Two States. Seriously.

Partition Skepticism and the Future of the Peace Process

Many observers of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are becoming increasingly skeptical about the viability of the two-state solution. Here's why all their arguments for partition skepticism fall short.

Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

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.

1. Partition skepticismArguments 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.

The main argument of partition skeptics is that the two-state solution is dead due to irreversible “facts on the ground.” This claim has been making the rounds for more than 30 years. In 1982, the prophet of irreversibility, Israeli historian and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, warned that it is already “5 minutes to midnight” with respect to the two-state solution due to Israel's de-facto annexation of the West Bank. Lustick recalls that in 1980 he detected that Israel “was systematically using tangled talks over how to conduct negotiations as camouflage for de-facto annexation of the West Bank via intensive settlement construction, land expropriation and encouragement of “voluntary” Arab emigration, arguing that this threatens the practicability of partition. But while Israel’s bad faith cannot be denied, annexation is a legal term; land cannot be annexed de-facto because annexation requires the assent or at least the acknowledgement of relevant parties, and nobody—not the international community, certainly not the Palestinians, and not even official Israel—regards Gaza and the West Bank as annexed.

The issue, then, is not the status of the occupied territories, but the physical reality, the notorious facts on the ground. When it comes to the vision of a bi-national democratic state, Lustick counts on the possibility of “radical, disruptive changes in politics.” Empires may rise and fall, but settlements are forever. Settlement construction has certainly been the major obstacle for peace and a constant source of frustration for those who seek it. But it is wrong to conclude that they are irreversible.

In truth, the idea that the settlements are physically irreversible is no more valid today, when settlers number more than 500,000, than it was in the early 1980's when they were no more than a few scores. To see this it is enough to note some basic facts about them. Note that 85 percent of settlers live in what is now known as settlement blocs, which comprise less than 6 percent of the West Bank. Nearly all settlements outside these blocs have fewer than 2,000 residents. Moreover, the settlements rely for their subsistence on profligate funding and services provided by the state of Israel. The settlements have developed no substantial local industry, commerce or agriculture, and more than two-thirds of settlers work inside the Green Line. Of those who work in the settlements, the percentage of government and municipal employees is extremely high. While the Israeli welfare state goes to pieces, benefits and government subsidies to settlements are skyrocketing. Anything from transportation to education and housing is cheaper for Jews beyond the Green Line. Life in the geopolitical absurdity of the settlements is objectively costly, which makes it completely dependent on special subsidies.

Withdrawal of these benefits and services would make life in the settlements barely possible and quite possibly unbearable for most settlers. The fact that imagery of forced displacement still dominates discussions of settlement dismantlement is a triumph for the right, which the left grants gratuitously. Proponents of peace must overcome the tendency to self-destructively aggrandize the settlements. They should heed the words of Elisha Efrat, a leading Israeli geographer, who recently wrote in The Two-State Solution that “the settlement system established over many years through huge investments, is in fact geographically shaky, inconsistent with the logic of spatial planning, and therefore has little chance to maintain a lasting, independent existence… The collapse and disintegration of this system is only a matter of time.”

The issue, then, is one of political will, not of physical possibility. Undoubtedly, creating the political will necessary for removing settlements is a big challenge, but this should serve as a call for action, not as an excuse for despair. It is certainly no argument for giving up on partition in favor of a single state. The bi-national idea is anathema to the vast majority of Israeli Jews, whereas partition is consistently favored by a substantial—if tragically ineffectual—majority of the Israeli population. Public opinion polls also show that most Palestinians prefer an independent state over its alternatives. To the extent that the problem concerns political will, then, there is no reason to ascribe better prospects to the single state option than to the two-state framework.

2. Negotiation fetishism

Lustick’s main reason for doubting partition is the fact that “the last three decades are littered with the carcasses of failed negotiating projects.” The crux of this argument is that since all previous attempts to reach two states fell short, the solution itself must be unattainable. But here he falls victim to a prevalent fallacy: the confusion of means with ends. Repeated failures to reach a desired goal can cast doubt on its practicability only if the best means have been exhausted. Failing to make an omelet hardly proves that omelets are illusory if nobody has been willing to break some eggs along the way. In other words, the historical, and therefore contingent, failure of the peace process to reach its declared goal can only count as evidence of the impracticability of the two-state solution if we can guarantee that the process itself had been largely flawless. But few observers of Middle Eastern affairs can honestly avow to that, least of all Ian Lustick, who has been studying the region for 40 years. As a matter of fact, the peace process has been so flagrantly flawed that finding fault in the proposed solution—namely, the formula of two states for two peoples—amounts to de-facto exoneration of Israeli intransigence, Palestinian mistakes and American mismanagement of the peace process.

The full list of blunders, disruptions and accidents that made the very phrase “peace process” an object of derision in Israel and Palestine alike is beyond the scope of this article. But the issue at hand cannot be addressed without some consideration of one fundamental flaw—which brings us back to the means-end fallacy. Last April, a few weeks before he triumphantly announced the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, John Kerry reiterated the basic principle underlying all endeavors by the international community since the inception of the peace process: “two states living side by side in peace and security brought about through direct negotiations between the parties.” This statement, and countless similar ones, shows how the international community, Israel, and sometimes even the Palestinians, tie together two projects which are in principle entirely independent: ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through partition of historical Palestine into two sovereign states based on the 1967 border, and achieving this by means of direct bilateral negotiations. It is because of this fusion of the end and the means in the political imaginations of relevant actors that the failure of the peace process is increasingly being construed as a breakdown of the two-state solution.

While more and more commentators seek alternatives to partition, few make any effort to develop alternatives to the negotiation fetishism that afflicts proponents of Israeli-Palestinian peace. This irrational attachment to direct negotiations is responsible, among other things, for U.S. insistence to stymie the potentially game-changing Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition. Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said at the time that the initiative to recognize Palestinian statehood “would only jeopardize the peace process and complicate efforts to return the parties to direct negotiations”—an ironic statement when viewed against the utter failure of negotiations. But this failure is not incidental. It follows structurally from a setting in which the stronger party is not genuinely interested in closing the deal.

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Israel’s incentives for entering negotiations—mainly mitigation of international pressure—are largely satisfied by the negotiations themselves. It is no wonder that Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator, incessantly talks about the “negotiating room,” but remains evasive about what she intends to achieve there. It is only when Israel will no longer be able to secure its perceived interests by endless negotiations that negotiations might cease to be endless. The Palestinians themselves do not have what Israel seeks to gain from the peace process; it is therefore unclear what forcing the sides into a room can achieve without credible and powerful incentives to settle.

Accordingly, if the two-state solution will never be realized, it will not be because of some inherent unfeasibility or the often-overstated “facts on the ground.” It will be because alternatives to direct bilateral negotiations continue to be discounted in favor of the only route that has repeatedly and expectedly led to a dead end.

3. Strange bedfellows

Instead of analyzing the failures of the process, proposing and advocating better paths, Lustick, like other partition skeptics, urges two-staters “to rethink their basic assumptions.” Nowhere does he specify what those are. So let us spell out two of ours.

First, we assume that the national aspirations of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are genuine and entrenched. In this they are no different from Algerians, Serbs or the Irish. In fact, these examples cited by Lustick merely testify to the resilience of religious, ethnic and national identities. Ironically, almost all the precedents he mentions demonstrate the need for partition of one kind or another.

Second, we also assume that there are no clean slates in history. A century of bloodshed leaves a mark. Decades of hatred, humiliation, violence and dispossession are not washed away by political fiat. Deep-seated animosity, profound distrust, and fundamental religious, political and social divides cannot be wished away by utopian dreams.

Lustick’s own examples—Yugoslavia, Ireland, Iraq—demonstrate this with unnerving clarity. Lustick acknowledges in passing that with the evaporation of the two-state solution “the stage will be set for ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror, Jewish and Arab emigration and rising tides of international condemnation of Israel.” He is counting on Israel’s leaders to then realize “that their behavior is producing isolation, emigration and hopelessness,” at which point they will acknowledge Palestinian rights, address their grievances and assume responsibility for their suffering. The Arab side will then agree “to accept less than what it imagines as full justice.”

But this is the desperate logic of Leninist dreamers, not a reasoned plan. The belief that once the existing political order of the “Zionist project” is removed, democracy is sure to sprout is reminiscent of the juvenile idealism that led George W. Bush to promise a democratic “free and peaceful Iraq” as soon as Saddam Hussein bows out. Post-war Iraq is unfortunately a fitting example for the reality that might lurk behind one-state visions.

In fact, there is no need to draw on distant precedents. Although partition skeptics like to present their view as an unexplored, novel possibility, non-partition was a reality for much of the last century. The very idea of partition only gained prominence with the report of the Royal Palestine Commission appointed to investigate the riots of 1936. The commission admittedly could not meet its terms of reference—“to remove the grievances” of the rival communities and “prevent their recurrence”—because “The disease is so deep-rooted that in the Commissioners’ firm conviction the only hope of a cure lies in a surgical operation.” The Commission recommended partition because “There can be no question of fusion or assimilation between Jewish and Arab cultures. The National Home cannot be half-national, […] Arab nationalism is as intense a force as Jewish” and “Neither of the two national ideals permits of combination in the service of a single State.” It would be absurd to suggest that decades of bloody conflict somehow mitigate this judgment. The thriving democracy conjured up by prophets of unification can quickly disintegrate into tribal war. Lebanonization is much likelier than reconciliation.

All this can certainly be disputed, but it cannot be ignored. Yet partition skeptics are almost always satisfied with stating the shortcomings of the two-state option while offering few concrete details about their esoteric alternatives. Unsurprisingly, the only one-staters who are happy to flesh out their plans are right-wing advocates of non-partition motivated by nationalist expansionism. Left-wing opponents of partition who fail to articulate concrete proposals run the risk of playing into the hands of their right-wing rivals. Given the balance of power in Israel, it is likely that if non-partitionist proposals are adopted and employed they will assume the non-democratic features devised by the right and not the democratic character desired by the left.

But regardless of the looming presence of Israel’s dynamic far-right, one cannot responsibly play around with one-state structures without laying out a plan. For given the history of animosity and bloodshed, the most probable alternatives to partition are apartheid and Lebanonization. And given the distribution of arms, the Palestinians are likely to fare worse in either scenario. Until they propose something resembling even the rudimentary elements of a stable bi-national institutional arrangement, one-staters are merely playing with words. And with lives.

All of this becomes painfully clear when Lustick’s piece reaches the predictable crescendo on the “radically new environment” waiting beyond the two-state horizon. As soon as this environment is specified, the claims become so out of touch with reality that they border on insult to Israelis and Palestinians genuinely interested in resolving the conflict in one way or another:

In such a radically new environment, secular Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as “Eastern,” but as Arab.

Instead of belaboring the demographic and political marginality of some of these groups and the ideological, emotional and political rifts between them, here’s an analogy illustrating just how far-fetched this vision is. Progressives in the U.S. have been dealing with an increasingly frustrating crisis around gun control. Despite a clear majority in favor of tougher regulation, elected officials are unable to overcome ideological differences and deliver a solution. Now imagine that an Israeli scholar of U.S. politics publishes a lengthy piece in a major newspaper advocating for a novel gun control policy based on the assumption that an emerging coalition can somehow break the political gridlock. Suggesting that Berkeley radicals, tea party libertarians and Mexican illegal immigrants “could ally with” Native Americans, this eminent scholar also surmises that Orthodox Jews “might find common cause with” Mormons and that given their common roots with Quakers evangelical Protestants “might find new reasons to think of themselves as” pacifists. But in order for all this to happen, we must first remove all gun regulations, perhaps even distribute semi-automatics to middle-schoolers. Our imagined scholar obviously recognizes that following the implementation of his proposal “the stage will be set for…riots, brutality, terror,” but thinks it may all be worth it because maybe, just maybe, a fantastic new reality will emerge from underneath the ruins. Why? Because “politics could make strange bedfellows.”

4. Beyond frustration

We can point out additional absurdities in Lustick’s article, like the contention that the two-state solution is barely possible because “Strong Islamist trends make a fundamentalist Palestine more likely than a small state under a secular government,” but that once we dispel the two-state illusion, “Masses of downtrodden and exploited Muslim and Arab refugees, in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel itself could see democracy, not Islam, as the solution.” The two-state solution being the driving force behind Islamic fundamentalism, of course. But the crux of the matter is not inconsistencies in one specific article, but the fact that partition skepticism, and the one-state delusion it belies, almost inevitably leads to these absurdities.

The two-state solution can and should be questioned and debated; its moral critics raise serious issues that have to be, and we believe can be, sincerely addressed. We do not suggest that Lustick’s frustration is unwarranted. It is true that much of the peace industry has become counterproductive, concerned more with maintaining access to power and protecting a legacy than with advancing a solution. American timidity towards Israel has certainly earned his criticism. And he is probably right to belittle the current round of talks.

But none of this justifies skepticism about partition. The pervasive dependency of settlements on government support means that, despite successful efforts on the right to create the opposite impression, their undoing is a matter of political will rather than of brute force. If Israel decides to pull the plug, the settlement enterprise will crumble like a house of cards. Indeed, the irony is that nearly everybody, including the vast majority of Israelis, knows the contours of the solution with singular clarity. The important debate concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about the solution, but about how to achieve it. The efforts of intellectuals, activists and policymakers should be invested in fixing the process. That is what is broken, and that is where new ideas, innovative and radical as they come, can really make a difference.