The Danger of Two-State Messianism

Ian Lustick responds to critics of his 'Two State Illusion' op-ed in the New York Times.

David Buimovitch / AFP / Getty Images

In high school I was a member of the modern Orthodox youth movement, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. We sang and danced to scores of niggunim for hours on end. But the song I loved the best was one not danced to: “Ani Maamin” (I Believe). Almost all Jewish Israelis know the words, the powerful melody, and the deep emotion of its message: “I believe with a complete faith in the coming of the Messiah. And though he may tarry, yet I will wait for him. I will wait for him all the days of my life.”

The deep meaning of the song is that whether or not the Messiah comes, and whether or not there really is a Messiah waiting to come, the yearning for what his arrival would mean, and the injunction never to lose hope for mankind, are values in and of themselves that help make life worth living. Much of the intelligent and passionate piece that Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon have written in response to my New York Times op-ed piece—“Two State Illusion”—is their own version of Ani Maamin. It is an anxious yet defiant song of resistance against despair by professing against all odds “complete faith” in the coming of the two-state solution.

The reality is that God will not announce that the messiah is not coming. Nor, regarding a negotiated two-state solution, will he announce when the “point of no return” has actually been passed. But there is a great difference between the two. There’s really nothing to lose by declaring the Messiah son of David will come, even if he will not. But there is a tremendous amount to lose by continuing to advocate two-state plans that cannot be implemented when the evil designs of others can exploit that error.

The most important message in my article was not that two states are absolutely impossible—indeed I did not say that and do not believe it. Rather, my argument is that paths to political decisions in Israel and the United States that could result in that outcome via negotiations are so implausible that the negotiations themselves end up protecting and deepening oppressive conditions. In addition, by diverting energies from the difficult search for alternatives, however painful they may be, fixation on the tantalizing mirage of the two-state solution’s imminent arrival increases the likelihood that when transformative change comes, that change will be catastrophic.

Let me be clear. I am not claiming, and did not claim, that I have discovered a realistic path forward to satisfying the legitimate rights of Jews and Arabs in Palestine/the Land of Israel. Such a path may exist, but it may not. For several decades I believed, and I think correctly, that internationally brokered direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians had a good chance of achieving a real two-state solution that would both naturalize Israel’s presence in the region and provide Jews and Palestinians with limited, but democratic and satisfactory, outlets for their collective aspirations. Problems there would have been, but those problems would have been much preferable to those associated with any other course of action.

To be sure, neither its benefits nor its implementation were ever sure things. To have pulled off the two-state solution while it was available would have been in some ways more amazing than the establishment of the state of Israel itself. It would have made Israel the only European fragment society to have successfully institutionalized its presence in a non-European region without effectively eliminating the aboriginal population. The odds were always against the two-state solution’s success, whether because of the crippling hold that a blinkered Israel lobby has on American foreign policy in the region, the Islamicization of politics in the Arab world, or a cultural transformation of the Israeli political landscape driven by decades of siege, Holocaustmania, and triumphalism. The argument I’m making is not that I have a better plan for a nice future than two-state true believers possess. It is that if catastrophic scales of destruction can be avoided, ways to do so will not be found by those blinded by faith in an appealingly familiar but no-longer-available path. Why? Because as long as Israelis (and Palestinians) do not feel—immediately and concretely—that their very existence is threatened by the absence of a way to live together, they will not question the assumptions that need to be questioned.

Inbar and Sharon ask me to say what assumptions must be questioned. I will.

For Israelis: Is statist Zionism the only framework for satisfying Jewish national and cultural ambitions? Can the fundamental inconsistency between “Jewish stateness” and principles of citizen equality be the actual basis for stable relations between equal and powerfully mobilized Jewish and non-Jewish communities? Can those who live in a villa survive in a jungle unless the jungle is transformed into villas or the villa becomes part of the jungle? Can the Jews of Israel ever expect to win an endless competition in brutality with the other peoples of the Middle East?

For Palestinians: Can Palestinians as a people survive an all-out struggle between a Muslim Middle East and a Jewish state capable of using weapons of mass destruction? Can a Palestinian Zionist movement, intent on achieving the “return” to its land generations after the loss of that land, be more successful, humane, or stabilizing in its effects than the Jewish version? Can the category of Palestinian embrace Jews in a way that the category of Zionist was unable to embrace Palestinians?

In my essay I suggest a variety of things that could happen in a radically changed Middle East. I do not offer those ideas as forecasts, but as examples of possibilities that may help two-staters understand the category of “theoretically possible but highly implausible”—a category which also now includes the negotiated route to a two-state solution. I agree that despite the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews and Muslims do ally with one another in the Israeli parliament to support segregated schools and strict dietary rules in public facilities, it is a stretch to think of those two groups allying themselves more broadly. Certainly it is difficult to imagine the circumstances that would lead most Mizrachi Jews in Israel to identify, also, as Arab. On the other hand, if Germans and Jews could be close allies within two generations following the Holocaust, and if my own side of the Jewish world has no problem referring to itself as “Ashkenazi” (i.e. German), then why think a changing mix of challenges and opportunities cannot lead Jews from Arab countries to acknowledge their heritage in a parallel fashion.

Politics, as I noted, makes strange bedfellows, but only when circumstances demand it. That’s what rough politics does. Rough politics is not something that moves according to a plan. But rough politics is how history produces most of the “outcomes” to protracted struggles. Those outcomes are seldom the “solutions” that anyone planned for or sought systematically to bring about.

Right now, for example, there is no one-state solution. But there is a one-state outcome. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there is one and only one real state—Israel. It has shown repeatedly that it can and will send its military forces into any corner of that territory whenever it deems it necessary. The Palestinian Authority’s nominal administration over some domains and Hamas’s position in Gaza notwithstanding, virtually nothing goes into or out of this entire area that the State of Israel does not authorize. The question then is not whether there can be one state in Palestine/the Land of Israel. The answer to that question is obvious. There is. The question is what is that state like and can it be changed? Are there other outcomes available that are more compatible with principles of democratic and human rights for all the country’s inhabitants and those with rights to live there?

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Here’s where I agree with the Inbar-Sharon argument that Lebanonization or apartheid are the two most likely medium-term outcomes. On the other hand, as we can see from the South African case, and to an extent in Lebanon, neither anarchy nor oppression are durable over the long run. What I have tried to do is draw attention to how the “dead plan walking” known as the two-state solution facilitates the integration of masses of disenfranchised Palestinians into the control system of the Israeli state, blunting pressures that otherwise would be brought to bear on the protagonists and discouraging new forms of mobilization and cultural change. In this way, with its prospects reduced from the plausible to the theoretically possible, a negotiated two-state solution and the discourse surrounding it remain key factors in the political equation. Indeed the fundamental reason for Netanyahu’s embrace of the slogan, drained of all real meaning of course, is that the tantalizing image of its availability sucks all oxygen out of the political atmosphere. To be sure, the large-scale pressures, mobilizations, and psychological shifts necessary to make progress possible cannot be predicted in detail. But only thus can a situation featuring a single state that dominates life between the Jordan and the sea be transformed into a society within which more satisfactory confederal, unitary, regional, binational, or even, eventually, two-state arrangements could evolve.

An interesting dimension of the Inbar-Sharon piece, and one that is shared by many published critiques of my New York Times essay, is the extent to which the authors agree with the core of my analysis, even if accompanied by shrill attacks on my motives, knowledge, or bona fides. I believe they would probably also agree with me that the systematic efforts of Israeli annexationists and their supporters outside of Israel to destroy paths to the two-state solution constitute one of the greatest crimes ever committed in Jewish history. Like me, they find themselves unable to trace a series of steps that could lead from where we are now to a satisfying two-state solution. Like me they decry the “fetishization” of negotiations, and Washington’s chronic failure to act decisively. Like me, they understand the negotiations as serving petty parochial interests rather than the objective of achieving peace. We also agree that neither the Kerry version nor any version of negotiations per se will be capable of bringing about a two-state solution. Some larger set of political forces will need to appear that will shake up the political landscape, especially in Israel, with sufficient force to produce a government ready to sign the agreement whose detailed provisions, they say, everyone already knows. I can fully accept this characterization.

The exact place where we differ is revealed in their mention of what they describe as the “potentially game-changing” option of Palestinians bringing their case to the U.N. They imply that this is the kind of development that could jolt the two-state project back to life. I disagree. I do not argue, as they say I do, that the weight of sheer settlement, as “facts on the ground,” is what is decisive. Not at all. There were nearly twice the number of settlers in Algeria as there are east of the Green Line and they were all evacuated. However, that evacuation was not produced by an FLN maneuver at the U.N. It was the complex consequence of the overthrow of the Fourth Republic, years of emergency rule in the hexagon, a horribly bloody revolution in Algeria, and the reconstitution of political life in France under a radically new constitution. My point is that it is not the settlements, per se, that are the problem, but the political constellation of power and purpose that produced them, that grows them, and that will protect them. What I am arguing is that the entrenchment of the forces in Israel that have destroyed every effort to achieve two states is so deep, and so firmly rooted in ideological, cultural, and American institutional political realities, that much bigger forces will be necessary to transform them than operate within the normal course of Israeli or United Nations politics.

My message is not a happy one. The whole situation is deeply tragic. While there were unavoidable contradictions buried in all Zionist plans for transforming Palestine, the post-1967 period did open up the spectacularly hopeful prospect of successful partition. It is with profound sadness that I find that prospect has effectively vanished as a political program. But my commitment to Jewish values, democratic principles of government, and the human beings I know and love on each side of the conflict’s terrible divide, demand I face that sadness with the tools I have. I am not a prophet, nor am I a political leader. I am a political scientist. What I owe is no more and no less than the best analysis I can provide of a political situation that is turning the hard work of peace movement heroes into threats to what they themselves hold most dear.

I argued for the two-state solution beginning in 1969 and ironically for years was called a self-hating Jew because I supported two states. The passion I put into that effort was spurred by my certainty of the doom that intensive settlement of the territories would mean for the Zionist dream I embraced of a democratic, Jewish, and wonderful state. As I have said, God will not announce when pursuing that dream becomes or became an empty hope. But any advocate of that political project must judge how he or she will know when that time arrives. Otherwise, the illusion of its assumedly permanent availability will strengthen those ready to base Jewish life in the Land of Israel on systematic coercion and permanent oppression.