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Flipping the political map: Yehouda Shenhav upends liberal understandings of Israel/Palestine in ‘Beyond the Two-State Solution’

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Israeli sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, the author of the book Beyond the Two-State Solution: A Political Essay. (Image via Vimeo)

Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens’ call for demolishing the West Bank wall in April was little noticed outside of Israel. It should have been, though, because it produced a revealing moment.

Here was a right-winger taking a position you would expect to come from an avowed leftist. As +972 Magazine’s Dimi Reider noted, Arens said the wall caused hardship for Palestinians, damaged Israel’s image and was harmful because “many Jews live beyond the wall.” The traditional Israeli left’s response to Arens was illuminating: they disagreed and said the destruction of the wall would be a step towards a bi-national state–either a non-Jewish or non-democratic one. The chairman of Peace Now favors keeping the hulking, ugly wall, but wants to move it to the Green Line to mark a clear border.


How to explain this bizarre state of affairs? It’s bewildering on its face. As Reider writes, progressive figures like the Peace Now chairman “seemed more threatened by the remote prospect of a bi-national state than concerned with anything like equality or justice.” But the chairman’s response makes sense if you read Yehouda Shenhav’s book Beyond the Two-State Solution: A Political Essay (which happens to be translated into English by +972’s Reider). The book by the Iraqi-Jewish sociologist, first published in Hebrew and reissued in English in July 2012, upends conventional understandings about Israel/Palestine and posits a new vision for solving the conflict.

At the heart of the book is Shenhav’s convincing argument that traditional thinking on the conflict–first and foremost perpetrated by the Israeli liberal left–has been stuck in the 1967 paradigm, which has lead to never-ending and doomed efforts to establish a two-state solution. It presupposes that a dismantling of the settlements, and a return to the border imposed on the Palestinians, will restore the Israeli state to its enlightened, liberal roots–an enduring myth. This myth imagines an Israel that has been corrupted solely by the occupation–a formulation that totally erases the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. 

One way Shenhav strikes at accepted wisdom is by doing away with the right vs. left dichotomy. Shenhav sees the real source of division elsewhere: between those who view the 1967 occupation as the source of Israel’s woes, and those who see 1948 as the real starting point to the conflict. This dichotomy produces a peculiar set of alliances (if only theoretical ones): on one hand settlers who acknowledge 1948 started everything along with Palestinians, and on the other the Israeli Ashkenazi elite who won’t open the Pandora’s box of the Nakba.

In Shenhav’s reading, if the Israeli left is truly interested in a solution, they need to return to the question of 1948–a key question Palestinians want to address. The Israeli left has avoided this question because they favor separation and an exclusivist Jewish state–as the call for keeping the wall shows–and because it allows them to outsource the conflict to solely the problem of illegal settlements. As Shenhav writes, the Israeli liberal left espouses views “which, in any other context, would be considered nationalist, conservative and even right-wing.”

The 1967 borders as a paradigm, then, distorts our understanding of the Israeli political map. In the mainstream framework, the left is identified as those who wish to dismantle the settlements and restore Israel to its pre-67 borders, with the right representing those who wish to settle Greater Israel. Liberal Zionists in the U.S. are at home with this type of thinking. A big part of what J Street does is pushing for a two-state settlement because it would secure Israel’s demographic majority.

Peter Beinart’s notion that there is a “democratic Israel” and a “non-democratic” Israel divided by the Green Line is also firmly within the 1967 paradigm. Beinart, much like the traditional Israeli left, outsources the core problem to only the occupation, a view that doesn’t take into account the fact that the Israeli state is the only entity funding projects both within and over the Green Line.

Shenhav’s work calls Beinart’s and J Street’s framework into question.

And if the correct way of viewing the conflict is through the prism of the Nakba, then the traditional ways we label differing political forces in Israel need to shift.

There are, of course, forces on the right that call for expulsion of Palestinians and permanent apartheid. But Shenhav credits those forces with at least admitting that the problem started in 1948. Beyond those reactionary forces, though, there are interesting political ideas emanating from other segments on the right–including from former defense minister Arens, who in 2010 penned a Haaretz piece that contemplated giving West Bank Palestinians citizenship and the right to vote. These ideas begin to flip the political map in Israel.

Arens’ wall proposal, coupled with contemplating citizenship for West Bank Palestinians, is an opening to begin to think about solutions to the conflict in brand-new ways. Those ideas come from a paradigm that rejects the artificial division between Israel-proper and the territories, a view that Shenhav shares. And Arens is not the only one thinking creatively on the right.

In July 2010, Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf published a groundbreaking article in Haaretz that explored how some prominent right-wing figures–a minority, to be sure–were voicing their preference for a binational state (sans Gaza.) These figures “reject totally the various ideas of ethnic separation and recognize that political rights accrue to the Palestinians,” Sheizaf wrote.

The creative thinkers on the right are still problematic from the point of view of Palestinians. They still want to preserve a Jewish state in spirit and in symbols. Still, they represent an opening for new ways of thinking.

All of these ideas scramble conventional understandings of the Israeli political map. And this scrambling is not the only way Shenhav challenges the conventional wisdom about Israel/Palestine.

One of the most important contributions Shenhav makes is his explanation of the settlement project. In the 1967 paradigm the left pushes, the settlements are the root of all evil. But it was the left that started this project following the Six-Day War. Shenhav argues that “liberal thought based on the Green Line…decided on the settlers as the scapegoat to be sacrificed so that elites can acquire moral standing.”

Instead of demonizing settlers as the reason peace has not been achieved, Shenhav’s compelling analysis allows an understanding of the social forces, including the left, that have propelled the settlement project.

This line of thinking is worlds away from the traditional left’s. And Shenhav goes steps further from conventional liberal Zionist thinking in his discussion of an ultimate solution to the conflict. He argues that the settlers should be allowed to stay put in their original communities, and that Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return as well. He writes:

[L]iberal thought never once considered the moral implications of evicting settlers. I would argue that, if the space were to be opened up and political justice between Palestinians and Jews achieved…most settlements could be left where they are.

While Shenhav acknowledges that the settlements stole Palestinian land, he also argues that evicting the settlers is impractical and immoral.

The dual-track of allowing the settlers to stay and letting the refugees return is part and parcel of his overall vision for the end of the conflict–and it’s a truly novel one, with an emphasis on both the rights of Jews and the rights of Palestinians. The emphasis on Jewish rights and the Jewish future in the region is a much-needed intervention; any sustainable model for a long-term solution must take into account the fact that Israeli Jews are there to stay. 

Shenhav argues that traditional models of sovereignty need to be done away with to find a solution to the grinding conflict. Instead, some model of joint sovereignty should be explored.

His preferred solution is what he calls “consociational democracy,” a fragmented model that allows for the creation of multiple sovereign spaces that would be organized according to what the communities living there want.

What Shenhav proposes is just an outline, and the details he offers are relatively sparse. He will likely find some Palestinian allies. But challenges will also arise from Palestinian voices. Helpfully, the foreword to Shenhav’s book is written by Lama Abu Odeh, a Palestinian-American professor of law. Odeh raises two primary challenges to Shenhav’s proposal, and they relate to his insistence that existing Jewish communities, including settlements, not be disturbed by the return of Palestinian refugees. For one thing, Odeh asks why Palestinian refugees should agree to this arrangement when UN Resolution 194 guarantees them the right to return to old properties? The second challenge is a related one. Odeh writes:

If returning refugees can only reside in “Palestinian” com­munities, and the current structural relationship -spatial and economic of Palestinian to Jewish communities is the outcome of the latter swallowing up and appropriating the material and symbolic resources of the former over a long period of time, to what land exactly is the returning refugee returning?

These are thorny questions to which there is no easy answer.

There’s also the question of how we get to that model, whatever it is–one-state or consociational. Shenhav doesn’t offer much here. He points to some interesting coalitions that have been formed between Palestinians and settlers, for instance. But these cases are quite isolated. 

Perhaps it’s not Shenhav’s role as an intellectual to offer the activist path forward, though some more detail towards how to forge this new future would have been helpful.

Despite that small shortcoming, Shenhav’s book offers a radical look at the roots of the conflict and rightly targets the traditional Israeli left’s program of separation and papering over the Nakba. It has profound implications for how we think of solving the Israel/Palestine conflict.

America’s renewed push to save the two-state solution is going nowhere fast. We need a new paradigm–and Shenhav’s analysis is one of the best places we can start.

Alex Kane
About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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5 Responses

  1. quirx
    June 5, 2013, 11:51 am

    The ‘separation wall’ has always seemed to me to be the recreation of the shtetl, unconsciously or not. Since it is the Ashkenazi elite who rule, and the wall was their idea, I wonder if they are not again trying to ‘return to the womb’ of the safe confines of the shtetl? But that is a double-edged sword of course. Ira Chernus has written a 3-part essay called “The Myth of Israel’s Insecurity” which explores the Israeli Jewish psyche from not only a historical context but also how irresponsible and infantilizing Zionism really is to Jewish Israelis and world Jewry. The essay itself is quite good, and the comments of course, just like here or anywhere else the state is mentioned, only show how correct the assessments are. Some are most likely paid hasbaristas, some are just individual Jews or supporters of Israel who are so deep in their denial (or hasbara or programming or whatever you like to call it) that they cannot, and will not accept the truth of it.

    I am not convinced that the “2-state solution” is dead. It seems to me to be a wimping out, something to avoid Israel from taking responsibility and being held responsible as any other nation would for the historical and continuing crimes of the state and its military. And it would also entail an enormous outlay of financial capital to decouple the utilities from the territories, and would entail a loss of revenue from those utilities as well, since Palestine will no longer be a captive market (being able to have its own utilities which its own citizens pay for, whether theose are run by the state or are private Palestinian companies).

    While creative solutions are good to explore, I think Shenav’s idea of “consociational democracy,” would, due to the nature of the state of Israel and Israeli Jewish mentality of ethnosupremacism as well as the individual and collective sense of perpetual insecurity (therefore the need to dominate others – see the essay linked above), necessarily be coopted and it wouldn’t take long for those Bantustans to resemble the Swiss cheese like situation in the West Bank of Palestine. Personally, I think a clean and total break is the only thing that will work.

    • tree
      June 5, 2013, 5:39 pm

      Thanks for the link, quirx. Its a good read, and seems like a sound theory. I’d recommend all three parts of it to all.

      From part one:

      In fact, from the very beginning, Zionists were agents of historical change. They did whatever they could to achieve their ends by political, economic, and sometimes violent means: they bought land, built farms and villages, created political structures, and negotiated with the Palestinian Arabs about all sorts of things. The negotiations sometimes led to relatively amicable relations between Zionists and Palestinian Arabs.

      Sometimes though, inevitably, there was conflict. Sometimes parties on both sides resorted to violence to get their way, which intensified the conflict. A few Zionists saw that the Palestinians were responding to specific policies that the Zionist movement had chosen. A few understood that the Zionists had become part of a vast relational network of Middle Eastern peoples. In any such network, the words and actions of each actor impact all the others; no one is merely a passive victim of others’ choices. In this particular network, some Arabs as well as Jews sought to emulate the secular nationalist model they saw dominating Europe. An Arab nationalist movement seeking independence from the Turkish empire was already well underway.

      But most Zionists could not see this because they had become locked into, and blinded by, their dominant narrative. Their consciences did not want to admit that they were now empowered historical actors, because they would mean they bore some responsibility for eliciting enmity from others. It was easier to charge the enmity to an irrational antisemitic hatred of the Jews, a hatred beyond their control. If their actions could neither evoke, intensify, or alleviate their enemy’s attitudes, then they could not bear any responsibility for the ongoing conflict. All they could do was to defend themselves by force. So it was appealing to interpret any Palestinian Arab resistance as evidence of sheer antisemitism.

      However the tradition that started with Pinsker said that when Jews were attacked by antisemites, the insecurity and powerlessness they felt were evidence of their moral weakness, self-doubt, and self-hatred. Every hint of weakness reminded the Zionists that they had not yet fully answered Pinsker’s call to stand up proudly and manfully. So they fought back, not only to protect themselves physically but, even more, to protect themselves from their own self-doubts. Each time the Zionists asserted themselves against the Palestinians they could feel reassured that they were genuinely proud and self-reliant, that they were “rising manfully to full height.” At the same time, they could feel reassured that they were morally innocent victims of anti-semitism.

      But that interpretation created more problems than it solved. If the Zionists were still victims of an anti-semitism beyond their control to influence, then they were not yet agents of their own history. They were insisting on their passivity, the very condition they had hoped to escape. So they only heightened their negative self-image, their sense of powerlessness and insecurity. That, in turn, heightened their doubts about their own self-worth, wondering whether they could ever be normal. The natural response was to take more actions that would assuage self-doubt. They had to go on showing that they were capable of exercising power, prove that they could hit back, like normal people.

      Of course every time they hit back, the Palestinians were likely to hit back in response. The Zionists interpreted each new confrontation as further evidence of the Jews’ vulnerability, passivity, and insecurity, which only intensified their feeling of self-doubt. And that, in turn, intensified their conviction that antisemitism was eternal, that they would always be insecure. The only possible response was to strike back again—which locked them more firmly into their narrative and generated ever more insecurity. This narrative became so basic to their movement that it functioned as their foundational myth. The Zionists were trapped in a myth of national insecurity.

      • quirx
        June 6, 2013, 11:13 am

        You’re welcome, tree. I think it’s essential reading for all Westerners, and for anyone interested in the Middle East. It really explains the downward psychological spiral-trap of the Zionists. It also (in the last paragraph of the quote above) mentions what is called ‘confirmation bias’ (link to Wikipedia). The link shows other cognitive biases that most will recognize occurring very frequently. But then, that’s the only to convince (fool?) oneself to continue to support such a deeply unjust, flawed and failed ideology as Zionism.

  2. ritzl
    June 5, 2013, 12:46 pm

    Great article. Thanks.

    If Palestinians get the vote in a bi-national state, the exclusive community issue would seem to be of secondary importance, both in terms of timing and morality. The just resolution will come with a more evolutionary process that enhanced Palestinian political power, real power, will bring.

  3. Parity
    June 5, 2013, 3:07 pm

    See for an innovative peace place that calls for two states on the same land (with identical borders), 50-50 governance between the states on matters of mutual concern, and equal access by all individuals to resources.

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