hardly monolithic and it contains a substantial number of people who are deeply critical of Israeli behavior and willing to voice their opinions. I believe those numbers will grow over time; Peter Beinart is a harbinger of things to come.

8. The Holocaust is receding into history and it will become increasingly difficult for Israel and its supporters to invoke that horrific tragedy to provide Israel with cover.

9. Elites in the Arab and Islamic world are becoming more Westernized and are much better able to engage in politics in the West than they were in the past.

10. The Arab world is likely to become more democratic and more educated over time and that is likely to make countries in the Middle East more critical of Israel. This is what is now happening in Egypt.

11. There is an important precedent that many will point to so as to delegitimize Greater Israel and make the case for turning it into a real democracy: South Africa.

For all these reasons, I don’t think it will be possible for Greater Israel to maintain itself as an apartheid state over the long term. Again, this is why I am fearful that Israel will pursue expulsion.  Of course, I may be wrong about all this, but I don’t think so.”

I responded:

I don’t think we disagree any of the most important facts; indeed, in some ways my views are bleaker than yours, at least in terms of their implications in the next few years.   As for what may occur over the next thirty years, who knows? My gut feeling is that the longer the occupation goes on, the more and more irreversible it will become.  
I also agree that in the current circumstances there is no possibility of serious U.S. pressure.  Still, my view is that the best strategy over the longer run is not to abandon the two-state idea but to work to change US immobilism and complicity with Israel on this issue. A very long shot, to be sure, but more imaginable to me than a one-state “solution.”
Regarding your specific points:
1. I’m not sure there are any knowledgable observers, or governments, that still have illusions about Israel’s torpedoing of the two-state solution.  The dispelling of those illusions, however, hasn’t stopped Israel from continuing on its present course.
2. For those interested in the obvious facts–to be sure, a very large caveat–Israeli behavior is already not merely very difficult but impossible to defend.  Yet, it not only continues, but worsens.  

3. I agree with your portrayal of what Israel is becoming, or already has become. I guess where I differ is my pessimism that Israel will be forced to change course simply because it will be increasingly difficult for it to sell itself as a “Western society.”
4. The internet has already had the effect—or should have had the effect– of making it impossible to ignore what has happened to Israel. Query: can anyone think of any other long-standing and highly visible conflict in which incontrovertible facts have mattered so little?
5. The work of the new historians goes back at least thirty years, proving not merely that the Israelis look like brutal victimizers and the Palestinians look like victims–but that the perceptions are true.  But the beat goes on.
6. In light of recent events, hard to see how the lobby has been hurt much by its need to operate in the open–to the extent that it has, that is.
7. It’s very hard for me to be optimistic that the growing minority of American Jewish dissenters have had, or will have, much impact on the U.S. or Israeli policy-making process.   Maybe Peter Beinart is a harbinger of things to come.  On the other hand, maybe the behavior of Obama, Romney and the Congress is a greater harbinger of things to remain the same.

8. I agree that “it will become increasingly difficult for Israel and its supporters to invoke that horrific tragedy to provide Israel with cover.” However, that has long been obvious….

9 &10. It’s too soon to know if the pro-democratic and moderate Arab elites as well as public opinion will prevail. Recent events suggest that the possibility that the Arab spring may yet turn into another—if different–Arab winter.

11. I agree that the South Africa precedent is a powerful and hopeful one. Still, I’m less optimistic than you that Israel will see it that way: the general Israeli reaction has not been to recoil in horror at the face in the mirror and reach the obvious conclusions, but to retreat further into defiance and a perverse belief that they are the victims.

I would love to believe that Steve, John, and Yousef are right in their basic analysis: that the growing international (and some Jewish) horror at Israel’s policies will force the Israelis to confront their behavior, which will lead to positive change.   I just don’t see it that way–on the contrary, nearly all the trends in Israeli society are going in the opposite direction.  (For a powerful statement of how an Israeli Jewish liberal sees it, see this:

).    Should these trends continue, we’ll soon be worrying about how civil rights/civil liberties/genuine democracy can be preserved for liberal Israeli Jews, let alone expanded to include the Palestinians.

I can’t resist adding this observation:  It is really interesting–indeed, heartwarming–that the most optimistic assessments of how the Israelis might be forced to reevaluate their present catastrophic course seems to be coming from the non-Jewish observers: John, Steve, Yousef, and others. Perhaps my pessimism is partially explained by the fact that, as a Jew and liberal Zionist, I am outraged by Israel’s betrayal (and the American Jewish cover-my-eyes-cover-my-ears-cover-my-nose-I-don’t-want-to-know  complicity in that betrayal) of so much of what was  worthwhile in the Jewish tradition. I fervently hope that they are right, and we can yet be saved from ourselves.

In the meantime, let me reiterate my main point: the burden of proof is on those who see the one-state solution as inevitable and/or desirable: as I see it, every obstacle to the attainment of a two-state settlement makes a one-state settlement inconceivable.   How do one-state proponents propose to deal with all the obvious problems of feasibility and desirability?  And if the argument is that under certain assumptions in the long run these problems can be resolved, then why can’t the obstacles to a two-state solution, under similar but not quite so daunting assumptions, also be resolved over the longer run?

Put differently, the necessary changes in the Israeli beliefs, attitudes and policies that would make possible a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would allow for the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state long before they would allow for the creation of the binational democracy of Isratine.

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What might be most likely to happen: Likud Zionists will succeed in consolidating Greater Israel and violently expelling most or all Palestinians under the cover of a generalized global war between “the West” and Islam. This has been their strategy for several decades now and so far it has been… Read more »

Very interesting discussion. I think Walt is right. What he could have emphasised more is the damage the drift to the right is doing to Israeli society. The other big factor is economics. With more Orthodox who are not as educated as their secular counterparts Israel will become economically weaker.… Read more »

As a Palestinian, it’s very hard for me to say this as it hurts my pride to the core BUT I will say it: how this conflict will end is ENTIRELY in the hands of israel either by what they consciously and deliberately do or by what they consciously and… Read more »

It also appears that Slater assumes that the IDF can continue to control the Israeli Zionist narrative – ie everyone hates us and we have no choice but to abuse the Palestinians. The longer the occupation goes on post the collapse of the 2ss the wider the gap there will… Read more »


Deal with it: several possibilities: Suck up the pain. Go on a crying jag. Beat one’s head against the wall. Go with the flow. Attend to one’s garden.

I am open to other suggestions. :)