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There’s Nothing Idealistic About the One-State Solution


This is at least the third time in the past four years that philosophy professor Michael Neumann has used these pages to lambast the supporters of a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. On each occasion he has offered a little more insight into why he so vehemently objects to what he terms the “delusions” of those who oppose – or, at least, gave up on – the two-state solution.

In his most recent essay, Neumann suggests that his previous reluctance to be more forthright was motivated by “politeness”. Well, I for one wish the professor had been franker from the outset. It might have saved us a lot of time and effort.

Even though I have identified myself as a supporter of the one-state solution, I find much to agree with in what Neumann writes on this occasion. Like him, I do not believe that a particular solution, or resolution, will occur simply because the Palestinians or their wellwishers make a good moral case for it. Success for the Palestinians will come when a wide array of regional developments force Israel to conclude that its current behaviour is untenable.

There are plenty of signs that just such a power shift is starting to take place in the Middle East: Iran’s possible development of a nuclear warhead; an awakening of democratic forces in Egypt and elsewhere; the fraying of the long and vital military alliance between Israel and Turkey; the exasperation of Saudi Arabia at Israel’s intransigence; the growing military sophistication of Hizbullah; and the complete discrediting of the US role in the region.

Neumann is wrong to assume that one has to be an idealist – believing in the political equivalent of fairies – to conclude that a one-state solution is on the cards. It does not have to be simply a case of wishful thinking. Rather, I will argue, it is likely to prove a realistic description of the turn of events over the next decade or more.

While Neumann and I agree on the causes of an Israeli change of direction, his and my analyses diverge sharply on what will follow from Israel’s realisation that its occupation is too costly to maintain.

Neumann proposes that, once cornered by regional forces it can no longer intimidate or bully, Israel will have to concede what he terms the “real” two-state solution.

He does not set out what such a solution would entail, but he is adamant that it – and only it – must take place. So let me help with an outline of the apparent minimal requirements for a real two-state solution:

* Israel agrees to pull out its half a million settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, presumably assisted by lavish compensation from the international community;

* Israel hands over all of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, while the city’s holy places, including the Western Wall, pass to a caretaker body representing the international community;

* The Palestinians get a state on 22 per cent of historic Palestine, with their capital in East Jerusalem;

* The Palestinians are free to establish an army – with Iran and Saudi Arabia presumably competing over who gets to sponsor it;

* The Palestinians have control over their airspace and the electro-magnetic spectrum. If they have any sense, they quickly turn to Hizbullah for advice on how to neutralise Israel’s extensive spying operations, its overhead drones and listening posts currently sited all over the West Bank;

* The Palestinians get unfettered access to their new border with Jordan and beyond to other Arab states;

* The Palestinians are entitled to an equitable division of water resources from the main West Bank acquifers, currently supplying Israel with most of its water;

* And the Palestinians have, as promised under the Oslo accords, a passageway through Israel to connect the West Bank and Gaza.

Let us leave aside the social problems for Israel caused by this arrangment: the huge disruption created by an angry and newly homeless half a million settlers returning to Israel, as well as the dramatic aggravation of the already severe housing crisis in Israel and the rapid deterioration in relations with the large Palestinian minority living there.

Let us also not dwell on the problems faced by the Palestinians, including the potentially hundreds of thousands of refugees who will have to be absorbed into the limited space of the resource-poor West Bank and Gaza, or their likely anger at what they will see as betrayal, or the inevitable economic troubles of this micro-state.

Doubtless, all these issues can be addressed in a peace agreement.

In his essays, Neumann only factors in what Israelis are prepared to accept from a solution. So let us ignore too the “idealism” of those critics who are concerned about whether a “real two-state solution” can actually be made to work for ordinary Palestinians.

The assumption by Neumann is that, faced with a rapid escalation in the political and financial costs of holding on to the Palestinian territories, Israel will one day understand that it has no choice but to jettison the occupation.

He offers nine reasons for why the one-state solution is “blatantly nonsensical”. Though numerically impressive, most of his arguments – such as his discussion of the right of return, or the representativeness of a Palestinian government, or the nature of legal and moral rights – appear to have little or no bearing on the practical case either for or against one state. The same can be said of his ascription of the sin of idealism to those he lumps together as one-staters, and his allusion, yet again, to the vague formula of a “real two-state solution”.

His other three arguments – the first he lists – are no more revelatory. In fact, they are variations of the same idea, one that can best be summarised by an analogy he offers in one: “If I’m making 50,000 dollars, I might demand 70,000, but not 70 million. It is not clever to demand the whole of Israel when Israel won’t yield even the half that almost the whole world says it must surrender – the occupied territories.”

I am no professor of logic but something about this analogy rings hollow. Let us try another that seems closer to the reality of our case.

One day you arrive at my home and take over most of the building using force. A short time later you drive me out of the house completely, and, in what you consider a generous concession, allow me to live in the shed at the end of the garden. Over the years we become bitter enemies. The neighbours, my former friends, can no longer turn a blind eye to my miserable condition and decide to side with me against you. One day they come to your door and threaten to use violence against you if you do not let me back into the house.

What happens next?

Well, as Neumann implies, it may all end happily with you agreeing to let me live in the box room. But then again, it might not.

Sensing that the shoe is finally on the other foot, I might decide to make your life unbearable in the main part of the house in order to win more space or to drive you out. Or you might decide that, given your precarious new situation in the neighbourhood, you would be better off abandoning your ill-gotten gains and looking for somewhere else to live.

I am not a fan of such analogies. I resort to it simply to highlight that, if one wants to make use of these kinds of devices, then it is at least preferable to use an apposite one.

(Interestingly, if we pursue this analogy, it also questions Neumann’s preferred comparison of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories with France’s occupation of Algeria. In this case, Algeria appears to be the garden rather than the main house.)

The larger point is that there is no reason to assume that, just because the occupation gets too costly, Israel can simply amputate it like a rotting limb.

Part of the weakness in Neumann’s argument can be seen in his repeated references to the settlers as a group of troublesome misfits rather than a substantial chunk both of the Israeli cabinet, including the foreign minister, and of the high command of the Israeli army and security services, including the current head of the National Security Council.

Likewise, he caricatures Western support for Israel as “Zionist hysteria” in the US Congress, backed by “ridiculous” fellow travellers such as the Canadian government. If only the support for Israel among Western governments were this trivial.

Such misrepresentations make his argument that the occupation is vulnerable appear far stronger than it really is. In fact, the occupation is much more than the settlements.

It is the Messianism industry, run by the settlers, that took over Israel decades ago. Its hold extends far beyond the West Bank to the now-dominant religious education stream feeding poison to young minds, as well as to the seminaries where young religious men training to become army officers are tutored daily in their Chosenness and their divine right to exterminate Palestinians.

It is the ultra-Orthodox with their ambivalence to Zionism but their now-savage sense of entitlement to handouts from the state. They have several large urban communities in the West Bank tailor-made for their separatist religious way of life. The people who riot over a parking lot opening on Shabbat will not easily walk away from their homes, schools and synagogues.

It is a large and profitable Israeli real estate industry that has plundered and pillaged Palestinian land for decades, and which seems to implicate every new Israeli prime minister in a fresh corruption scandal.

It is Israel’s farming industries that depend for their survival on the theft of both Palestinian land and water sources.

It is ordinary Israelis, already spoiling for a fight after an unprecedented summer of social unrest over the exorbitant cost of living in Israel, who have yet to find out the true price of fruit and vegetables – and running water – should they lose these water “subsidies”.

It is Israel’s extensive and lucrative military hi-tech industries that rely on the occupied territories as a laboratory for developing and testing new weapons systems and surveillance techniques for export both to the global homeland security industries and to tech-hungry modern armies.

It is Israel’s security and intelligence services, abundantly staffed with the same Ashkenazis who will go on to become the country’s political leaders, pursuing careers surveilling and controlling Palestinians under occupation.

And it is the profligate military – Israel’s version of the West’s prodigal bankers – whose jobs and lethal toys depend on endless US taxpayers’ munificence.

None of this will be given up lightly, or at a cost that won’t make America’s current $3 billion annual handouts to Israel look like peanuts. And that is before we factor in the huge payouts needed to compensate the Palestinian refugees and to build a Palestinian state.

But these problems only hint at the argument for a one-state solution. The reality is that the elites that run Israel have everything to lose should the occupation fall. That is why they have invested every effort in integrating the occupied territories into Israel and making a “real” peace deal impossible. The occupation and its related industries are the source of their moral legitimacy, their political survival and their daily enrichment.

That is also why they are twisting in agony at the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal to rival their own. At that point, the occupation begins to expire and their rule is finished.

Were the regional conditions to come about that Neumann believes necessary to evict Israel from the occupied territories, these elites and their Ashkenazi hangers-on will face a stark choice: bring down the house or scatter to whatever countries their second passports entitle them to.

They may go for the doomsday scenario, as some currently predict. But my guess is that, once the money-laundering opportunities enjoyed by the politicians and generals are over, it will simply be easier – and safer – for them to export their skills elsewhere.

Left behind will be ordinary Israelis – the Russians, the Palestinian minority, the ultra-Orthodox, the Mizrahim – who never tasted the real fruits of the occupation and whose commitment to Zionism has no real depth.

These groups – isolated, largely antagonistic and without a diaspora occupying the US Congress to assist them – have not the experience, desire or legitimacy to run the military fortress that Israel has become. With the glue gone that holds the Zionist project together, both the Palestinians and the Israelis who remain will have every interest to come up with real solutions to the problem of living as neighbours.

The strangest aspect to Neumann’s claims against the one-staters – repeated in all his essays on this subject – is the argument that they are not only deluded but propagating an idea that is somehow dangerous, though quite how is never explained.

If as Neumann argues, correctly in my view, Israel will only change course when faced with significant pressure from its neighbours, then the worst crime the one-staters can be accused of committing is an abiding attachment to an irrelevant idealism.

Iran will not discard its supposed nuclear ambitions simply because the one-state crowd start to make a compelling moral case for their cause, any more than Hizbullah will stop amassing its rockets. So why should Neumann get so exercised by the one-state argument? By his reckoning, it should have zero impact on progress towards a resolution of the conflict.

Nonetheless, even on Neumann’s limited terms, one can also make a serious case that advocacy of a single state might produce benefits for the Palestinians.

If nothing else, were a growing number of Palestinians and international supporters persuaded that demanding an absolutely just solution (one state) was the best path, would this not add an additional pressure to the other, material ones facing Israel to concede a real two-state solution – if only to avoid the worse fate of a single state being imposed by its neighbours?

But I think we can go futher in making the practical case for a one-state solution.

Although the main cause of Israel changing tack will be the alignment of regional forces against it, an additional but important factor will be the emergence of a political climate in which western states and their publics are increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s bad faith. Congress’ support is not paid in the currency of hysteria but in hard cash. And that support won’t dry up until Israel and its “mad dog” policies are widely seen as illegitimate or a liability.

One of the key ways Israel will discredit itself, following it and Washington’s recent decision to block any Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, is by cracking down – probably violently – on any political aspirations expressed by ordinary Palestinians under occupation.

History, including Palestinian history, suggests that populations denied their rights rarely remain passive indefinitely. Palestinians who see no hope that their leaders can secure for them a state will be increasingly motivated to claim back their cause.

Ordinary Palestinians have no power, as Neumann notes, to force Israel to establish a state for them. But they do have the power to demand from Israel a say in their future, and press for it through civil disobedience, campaigns for voting rights, and the establishment of an anti-apartheid movement. Such a struggle will take place within – and implicitly accept – the one-state reality already created by Israel. If Palestinians march for the vote, it will be for a vote in Knesset elections.

None of this will win them either a state or the vote, of course. But the repression needed from Israel to contain these forces will serve to rapidly erode whatever international sympathy remains and to further galvanise the regional forces lining up against Israel into action.

In short, however one assesses it, the promotion of a one-state solution can serve only to hasten the demise of the Israeli elites who oppress the Palestinians. So why waste so much breath opposing it?

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is


Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is

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