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.
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?