Mearsheimer’s unhelpful, unrealistic and disempowering message to the Palestinians

For the past couple of years Professor John J. Mearsheimer has spoken at many Arab and Muslim American events, and in most of them he sensibly urged Arab and Muslim Americans to seek a working coalition with Jewish Americans in favor of a two-state solution. In fact, he has been a strong advocate of a two-state solution. Until yesterday, that is. Speaking at the Palestine Center in Washington, Mearsheimer suddenly reversed himself with astounding claims of prescience bordering on clairvoyance. He flatly declared:
“Israel is not going to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own in Gaza and the West Bank. Regrettably, the two-state solution is now a fantasy. Instead, those territories will be incorporated into a ‘Greater Israel,’ which will be an apartheid state bearing a marked resemblance to white-ruled South Africa. Nevertheless, a Jewish apartheid state is not politically viable over the long term. In the end, it will become a democratic bi-national state, whose politics will be dominated by its Palestinian citizens.”

As Emperor Joseph II in Peter Shaffer’s delightful fantasy “Amadeus” would have put it, “Well. There it is.”

Unfortunately, his subsequent elucidation yielded little more than an elaboration on this truly impressive parade of certainties, without any particularly illuminating additional insights or assertions. Mearsheimer lists a limited set of four possible scenarios for the future:

1) A two state solution, which he affirms is the best option for both sides but dismisses on the grounds that the Israeli public will never accept it and no Israeli government can agree to it. Moreover, the Israel lobby will prevent any American president from exercising sufficient pressure to force it from the outside. Furthermore, the Palestinians are badly divided.

2) Israeli ethnic cleansing on a greater scale than in 1948 and 1967, but which he thinks is extremely unlikely except under conditions of extreme Palestinian violence. Even then, he is skeptical that Israel would take such steps.

3) The emergence of a fully-fledged apartheid system in a greater Israeli state, complete with a Palestinian semi-autonomous but not independent bantustan, which he thinks is the only possible short and medium-term outcome. However, this openly apartheid system will fail because the world will recoil at such discrimination. Since it would be antithetical to Western values it will alienate the West, and it will make Israel a strategic liability for the United States. Moreover Israel will lose the support of most Jewish Americans, who cannot and will not support an openly apartheid state, and will be alienated by the growing religious orthodoxy of the Jewish Israeli population.

4) A democratic one-state solution, dominated by a Palestinian majority, is therefore the inevitable long-term outcome, because the inevitable mid-term apartheid system will prove unsustainable.

That’s a lot of inevitables for a so-called realist and a professor of political science, is it not?

In my view Mearsheimer misses at least two of the most obvious and plausible scenarios for the medium-term, in a manner that suggests he doesn’t really understand the conflict in a very complex way (actually, that’s kind of obvious). The first is the prospect of continued occupation or, as he would put it, the emergence of a fully-fledged apartheid state, resulting in an ever-escalating series of violent conflicts increasingly characterized by religious fanaticism. Indeed, he discusses the rise of religious fanaticism among Israelis as part of his evidence for why Jewish Americans will abandon Israel in the future, but leaves out the rise of Muslim extremism among Palestinians. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand and have created the most potent and dangerous alternative scenario to peace, but he doesn’t seem to be aware of this powerful dynamic, although he vaguely cautions against violence. At present, the Palestinian debate really is between secularists who want a negotiated two-state peace agreement with Israel, and Islamists who want an Islamic state in either all or part of Palestine. There is a similar debate in Israel, which he acknowledges, but he doesn’t seem to understand the synergy between the two and the outcome it could very well produce if the peaceful alternative is not realized.

It’s possible, I suppose, that for whatever reason Hamas will simply go away or become irrelevant, but it seems most likely to me that if the effort led by the PLO to achieve a negotiated agreement with Israel should fail in the manner he describes, then Islamists led by Hamas will in fact be the primary beneficiaries, along with, of course, the extreme right wing Israeli settlers. The two will then be poised to lead their societies in a mutually suicidal religious war over God’s will and holy places. It may be true that such a scenario leaves liberal and secular Palestinians nowhere else to turn except to a one-state civil rights movement, but it seems to me this ignores the possibility of the mainstream of the Palestinian cause becoming an Islamist movement or becoming dominated by Islamists or being subsumed in a broader regional Islamist discourse and agenda. Anyone who doesn’t see this possibility is not seriously looking at the existing set of social and political forces at play at the present time, and is not presenting an analysis that should be taken particularly seriously. It pains me to say that on so many levels, but it has to be said.

The second scenario that Mearsheimer ignores or has failed to consider is the real Israeli “nuclear” option in this conundrum, which is not, as he mistakenly thinks, widespread ethnic cleansing. I suppose that’s a possibility, but he’s right to be skeptical that it can be resorted to as a practical matter except in conditions of extreme violence. However there is something much less dramatic than that which Israel can do as a game changer in the medium- to long-term that would completely alter the strategic realities he describes, especially the tension between Palestinian demographic pressure on the one hand and Jewish attachment to some key parts of the occupied territories on the other hand. This is, of course, the imposition of unilateral borders, more or less along the lines of the West Bank separation barrier, with or without some other parts of the occupied territories. Israel is, in fact, militarily capable of creating and enforcing such a fait accompli and annexing key parts of the West Bank, not including most population centers, in addition to municipal Jerusalem (by its own definition of the term) which has already been subject to de facto annexation, and presenting the Palestinians, the Arab states and the world with a situation in which a sizable majority of the occupied territories are no longer under direct Israeli occupation and which Israel formally renounces any claims over and in which it has no troops or settlers.

The reason this is a kind of “nuclear option” that Israel would only resort to as a last-ditch effort is that it will be very difficult to enforce, would place Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt, and especially Jordan, in serious question, and consign Israel to many further decades, if not centuries, of warfare and enmity with the region and the broader Islamic world. It also begs the question of how the Israelis would deal with the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the territories it unilaterally annexes, but historically minorities of that size are, in fact, generally manageable, and the Israelis already experienced a similar problem in the aftermath of the 1948 war. Obviously such a “nuclear option” scenario carries, in the long run, similar risks to permanent occupation resulting in religious warfare, but it’s more attenuated and much more amenable to Western support and international understanding than ethnic cleansing and maybe even formalized apartheid and far more imaginable than ethnic cleansing of millions of Palestinians. In the long run, it might also prove a foolhardy, suicidal and self-defeating gesture, but there is certainly a space between the absolute minimum right-wing Israelis can accept as an outcome and the kind of ethnic cleansing of the entire occupied territories Mearsheimer envisages. I don’t know how he missed it, but obviously it’s a measure that falls right in between continued occupation turning into apartheid and massive ethnic cleansing.

I am very sorry to say that the social, economic, political and military forces at play are much more likely to produce the two scenarios suggested above than Mearsheimer’s somewhat fanciful and irrationally dogmatic prognostication that Israel will never accept a Palestinian state, and has no option other than apartheid which will inevitably lead to a Palestinian-dominated unified state. This scenario is not implausible, but it’s certainly more improbable than the two I mention above, which don’t factor into his analysis at all. They don’t seem to have occurred to him.

Mearsheimer himself says that the emergent single state he envisages will not be democratic for the foreseeable future, but seems to think that this will not give rise to violent opposition, and can and will be challenged by Palestinians with a “South Africa-style approach,” by which he seems to mean nonviolence aimed at global public opinion. I don’t know what history of the ANC he’s been reading, but the ANC did, in fact, rely on a carefully coordinated mixture of violence, including many dramatic acts of urban terrorism (not to mention necklacing), political outreach and propaganda to make its case to the ruling white minority that what it was offering was the best possible deal they could get. I’m delighted by the rise of Palestinian nonviolent protests in the West Bank, but it’s crucially important to realize that they’re taking place under Palestinian political conditions generally dominated by the PA and PLO, and consistent with their other peaceful strategies aimed at independence, including diplomacy and negotiations, state and institution building and boycotts and other economic measures aimed at the occupation and the settlements but not Israel itself. In other words, the logic of the nonviolent protests compliments the logic of the present PLO strategy perfectly, which is what has given them their broad strategic force and created significant anxiety among Israelis. If they were just spontaneous efforts by local villagers to respond to the separation barrier or some other abusive occupation practice without any national policy corollary, they wouldn’t be nearly as significant.

It’s possible that these nonviolent, peaceful approaches could make the transition away from the present PLO approach of seeking a negotiated agreement with Israel based on ending the occupation and towards some other approach based on eliminating Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian-dominated single state as Mearsheimer anticipates. But that is to take them out of a context in which they are consistent with the ethos and the intentions of the current national leadership and imagine an alternative national leadership which does not presently exist that fosters and marshals similar nonviolent and peaceful forms of resistance to discrimination and inequality, rather than occupation. Again, the specter of Islamism and armed struggle looms large, since it is, at present, the principal alternative to the PLO/PA approach within which nonviolent protests are taking root and being linked to a broad national strategy. Any analysis that doesn’t factor the Islamist political and cultural trend into its set of variables is fatally flawed. Mearsheimer does acknowledge the possibility of a violent Palestinian reaction to continued occupation, but warns against it, suggesting that this is the only thing that might give Israel cover for another, much larger, round of ethnic cleansing. But given his scenario of certainty and inevitability, it’s clear he doesn’t really think that Palestinians are likely or even plausibly going to turn again to violence and armed resistance. Perhaps that’s why in his analysis of plausible scenarios for the future, Hamas and the other Islamist movements play almost no part. Mearsheimer’s analysis is missing too many obvious elements, and seems to be constructed for an intended effect rather than a sound analytical conclusion (I will return to that observation at the conclusion).

Mearsheimer says that Palestinians would be better off with a two state solution, although given his conclusion it’s not clear why, but he claims that since they have no say in their future, they have no choice but to embrace a one-state agenda. However, he advises they should:
a) recognize this is a war of ideas;
b) adopt a “South Africa” policy of seeking to convert world public opinion;
c) use the Internet to communicate with the world;
d) build a stable of articulate spokespersons like Mustafa Barghouti (of all people), and seek political allies, especially Jewish allies;
e) emphasize they do not seek revenge against the Jews;
f) avoid any violence because it might give Israel the excuse for ethnic cleansing, and because any violent intifada will disrupt the effort to win over world public opinion.

This is not exactly what one could call an imaginative set of suggestions as it seems to correspond precisely to the imagination and much of the activities of the academic/online one-state constituency that Mearsheimer has now suddenly joined. Here, as usual, we are presented with a completely fake version of the ANC strategy reborn as some kind of international grassroots, boycott, public opinion and nonviolent strategy as the model for the Palestinians. Then there is the centrality of the internet, which no one can really doubt, but which is sure to appeal to online activists whose virtual work exists only online and nowhere else. Next come the “articulate spokespersons” and their “Jewish allies,” a familiar vision of amber waves of Anna Baltzer sitting next to purple mountains of Mustapha Barghouti, making the case to the fruited plains of Jon Stewart audiences across the land. As for avoiding threats of generalized revenge and violence, only the clinically stupid or the criminally insane fail to understand the importance of that, and even Hamas, while it continues to hypocritically preach violence and armed struggle, has, for the meanwhile, turned away from active armed resistance and has suppressed it by others in Gaza. Everybody who is in the least rational gets this by now, but only for now. In the context of the collapse of all hopes of an end to the occupation and the imposition of formalized, permanent apartheid, can there be any doubt that violence is very likely to be a major feature of the Palestinian response? It’s theoretically possible but practically extremely unlikely that their response will be entirely informed by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, if they follow the ANC path, it will be nothing of the kind.

Mearsheimer, as I have demonstrated, is oddly and unjustifiably categorical in his implicit assertion that he can clearly see exactly what will happen in the future, without virtually any doubt. All I can say is that the Michel de Nostredame Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the co-director of the Program on International Clairvoyance at the University of Chicago has a much better crystal ball than I do. But there are so many obvious and crucial missing elements in his analysis that it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he basically doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Mearsheimer has spent the past few years mainly focused on elaborating how much and why he dislikes the pro-Israel lobby and the extent to which it has a baneful effect on American politics and policy. Frankly, I find it hard to read this speech as anything other than a continuation of that agenda, and I think the crucial sentence in the whole lecture is, “What is truly remarkable about this situation is that the Israel lobby is effectively helping Israel commit national suicide.” Now, I would certainly agree that anyone who is actively counseling or enabling Israel or the Palestinians to avoid peace and the painful, necessary compromises that will be required to achieve it is helping either or both of them to commit national suicide. But I detect something a little more in this remark, and it strikes me that this is the navel of the speech, so to speak, its probable starting point, the pointed jab he really wanted to make and around which he has constructed this entire, extremely shaky, argument.

Viewed in this light, Mearsheimer’s talk, while purporting to be largely aimed at a Palestinian and pro-Palestinian audience, is probably really aimed more at the American Jewish pro-Israel constituency with which he has been feuding. If I’m right about this, and I think I am, then his speech is much more Abu Alaa’ than Abunimah, in other words more like the way nationalist leaders in the West Bank have deployed the one state agenda as a threat to Israel rather than the earnest, passionate single-state devotion of its Arab-American advocates. His insistence that a two-state agreement has always been and remains by far the best option but is being taken off the table by Israel’s policies further suggests this important distinction, since many one-state advocates loath the idea of an agreement to end the occupation with every fiber of their being and consider it a capitulation to racism and colonialism. I suppose it’s possible that in a matter of a few weeks Mearsheimer genuinely had a sudden conversion to the religious-faith version of the one state agenda in which it is inevitable and unavoidable. But frankly I’m skeptical, and reading his talk in context, carefully, and between the lines suggests to me that it was probably primarily designed to further annoy, alarm, infuriate and frustrate Mearsheimer’s antagonists in the Jewish pro-Israel community.

Insofar as they are aimed at Palestinians, his conclusions are absolutely pernicious. They play into their most traditional and damaging fantasy: the idea that Palestinian numbers and presence on the land will, sooner or later, negate the Zionist project and deliver power into Palestinian hands in the whole of historical Palestine. This was a deep-seated belief since at least the 20s, and in every phase of Palestinian political life since then, and it remains a potent article of faith among Palestinians even today. This misapprehension, proven wrong time and again in practice, has been a key element in the steady accumulation of defeats, setbacks and miscalculations that have delivered the Palestinian national project to its present woeful state. I’m not sure I can imagine, short of a jihadist rant, a worse or more damaging message to a Palestinian audience than Mearsheimer’s conclusion:
“In sum, there are great dangers ahead for the Palestinians, who will continue to suffer terribly at the hands of the Israelis for some years to come. But it does look like the Palestinians will eventually get their own state, mainly because Israel seems bent on self-destruction.”

What is the take away from that indefensible assertion? Of course it’s that Palestinians don’t really have to do anything, except avoid the kind of violence that might justify massive ethnic cleansing by Israel, and simply wait for the Israeli project to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. This is the key refrain of the siren song of the one-state agenda, the chorus of certainty between each and every verse. It takes a perfectly reasonable observation — that because of the occupation Israel is charging headlong down the path towards self-destruction — which is undoubtedly true, but attaches to that accurate assessment the weird corollary that this somehow means Palestinian victory. As I keep saying, again and again, it is entirely possible for either or, quite possibly, both sides to lose everything in this conflict. Nothing about it is a zero sum. Just as both Israelis and Palestinians require a peace agreement to secure a reasonable future, both of them are likely to face wretched futures as far as the imagination can justifiably be stretched in almost any scenario likely to be produced by a lack of peace (leaving aside, of course, science fiction-like fantasies that have no relation to the political and other forces that actually produce outcomes).

What Mearsheimer fails to see is that while it’s true that extremists in the pro-Israel lobby are assisting Israel in its journey towards oblivion by counseling or enabling permanent occupation, he is performing the same Kevorkian-style tender mercy for the Palestinians by counseling and enabling the abandonment of efforts to end the occupation. Telling the Palestinians that they are doomed for a certain, probably long, term to endure formalized apartheid and there isn’t really anything they can do to avoid that, but that in the long run they basically don’t have to do much of anything for their national project to triumph since Israel will inevitably self-destruct is about as unhelpful, unrealistic and disempowering as anything I can imagine. It’s been my long-standing suspicion that while Mearsheimer clearly doesn’t like the pro-Israel lobby, he doesn’t seem to really understand, or even care that much about the well-being of, the Palestinian people. That Mearsheimer is using them and their cause as a foil in his ongoing feud with the pro-Israel lobby, which he has been at odds with for so long he is starting to resemble, all but confirms this.