The Two-State Solution on Its Deathbed

Peter Beinart's book The Crisis of Zionism has started debates about various things, including whether it's too late for a two-state solution. Beinart's view is that it's not quite too late but is so close to that as to warrant drastic measures--like a boycott of products made in West Bank settlements (or "Zionist BDS," as distinguished from full-on BDS).

My view is if anything more pessimistic. But apparently I should cheer up: After I last expressed that pessimism, fellow Atlantic contributor Zvika Krieger explained that it rests on confusion.

Krieger's view is worth exploring, because it's a particularly well-informed version of a very common liberal Zionist view. If he's wrong, and the two-state solution is in fact close to death, that means lots of liberal Zionists need to rethink things. Specifically, they need to either (1) embrace Beinart's boycott idea; (2) come up with some alternative way of jump-starting progress toward a two-state solution; or (3) reconcile themselves to the end of liberal Zionism (since pretty much everyone now agrees that the only long-run alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution, and for demographic reasons that one state won't be both Jewish and democratic).

Krieger's critique focuses on this quote from my piece: "There are just too many settlements, interconnected by too many roads that restrict the movement of too many Palestinians, for a two-state deal to result in anything Palestinians could proudly call a 'state.'"

Krieger agrees with me that a two-state solution would require uprooting the vast majority of the West Bank's settlements--but, he notes, this doesn't mean uprooting the vast majority of settlers. Since most of the settlers live in big settlement blocks fairly close to the 1967 "green line," Israel could keep just 2 or 3 or 4 percent of the West Bank (and give Palestine compensatory chunks of Israel proper), and thus leave around 75 percent of the settlers where they are.

OK, fine. But, according to Krieger's numbers, this would still involve uprooting 125,000 settlers! If anyone considers this a readily doable project, I recommend going to Hebron, where fewer than one percent of those 125,000 live, and asking the settlers whether they'd go peacefully. Compounding their assured intransigence is that the Israeli army, which would be doing the extracting, is itself increasingly populated by intensely religious settlement supporters, some of whom say they won't carry out settler-eviction orders.

All of this helps explain why last week at the J-Street Conference, the Israeli scholar Menachem Klein, who was an adviser to the Barak government, opined that a two-state deal could spark a civil war within Israel. "Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated during an interim agreement when he had not evacuated a single settlement," he said. "Israelis will use arms to resist an agreement even if there were a referendum supporting it."

But this is almost beside the point. Warning how hard it would be to uproot the settlements is like warning how hard it would be for the American government to confiscate the TV sets of all citizens. No government is going to try to do it anyway!

Look, the several two-state plans Krieger summarizes are very laudable, but could we get back to the real world and take a look at actual Israeli politics? The current government seems determined to avoid even embarking on negotiations with the Palestinians and meanwhile is (like past governments) increasing the number of settlers, thus not only creating more "facts on the ground" but expanding Israel's already formidable pro-settlement constituency.

Is it possible that, notwithstanding the current drift of Israeli politics, this right-wing government could eventually give way to a government well to its left? Sure, but so what? I was in Tel Aviv this summer when the Israeli left was having its version of Occupy Wall Street. Progressives were alive with a new energy and were talking about all kinds of issues that they felt had been ignored during the left's dormancy. Except for one issue: Palestine. Discussing that, they explained, would "divide the left." Well if the left can't deal with the issue, what part of the Israeli political spectrum are we counting on?

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator, once told me that part of the problem is a kind of catch 22. When Palestinians aren't threatening Israelis with violence, there's no sense of urgency in Israel about dealing with the settlement problem. And when there is ongoing violence (which of course Levy doesn't support), and therefore there is a sense of urgency, the fear that drives the urgency has an unfortunate byproduct: Israelis don't trust Palestinians enough to offer a two-state deal that the Palestinians, or any self-respecting people, would accept. (Beinart's examination of the Camp David talks--see chapter 4--undermines the official Israeli-American story that the Palestinians have been offered great deals but have inexplicably turned them down.)

My point isn't that we should blame the Israelis for the death or very-near-death of the two-state solution. It's not surprising that people with their history and geopolitical predicament would let fear get the better of them. (They're being no more irrationally fearful than Americans were in the wake of 9/11, which led us to launch two wars, one of them against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and that posed no threat.) By the same token, it's not surprising that the Palestinians wouldn't endure 45 years of subjugation, during which they've been denied basic human rights, without any eruptions of violence (which of course isn't to say I support the violence). That's the depressing thing about the Israel-Palestinian conflict: It results from the Israelis and Palestinians acting more or less the way you would expect people in their shoes to act.

But that's why it's crucial that those of us who live at a safe remove from the conflict, and can in theory summon detachment, should try hard to see the situation clearly, succumbing neither to paralyzing fear nor cozy illusions. And the most common cozy illusion is that, though the time may not be right for a two-state solution now, we can always do the deal a year or two or three down the road.

The truth is that a two-state solution is almost completely dead, and it gets closer to death every day. If there's any hope at all of reviving it, that will involve, among other things, somehow delivering a shock to the Israeli system. Peter Beinart has an idea for how to do that. Does Zvika Kriegert? Do any of the other well-intentioned liberal Zionists who keep affirming their allegiance to a two-state solution as if that ritual incantation was somehow helping things?

[Update, April 5, 8:00 p.m.: A few hours after I posted this, Gideon Levy, one of the most prominent columnists in Israel, published a column in Haaretz declaring the two-state solution officially dead.]