Let’s Stop Lying About the Two-State ‘Solution’
It was never a solution, it was a wish. Time to stop pretending it’s even that.

Originally published in Tablet

Sometimes people believe something so much that even once the belief is no longer viable, they can’t quite let go of it, because it is now indistinguishable from their own sense of self. Case in point: I once asked a leader in the American Jewish community, a liberal Zionist, what he would think if the two-state solution were no longer possible. After a long pause, he responded, “That would be the end of my Zionism.” And so, he continued, he could not give up on the two-state solution.

This may be where liberal Zionists are today. As a University of Pennsylvania political scientist and longtime scholar of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Ian Lustick writes in his excellent and provocative new book, Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality: “Two states for two peoples was a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is not a solution today.” For many liberal Zionists, this is a hard pill to swallow. But it also might be true.

In many Jewish circles, when talk of two states commences, it often very quickly devolves into: “If only we had a partner for peace!” It is imagined that Israelis are generally willing, but the other side is not. Lustick wants us to shelve that reflexive, and convenient, abdication of responsibility, and look at the situation from a different direction. Whatever the foibles of the Palestinian side, he wants to explore this notion of two states solely from within the structures of Israeli governments and society from the 1970s until today. What he concludes is that the possibility of two states was never really viable on the Israeli side, not because Israelis weren’t willing to try it—many were—but because the very structures of government and societal reactions to changes on the ground made sure it would not happen. In short, once the two-state solution emerged as a possibility in the early 1970s, it very quickly became obsolete.

Lustick begins his argument by suggesting that “two-state solution” or “one-state solution” are mistaken and obfuscating terms. Instead of “two-state solution,” he wants us to understand the “two-state paradigm.” And instead of “one-state solution,” he suggests the “one-state reality.” There is no one-state solution; but there is, from the river to the sea, one state. And that state is called Israel.

By “paradigm,” Lustick means “an array of concepts, assumptions, agendas, questions, commitments, and beliefs associated with a partitionist approach to the ‘problem of Palestine.’” Paradigms in politics, like in science, “are shared beliefs strong enough to guide thinking about difficult problems for long periods of time.” But no paradigm, analytic or scientific, lasts forever, and problems arise when one remains wedded to a paradigm that has become obsolete, like continuing to believe the flat-earth paradigm after Pythagoras or the ancient notions of gravity after the advent of Newtonian physics. In such cases, continuing to think in obsolete paradigms is not only unhelpful, but also becomes counterproductive. When, how, and why paradigms fail or become obsolete are important questions for hard scientists, social scientists, and even theologians (see, for example, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s 1991 book Paradigm Shift). Unmasking their failure is also a crucial part of keeping a community connected to the challenges they face in order to productively consider the best options to seemingly intractable problems.

Lustick offers a cogent analysis of this failed two-state paradigm by taking us all the way back to Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s famous 1923 essay “The Iron Wall.” Jabotinsky was very unpopular in the Zionist establishment of his time. David Ben-Gurion was so angry with him, and threatened by him, that he was relieved when Jabotinsky left Palestine in 1935, never to return. He died of a heart attack in the Catskill Mountains in August 1940. But Lustick claims that despite Ben-Gurion’s misgivings about Jabotinsky’s pessimism and hard-nosed stance on Jewish-Arab coexistence, Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” essay served as a cornerstone of the nascent state’s attitude toward what was known in those days as “the Arab question.”

Jabotinsky knew some kind of rapprochement with the Arab residents would be necessary for any Jewish state to function. In “Iron Wall” he suggested a five-stage plan that he believed could achieve that goal, while enabling the Jews to remain the dominant force: (1) Construct an iron wall of separation; (2) stridently crush any attempts to breach it; (3) marginalize extremists and cultivate moderates among the Arabs, which would invariably occur through consistent Arab defeats; (4) watch as Arab moderation leads to a more moderate position among the Jews; and (5) begin negotiations toward a settlement based in equal collective rights, but with a Jewish majority.

Jabotinsky believed that Arab extremists were expressing a real, and understandable, response to Zionist colonization and the only way they would be broken was by successive political and military failures. If the Jews were going to succeed, they would have to create the conditions for Arab moderation.

Lustick admits the whole story was tricky and was full of potential pitfalls. First, it assumed extremism would give way to moderation. Second, it assumed that Jews would detect the realism of the Arabs and respond by moderating their own views in kind. In fact, Jabotinsky was right about stages one and two. Crushing defeats post-1967 did result in breaking the extremist position of the Palestinian street somewhat. But then something happened between stages three and four that Jabotinsky did not predict. Instead of Jewish Israelis matching small moderating steps in the Arab world, they upped the ante and began to escalate their demands for territory, security guarantees, and finally the demands for the recognition of the legitimacy of Zionism as a precondition for negotiations. Instead of uplifting the moderates, Israel exercised more muscle, which helped produce a second wave of extremists. Lustick writes: “Zionism’s desperate embrace of the Iron Wall strategy to finesse an otherwise unsolvable Arab problem and its partially successful implementation had drastic, if unintended consequences. Victories produced expansionism, not the generosity based on strength that Jabotinsky had imagined.”

Why was Jabotinsky mistaken? He missed two crucial points: Israel’s psychological inability to overcome the trauma of a genocide he could never quite have imagined, and the United States’ unwillingness to force the Israelis to moderate their position.

Tom Segev’s The Seventh Million was a bombshell when it was published in 1991. The book was the first study to comprehensively analyze the impact of the Holocaust on Israeli society. It was chilling in its depiction of a society that put its own genocide at the center of statecraft. Others, like Hannah Arendt, had seen this coming. This is why she favored a 10-year United Nations guardianship of Palestine; she feared that a people traumatized by the Holocaust could never create a healthy society with rights for an antagonistic other in its midst. Yet the inertia and desperate psychological need to found a state from the ashes of Auschwitz were just too strong, and Ben-Gurion knew that the goodwill, and guilt, of the international community would not last forever. And so, ignoring Arendt’s quite reasonable concern, the state was created. But what Lustick calls “the cost of Holocaustia” remained, undermining what was left of any two-state paradigm.

In the early years of the state, Israel’s Jewish citizens were not merely reeling from the crushing memory of loss and tragedy; the Holocaust also emerged as a social and political construct, developed by Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zion Dinur, the first minister of education. Holocaust-the-construct had numerous key elements, the most damaging of which to the two-state paradigm was that Jews, who during the Holocaust “went like sheep to the slaughter,” became the model of how Israel was not to behave. When Menachem Begin said in a 1977 interview that “the Holocaust lives within me, and I live within it,” he may have been speaking only of himself, but to some degree his comment mirrored the collective psyche of the state. On the eve of the Lebanon War in 1982, Begin told his cabinet, “The alternative is Treblinka, and we have decided that there will not be another Treblinka.” Lustick also notes that in 2014, Minister of Education Shai Piron announced that Holocaust education in Israel would begin in the first grade. The first grade! What exactly does one teach 6-year-olds about genocide, and how can that produce anything good for the future? The point here is not to argue for or against the use of the Holocaust in the fashioning of the state or its educational choices. It is only to say that in “Holocaustia,” two states never really had a chance.

In 2013, Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi published Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Undermined Peace in the Middle East. The book sets forth a forceful narrative of the ways the United States, ostensibly acting as an “honest broker,” in fact never did so. This was no surprise to anyone who follows these matters closely, and certainly was no surprise to Israel either, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in 2001 that “America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.” The “honest broker” myth was largely a pretense for Israel to further subvert the two-state paradigm while getting cover from those who actually believed in it. Even though the Jewish community was up in arms at the provocative thesis by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt’s The Israel Lobby (2007)—that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was pushing America to act against its own foreign policy interests—it was quite obvious that AIPAC was subverting the two-state paradigm for decades, at the behest of Israeli governments, while ostensibly supporting a two-state solution. This is an important point: Talk of a two-state solution is not a product of the two-state paradigm, but rather a way to conceal its obsolescence.

At least leaders in the settler movement were consistent: They never believed in the two-state paradigm, but they came to believe that it served their goals for liberal Jews to continue espousing it. Promoting an obsolete paradigm gave them cover to continue making sure the one-state reality became unavoidable. Liberal Jews knew the one-state solution—a state with equal rights for all its citizens—could not square with their Zionist commitments, so they continued to believe in the two-state paradigm, under the guise of a two-state solution, as if it were still viable.

Lustick claims this delusion is dangerous and counterproductive: “One state is the reality on the ground. It is time to treat this reality, not this or that blueprint for a solution, as a new paradigm for thought and action.” The battle should no longer be for a “solution” at all, nor the endless debates about the legality of the occupation. The occupation is essentially over. Annexation is no longer a far-right position; it is now being supported even by many in the Israeli center. In fact, with the Trump administration’s new plan, it is now being supported by the United States government. Talk of a realistic two-state solution is akin to talk of a flat earth.

Lustick’s message to the liberal Zionist camp, especially in America, is simple: The battle is no longer about a solution, and it is certainly not about two states. The battle is about the political, social, and legal nature of one state. As Tzipi Livni said in 2019, when she resigned from politics, “The word peace has become a vulgarity.” This is not to say there isn’t amazing work being done between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs to cultivate coexistence. It is just to say it is no longer realistically about two states. The longer liberal Zionists hang on to a two-state paradigm that no longer exists—that hasn’t existed for a long time—the more those on the right get to define the parameters of the one state that exists.

The two-state-solution mantra of liberal Zionism is becoming more and more dangerous, and liberal Zionists are wasting precious time by their attachment to it. Like the American Jewish leader cited at the outset all but admitted, the belief in two states is arguably more a crutch of one’s Jewish identity than a real assessment of the one state that exists between the river and sea, called Israel.

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