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‘Times’ Op-Ed on One-State Solution Unwittingly Bolsters Two-State Case

Ian Lustick imagines a liberal utopia, contra Peter Beinart, who says Jews must listen to Palestinians even if we can’t agree

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Israeli policemen stand guard outside the entrance to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s old city on September 12, 2013, following disturbances that led to the temporary interruption of access into Al-Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest shrine. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
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Last Sunday, the New York Times gave more space than it ever had before to the idea that Zionism is over. Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, makes the case in the cover story for the Times’ Week in Review, called “Two-State Illusion.” Because a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is now nearly impossible to achieve, Lustick argues, we must accept the much more plausible idea of “the disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project.”

The Times gave Lustick a precedent-breaking platform for his ideas. The most memorable previous time the Times gave a prime-time spot to a proponent of the one-state idea was in 2009, when the late Muammar Qaddafi proposed that Israel and the Palestinian territories be replaced by a country called Isratine, where Jews and Palestinians would live in harmony, and all Palestinian refugees and their descendants would be eagerly welcomed home. But that seemed like an obvious editorial lark. Moreover, even Qaddafi struck a mellower note than many anti-Zionists, writing approvingly that, in 1948, “it is important to note that Jews did not expel Palestinians.” But Qaddafi’s editorial failed to mention the possibility that dissolving the Jewish state and flooding it with millions of new Palestinians just might lead to a slight case of violence between what he called the “cousins descended from Abraham”—Jews and Muslims.

In contrast to Qaddafi, Lustick seems almost eager to envision the chaos and bloodshed that would accompany the demise of the Jewish state. When considering the benefits of Israel’s dissolution, Lustick writes:

Secular Palestinians … could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as “Eastern,” but as Arab.

In Lustick’s telling, the post-Israel Levant will be a vibrant tapestry, full of jostling new identities. The Hasid will dance with the Islamic Jihadnik, and all manner of thing shall be well. Lustick claims that he’s the realist striking out against the “fantasy” of a two-state solution. Yet the breathless cadenza I’ve just quoted exposes him as a far more ridiculous dreamer than those he criticizes. The idea that Mizrahi Jews, dispossessed and expelled from Arab countries, will suddenly start calling themselves Arabs rather than Jews, something they’ve fervently resisted for well over 2,000 years, could only be born from the deepest academic naiveté or from plain old ignorance. It’s far more likely that African-Americans will begin describing themselves as white. If Israel does come to ruin as Lustick hopes, the consequences will likely resemble Lebanon or Iraq rather than the peaceful multiethnic mosaic that he imagines. There is a reason that the destruction of Israel is a nightmare that the U.S. government is willing to go to war to prevent, and it has nothing to do with AIPAC.

Lustick notes in his article that “many Israelis see the demise of the country as not just possible, but probable.” He evidently wants to help these Israelis see the promising future that beckons when they are once again deprived of statehood and surrounded by their enemies. After all, Lustick reminds us, French Algeria collapsed, and so did the Soviet Union, and so did apartheid South Africa. Why can’t Israel collapse too? Peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians have led nowhere, he remarks. Lustick explains that he worked as an analyst for the State Department on the Palestinian issue in 1980. “Now, as then,” he writes, “negotiations are phony.” So much for the offers made by Barak and Olmert; so much for Mahmoud Abbas’ concessions: It’s all a farce. And this is how Lustick’s op-ed differs from Qaddafi’s. What the Times did this week was give a prestigious academic enough rope to hang himself. And, bizarrely, he did it by revisiting an argument that’s been going on longer than most readers would ever realize.


Setting up a single binational state in Palestine is not a new idea. Its heyday was in the 1920s, when the group Brit Shalom was established by a collection of Jewish intellectuals, most of whom had immigrated to Palestine from German-speaking Europe: Arthur Ruppin, Gershom Scholem, Ernst Simon, Hugo Bergmann. Judah Magnes, the chancellor of the Hebrew University, was a supporter of the movement. Brit Shalom fervently believed that the only way to allow Jewish settlement in Palestine to flourish was to pursue a peaceful agreement with Palestinian Arabs. As Anita Shapira remarks in Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948, Brit Shalom “wanted to create a unique and special state of affairs in Palestine, hitherto unknown: colonizing without the use of force.” Bergmann and others argued that Jews needed to sit down with Arabs, to talk directly to the people already living on the land to which Jews wanted to immigrate. A future legislative council would let Arabs play a major political role, and because they would be secure in their political status, Arabs, the theory went, would then allow Jews to immigrate freely to Palestine.

But there were two problems with Brit Shalom’s advocacy of a binational state. The first was that Zionism was supposed to free Jews from the real and psychic oppression that existed when they lived among a foreign people. By asking Jews to share political power with Arabs, Brit Shalom was telling them to give up the essence of the Zionist dream—to settle for a new galut, not a place of their own.

The second problem was Arab reluctance to allow any Jewish immigration at all to Palestine. In response to Arab anxiety about the increasing number of Jewish newcomers, some of Brit Shalom’s members began speaking of a new goal: Jews would be not a majority in Palestine but rather a multitude (rabim rather than rov). In any case, Brit Shalom thought, a binational state would neutralize the question of majority—that was the hope. What would it matter that there might be more Jews in Palestine than Arabs, since the state itself wouldn’t be Jewish? But the real question remained: Would Jews ever be willing to put limits on Jewish immigration? The answer had to be no, since Zionism was meant to provide a haven for oppressed Jews everywhere. Meanwhile, Arabs demanded not just a limit on aliyah, but a complete ban on Jewish immigration. And then came the devastating Arab riots of 1929, which changed everything for the worse. The door to Jewish-Arab dialogue closed.

The violence of the 1929 revolt underscored the fact that Jewish and Arab interests in Palestine were fundamentally opposed, and that no reconciliation was possible, as Ruppin himself admitted at the time. Zionists buying land necessarily meant displacement of Arab tenant farmers; in a time when today’s economic growth seemed impossible to imagine, more Jews seeking work meant fewer jobs for Arabs. The two sides couldn’t work together because what was good for the one was bad for the other.

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‘Times’ Op-Ed on One-State Solution Unwittingly Bolsters Two-State Case

Ian Lustick imagines a liberal utopia, contra Peter Beinart, who says Jews must listen to Palestinians even if we can’t agree