Writing off the two-state solution is the latest trend in Israel-Palestine punditry. A surprising meeting point between left and right, the notion that historical Palestine can no longer be divided into two sovereign states is gaining popularity among former supporters of two states for two peoples. Even if at one time partition was both just and practicable, argue the recent converts to the church of the-hell-with-it, years of failure have drained the last drops of reasonable hope from this now obsolete idea. The two-state solution, in other words, is not inherently wrong; it is simply passé. The controversy around Ian Lustick’s recent “Two-State Illusion” article in The New York Times offers an opportunity to analyze “partition skepticism,” as we call it, and to submit its arguments to critical scrutiny.
1. Partition skepticism
Arguments against the two-state solution fall into two types. Some oppose partition on moral grounds, arguing that any solution that does not address the Palestinian right of return and redress discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel is inherently unjust. These objections are applicable regardless of the state of the peace process; they hold the same weight now as they did back when Lustick and other recent partition skeptics were still cheering for two states for two peoples.
The second type of argument against partition concerns practicability. Partition skeptics contend that even if the two-state solution is in principle desirable, it is no longer feasible; they argue that the peace process is failing because it is pursuing a dead end and they call for alternative solutions. It is no wonder that after 46 years of unrelenting occupation and three decades of failed negotiations, and amidst another round of precarious peace talks, the tendency to announce—or celebrate—the death of the two-state solution is making some headway among intellectuals and activists. It takes endless optimism not to give in to despair every once in a while, but those of us whose lives are inextricably implicated in this conflict do not have the luxury of allowing visceral reactions to stand in the way of clear-eyed engagement with reality. Fatigue is no substitute for analysis and frustration is no excuse for inadvertent argumentation.
The main argument of partition skeptics is that the two-state solution is dead due to irreversible “facts on the ground.” This claim has been making the rounds for more than 30 years. In 1982, the prophet of irreversibility, Israeli historian and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, warned that it is already “5 minutes to midnight” with respect to the two-state solution due to Israel's de-facto annexation of the West Bank. Lustick recalls that in 1980 he detected that Israel “was systematically using tangled talks over how to conduct negotiations as camouflage for de-facto annexation of the West Bank via intensive settlement construction, land expropriation and encouragement of “voluntary” Arab emigration, arguing that this threatens the practicability of partition. But while Israel’s bad faith cannot be denied, annexation is a legal term; land cannot be annexed de-facto because annexation requires the assent or at least the acknowledgement of relevant parties, and nobody—not the international community, certainly not the Palestinians, and not even official Israel—regards Gaza and the West Bank as annexed.
The issue, then, is not the status of the occupied territories, but the physical reality, the notorious facts on the ground. When it comes to the vision of a bi-national democratic state, Lustick counts on the possibility of “radical, disruptive changes in politics.” Empires may rise and fall, but settlements are forever. Settlement construction has certainly been the major obstacle for peace and a constant source of frustration for those who seek it. But it is wrong to conclude that they are irreversible.
In truth, the idea that the settlements are physically irreversible is no more valid today, when settlers number more than 500,000, than it was in the early 1980's when they were no more than a few scores. To see this it is enough to note some basic facts about them. Note that 85 percent of settlers live in what is now known as settlement blocs, which comprise less than 6 percent of the West Bank. Nearly all settlements outside these blocs have fewer than 2,000 residents. Moreover, the settlements rely for their subsistence on profligate funding and services provided by the state of Israel. The settlements have developed no substantial local industry, commerce or agriculture, and more than two-thirds of settlers work inside the Green Line. Of those who work in the settlements, the percentage of government and municipal employees is extremely high. While the Israeli welfare state goes to pieces, benefits and government subsidies to settlements are skyrocketing. Anything from transportation to education and housing is cheaper for Jews beyond the Green Line. Life in the geopolitical absurdity of the settlements is objectively costly, which makes it completely dependent on special subsidies.
Withdrawal of these benefits and services would make life in the settlements barely possible and quite possibly unbearable for most settlers. The fact that imagery of forced displacement still dominates discussions of settlement dismantlement is a triumph for the right, which the left grants gratuitously. Proponents of peace must overcome the tendency to self-destructively aggrandize the settlements. They should heed the words of Elisha Efrat, a leading Israeli geographer, who recently wrote in The Two-State Solution that “the settlement system established over many years through huge investments, is in fact geographically shaky, inconsistent with the logic of spatial planning, and therefore has little chance to maintain a lasting, independent existence… The collapse and disintegration of this system is only a matter of time.”
For the full article on the Daily Beast's Open Zion, click here.