AN OASIS OF SENSE IN A DESERT OF NONSENSE

Hussein Ibish and Saliba Sarsar have written a good take-down of Ian Lustick’s recent New York Times op-ed on the alleged death of the two-state solution, which they accurately characterise as

“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.”

Unsurprisingly from two American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) officials, their critique purveys fantasies of its own, blaming failure to achieve a two-state settlement on “radical minorities” thwarting the desires of the “large majority” of Israelis and Palestinians. In fact polls show that most Israelis reject the international consensus two-state settlement, while Hamas, which Ibish and Sarsar misrepresent as demanding “Palestinian/Muslim… rule over the whole of historical Palestine”, has, with some but increasingly slight ambiguity, accepted it.

But they are right to point out that Lustick’s piece offers, in place of an overwhelming and enduring international consensus on ending the occupation and establishing an independent Palestinian state, a collection of vague hopes whose realisation is left to the agency of “time”, “blood and magic” (how exciting!). And in the meantime? Decades of occupation, “ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror”. Inexplicably, some in the solidarity movement have trumpeted this grim recipe—enchanted by the “magic”, perhaps, and forgetting about the blood.

In response to this and other bloviating on “one state versus two states”, reasonable people will be tempted to dismiss, with Noam Sheizaf, the whole debate as a “waste of time“:

“[P]lease, no more one-state vs. two states. An honest approach to politics… must begin with a real evaluation of the current reality on the ground (de facto one state, albeit not a very democratic one), and the creation of political force for change”.

Sheizaf is surely right that the endless debates and exchanges and conferences serve no good purpose, because with few exceptions they consist of posturing and theorizing without reference to political reality. As he points out, and as Noam Chomsky has observed before with respect to the belated appearance of one-state advocacy in mainstream media, this empty pontification is not innocent:

“people argue about solutions because it is (a) easy; (b) fun, especially for intellectuals; and (c) helps them avoid tough political choices”.

However, Sheizaf’s proposed alternative—to focus strictly on describing and assessing the existing situation on the ground, and avoid talking about solutions—makes no sense. What is the point of evaluating “current reality on the ground” except in the service of trying to change it? And if we’re trying to change it, why not discuss how best to do that? Lisa Goldman, writing for Open Zion, makes the same faulty leap. Having suffered through a One State-Two State debate between Yehuda Shenhav and Peter Beinart, she notes, as politely as possible, that:

“it seemed to circumvent the real elephant in the room—which was the urgency of the situation on the ground”.

In other words, more self-serving philosophising. Shenhav’s book received a favourable review on Mondoweiss, which noted in passing its failure to spell out how his proposed alternative to a two-state settlement might be achieved. “Perhaps it’s not Shenhav’s role as an intellectual,” it quickly offered in extenuation, “to offer” paths forward. Shenhav himself certainly doesn’t seem to feel that burden, if reports of his performance in the Beinart debate are accurate:

“Shenhav came out slashing, jokingly referring to himself as a ‘lunatic’. Where Beinart stood still, Shenhav walked all over the place, wagging his finger… Shenhav said he’s no politician and doesn’t know how to get from his proposed solution to the real deal.”

Again, though, this posed no apparent problems for Mondoweiss, which welcomed Shenhav’s emissions as a “breath of fresh air”.

But Goldman’s frustrated conclusion—that the question of how to resolve the conflict should be put on ice—hardly follows:

“One state or two states? It’s a theoretical argument at this point, and that will probably be the case for a long time. But it is fact that 2.5 million Palestinian residents of the West Bank live under military occupation, without basic rights like freedom of movement, access to sufficient water and due process in a court of law. This is what needs to change first—and urgently. Then we can talk about sharing or dividing the land.”

How exactly is the occupation going to “change” except through some sort of settlement? If an acceptable settlement will only be realised by a popular Palestinian-led movement mustering international support with sufficient leverage to impose terms on Israel, and if some proposed solutions to the conflict are more likely than others to provide the basis for such a movement, then there is no getting around the fact that those seeking an end to the occupation and the conflict need to choose the correct demands behind which to mobilise. That calls for debate, but, crucially, debate that is mindful of on-going Palestinian suffering; animated by a sense of urgency; oriented towards practical questions of how a tolerable solution might be achieved; and rooted in political reality. 

Update (21/09/13): In his book, Shenhav acknowledges excluding “important dimensions” from his “utopian analysis”—”power, fear of change, the disengagement from the current regime of privileges… the particular interests of each group”, the fact that “the international community does not support the one-space solution”. At the last minute his publisher insisted he recognise gravity and the laws of motion, which was bad news for a bold chapter examining the cultural implications of an Israeli-Palestinian sky colony. Shenhav defends his decision to “imagine reality” rather than rationally assess it on the grounds that the “role of the intellectual” is to “understand reality exactly as it is, and, at the same time, utterly reject the facts of it”. Shenhav is of course free to “utterly reject the facts”—but should a movement aiming to bring about political change do likewise? (Shenhav, Beyond the Two-State Solution, pp. 163-65; thanks to Norman Finkelstein for bringing these quotes to my attention)