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Fashionable Pessimism

One State Can Be a Credible Alternative

Both Ian Lustick and Bernard Avishai are fashionably pessimistic, and both of them are knowledgeable and lucid, but, like many of the recent contributors to Open Zion, they over-complicate the admittedly complex Israeli-Palestinian question.  

Lustick is right that the two-state solution has become a “blindfold” that prevents constructive thinking about the real problems, but he is wrong to indulge in such profound pessimism, even if he manages to disguise it as realism. Bernard Avishai is right to describe the problems that Canada, a single state with two preeminent communities, has faced in the past, and to point out the dangers that would face an Israeli-Palestinian state in the future, but he should remove his blindfold.

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Palestinian women demonstrate in Jerusalem's Al-Asqa mosque compound during clashes between Palestinian stone throwers and Israeli riot police on September 25, 2013. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images)

During most of history, human beings have existed without federations and confederations.  For that matter, how long has the nation-state been around? And we haven’t even mentioned democracy. A little ingenuity should enable us to come up with a new version of sovereignty that would enable Jews and Arabs—and Druze, Circassians, Christians, Samaritans and others—to live side by side in peace and harmony in the small territory between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan.

Languishing in Cairo’s Tora prison, two Canadian Palestine solidarity activists, who are now on hunger strike, have come to exemplify the impact of the repression and isolationism that has gripped Egypt since the July 3 military-supported coup that resulted in Mohammed Morsi's ouster from the presidency.

Canadian film maker John Greyson and ER doctor Tarek Loubani were trying to make their way to Gaza when they were arrested in Cairo on August 16 as the army's violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood's anti-coup sit ins spread throughout Egypt. Over a month later they are still behind bars, facing absurd accusations of supporting attacks on police stations and helping fuel the street violence.

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A Palestinian woman waits near her luggage at the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip on September 19, 2013 during a brief opening for special cases after Egyptian authorities closed the crossing 'indefinitely' the day before for security reasons. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images)

While their arrest is partly the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is also an illustration of how the situation in Egypt has evolved over the past two-and-a-half years from a struggling revolution to a forceful counter revolution.

Radical Rhetoric

My Unexpected Birthright Experience

The first time I experienced radical Israeli rhetoric, I was standing 2,700 feet above sea level, looking down on the Lebanese village of El Adisseh.

It was two days into my Birthright trip this past July and our group was at Misgav Am, an Israeli kibbutz known for the 1980 incident when terrorists from the Arab Liberation Front crossed the border, murdered two Israelis, and held a group of children hostage.


Tourists study a panoramic map over the Lebanese border area from an outlook post in the northern Israeli border village of Misgav on August 25, 2006. (Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty Images)

The man speaking to our group was a charismatic expat from Hollywood, Florida. He was full of funny colloquialisms, and made the complicated politics of the Middle East vivid and concrete to the tired teenagers who were taking him in.

As the man continued to speak, he became more and more extreme. Having prefaced his talk by saying, “don’t argue with me because I don’t care what you think,” he proceeded to tell us that the conflicts in the Middle East were caused by Arabs who were “evil” and that “we should let them kill each other off.”

My job as a missionary in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is not to convert anyone to anything. The “accompaniment model” for missionary work, to which we subscribe, is defined as walking together in solidarity, practicing interdependence and mutuality.

What does that mean in the Holy Land, where less than 2 percent of the population is Christian? Who do we accompany? Jews? Muslims? Visitors to the Holy Land? Ex-patriots, working for peace?


General views of a Banksy wall painting, on the wall near Bethlehem on June 16, 2013 in central West Bank, Palestine. (Ian Walton / Getty Images)

All of the above.

Diplomatic Path

Rouhani at the U.N.—Disappointment or Success?

Only at the breakneck pace of Iran's recent conciliatory statements and—yes—actions could the absence of a handshake between Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani be viewed as a breakdown in advancing diplomacy. Likewise with Rouhani's monotonous U.N. General Assembly speech dwelling on painting a snooze-worthy anti-imperialist picture of the world. But checking out the commentary, one might get the wrong impression. "It seems as if the Rouhani-as-moderate-savior meme has lost some of its oomph in the wake of his speech, and his refusal to meet Obama," wrote the sometimes hawkish journalist Jeffrey Goldberg on Twitter, encapsulating much of the skepticism after Rouhani failed to show up at a lunch hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and attended by Obama.


Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, speaks during the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly September 24, 2013 at U.N. headquarters in New York. (Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images)

Make no mistake: for those of us who think diplomatic engagement between Iran and the U.S. cannot come fast enough, the failure was a disappointment, as was Rouhani's speech. But neither means engagement is either infeasible or on the skids. Both the non-handshake and his speech might be seen as Rouhani tapping the brakes, not slamming them. A White House official said that carrying out the meeting was "too complicated for the Iranians to do at this point." For his part, Rouhani ascribed his failure to attend the luncheon to a lack of preparation. "The United States declared its interest in having such a meeting. And in principle, Iran could have, under certain circumstances, allowed it to happen," Rouhani told CNN last night. "But I believe we didn't have sufficient time to really coordinate the meeting."

Despite the disappointment, the thaw between Iran and the U.S. continued apace. Rouhani did say in his address, "Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran's peaceful nuclear program"—though that message was not new and was accompanied by no specifics. Then, during his CNN interview, Rouhani addressed an issue that's badly damaged Iran's international image over the past eight years, expressing that the Holocaust was a crime committed by Nazis against Jewish people. The remark was perhaps muddled by Rouhani's statement that he's a politician, not a historian, but it was what it was. The Israeli-Iranian analyst Meir Javedanfar wrote that he'd like for Rouhani to be more forthright, but also put the remark in the context of Iran's domestic politics, certainly a limiting factor for the Iranian president, just as it is for the American one. It's easy, amid the disappointment in Rouhani's appearance in New York, to forget just how bad his predecessors’ trips here have been. Rouhani may not have made a big splash, but at least he didn't make one for the wrong reasons.

Writing off the two-state solution is the latest trend in Israel-Palestine punditry. A surprising meeting point between left and right, the notion that historical Palestine can no longer be divided into two sovereign states is gaining popularity among former supporters of two states for two peoples. Even if at one time partition was both just and practicable, argue the recent converts to the church of the-hell-with-it, years of failure have drained the last drops of reasonable hope from this now obsolete idea. The two-state solution, in other words, is not inherently wrong; it is simply passé. The controversy around Ian Lustick’s recent “Two-State Illusion” article in The New York Times offers an opportunity to analyze “partition skepticism,” as we call it, and to submit its arguments to critical scrutiny.


Jewish settlers outside their home on July 22, 2013 at the Jewish settlement outpost of Havat Gilad in the West Bank. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

1. Partition skepticism

Arguments against the two-state solution fall into two types. Some oppose partition on moral grounds, arguing that any solution that does not address the Palestinian right of return and redress discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel is inherently unjust. These objections are applicable regardless of the state of the peace process; they hold the same weight now as they did back when Lustick and other recent partition skeptics were still cheering for two states for two peoples.

The second type of argument against partition concerns practicability. Partition skeptics contend that even if the two-state solution is in principle desirable, it is no longer feasible; they argue that the peace process is failing because it is pursuing a dead end and they call for alternative solutions. It is no wonder that after 46 years of unrelenting occupation and three decades of failed negotiations, and amidst another round of precarious peace talks, the tendency to announce—or celebrate—the death of the two-state solution is making some headway among intellectuals and activists. It takes endless optimism not to give in to despair every once in a while, but those of us whose lives are inextricably implicated in this conflict do not have the luxury of allowing visceral reactions to stand in the way of clear-eyed engagement with reality. Fatigue is no substitute for analysis and frustration is no excuse for inadvertent argumentation.

Nearly 200 years ago, England's Lord Durham believing he could end the violence between French and British subjects living in Upper and Lower Canada by creating a single state for the two nations. Uniting the two peoples, wrote in his report, would end the "mortal hatred" between them. "Durhanism" was never implemented. Instead, the two colonies were joined in a confederation, with separate legislatures. 

In an op-ed for the New Yorker, I respond to Ian Lustick's much-discussed "Two State Illusion" op-ed in the New York Times, I refer to Canada's history of trying to balance French and English national aspirations as an illustration of the pitfalls of bi-nationalism.

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Palestinian protesters take cover away from tear gas behind Israel's controversial separation barrier during clashes with Israeli security guards following a demonstration against Israeli settlements and its separation wall, in the West Bank village of Nilin on May 31, 2013. (Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images)


Nuclear Iran

Comedians For Diplomacy: 'Give Peace a Dance'

Five years after Barack Obama entered the White House with a promise to engage Iran diplomatically, signs from Tehran indicate that the Islamic Republic, too, may be ready to talk. But there are still forces—in Iran, in America, and in Israel—that don't want talks over Iran's nuclear program to even get started. That's why some proponents of diplomacy have decided world leaders could use a little extra push to get to the table and cut a deal. The latest iteration of that push comes from an unexpected place: two comedians. And they're doing it in an unusual way: by dancing.

That's the idea, at least, behind the new video, "Give Peace a Dance," a well-produced web short that's part brainstorming by the comics, Maz Jobrani and Elon Gold, and part them dancing a ridiculous, choreographed dance in ridiculous costumes. But they did the dance for a reason: "How do you make people watch it in this day when people watch cat videos or Gangnam Style or a cat doing Gangnam Style?" asked Jobrani rhetorically in an interview. "You could've put up an expert lecturing on the dangers of war, but I'm guessing that wouldn't have gotten a lot of hits." Instead: dancing. "Hopefully it will be seen by a lot of people and some of those people will be inspired to be involved or educate themselves on this issue," Jobrani said.

The two comedians were brought together by the Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based group dedicated to nuclear non-proliferation, and Portal-A, a web video production house, to get people talking about diplomacy. "We both believe that there are diplomatic solutions, and we don't like bombing," Gold told me in a phone interview. "We don't like standing there and bombing and we don't like watching bombings. Because it can still be averted, let's do something." (Disclosure: when I worked at the Center for American Progress, Ploughshares was supporting the Center's work.)

I’m on record as thinking that the current Prime Minister of Israel tends to overstate his country’s case against Iran—that while official Israel’s long-standing concern regarding the possibility of Iran achieving nuclear capability is surely understandable (particularly considering the latter’s oft-stated hostility to the existence of a Jewish State), we mustn’t forget that Israel itself has nuclear weapons (yes, it does), that not everything’s another Holocaust, and that furthermore, if your government has spent more or less the last decade claiming with tones of urgency that we’ve only got six months, a year, two years in which to prevent calamity—your government might be overstating its case.

But you know what? Israel’s long-standing concern regarding the possibility of Iran achieving nuclear capability is surely understandable, particularly considering the latter’s oft-stated hostility to the existence of a Jewish State. If I were an Israeli official, I, too, would want to make sure that the U.S. government was not messing around and that whatever precautions being taken to protect my people were good and solid. That seems only reasonable, and certainly to be expected. Overstating a case doesn’t mean that the case doesn’t actually exist.

Iranian President Rouhani Holds First Press Conference

Newly inaugurated Iranian President Hassan Rouhani holds his first press conference after taking office in front of national and international press in the presidential press hall on August 6, 2013 in Tehran, Iran. (Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images)

And yet.

Egypt Fallout

A More Violent Hamas?

Nearly a year ago, joyous processions and celebratory rounds of gunfire were heard throughout the Palestinian Gaza Strip in celebration of Mohammed Morsi’s electoral victory, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascension to power in neighboring Egypt. Hamas leaders and activists similarly welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood, hailing the election as a Hamas victory.

Now, more than a year later, the situation in Egypt has shifted dramatically. Instead of dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, their ideological parent, Hamas faces an Egyptian regime intent on sealing the Egypt-Gaza border.

Palestinian girls walk in front of a photograph of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shaking hands with the Palestinian Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, in Gaza City on August 29, 2012. (Mohammed Abed / AFP / GettyImages)

Palestinian girls walk in front of a photograph of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shaking hands with the Palestinian Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, in Gaza City on August 29, 2012. (Mohammed Abed / AFP / GettyImages)

A number of Middle Eastern experts assert that the new military government in Cairo seeks to overthrow the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Analysts also claim that an Egyptian regime that seals the Egypt-Gaza border could mean renewed hope for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Avraham Sela, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of The Palestinian Hamas, offered a much more sobering assessment. Though Sela sees the military government’s rise to power as a blow to Hamas and its ilk, “especially in terms of destroying tunnels and fighting Islamic and Bedouin terrorism,” he remains pessimistic in regards to the long-term effects of General Sisi’s new government.

In the northern West Bank town of Burqa, just outside Nablus, the question of whether Israel is capable of disengaging from occupied West Bank land is being put to the test.

The Palestinian village sits adjacent to the now abandoned Israeli settlement of Homesh, which was evacuated in 2005 as part of the Israeli plan to quit its Gaza settlements alongside two remote West Bank ones. However, despite the official claims of having left, the 480 acres of land was never returned to the Burqa residents it was seized from in the 1970’s. Instead, the land remained under an Israeli closed military zone that protected squatting settlers and barred cultivation by the Palestinian owners until recently.


Israeli right wing youths wave their national flag (L) and the orange flag, the color symbolizing the movement opposing Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territory, as they dance in the abandoned West Bank settlement of Homesh, June 12, 2007. (Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images)

Now, after Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a petition by the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din on September 15, requesting the closed military zone be struck down and the land returned to the Palestinians, settlers walk around freely while Palestinians are afraid to return.

Lebanon is teeming with refugees. This isn't news, you might say. Palestinian refugees have dwelt in Lebanon since 1948. Back then, between 100,000 and 130,000 people, expecting a temporary sojourn, entered a country with a population perhaps ten times that number. The news is the Syrians: Over 700,000 who have fled the current catastrophe, according to the United Nations; a million according to the Lebanese government; possibly 1.4 million if you include Syrian guest workers who came before the war, in a country whose current population may be only three times that number.

That Lebanon is still functioning is a miracle. Only slightly less startling, the refugees aren't living in vast tent cities; they're in rented apartments and schools and empty buildings. This, I'm told, is partly due to a lesson that Lebanon learned after 1948: Refugee camps can become autonomous armed enclaves.


A Syrian refugee family from the Deir el Zour, Syria pauses in their doorway in a neighborhood with a high concentration of Syrian refugees on July 01, 2013 in Beirut, Lebanon. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) (Spencer Platt)

There are also lessons about 1948 to be learned—very carefully—from today's crisis. Not that history repeats itself. The Syrian catastrophe can't resolve arguments about what happened 65 years ago. It can, however, raise necessary questions about the narratives that both Israelis and Palestinians tell about 1948.

Two-State Illusion?

Reading Lustick Carefully

Defenders of the U.S.-backed peace process confuse the thesis articulated by Ian Lustick in his “Two-State Illusion” with those of one-staters like Ali Abunimah or Virginia Tilley. Lustick states correctly that attempts to negotiate the partition of Palestine into two states have failed since the 1930s; he explains briefly why that has been the case; and he challenges the notion that a viable deal can be negotiated that provides the minimum requirements for both Israelis and Palestinians. That is hardly new or radical, although its prominent placement in the New York Times guarantees that it will be seen by “Jews in their cocoon,” to use Peter Beinart’s phrase.


Chief negotiators in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks (R-L) Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni leave the White House with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Palestinian negotiator Mohammad Shtayyeh, Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, and U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Martin Indyk on July 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. (T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty Images)

Lustick’s detractors assume that he is arguing on principle for a one-state solution despite the fact that he explicitly suggests that the road to two states may lead not through a negotiated solution but through an interim one-state arrangement that is less unjust to one side than the current status quo. “Such outcomes develop organically; they are not implemented by diplomats overnight.” From my reading of Lustick I infer that he would not be adverse to a two-state solution if it addressed satisfactorily the core issues, provided peace and security to both sides, and achieved the overwhelming support of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples (including, of course, the Israeli and Palestinian diasporas). That sort of two-state solution has never been anywhere near the negotiating table, as I explained here, primarily because of the power disparities between the two sides to the negotiation.

I am not interested in Lustick’s pro-Israel critics, who continue to delude  themselves into thinking that they support a two-state solution, when what they really support is a strong state of Israel controlling a collection of emasculated Palestinian bantustans that they wish to call a state. Their clinging to the two-state illusion is the chief impediment to a viable two-state solution, even more than those who, like cabinet minister Naftali Bennett, have declared the Palestinian state dead.

But what of those supporters of Israeli and Palestinian self-determination who genuinely believe that both peoples will receive the maximum amount of power and self-determination in their own states?

Language is a funny thing. On the one hand it’s malleable by nature, because human culture is endlessly malleable; on the other hand, at any given time, the words in whatever language you’re using have actual definitions. Take “anti-Semitism,” for instance.

“Anti-Semitism” has an actual, working definition—and here’s what that definition is:

Anti-Semitism, n. -  hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.

Mideast Israel Palestinians

Jewish settlers stand on the rubble of a house destroyed by Israeli authorities in the West Bank, near the settlement of Migron, on Sept. 5. (Sebastian Scheiner / AP Photo)

I bring this up only because the Israeli right appears to be once again confusing anti-Semitism with “being opposed to things that the Israeli right want everyone to think are non-negotiable.”

Case in point: The sanctions that the European Union is poised to institute against West Bank settlements. The Israeli right feels pretty strongly that such sanctions will do damage to the settlement enterprise, and while we can’t really be sure of the outcome of a policy that hasn’t been implemented yet, I feel safe in saying that the Israeli right is, well, right—in fact, that’s the point of the sanctions: To damage the settlement enterprise. It’s a political action intended to produce political ends.

Sabra and Shatila

Lebanon's Palestinian Refugees Cannot Be Ignored

Lebanon is home to just over 400,000 Palestinian refugees, the vast majority of whom have never seen Palestine. They are the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fled their homes in 1948 in what is known in Arabic as the Nakba—the “catastrophe.”

Lebanon's Palestinians are banned from 72 professions and largely denied citizenship. They cannot own property and are without representation and many basic human rights. They are systematically discriminated against and have, on several occasions, been the victims of brutal violence. In September 1982, the Palestinians of Sabra and Shatila were massacred en masse by the Lebanese Phalange, who slaughtered hundreds—and probably thousands—in plain view of their Israeli allies. The IDF, which had surrounded the camp and set up checkpoints for entry and exit, did nothing to stop the slaughter and, in fact, prevented many of Shatila's inhabitants from fleeing.

Shatila: 30 Years On

A Palestinian man wearing the traditional headset sits thoughtfully outside a Fatah office inside Shatila Palestinian refugee camp on July 4, 2012 in Beirut, Lebanon. (Credit: Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images)

With few opportunities for education and mobility in Lebanon, Palestinians are largely confined to more than twelve cramped and squalid refugee camps, of which Shatila is now the most infamous. I recently taught for a month in Rashidieh, which, at a distance of 10 miles, is the camp closest to the Israeli border.

About the Editor

Author headshot

Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Crisis of Zionism, was published by Times Books in April 2012.

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