What comes next: Why secularism fooled me into thinking the two-state solution was likely

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whatcomesnexthorizontalThis post is part of “What Comes Next?: A forum on the end of the two-state paradigm.” This series was initiated by Jewish Voice for Peace as an investigation into the current state of thinking about one state and two state solutions, and the collection has been further expanded by Mondoweiss to mark 20 years since the Oslo process. The entire series can be found here.

Why Secularism Fooled Me Into Thinking the Two State Solution Was Likely (and Why Ironically Religion Could Still Make It So)

While my heart still embraces the two state solution, my head increasingly tells me (and Ian Lustick’s brilliant New York Times piece reinforces the message) that we are quickly moving beyond the point where it’s a realistic option. There are many reasons I should have broken it off with the two-state solution before now, but I was fooled into thinking it was still viable by a faith that both sides would ultimately agree to a compromise solution based upon rational consideration of their objective national interests. What I failed to reckon with was the enduring power of religion on both sides of the conflict, which has made their respective attachments to the same sacred space non-negotiable, even as it undermines each side’s other interests.

To be sure, at the beginning of the conflict, there were grounds for thinking that religion would be the least of the problems dividing Arabs and Jews. On the Arab side, secular nationalism was riding high, with Nassarite and Ba’athist regimes taking power in Egypt and Syria. In Jordan, a modernizing monarchy maintained its grip on power, but did so pursuing a largely secular agenda. The Palestinian nationalist movement spanned the secular gamut from Arab nationalism to radical socialism, with little room for Islam, at least initially.

On the Israeli side, the Jewish state’s founding fathers adhered to Labor socialism and seemed committed to a largely secular agenda. Any compromise with the faith of their fathers seemed merely tactical. But since then, the secular political forces on either side have given way to increasingly-influential religious political parties which, in turn, have reduced their willingness to compromise over what both sides regard as the Holy Land.
Much ink has been spilt on the discrediting of Palestinian secular nationalism and the resurgence of political Islam bringing to power increasingly intransigent Palestinian groups like Hamas, whose charter proscribes a two-state solution on the grounds that “giving up any part of Palestine is like giving up part of religion.”[1]

But we should not overlook the religiously militant currents that have become a torrent on the Israeli side as well, and in fact predate the resurgence of political Islam among the Palestinians by a number of years. Indeed, beginning with Israel’s seemingly “miraculous” victory in the June 1967 Six Day War, which brokered the marriage between Zionism and Orthodoxy in Israel, religious Zionism has increasingly become a central factor shaping the Jewish state’s domestic and foreign policy. To be sure, most Israelis are not religious nationalists, but religious nationalism nonetheless exercises a disproportionate influence on Israeli politics.

As with so many other things, scholars have been slow to recognize that religion remains an important factor in world politics, particularly outside the European world, and to grapple with the challenges of comprehending how religion shapes it. Mark Lilla highlights the intellectual source of our myopia: “We find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men, stirring up messianic passions that leave societies in ruin. We assumed that this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.” [2] The roots of this puzzle lie in the dominance of the “secularization thesis” – the view that as the world modernizes, religion will, in Marx’s famous phrase about the state, “wither away” – in contemporary social science.

A grudging intellectual realization that we need to deal with religion combined with dramatic examples of it reasserting itself into international politics, has to put religion back on the intellectual and policy agendas. [3] A renewed wave of scholarly interest in religion and global politics now acknowledges the recent proliferation of religious actors and marked increase of religiously-tinged international events. My colleague Daniel Philpott explains that the June 1967 Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors “signified the beginning of the religion’s global resurgence…. It awakened a religious conscience among Israeli Jews and crippled the prestige of secular nationalism among Arab Muslims.” [4]

But the view that modern nationalism is largely secular is belied on both sides of the conflict. The Hamas Charter, for instance, defines its Palestinian nationalism as “part and parcel of religious ideology.” [5] And Zionism, one of the most important components of the modern wave of nationalism, not only manifested quite deep religious roots (why build the Jewish state in Palestine rather than somewhere else if all that mattered was the security a Jewish state could provide?) but also very quickly, and despite the avowedly secular orientation of the founding Labor Zionists, morphed into National Religious Zionism, which now dominates nationalism in Israel and among the diaspora. [6] As Gershom Gorenberg puts it, “Judaism has swallowed nationalism whole, as if a snake had swallowed a mongoose. Even when secular Zionists are certain they are rebelling against religion, they are fulfilling God’s will – but the ideal is a religious pioneer, synthesis of yeshiva student and communal farmer.” [7]

Indeed, the occupation of the West Bank is a perfect illustration of the influence of religion as opposed to other secular motives in Israeli policy. Today, there is widespread recognition that retention of the West Bank brings no strategic advantage to Israel, particularly since it is so militarily dominant in the region, both at the conventional and nuclear levels. Whatever geographical advantage the West Bank might have provided to Israel’s security is far outweighed by the domestic and international political costs of retaining it. Continued occupation also clearly undermines the secular Zionist objective of preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Finally, the continuing occupation besmirches Israel’s standing in the international community. [8]

Given all of this, there is no other explanation, save for the resurgence of religious nationalism in Israel, for its persistence in these otherwise counterproductive actions. The late Israeli political activist Israel Shahak attributed this behavior to the increasing influence of the Jewish religion in politics: “Since 1967, as Israel becomes more ‘Jewish,’ so its policies are influenced more by Jewish ideological considerations then by those of a coldly conceived imperial interest. This ideological influence is not usually perceived by foreign experts who tend to ignore or downplay the influence of Jewish religion on Israeli policies.” [9]

If I am correct in my belated recognition that the central role of renewed religious nationalism on both sides is making the two state solution less likely, my diagnosis should hardly give solace to proponents of the one-state solution. Indeed, the many examples in recent history of multi-religious states dissolving into religiously-motivated civil wars (Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Syria) suggests that the one state solution would likely become the national equivalent of two scorpions in a bottle, one marked with the Star of David, the other with a crescent.

Since religion is not going away any time soon, our only hope is to convince the faithful on each side that the only thing worse than compromising religious belief by dividing sacred land is trying to house two national-religious movements within the same political space. Pre-1967 Jewish Orthodoxy, which was largely politically-disengaged precisely on theological grounds, suggests one possible way of reconciling religion and two states. Modernist forms of Islam such as that preached, if not always practiced, by President Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in Turkey offers another. Indeed, there is growing evidence that such modernist currents in Islam are mellowing Hamas’ intransigent political theology. [10] My faith in the two state solution has been shaken by the religious resurgence on both sides of the Green Line; only a reformation on both sides can allow me to keep it.


1. Article Thirteen in “Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) of Palestine,” Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 22, No. 4 (Summer 1993): 126.
2. Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007), 3.
3. Eva Bellin, “Faith in Politics: New Trends in the Study of Religion and Politics,” World Politics Vol. 60, No. 2 (January 2008): 315 and 319.
4. Daniel Philpott, “The Challenge of September 11 to Secularism in International Relations,” World Politics, Vol. 55, No. 1 (October 2002): 190.
5. Hamas Charter, 125.
6. Gershom Gorenberg, “Settling for Radicalism,” The Prospect (May 20, 2009) at
7. GershomGorenberg, Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-77 (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), 106. Also see Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, The Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967, 2007 (New York: Nation Books, 2007), especially chapter 4, “Soldiers of the Messiah” which recounts the story of the role of Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful] in the settlement enterprise.
8. “Ending the Israel-Palestine Stalemate Will Strengthen U.S. National Security,” The Economist paid advertisement with 39 other signatories, January 1st – 7th, 2005, 8.
9. Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 99
10. Paul Scham and Osma Abu-Irshaid, “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility,” United Stats Institute of Peace Special Report No. 224(June 2009).

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Excellent article — one of best I have seen here. Mondoweiss needs to bear down hard on this issue and uncover and analyze the deep well of irrationality that is driving much of the bizarre behavior in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Money quotes: What I failed to reckon with was the enduring power of religion on both sides of the conflict, which has made their respective attachments to the same sacred space non-negotiable, even as it undermines each side’s other interests…. On the Israeli side, the Jewish state’s founding fathers adhered… Read more »

Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Syria Maybe western (and associated) intelligence agencies could stop purposefully engineering conflict and exploiting religious and ethnic fault lines. Yes, I point to the military-industrial-intelligence establishment of which Mr. Desch seems to be a part: He was the founding Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs… Read more »

Religion on both sides “have reduced their willingness to compromise over what both sides regard as the Holy Land.” Excuse me, what compromises do the Palestinians have to make, they are being ethnically cleansed on a daily basis, and have been under brutal military occupation for 46 years, the ongoing… Read more »

” the view that as the world modernizes, religion will, in Marx’s famous phrase about the state, “wither away” – in contemporary social science.” Most of the world didn’t “modernize”. Capitalist luxury is available to a small minority of the world’s population who have some semblance of control over their… Read more »