On the Road to Nowhere

Ian Lustick, the esteemed political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has put forth a landmark essay on what he argues to be an utter futility of any “two-state solution” to the ongoing Israel/Palestine conflict. (It is only incidental that the final touches were put on it during Yom Kippur.) In the last 30 years, he writes, “the carcasses of failed negotiating projects billed as the last chance for peace in Israel” are now strewn about the ground of a peace process… whose process is interminable and has not led toward peace.

“With no alternative in mind, and unwilling or unable to rethink their basic assumptions,” he writes, referring to the “true believers” in a settlement in which Israel and Palestine would both become sovereign states along the lines of a war waged 46 years ago that one side dismisses as immaterial and the other swears to uphold as the starting point for that settlement. These zealots, as it were, “are forced to defend a notion whose success they can no longer sincerely portray as plausible or even possible.” Lustick further asserts that social forces that have long been at work within both nations threaten to contradict… thus making it all the more likely that two states is doomed to failure. To wit, “Strong Islamist trends

make a fundamentalist Palestine more likely than a small state under a secular government [presumably the West Bank, an entity roughly the size of Delaware]. The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project, through war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum, is at least as plausible as the evacuation of enough of the half-million Israelis living across the 1967 border, or Green Line, to allow a real Palestinian state to exist.

It is “no longer inconceivable” that “one mixed state” may eventually appear on the world stage, a prospect that is trapped by the persistent and near-universal “fantasy that there is a two-state solution” that serves the purpose of “keep[ing] everyone from taking action toward something that might work.” The burden is now on him to prove what alternative would work for one of the world’s most absurdly tragic conflicts over real estate. The political representatives of both nations have their own reasons for voicing support to this moribund framework. For the Palestinians, this means that the Palestinian Authority, widely seen by most “as corrupt and incompetent,” must adhere to the same myth as the Israeli government, which “seems to reflect the sentiments of the Jewish Israeli majority.” Lustick even avers that the rhetorical support of a two-state solution “shields the country from international opprobrium,” which means it is a lousy shield anyway.

He acknowledges a prevalent fear among “many Israelis” in which “the demise of the country” is “not just possible, but probable.”

Surprisingly, left substantially unmentioned is the salient fact that roughly one-fifth of the population of Israel proper is Palestinian, as well. Maintaining the mantra of a “Jewish state” alongside a “state of Palestine” actually serves the interest of neither party to the conflict: the settlers are not likely going to be uprooted, and the Palestinian citizens of Israel are not likely to leave, either. Increasingly, the “objective realities” on the ground strongly suggest a de facto binational polity, which is masked by rhetoric intended to force a solution that no longer applies. As with the swelling balloon that will eventually burst at a certain point, Lustick writes,

there are thresholds of radical, disruptive change in politics. When those thresholds are crossed, the impossible suddenly becomes probable, with revolutionary implications for governments and nations. As we see vividly across the Middle East, when forces for change and new ideas are stifled as completely and for as long as they have been in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, sudden and jagged change becomes increasingly likely.

That sudden drastic shift calls to mind what Stephen Jay Gould called a “punctuated equilibrium.” Apparently at random, the “inconceivable” becomes “fact,” defying all the theories that predicted it could not happen. What will be the spark to ignite the fire next time? The alarm has been sounding the words “point of no return” for the past generation and more. A single secular democratic state from the Jordan rivulet to the Mediterranean does not appear to be a likely prospect anytime soon; by way of comparison, Syria will have turned in and destroyed its entire chemical munitions arsenal many times over by then. Using the analogy of an expanding balloon, Lustick suggests that a third uprising is only a matter of time, a resource running out rapidly.

“Israel may no longer exist as the Jewish and democratic vision of its Zionist founders,” Lustick concludes, echoing the stark pronouncement of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak who, in 2010, warned to his countrymen that the state cannot be an ethnocracy and democratic indefinitely. The likely future as Lustick sees it portends “ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror, Jewish and Arab emigration and rising tides of international condemnation of Israel.”

However, this course can be averted. If the major players throw off the shackles of two-state dogma, “a radically new environment” is possible, one where “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.” This sounds more plausible than the rest of his imagined scenarios. Somehow, the idea that the “anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists,” beyond things like bashing gay people and keeping women in thrall, seems obscure.

The world must be dealt with as it is, Lustick’s essay ultimately counsels. Further conflict is not preventable, but the feared outcome of it is steerable, if “the stifling reign of an outdated idea” is allowed to fade away to be replaced by the unknown.

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