In a New York Times Magazine article in 2004, journalist Ron Suskind recounted a conversation with a White House staffer – later identified as Karl Rove – that became arguably the most infamous epitaph of the George W. Bush administration. Rove accused Suskind of being in what he dubbed the “reality-based community,” defined as people who believe that solutions to problems come from analyzing discernible facts, despite the world actually operating differently; “when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
This notion of creating a new reality divorced from previously discernible facts came to mind a number of times in following this week’s news, but never more clearly than while reading U.S. Ambassador David Friedman’s defense of the Trump peace plan in the New York Post. Friedman was responding to Phil Gordon and Rob Malley’s argument in Foreign Policy urging Joe Biden to speak out now against Israel’s potential annexation of parts of the West Bank under the auspices of the Trump plan and to lay out the possible ramifications for future American policy should Biden win the presidency. Friedman laid out seven points that he deemed to be false and that in his view required rebutting; unsurprisingly, one could describe his own missives in the same fashion and point out the inaccuracies, falsehoods, and failures of logic and history point by point, as my colleague Evan Gottesman so ably did. But two in particular stood out as examples of turning reality on its head in order to create a different universe altogether.
The first was Friedman’s contention that the annexation envisioned by the Trump plan will not jeopardize Israel’s democracy because “a majority of Israelis, as well as Israel’s democratically elected government, support the president’s vision…The vision would only enhance democracy by permitting Israelis to choose their elected leaders — and Palestinians to freely do the same.” A line like this could only be written by someone who thinks that the sole purpose of democracy is to allow one larger group of people to impose their vision and preferences on another smaller group of people, no matter what that vision or those preferences might be. While this might fit into the constructed reality of a primary architect of the Trump plan, the animating purpose of which is to enable the larger and more powerful side to impose its will on the smaller and weaker side, it does not comport with any discernible fact-based reality of what makes something democratic.
Judging democracy entirely by whether or not elections are held and majority will is followed is a simplistic and uninformed view, one that does not comport with political science or what we actually observe in the world. While elections and majority will are necessary components of democracy, they are not sufficient. The reason we care in the U.S. about apparently trifling things like rule of law, protection of basic fundamental rights, full citizenship and pathways to citizenship for anyone subject to the state’s authority, and adherence to constitutionalism, and not just about “permitting Americans to choose their elected leaders” is because our system of government thankfully moved beyond second grade civics lessons that go no farther than asking seven year olds to have mock presidential elections. Three decades ago, authoritarian countries around the world realized that if they only held elections, they could get away with calling themselves democracies and manage to fool precisely the type of people who think that majority will is what automatically confers democratic status. If you’ve ever wondered why North African strongmen cared about being “elected” with 97% of the vote or why political scientists now analyze a category of countries oxymoronically dubbed electoral autocracies, it is because of people who yell “but elections!” as the answer to any questions about antidemocratic behavior.
Friedman is correct that the Trump plan’s partial West Bank annexation will not automatically jeopardize Israel’s status as democratic, but it is certainly not because a majority of Israelis “support the president’s vision” or because the Trump plan does not jeopardize the franchise of Israeli citizens, as that standard would allow a majority of Israelis to do literally anything they want to anyone they want and still meet the Friedman test. The question of where Israeli democracy goes in the wake of Israeli annexation depends on a range of variables, including but not limited to whether the annexation takes place divorced from the actual creation of a Palestinian state accepted by the Palestinians; what happens to the Palestinians annexed to Israel; whether the Palestinians living in the non-annexed territory have their ability to come and go subject to Israeli control indefinitely; whether those same Palestinians are able to elect leaders who actually have authority over the territory and people they ostensibly lead; and whether the Palestinians living in the non-annexed territory that will remain under Israeli military occupation determine that they are even still interested in gaining their own national sovereignty versus gaining Israeli citizenship. Not one of these reality-based variables that will have a role in determining the status of Israeli democracy in fact and in the opinion of the rest of the world has anything to do with how many Israelis do or do not support the Trump plan, but why let something like that get in the way of creating your own new reality?
Similarly, Friedman insists that nothing in the Trump plan undermines a two-state solution, and that the Trump plan actually comes closest to providing for that outcome by getting a commitment from Israel to negotiate based on specific terms and borders. This is an even better example of jettisoning known reality to create an alternate reality that may even convince some people who don’t know any better. Just because a two-state solution has always referred to a negotiated agreement that both sides can live with and that actually leaves two recognizable states in its wake shouldn’t stop a good opportunity for inane demagoguery. After all, the Peace to Prosperity plan informed us that “sovereignty is an amorphous concept” and that “pragmatic and operational concerns that effect [sic] security and prosperity are what is most important,” so who’s to say that a two-state solution can’t be whatever Friedman says it is?
The true brilliance of the Trump plan is precisely this reformulation and repurposing of the two-state solution to serve a completely different set of aims. If the Trump administration claims that its approval of, if not outright push for, West Bank annexation is a two-state solution, and Israelis hear it repeated often enough to believe that it is a two-state solution, you will blink and open your eyes to a world in which the old reality of a two state vision is the rubble resting out of sight below the new reality of two states requiring unilateral Israeli annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank.
In the next few months, the Trump team will keep on working to make people believe this new reality that they have constructed while those they dismiss have been busying themselves with all of the inconvenient but discernible facts. Annexation and anything else the Trump administration shepherds along will be consistent with a two-state solution because the Trump plan is allegedly a two-state solution. The tautology is beautiful in its simplicity, easy to grasp and impossible to refute with fact-based arguments because it does not rest on fact-based arguments. Just remember as you hear administration officials and supportive organizations repeat this mantra about two states and the Trump plan that turning reality on its head while insisting that up is down not only leaves one disoriented, but also opens the door for others to distort reality in ways that may not leave you quite as satisfied.