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Lustick sounds the alarm on the two state solution, but offers little alternative

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic Voice” feature for Mondoweiss.  To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Ian Lustick, a scholar of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, has weighed in on what appears to be the subject of the decade.  It’s right there in the Sunday Review of the New York Times  – “Two State Illusion.”  It’s already quite the rage and for good reason.  Unfortunately after a week or two it will disappear from view, much like the latest installment of the peace process.

Ian Lustick (Photo: University of Pennsylvania)

Ian Lustick (Photo: University of Pennsylvania)

This is a huge problem.  With Egypt and now Syria taking up the Middle East quota of American newsworthiness, reporting on the Israel/Palestine peace process has slowed to a trickle.  The fact is that there isn’t much to report.  No one in the world, least of all the Obama administration, thought the process would go anywhere.  It hasn’t.

Israel/Palestine is in need of a radical rethinking and a radical new direction.  Unfortunately, after reviewing the reasons that the Two-State solution is over and citing the dangers of that illusion – the possible violent end for Israel as we know it – Lustick doesn’t venture far afield.   As Philip Weiss points out, Lustick does sound the alarm, at least in terms of what readers of the mainstream media are accustomed to.   This is important.  In the end, though, Lustick, like all of us at the moment, comes up short.

Here lies the danger of attempting to transform the mainstream understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The transformation of consciousness on Israel/Palestine is ongoing.  That transformation isn’t changing anything for the better on the ground.

Lustick’s speculation about the future of Israel/Palestine is as good – and as limited – as other commentators.  In other words, Lustick doesn’t have a clue as to how the future will unfold.  In my view, his farfetched scenario has too many variables. But, then, since what passes for practical politics has failed why not take a different angle?

Lustick’s buildup to his proposed future sets the stage.  Consider his understanding of the possibility and failure of Oslo:

Conceived as early as the 1930s, the idea of two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea all but disappeared from public consciousness between 1948 and 1967. Between 1967 and 1973 it re-emerged, advanced by a minority of “moderates” in each community. By the 1990s it was embraced by majorities on both sides as not only possible but, during the height of the Oslo peace process, probable. But failures of leadership in the face of tremendous pressures brought Oslo crashing down.

Well, it might have been failures of leadership that doomed Oslo.  Looking at the maps of Oslo, though, I’m doubtful Yitzhak Rabin was contemplating a full withdrawal from either East Jerusalem or the West Bank.  A real Palestinian state with control of its borders, the ability to defend itself and its capital in Jerusalem wasn’t part of Oslo.  Oslo was a Palestinian “autonomy” plan.  Even if Rabin had lived, Oslo would have failed.

Projecting Oslo as a two-state probability, Lustick contrasts that with the present day illusion of two states.  We had already reached that illusion in Oslo, if not decades earlier.  Here’s Lustick’s take on where we are now:

The two-state slogan now serves as a comforting blindfold of entirely contradictory fantasies. The current Israeli version of two states envisions Palestinian refugees abandoning their sacred “right of return,” an Israeli-controlled Jerusalem and an archipelago of huge Jewish settlements, crisscrossed by Jewish-only access roads. The Palestinian version imagines the return of refugees, evacuation of almost all settlements and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

What is Lustick’s vision of the future if the illusion of the Two-State solution is maintained?  To begin with, the Palestinian Authority, with diminished status and role, will disappear.  Israel will face the challenge of asserting control of the state it rules – from Tel Aviv to the Jordan River.   The stage will be set for “ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror, Jewish and Arab emigration and rising tides of international condemnation of Israel.”  Because of this, America will begin to withdraw its unconditional support of Israel and “Israeli leaders may then begin to see, as South Africa’s white leaders saw in the 1980s, that their behavior is producing isolation, emigration and hopelessness.”

Lustick’s projection of Israel/Palestine’s predicament into the future once the illusion of the Two-State solution becomes evident is interesting.  But, aside from America’s support, isn’t Lustick describing what more or less exists right now?

If Israel’s leaders haven’t had their South Africa moment of recognition yet, what might prompt that in the future is uncertain.  And since Lustick doesn’t entertain a One-State solution until his final paragraphs, the thrust of his argument settles for a subtly changed Two-State solution.  Again like other commentators, Lustick’s future vision is mostly rhetorical.   Perhaps that’s why Lustick’s vision is overly generalized and tangled:

Fresh thinking could then begin about Israel’s place in a rapidly changing region. There could be generous compensation for lost property. Negotiating with Arabs and Palestinians based on satisfying their key political requirements, rather than on maximizing Israeli prerogatives, might yield more security and legitimacy. Perhaps publicly acknowledging Israeli mistakes and responsibility for the suffering of Palestinians would enable the Arab side to accept less than what it imagines as full justice. And perhaps Israel’s potent but essentially unusable nuclear weapons arsenal could be sacrificed for a verified and strictly enforced W.M.D.-free zone in the Middle East.

How this scenario would be accomplished is difficult to imagine.  Even so, Lustick enters the future from the past.  Lustick transports us back into a pre-Oslo, first Palestinian Uprising hope of cross solidarity.  For Lustick, practicing solidarity of like-minded constituencies is fueled by chastened nationalist expectations:

In such a radically new environment, secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as “Eastern,” but as Arab. Masses of downtrodden and exploited Muslim and Arab refugees, in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel itself could see democracy, not Islam, as the solution for translating what they have (numbers) into what they want (rights and resources). Israeli Jews committed above all to settling throughout the greater Land of Israel may find arrangements based on a confederation, or a regional formula more attractive than narrow Israeli nationalism.

Lustick’s vision of the future is fragmented.  At times it suffers from a paternalistic ring.  Caught up in the previous failure of identity and nationalist politics, Jews and Palestinians finally realize who they are and where their interests abide. This strikes me as wishful thinking – the arrival of an unacknowledged combined version of a One-State/Two-State solution is somehow different than the “illusion” Lustick finds outdated and dangerous.  If the disparity exists, it’s unlikely to be large enough to make a difference.

The rest of Lustick’s argument – perhaps the point he wanted to make on the One State solution – is incomplete and fractured.  Lustick seems caught in between.  Despite the strong rhetoric, Lustick appears self-conflicted.  Or is he holding back?  Perhaps Lustick is wary of sharing his full understanding for fear he will alienate potential allies.

The most dangerous illusion of all is the fear of alienating potential allies.   What appears radical in mainstream politics can simply be a change of location, a new place to sit on the fence and speak from.  Fantasy scenarios for the future won’t do much for Palestinians – or Israel – except lay the groundwork for more hand wringing by the American foreign policy establishment.

Lustick concludes that the futures he envisions have to develop “organically: they are not implemented by diplomats overnight and they do not arise without the painful stalemates that lead each party to conclude that time is not on their side.”  True enough.  But overnight can be a very long time.

Though the handwriting has been on the wall for decades, Israel continues to believe that the future is theirs.  Meanwhile, if anything, the United States is more insistent on Israeli supremacy than ever before.  Can this change occur organically and without forceful and decisive intervention from outside?

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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10 Responses

  1. Krauss
    September 16, 2013, 12:19 pm

    He mostly mumbled and bumbled throughout the entire article.
    Running like a red river beneath the Op-Ed was a pernicious fear of being targeted by the Israeli Firsters like Goldberg and all his media buddies, not to mention the academic smearing you face when opposing Israeli apartheid.

    4 pages and he didn’t manage to write that much that was actually useful except the blindingly obvious, except to the most fanatic and self-delusional Zionist at this point.

    There was also an air of anxiety of placing the blame squarely where it belongs, but you can almost see the internal struggle throughout the Op-Ed as he gets going and sort of stops himself in the act when he realizes he’s going to say it, even if he thinks it, and then he backtracks and just mumbles a little longer until he gets to that same point again, backtracks and so on.

    I hope they give space next time to someone with a clearer ideological agenda. I prefer the settlement leaders because they are clear about what they want and then there’s the democratic liberals(the true liberals) like Max Blumenthal on the other side. Lustick is a career academic and that anxiety of not becomming the next Walt/Mearsheimer hurt his piece tremendously, out of fear.

    It’s often said but it’s true: a public intellectual cannot just be brilliant, he or she must also be brave.
    I have read too little of his works to judge him on the former but he fails the test on the latter.

    • W.Jones
      September 16, 2013, 11:06 pm


      How do you know that this is not how Lustick actually thinks? I remember reading Lustick’s work before and felt that he was basically a liberal Zionist.

  2. American
    September 16, 2013, 2:34 pm

    Not going to change Israel until you take out the Lobby and US politicians.
    So he right at least about continued violence eventually leadng to the demise of the Palestines first and then the Jewish state, by someone’s hand if not by the US’s.
    Attacking the US Politicans on Israel should be the MAIN POINT of every single word written about I/P. Stop them and you will stop Israel.

  3. seafoid
    September 17, 2013, 11:00 am

    Lustick doesn’t have to come up with a solution. He just has to light up the road to the cliff. Agree with American- only way to stop the tragedy is to cut the link between DC and West Jerusalem.

    There are going to be so many problems to deal with when TSHTF

    Where is Judaism going
    How did this happen
    Why didn’t anyone do anything
    International law failed- why
    Diaspora /Israel relationship
    US corruption
    The Arab goverments and their role
    Europe’s stance


  4. seafoid
    September 17, 2013, 11:21 am

    One of the biggest issues that will have to be dealt with post the time when TSHTF is Jewish Israeli attitudes to Palestinians.

    “An unauthorized Palestinian construction worker from the West Bank who was seriously injured while doing renovation work in Tel Aviv on Monday was left to die on the sidewalk, witnesses said.

    The victim, Ahsan Abu-Srur, 54, from the Askfar refugee camp near Nablus, was apparently abandoned by his employer, without any attempt to assist him. The body was found lying on the sidewalk outside 7 Ben Atar Street, in south Tel Aviv by passersby, and then taken to Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, where he was pronounced dead.

    Several eyewitnesses told Haaretz that they had seen the contractor arriving at the apartment where the renovations were being done. He noticed the laborer was apparently critically injured and, with the help of two workers, dragged the man to the sidewalk opposite and left him there, without helping him.

    Hussam Faraji, a resident of Kalansua who was at the site, told Haaretz: “I’ve been working here for a long time and he’s been working in the same place for a week, for that contractor. I saw him working with a hammer and apparently something fell on him, or he was hurt, and he fell in a very serious condition. I saw the contractor running with two of his workers. He took him by the hands and the other two took him by the feet and they threw him onto the opposite sidewalk.”

    There was a similar story a few years ago where a hospital dumped a car thief (who was seriously injured in a car crash) at some checkpoint in the West Bank where he died.

    Tikkun Olam is very unwell.

    • W.Jones
      September 17, 2013, 12:15 pm


      If you were to bring up the story of the Good Samaritan, would that be anti-Semitism? The parable nowhere said it was criticizing Jews in general, only a pharisee.

      • seafoid
        September 17, 2013, 1:46 pm

        I was thinking about the Good Samaritan reading that story, W Jones.
        There was a similar news article about someone dying on a street in China who was ignored by passers by that shocked the nation.

  5. W.Jones
    September 17, 2013, 12:38 pm


    “If Israel’s leaders haven’t had their South Africa moment of recognition yet, what might prompt that in the future is uncertain.”
    Good point.

    However, isn’t one difference that in South Africa the people had the same religion. You are one of the most progressive Jewish religious writers on the topic of IP, and yet what is your attitude to Christianity, and most likely Islam? Is it a surprise people there would have the same attitudes, and probably much stronger, and oppose living with them as a likely majority?

    Meanwhile, they have the Isr. State as apocalyptic and historic religious goal and focus, which South Africa was not. Plus, unlike South Africa, half or 1/3 of the people invested in it are in America.

  6. basimz
    September 17, 2013, 10:33 pm

    It was not that long ago, 57 years to be precise, that the U.S. reigned supreme in the free world.
    Witness for example, what happened in 1957 when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt and came close to occupying the Suez Canal, it took Eisenhower only a week to end the conflict and eventually force the withdrawal of all three armies.
    Something strange, and rarely discussed, has been going on since then. In the 1967 war, Israel successfully occupied the West Bank and began establishing settlements in violation of UN resolutions.
    In the meantime, on bended knee, the U.S. has been pleading with Israel for all these years to abide by the UN resolutions and end their settlement project. Furthermore, since the Oslo agreements of 1993, we have switched from pleading to creating an endless peace process that is becoming more and more a vehicle by which Israel has been able to increase its settlements.
    This hijacking of America’s foreign policies toward the Middle East and the Muslim world was brought to light as long ago as October 1973 on CBS’s Face the Nation by Senator Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said

    “It is almost impossible in this country to carry out a foreign policy in the Middle East not approved by the Jews…The Israeli embassy is practically dictating to the Congress through influential Jewish people in the country.”

    Today we have Iran in the crosshairs, a country that hasn’t attacked another sovereign country for centuries, that has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and that has allowed its nuclear energy facilities to be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency. 
    All this excitement about Iran has been instigated by Israel. A country that has been developing atomic bombs for decades. A country that has not allowed any inspections of their manufacturing facilities, nor indeed even admitting to the existence of any atomic weaponry.
    In his farewell speech, Eisenhower warned us of the dangers of the military-industrial complex. He should know; as a five-star general, he experienced military conflict first-hand, probably more so than any previous or future president.
    Is it possible that this “passionate attachment” of the United States to Israel is nothing more than a symbiotic relationship of the American and Israeli military?
    And is it possible that Obama may be the first Commander-in-Chief to finally recognize this unusual relationship, which may explain his recent hesitation and waffling concerning Syria.
    All this leads one to conclude that the direction in which the U.S. and Israel is heading is a dangerous one, especially for Israel; a small country that is surrounded by millions of antagonists and of limited natural resources that depends heavily on a country that has recently showed its abhorrence of another war in the Middle East.
    American Zionists who fanatically support Israel may want to ask themselves whether they are doing Israel a disservice by promoting militaristic policies.

  7. Joek
    September 18, 2013, 8:11 pm

    Since I don’t know anything about Lustick, I will assume he genuinely thought long and hard on finding a resolution. He simply wasn’t able to. This conflict has bedeviled the world for close to a century. And if you believe the Zionist narrative, bedeviled the Jewish people for over 4,000 years. From genesis to today, the pesky Philistines refuse to cooperate on the Zionist project. They are always in the way of fulfilling God’s plan. It seems the natives are the last ones to get the memo from the divine one. In any case, there has been dozens of UN /League of Nation committees, government officials from across the globe, experts from top universities and think tanks who concluded creating a Jewish state in Palestine will not work without a massive population transfer of Arabs out. The modern day settlement project in post 67 territory operates as though the mass transfer of Arabs remains a viable option. Why not, it worked in 1948. The expansionist drive in post 67 continues while dismissing the demographics in the occupied territories. The reason the final solution remains a mystery or too politically charged for anyone in so called mainstream Israel to spell out is because the unthinkable is being planned – without a viable independent state – which everyone who has any common sense knows is something Israel will never accept – means that the eventual transfer of ALL Arabs from “inside” Israel and occupied territories is only a question of when – as facts on ground show already a mass transfer of Jews has taken place. This is step one and only a matter of time before step two is enacted. People assume Israel will reject apartheid – and they might be right – but the alternative is surely not a viable Palestinian state or one bi-national state but will be the fulfillment of a long wet dream of Zionists – all the land without any of the Arabs.

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