When the New York Times Went to Bat for the One-state Solution

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Loath or lust after his ideas, University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick created a tempest in a teapot — pardon the idiom, I’m new to Britain — with a recent polemical New York Times op-ed entitled “The Two State Illusion.” In it he heaped opprobrium and a last mound on dirt on the grave of the two-state paradigm and called for consideration of, if not resignation to, the reality of the one-state solution.

Subsequently, academicians and practitioners across the political spectrum have debated the piece. (The responses include provocative essays by leftist cultural icon Yitzhak Laor in Haaretz, right-leaning Middle East Studies scholar Martin Kramer in Commentary, Arab-American advocate Hussein Ibish and academic Saliba Sarsar of the American Task Force on Palestine in The Daily Beast, left-leaning Jewish intellectual Bernard Avishai in the New Yorker as well as letters to the editor of the Times by Kenneth Jacobson of the Anti-Defamation League and Alan Elsner of JStreet, among others.)

Seemingly the only “Washington consensus” they can concur with is how wrong Lustick is. Yet while the merits of his argument certainly require further examination, the larger questions about the agenda of the publishers and the audience for this discussion have been largely overlooked — why has Western journalism seemingly been so intent on a campaign to “mainstream” the one-state discourse, and who is really listening?

Reading Lustick’s editorial myself, I was deeply impressed by his description of the current state of affairs in Israel/Palestine: grim realities, blissful ignorances, misguided optimisms, ingrained inequalities, dangerous fantasies and violent cataclysms. (Full disclosure: I am indebted to his scholarship and assistance in my own research on the Israeli settler movement.) Few have written with such piercing yet empathetic clarity of the dilemmas and delusions of both nations under siege and how (as he wrote in a rebuttal in The Daily Beast) “the illusion” of ultimately achieving two states for two peoples has helped to justify and normalize an interim state of “systematic coercion” and “permanent oppression.”

Lustick’s is a searing cry to mobilize action that will wrest the “peace process industry” from its collective apathy and acquiescence with the two-state solution. (It should be noted that his vigorous attacks on this “industry” come more from the standpoint of an insider, bearing in mind his role in Middle East policy planning in the State Department and consulting to subsequent administrations, than the putative outsider position he takes.) He seems to be seeking “redemption” for the (retrospective) wisdom ignored by himself and others in the 1980s.

Yet, while illustrating the vastly different conclusions that political scientists and historians reach, often working with the same raw material of conflict, I consider his conclusions somewhat too “parsimonious” (as the disciplinary lingo would have it); I see the correlation but not the causation in his case study. While undoubtedly the passage of time has failed the two-state solution, this is as much a problem of praxis by politicians as with the theory of nationalist ideology.

I have yet to see a better solution — complicated by the thin descriptions of workable alternatives in a climate where the only salient scenarios are usually “one nation pushes the other nation into the sea.” Lustick himself is too facile in his willingness to be “untethered” from “Statist Zionism” and “narrow Israeli nationalism,” even if the means to do so will necessarily unleash violence.

The looming (if not current) expiry for the viability of the “land for peace” rubric and the attractions of power-sharing arrangements notwithstanding, as a Zionist, I’m still not quite ready to be an early adopter in abandoning the state system. Yet, I unabashedly admit that I am what Lustick disparagingly calls the two-state “true believer.” If, as he later suggested, the disciples of the two-state rubric are a group of messianic, faith-based, deus-ex-machina-dependent, self-deluding zealots, in contrast with those converts to the timely, rational, human-agency-enlightened evangelists of the one-state solution, than I suppose I am one of the last doomed members of that fundamentalist cult.

Yet, the fierce debate over Lustick’s high profile and pull-no-punches argument aside (which are unlikely to be resolved), the larger questions surrounding its agenda and audience remain. Lustick’s piece joins several others in The Times and other major Western media outlets from various perspectives that have sought to mainstream the one-state discourse in journalistic practice. Whether this has backfired or not in reinforcing two-state advocacy remains to be seen, yet there is no doubt that it has achieved a heightened profile and polemic surrounding this paradigm.

It is not clear, however, whether this agenda is a veritable chicken-and-egg between publishers and politicians to promote one-state alternatives of late, as evidenced by Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon’s own contribution to The Times a few weeks ago. Further, it remains to be seen whether journalists can (and should?) control the message in the months and years to come, in a hyper-competitive media landscape where the op-ed has become the new global public square.

Yet, the most important aspect of this agenda is the audience it may — or may not — be reaching. If recent items are representative of broader trends, the debate over Lustick’s piece has largely been confined to the English-language media for the politically aware (on both left and right, including the peace industry that he attacks), leaving out the apolitical indifferent and, most significantly, those actually in the region itself.

From a brief review of the Hebrew press it seems Lustick’s op-ed barely raised an eyebrow, with a rare column in the center-right daily Maariv dismissing the professor as “no lover of Israel,” one “who doesn’t get the way things are here” (a familiar brush-off that many Americans interested in Israel are subject to), and concluding that “practical Zionism, both in its classic and pragmatic [forms] is still what most Israelis are clinging to,” even if the “broad and tired” problem of the two-state solution requires “hard questions.”

Haaretz also translated Lustick’s piece into Hebrew, although it appears that some of the most inflammatory passages (the frolicking coalition of Orthodox Jews and Jihadis, Tel Aviv entrepreneurs and fellahin, Mizrahi Jews and their Arab brothers) was redacted for its apparently unprepared Israeli audience. There was scant coverage in the Arabic-language press as well, whether or not because the standard editorial line attacking Israel precluded more substantive discussion.

For all of the fuss from afar on the one-state idea, from the point of view of the relevant parties they aren’t ready for it (yet). As Lisa Goldman wrote so poignantly of the misguided turn of the discussion about the very issues Lustick so acutely illuminated: “While the debate itself was interesting and sometimes provocative, it seemed to circumvent the real elephant in the room – which was the urgency of the situation on the ground.” Perhaps there is more in heaven and earth than dreamt of in Lustick’s philosophy.

While I remain a true believer in the two-state solution and hope for its fulfillment, the time has come to at least explore other options for an open, constructive and visionary discussion of the one-state solution. An exploration of both policies, especially given current realities, is not and cannot be mutually exclusive. We must heed Lustick’s call, yet I hope for a conversation that more earnestly honors both Zionist and Palestinian national aspirations and is led by parties to the conflict — and its solution — themselves.

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is the new University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at Oxford University. Her research, teaching and public engagement activities focus on the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the relationship between the U.S./American Jewry and Israel. She is writing a forthcoming book about American Jews and the Israeli settler movement since 1967. Follow her on Twitter @SaraHirschhorn1.

U.S.President Barack Obama, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, March 2013. Why are Western media outlets pushing the one-state solution? Credit: Reuters

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