The One-State Reality to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Ian Lustick, an American political scientist holding the Bess W. Heyman Chair in the Political Science Department of the University of Pennsylvania.
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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been raging for over seven decades, and the prospects for peace have never seemed more distant than today. The two-state solution, which was once the most widely-accepted remedy for the impasse, has lost traction, and efforts by the United Nations and other intermediaries to resolve the dispute have got nowhere.

In 2018, a survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University found that only 43% of Palestinians and Israeli Jews support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. This was down from 52% of Palestinians and 47% of Israeli Jews who favored a two-state concept just a year prior.

In October 2019, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, described the situation in the occupied Palestinian Territories as “a multi-generational tragedy.” He said to the Security Council that Israeli settlements — which are illegal under international law — on Palestinian land represent a substantial obstacle to the peace process.


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US President Donald Trump, who is seen by some observers as the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman, has billed himself as Israel’s best friend in the White House. Trump has overturned the US position on many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the dismay of the Palestinian people and leadership. His administration has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be inconsistent with international law.

In January, the Trump administration unveiled its long-awaited peace plan. Dubbed the “deal of the century,” the 181-page document was promoted by Washington as the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian factions have rejected the proposal as overly biased and one-sided in favor of Israel.

Ian Lustick is an American political scientist holding the Bess W. Heyman Chair in the Political Science Department of the University of Pennsylvania. He is an advocate of what he calls a “one-state reality” to solve the conflict. His latest book, published in October 2019, is called “Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality.”

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Lustick about the ongoing skirmishes between the Israelis and Palestinians, the declining traction of the two-state solution, the BDS movement and the US support for Israel.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: In your 2013 article in The New York Times titled “Two-State Illusion,” you note that Israelis and Palestinians have their own reasons to cling to the two-state ideal. For the Palestinians, you write that it’s a matter of ensuring that diplomatic and financial aid they receive keeps coming, and for the Israelis, this notion is a reflection of the views of the Jewish Israeli majority that also shields Israel from international criticism. Are you saying that these reasons are morally unjustified? Why do you call the two-state solution an illusion?

Ian Lustick: I do not argue they are morally unjustified. I am seeking to explain why they persist in the face of the implausibility if not the impossibility of attaining a negotiated two-state solution. I am trying to solve the puzzle of why public agitation for it continues by these groups, one that wants a real two-state solution and one that does not, even though the leaders of each group know that the two-state solution cannot be achieved. The key to the answer is a “Nash Equilibrium” in which both sides, and other actors as well — the US government and the peace process industry — can get what they minimally need by effectively giving up on what they really want.

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The mistaken idea that Israelis and Palestinians can actually reach an agreement of a two-state solution through negotiations is an illusion because so many people still actually believe it is attainable when it is not.

Ziabari: As you’ve explained in your writings, the favorable two-state situation envisioned by Israel is one that ignores Palestinian refugees’ “right of return,” guarantees that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel and controlled by Israel, and fortifies the position of Jewish settlements. On the other side, the Palestinian version of the two-state solution imagines the return of refugees, demands the evacuation of Israeli settlements and claims East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. Do you think the two sides will ever succeed in narrowing these stark differences?

Lustick: No. The elements of the two-state solution that would make it acceptable to Palestinians are those that make it unacceptable to the majority of Israeli Jews who now have firm control of the Israeli government and of the Israeli political arena. But once a one-state reality is acknowledged, then both sides can agree that Jerusalem should be united and accessible to all who live within the state, that refugees within the borders of the state, at least, should have a right to move to and live in any part of the state, and that owners of land and property seized illegally or unjustly anywhere in the state can seek redress, or that discrimination in the right to own and inhabit homes anywhere in the state must be brought to an end.

Ziabari: You are an advocate of a one-state solution to the decades-old Israeli–Palestinian conflict. What are the characteristics of such a country? Do you think Israelis and Palestinians will really agree to live alongside each other under a unified leadership, share resources, abandon their mutual grievances and refuse to engage in religious and political provocation against the other side while there are no geographical borders separating them?

Lustick: I do not advocate a “one-state solution” in the sense that I do not see a clear path from where we are now to that “pretty picture” of the future. I instead seek to analyze a reality — a one-state reality — that is far from pretty, and thereby not a solution. But that reality has dynamics which are not under the control of any one group, and those dynamics can lead to processes of democratization within the one-state reality that could produce a set of problems in the future better than the problems that Jews and Arabs have today between the river and the sea.

The substantive difference I have with advocates of the “one-state solution” is that they imagine Jews and Arabs “negotiating,” as two sides, to agree on a new “one-state” arrangement. I do not share that view as even a possibility. But within the one-state reality, different groups of Jews and Arabs can find different reasons to cooperate or oppose one another, leading to new and productive political processes and trends of democratization. That is how, for example, the United States was transformed from a white-ruled country with masses of freed slaves who exercised no political rights whatsoever into a multiracial democracy. Abraham Lincoln never imagined this as a “one-state solution” — it was the unintended consequence of the union’s annexation of the South, with its masses of black, non-citizen inhabitants, after the Civil War.

Ziabari: Several UN Security Council resolutions have been issued that call upon Israel to refrain from resorting to violence against Palestinian citizens, safeguard the welfare and security of people living under occupation, halt its settlement constructions and withdraw from the lands it occupied during the 1967 war. Some of the most important ones are Resolution 237, Resolution 242 and Resolution 446. There are also resolutions deploring Israel’s efforts to alter the status of Jerusalem. However, Israel has ignored these formal expressions of the UN and seems to face no consequences. How has Israel been able to disregard these resolutions without paying a price?

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Lustick: The short answer to this is that the Israel lobby has enforced extreme positions on US administrations so that the United States has provided the economic, military, political and diplomatic support necessary for Israel to withstand such international pressures. The reasons for the Israel lobby’s success are detailed in my book and can be traced, ultimately, to the hard work and dedication of lobby activists, the misconceived passion of American Jews and evangelicals to “protect” Israel, and the fundamental character of American politics which gives a single-issue movement in foreign policy enormous leverage over presidents and over members of Congress.

Ziabari: You’ve worked with the State Department. How prudent and constructive is the current US administration’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What are the implications of decisions such as recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, cutting off funding to UNRWA and closing down the PLO office in Washington, DC? Will the “deal of the century” resolve the Middle East deadlock?

Lustick: US policy has, for decades, been unable to realize its foreign policy interests in this domain for reasons I explained earlier. Now that the opportunity to do so via a two-state solution has been lost, the policies of the Trump administration hardly matter, except that by not emphasizing America’s emphasis on democracy and equality, it postpones the time when Israelis and Palestinians will begin the kinds of internal struggles over democracy and equal rights that hold promise of improving the one-state reality.

Ziabari: Is the Trump administration working to silence criticism of Israel by painting narratives that are unequivocal in censuring Israel’s policies as anti-Semitic? Do you see any difference between Trump’s efforts in protecting Israel against international criticism with those of his predecessors?

Lustick: Yes. The Trump administration has sided in an unprecedentedly explicit way with the extreme wing of the Israel lobby and with extreme and intolerant right-wing forces in Israel. 

Ziabari: The proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, who believe that denying Israel economic opportunities and investment will serve to change its policies regarding the Palestinian people, are widely smeared as anti-Semites. Is the BDS movement anti-Semitic?

Lustick: There may be some anti-Semites among BDS supporters, but the movement itself is no more anti-Semitic than the Jewish campaign to boycott France during the Dreyfus trial was “anti-French people.” In fact, as it becomes clearer to everyone that successful negotiations toward a two-state solution will not occur, the significance of the BDS movement will grow rapidly. 

It is an effective way to express, non-violently, an approach to the conflict that emphasizes increasing justice and quality of life for all those living between the river and the sea. Its focus is not on the particular institutional architecture of an outcome, but on the extent to which values of equality, democracy and non-exclusivist rights to self-determination for Jews and Arabs can be realized. Nor do BDS supporters need to agree on which forms of discrimination, at which level, they focus on. Some may target sanctions against every Israeli institution, but many will target the most blatant forms of discrimination, such as radically different rights and protections accorded to Arabs vs. Jews in the West Bank, in the Jerusalem municipality or in southwest Israel, including the Gaza Strip.

Ziabari: The settlement of disputes between Palestinians and Israelis requires a reliable and effective mediator, one in which both parties have trust. Which government or international organization is most qualified to fulfill this role?

Lustick: The time for mediation or negotiation between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, as two groups, has effectively passed. That is no longer what is crucial. What is crucial are political processes within each group and across them. African Americans became empowered over generations, not because an outside mediator helped arrange an agreement between whites and blacks, but because gradually self-interested whites saw opportunities in the emancipation of and alliances with blacks. 

This approach does imagine a long-time frame, but when states with democratic elements are confronted with masses of formerly excluded and despised populations, that is the kind of time it takes to achieve integration and democratization. In addition to the American case vis-à-vis blacks, consider how long it took to integrate Irish Catholics into British politics after Ireland was annexed in 1801, or how long it took South Africa to integrate and democratize its long excluded and oppressed black majority.

Ziabari: And a final question: Will the unveiling of President Trump’s “deal of the century” change anything for the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Some Middle East observers say it is just a green light for Israel to go ahead with annexing more Palestinian territory. Others believe Israel doesn’t need such an endorsement and has been annexing Palestinian lands anyway. What do you think about the deal and how it will transform the demographics and political calculus of the region?

Lustick: The Trump plan is a hoax. In the pages it devotes to its own justification appear all the Israeli government’s favorite propaganda lines. The “negotiations” that produced it were between the most ultranationalist and fundamentalist government in Israel’s history and a group of “Israel firsters” in the White House who are just as extreme, though substantially more ignorant. Advanced originally as a plan to give Palestinians a higher standard of living instead of a real state, it actually proposes no money for Palestinians until they become Finland. Only after that will Israel be empowered, if it wishes, to grant them not a state, but something Israel is willing for Palestinians to call a state but existing within the state of Israel.

If realized as written, the plan would be an archipelago of sealed Palestinian ghettos. By awarding Israel prerogatives to patrol, supervise, intervene and regulate all movement to and from those ghettos, the plan affirms the one-state reality while offering Israel at least temporary protection against having to admit and defend apartheid by describing itself as a two-state solution. This is Palestine as Transkei or Bophuthatswana. As a plan, it has no chance of being implemented. Its real function is to give temporary cover to the deepening of silent apartheid.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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