Ian S. Lustick’s commentary, “Two-State Illusion,” in this weekend’s New York Times dismisses not only the present round of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but the whole concept of a negotiated two-state Israeli-Palestinian agreement. He describes it as a fantasy that “blinds us and impedes progress,” as if Israelis and Palestinians faced a smorgasbord of interesting and attractive options for resolving the conflict.
Secretary of State John Kerry watches as Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, right, and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat shake hands during a meeting on the Middle East Peace Process Talks at the Department of State on July 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat joined Kerry in some of the first direct talks in three years between Israel and Palestine. (Win McNamee/Getty)
However, as the latter part of his article makes clear, his “new ideas” are mainly an incoherent jumble of imaginary scenarios, all of which require an alternative reality to emerge at some point in the future. Nothing he suggests can be built on under present circumstances. None of it holds together as a coherent or even semi-coherent counterproposal.
Worse still, most of what he envisages requires by his own admission decades, if not centuries, to become possibilities, and further Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inevitable.
So not only would we have to wait scores of decades, if not centuries, for any of these “alternatives” to begin to emerge, they could only be the product of further wide-scale bloodshed.
Despite Prof. Lustick’s passionate dismissal, the two-state solution remains the only viable option for ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. His counterfactual musings don’t provide any practicable, coherent or implementable alternatives. It’s an interesting thought experiment to dismiss the global consensus, stated position of all relevant parties, logical implementation of international law, and only practicable means of achieving the minimum goals of each party in favor of flights of fancy. But it has no political value whatsoever. Indeed undermining the only plausible conflict-ending scenario, while not suggesting any serious, practicable alternatives, is actually harmful.
Although realizing a two-state solution faces serious and growing obstacles, it alone allows both Palestinians and Israelis to avoid an ongoing struggle with no end in sight. Yes, “Time can do things that politicians cannot,” as Prof. Lustick writes, but the goal must be to achieve a solution in our lifetime—not in 120 years as with Irish independence, or 132 years as with Algerian independence, two of the key examples he cites.
The occupation is an emergency, not a macro- or trans-historical problem, particularly for the millions of Palestinians living under its oppressive rule. They, especially—but we too—do not have the luxury of waiting to see what the next hundred years of history will bring us, good or bad. On the contrary, we must have the courage to act now, and with urgency, within the existing realities, however difficult, to try to create a working solution to a situation that is both intolerably unjust and regionally (and to some extent even globally) destabilizing.
Other than a two-state solution, other scenarios may have constituencies but they cannot end the conflict. There are three main extant “alternative” visions.
First is the continuation of the status quo of Israeli occupation and unilateralism. Israel rules millions of Palestinians who, uniquely in the world, are not citizens of Israel or any other state. Israel also controls large amounts of Palestinian territory beyond its internationally recognized boundaries. This situation is completely untenable, and, over time, can only lead to further confrontations. It is a relationship of dominance and subordination that makes further conflict inevitable.
Moreover, it can only defer a resolution of the essential issues between the two peoples and deepen and entrench divisions, thus further raising the stakes and making a conflict-ending agreement more difficult at every stage. Israeli exclusivity in Jerusalem is a recipe for continued conflict with the Palestinians, since a Palestinian state without a sovereign role in occupied East Jerusalem would not be viable. More dangerous still, exclusive Israeli control of Jerusalem creates the circumstances through which the conflict could easily morph from being a difficult but resolvable political struggle between two ethno-national communities over land and power, into a far more intractable, and possibly irreconcilable, religious confrontation between Israel and the Muslim world in general over holy places and the will of God.
Second, among both Israelis and Palestinians, minority discourses are demanding complete Israeli/Jewish (as expressed by the Jewish Israeli settler and annexation movements) or Palestinian/Muslim (as reflected in the positions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad) rule over the whole of historical Palestine. These maximalist visions offer nothing but ongoing and, in all likelihood, catastrophic conflict without apparent resolution, since neither side can seriously hope for any sort of comprehensive military solution. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians, both of whom exist in roughly equivalent numbers between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, are going to vanish from the land. And neither people shows the least interest in either accepting subjugation at the hands of the other or abandoning its own national identity.
Third, especially in the Palestinian diaspora and in Western universities, a utopian vision of a single, democratic state in which Israelis and Palestinians both set aside their national identities in favor of an as-yet-undefined umbrella identity in some sort of joint or bi-national state may be appealing in theory, but does not constitute a practical path to ending the conflict. No political movement of any significance among either Palestinians or Israelis has adopted it as a policy goal, because both sides are still clinging to their national projects and self-determination. Moreover, no version of this has yet explained what could make it attractive to Jewish Israelis who would have to be convinced to abandon their national project. Indeed, this idea remains entirely mired in sloganeering aimed at Palestinian and pro-Palestinian sentiments and, thus far, hasn’t even attempted to address the basic interests of Jewish Israelis and their national sentiments or narratives.
All of these “alternatives” represent unworkable fantasies and, in practice, the demand for them abandons the goal of resolving the conflict and ending the occupation in favor of an open-ended struggle in pursuit of impossible goals. In short, these “solutions” represent neither principles nor pragmatism, and instead reflect dangerous phantasms and fanaticism.
Prof. Lustick has provided a very good illustration of how far fantasies about alternative scenarios can be taken when they proliferate on the page in what appears to be an unstructured stream of consciousness.
By contrast, one of the most compelling aspects of the two-state solution is that a solid majority of both Palestinians and Israelis alike have shown, in virtually every poll taken in the past twenty years and more, that they are in favor of peace based on two states. Moreover, the international community, the U.N. Security Council, and the international legal framework are all very clear in their support for a Palestinian state that would live alongside Israel in peace and security.
Nevertheless, radical minorities on both sides and in the U.S. have thus far been allowed to thwart the mutual wishes of the large majority of both Israelis and Palestinians. Moreover, they have been allowed to impede the realization of a crucial American national security interest.
Prof. Lustick looks forward to future transformations beyond a two-state framework based on a combination of “blood and magic,” which he argues are the key to avoiding “truly catastrophic change.” In our view, it’s hard to imagine a political perspective that more certainly invites “truly catastrophic change” than a reliance on “blood and magic.” We prefer to rely on the national interests, political common sense, and the basic humanity of all the parties to recognize that, under current circumstances, only a two-state solution offers a conflict-ending scenario.
Moreover, we strongly feel that we do not have the luxury of centuries to let “blood and magic” do their work, assuming that Prof. Lustick is right that these are indeed the factors that avoid catastrophe. Prof. Lustick says that in the early 1980s, when working for the U.S. government, he was asked outright if he was “willing to destroy the only available chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians?” He says he responded in the affirmative.
We are no less aware of the challenges facing the realization of a two-state solution, and there’s nothing in Prof. Lustick’s commentary with which either of us was unfamiliar. The big difference is that we are not willing to destroy the only available chance for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, or to dismiss or denigrate it. Instead, we strongly advocate that all people of goodwill join together to find a way to make it work because Prof. Lustick’s alternative—centuries of conflict and a reliance on “blood and magic” as a solution—appears to us to be inexcusably reckless.