The Debate Over Israel and Palestine

Editors’ note: On Monday we ran Michael Neumann’s argument against the so-called “one state” solution for Israel and Palestine. This is the first of three replies. AC / JSC.

Michael Neumann makes a strong case in the last issue of CounterPunch against a single Palestinian-Jewish state as the solution for the conflict in Israel-Palestine. But there are critical flaws in his argument.

Neumann correctly condemns the two-state solution as unjust because it “cements Zionist usurpation of Palestinian land,” perpetuating the existence of Israel as “a state based on racial supremacy.” But he finds  the one-state alternative to this racist two-state solution to be simply impractical. And why? Essentially because Israelis – these same Israelis whom he accuses of racism, land theft, and dispossession of the Palestinians – couldn’t conceivably accept it. The notion, he says, “that Israel would concede a single state is laughable. … There is no chance at all they will accept a single state that gives the Palestinians anything remotely like their rights.”

Apparently, this is the bottom line: if Israel opposes the idea of a single state, then a single state simply must be an impossible dream, not worth mentioning and certainly not worth struggling for. The case Neumann puts forth is ultimately an argument for the notion that might makes right. Israel has the power to impose its will and the power to avoid unpleasant concessions, and so one state in which Israel would “give up the reason for its existence” is unthinkable.

I find it sometimes difficult to navigate Neumann’s logic. He asserts that the two-state solution “is practicable” because “many Israelis can accept it”. That old argument again: that if it’s okay with Israel, it should be okay for the Palestinians. Furthermore, he says, a two-state solution is “practicable” because the Jewish settlers in the West Bank will leave voluntarily if Israel withdraws and the territory is given over to a sovereign Palestinian state. Neumann rightly makes it clear that anything less than a real, fully sovereign Palestinian state would be unacceptable. But then he brings his own dream of two states crashing down by asserting that Israel will not “by any means … agree to a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state”.  Exactly. This is precisely why advocates of one state are pushing for this alternative.

Neumann, on the contrary, sees this Israeli intransigence as a major reason for disdaining a one-state solution, the idea being that if Israel will not agree to give the Palestinians rights in a separate state, it will certainly not relinquish its own status as an exclusivist Jewish state by allowing Palestinians equal rights with Jews in a single state. This is, indeed, a persuasive argument – the best in Neumann’s arsenal – but it does not take account of possibilities that are themselves practicable in the eyes of many serious analysts. Few foresaw, for instance, that white South Africans would willingly give up their racial supremacy, end the apartheid system, and turn over their fate to a huge majority of blacks. Nor did many foresee the breakup of the Soviet Union.

There are other inconsistencies. For instance, in arguing that a two-state solution is practicable because Jewish settlers would readily leave any territory from which Israel withdrew, Neumann uses as an example the Gaza settlers, who he says left “in a large hurry” when Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005. Yet a few paragraphs later, when he is trying to demonstrate how difficult it would be to induce Israel to give up its Jewishness, he makes the evacuation of settlers from Gaza seem a much more serious problem: in this instance, he muses on how difficult it would be for Israel to relinquish its very raison d’etre,  when merely getting the settlements out of Gaza “took thousands of lives and many years.” Neumann is more correct in his second formulation about the Gaza settlers: they definitely did not leave in a large hurry but had to be removed bodily and with great trouble.

Neither would most of the West Bank settlers be easy to remove, even if Israel relinquished control, as Neumann believes. Indeed, the fate of the approximately 450,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is by far the most intractable problem facing any peacemaker. The huge numbers of religious zealots, who have moved to West Bank settlements because they believe they are fulfilling a divine mandate, would not under any circumstances “leave in a large hurry,” any more than the less zealous Gaza settlers did.

But the monumental problem of the settlers confronts the framers of a true two-state solution every bit as much as it does those who envision a single state. (The reference to a true two-state solution means, as Neumann himself makes clear, establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state, not a “non-state” truncated by the continued presence of large blocs of Israeli settlements.) Neumann dismisses any suggestion that the settlers and their settlements could be incorporated into a single state, and does not appear to recognize that leaving the settlers in place would equally undermine a two-state solution.

Neumann frequently overstates the difficulties involved in achieving a single state and appears to believe that anything short of his notion of absolute justice is actually unjust and unacceptable. A “just solution,” he contends, would have to repair the injustice done to Palestinians by Zionism. Fair enough, but he seems to go to unnecessary lengths by requiring as a condition of true justice that Jews who came to Palestine as Zionists, along with their descendants, would have to leave. True justice would also require that Israeli Jews relinquish all homes and property that once belonged to Palestinians.

One-state advocates do not go this far – which, in fact, is the particular beauty of the one-state solution as it is being advocated: there might be, and indeed should be, a truth and reconciliation commission, as in South Africa, to rectify the worst injustices, but advocates of a single state are not vindictive or bloodthirsty and do not demand that injustice be inflicted on the Jews of Israel. The effort to rectify injustices committed against Palestinians – including repatriating those who wish to return, paying compensation for property destroyed or expropriated, and arranging for resettlement and compensation for those refugees who choose not to return to Palestine – would be a massive task, necessitating careful attention to millions of individual cases, as well as land redistribution and huge compensatory payments.

A single state would not, as Neumann points out, be the democratic paradise that its framers would like – certainly not immediately, and perhaps never.  “Notoriously,” he says, “the democratic process does not ensure that the will of the majority really prevails. Dominant economic groups know how to confuse, divide and conquer,” and the dominant economic group now and into the future is Jewish. It is impossible to argue with this premise, but if Neumann thinks this reality would be different in any two-state situation, he is whistling in the dark. Even in a decent, fully sovereign Palestinian state, the economy would be heavily dependent on Israel: the state would be almost totally landlocked (except for Gaza, whose coastline would be under Israeli scrutiny, if not control), it would be surrounded on three sides by Israel, and it would be dependent on open borders for, among many other things, imports and exports, free movement between the West Bank and Gaza, and labor opportunities for Palestinians inside Israel. Israel will dominate, and could easily strangle, the economy of a separate Palestinian state. In a single state, Palestinians would at least have some say in regulating the state’s economy, its commerce and investment, its international relations. Not perfect, but more nearly so than any foreseeable two-state scenario.

There are other problems with Neumann’s argument. He dismisses totally the possibility that two antagonistic people could ever live together in anything like harmony, and ignores any comparison with countries where this has worked with some measure of success, such as South Africa and Northern Ireland, and uses flawed models to demonstrate that the one-state idea is not workable. He exhibits some misunderstanding of Palestinian politics and political sentiment when he contends that Fatah and Hamas together represent “roughly 100 per cent” of Palestinians in the occupied territories. In fact, there is a large and growing independent trend among Palestinians dissatisfied with both factions and eager for political alternatives.

Probably most disturbing is Neumann’s dismissal of any concept of justice as a reason for attempting to find an alternative solution. He mocks one-state advocates for being too visionary about the justice that a single state would embody. The one-state solution, by his lights, is an impossible dream, and not too well thought out or just in any case. Likewise, despite his greater advocacy of two states and his belief that this would give the Palestinians a “genuinely Palestinian state,” he makes it clear that this solution is not really likely either and to his mind is also unjust because it leaves Zionism untouched.

Neumann is no Zionist and, unlike those soft Zionists who want an end to the Israeli occupation but oppose the one-state solution, seems to have no particular desire to preserve Israel’s existence as an exclusivist Jewish state. He is totally condemnatory, in fact, of Zionism’s unjust, racist nature. Neither, apparently, is he particularly sold on the notion that Palestinians and the advocates of one state are inherently any more moral or just: he raises the suggestion that one-staters might actually intend a bloodbath against Jews and asserts that these advocates treat any Palestinians still working for two states as “sellouts, collaborators, or cowards.”This is quite untrue. The Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority is frequently labeled collaborationist, but this is not because it supports two states, but because it cooperates with Israel in economically strangling Gaza, scuttling Hamas despite its victory in democratic elections, failing to oppose Israel’s settlement program, and so on.

Neumann’s dismissal of any notion that Israelis will ever be able to do justice to the Palestinians, as whites in South Africa finally did to blacks, is unsettling. He obviously gives no credence to the substantial upsurge in probing discussion of the nature of Zionism and its uncertain future among Israelis and diaspora  Jews. He apparently sees no redeeming qualities in Israelis, no possibility of Israelis submitting to a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation process, no possibility even that over the longer term Zionism will implode from the sheer weight of its injustice and the pressure of demographic realities.

His pessimism is understandable. It is obviously much more difficult to imagine militant religious zealots among Israeli settlers listening to moral appeals about the injustice they have inflicted on Palestinians than it ever was to imagine white racists in South Africa giving up their sinecures and their power. But it is just as difficult to imagine those religious zealots conceding anything to a separate Palestinian state. Which makes the two-state solution just as impracticable and unlikely as one state. And since we are all advocating the near impossible, why not advocate the more just impossibility?

If we discard justice, one wonders where we are left with respect to other critical issues. What use, for instance, is there in ending Israel’s occupation at all? If we care only about practicality and not justice, there is no particular reason for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. Bush likes the occupation; all the Democratic presidential candidates and even more so the Republican candidates like it; Israel, of course, loves it. The same question applies to other issues. What except the promise of justice fueled past struggles against oppressive but seemingly immovable systems? Justice may ultimately be the only, or at least the primary, reason for pursuing any political cause. For this reason, discussion and advocacy of all alternative solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must continue.

Kathleen Christison is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 35 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She  can  be reached at
Tomorrow: Jonathan Cook addresses these themes.