Ever since Peter Beinart made his public case in Jewish Currents that liberal Zionists should shift from embracing Israeli-Palestinian separation in the form of a two-state solution to embracing Israeli-Palestinian equality in the form of a single democratic state, the responses and counter-responses have taken up nearly all of the oxygen in American Jewish intellectual and political discourse. Much of the debate has centered on the questions of whether separation and two states remains possible and whether a single bi-national state is a more realistic option (and on that latter question in particular, I recommend reading my colleague Evan Gottesman’s take). So much ink has been spilled on Beinart and his argument so far that there isn’t a whole lot to add to the mix, but there are two aspects that I do think are still worth commenting on. The first has to do with the political science in Beinart’s argument, and the second has to do with the discourse of the way we talk about the present situation on the ground.
The key factor that has led Beinart over the past few years to his new thinking on the benefits of equality for all in one single polity is his observation that separation is no longer possible due to Israel’s constantly expanding presence in the West Bank. As Beinart writes, “With each passing year, it has become clearer that Jewish statehood includes permanent Israeli control of the West Bank…And watching all this unfold, I have begun to wonder, for the first time in my life, whether the price of a state that favors Jews over Palestinians is too high. After all, it is human beings—all human beings—and not states that are created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed.”
Anyone who pays attention to goings on in Israel and the West Bank and has monitored developments on the ground – let alone seen them in person – over the past decade knows that Beinart’s description of a permanent sense of Israeli control over the West Bank rings true. It is difficult to argue that what exists now between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is not one state governed by a single entity, with smaller local governments controlling the day to day affairs of their own fiefdoms. When viewed through the prism of who the ultimate sovereign is, Israel has formalized a system with no end in sight where the Palestinian Authority is a more robust and more authoritarian version of something like the Binyamin Regional Council, with the added benefit of having its own private security force. This is not to suggest that the Palestinians should be absolved of all blame for the current state of affairs, but it is the state of affairs as it exists. When it comes to sovereign governance, there is right now a single state in Israel and the West Bank and no easy way of seeing how that ends.
But one state controlling everything is not the same as having one society, and that is one of the blind spots in Beinart’s argument. The increasing presence of Israel and Israelis in the West Bank has not led to a greater integration between Israeli and Palestinians societies. In fact, Israelis and Palestinians arguably interact less now face to face than at any time since Israel’s takeover of the West Bank in 1967. While Israel and Palestine may increasingly look like a single state based on Israeli government control and the ever growing number of Israeli settlements dotting hilltops throughout the West Bank, other aspects of separation beyond territory itself are at an all-time high.
This fact carries with it a few implications. One is that making the jump to equality for all is going to be a utopian vision – as Beinart allows is currently the case – for longer than even the most pessimistic assessments imagine. That does not make striving for equality for all less of a worthy goal for anyone who embraces that vision, but it does impact the discussion of whether it is realistically achievable in any lifetime, let alone mine or Beinart’s.
Second is that it renders Beinart’s reading of the political science of bi-national states incorrect. Beinart conflates a number of categories – nationalities, ethnicities, religions – as if they are the same, which they are not. In this particular case, it isn’t only that the societies are living largely apart, but that they are living apart and maintaining distinct national identities. Using evidence from a religious conflict in Northern Ireland does not automatically work if you are seeking to prove that a conflict between conflicting national groups can be resolved peacefully through the same power sharing mechanisms. The same goes for South Africa, which is a case of horrific race-based discrimination but not one involving competing national claims. Again, this does not in any way suggest that Israeli discrimination against Palestinians or denial of Palestinian national aspirations is defensible because it involves competing nationalisms. But it does make Beinart’s comparisons inapt and his appeals to the political science literature somewhere between shoddy and incomplete. Perhaps most glaringly, it ignores the long stream of evidence that actual bi-national and multi-ethnic states often do not work, as evidenced by the breakups of Yugoslavia, Sudan, the Soviet Union, and perhaps most saliently in this case, the fracturing and civil war in 1940s Mandatory Palestine.
This leads to the difference between acknowledging the existence of a one-state reality – which as pointed out above is in many ways currently the case – and positing that a one-state solution is the fix for what ails the current reality. Supporters of two states are often excoriated not only for trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, but pretending that the peg itself is not square. That criticism is biting precisely because it is accurate, not wholly but in many ways. Israel governs its sovereign territory and the West Bank in significant ways as one entity, and differentiates between people living in the exact same territory according to ethnic-based citizenship (as there are no West Bank Palestinian citizens of Israel). There are reasons why it is inaccurate to describe this as a de jure single state, but to describe this as a one-state reality at this point in time given the facts is not. And once again, that is not to assign all of the blame for this situation to Israel, but to acknowledge that this is an accurate rendering of what exists.
Bowing to this reality does not, however, make it equally accurate to say that what follows is that one state is a better solution than two. Acknowledging the current inequity between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank amidst Israeli military occupation does not mean that declaring it all one state will make those inequities disappear, rather than lead even greater inequities to emerge. It does not mean that pushing for equality for all in a single state will more easily or completely lead to fundamental change. It does not mean that allowing the notion of temporary occupation to cover for increasing permanence of that occupation is a reason to push for more overt permanent occupation in the hopes that it will eventually crash down and lead to equality and democracy for all. These are all nice things to wish for, but they are wishes and not solutions to a problem.
Whatever one thinks of the efficacy of two states or the possibility of still getting to that point, it is not in any way a utopian ideal. In the same vein as the oft-inaccurately rendered Churchill quote about democracy being the worst form of government except for the others that have been tried, the two-state solution remains the best one because it checks a number of important boxes in the least painful way overall. Nobody pretends that it will accomplish something that it will not or cannot. One state may be many things, but it is not in any way a solution. Acknowledging the reality of it – and taking a look around to see how it is working out – makes that abundantly clear.