The One State Illusion: Reply to My Critics

Editors’ note: On Monday we ran MICHAEL NEUMANN’s argument against the so-called “one state” solution for Israel and Palestine. The following three days featured critiques by Kathy Christison, Jonathan Cook and Assaf Kfoury. MICHAEL NEUMANN now wraps up this series with some comments. AC/JSC

What follows is blunt,  but this is not an expression of contempt. To the contrary,  I have great respect for these critics.

Kathy Christison

Christison says: “The case Neumann puts forth is ultimately an argument for the notion that might makes right.”  Nothing I said could  conceivably support that notion.   It’s true that the Palestinians, in their weakness, have only one practicable alternative, the two-state solution, so it is right for them to  pursue it.   But the Israelis, in their strength, have all sorts of  alternatives, and so it is wrong for them to impose the two-state solution.   In  other words, might makes wrong.  To say that this is ‘might makes right’ is like saying the following: if concentration camp inmates try to escape rather than overthrow the state – on the grounds that the latter alternative isn’t feasible – they’re ‘ultimately’ giving in to ‘might makes right’.

Christison also has some problems with my logic.

She says that ‘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… , 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’être,  when merely getting the settlements out of Gaza “took thousands of lives and  many years.”‘  As for getting out in a large hurry, that’s indeed what the settlers did. What took time and lives was convincing Israel to stop sponsoring and protecting them.   Once the time and lives were taken, the swift evacuation increased the credibility of a two-state solution:  Israel has shown itself much  more ready to get out of the occupied territories than, for instance, to give up on its pre-1967 borders.  Also, it seems elementary and indeed proven that Israel does not consider the occupied territories fundamental to its existence; not so, obviously, Israel itself.

Christison sees another problem:  first I say that a two-state solution is  practicable, then that “Israel will not “by any means …agree to a genuinely  sovereign Palestinian state”. What I actually said was: “This is not by any  means to say that Israel will agree to a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state.” There’s nothing illogical in supposing that practicality isn’t guaranteed to secure Israel’s agreement, nor in supposing that the practicable two-state solution is immeasurably more likely to secure Israel’s  agreement than the impracticable one-state solution. If my meaning was unclear,  I apologize.

Christison says:  “Neumann dismisses totally the possibility that two antagonistic people[s] 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.”   On no, I wouldn’t make a  blanket claim like that.  At the same time it would be crazy to ignore the historical record, and I don’t.   I argue against the South African analogy in some detail at

and claim that a single state is far more likely to resemble Lebanon in civil war than some happier place.   I’d also caution against seeing South Africa, and the allegedly huge concessions of the whites, through rose-coloured glasses.   Ask anyone who’s been there.  Northern Ireland isn’t comparable because there is no land issue, no gross inequality of power, no paranoia about a people being wiped off the map, and no plausibility to regarding Ulster Protestants and Catholics as competing ethnicities in the Israel/Palestine sense.

At one point, at least, Christison has consistency problems of her own.  First she says:  “Neumann …appears to believe that anything short of his  notion of absolute justice is actually unjust and unacceptable.”   Then she asks what will happen if we (with Neumann) “discard justice” and  “care only about practicality”.   It is not for us to discard or not to discard  justice.   Israel discarded justice long ago, and bleating about it won’t change  anything.   I made it entirely clear that a two-state solution is unjust.  If, as many believe, it’s the best the Palestinians can get, then the  Palestinians will do best to accept it.  I suppose that means it’s ‘acceptable’ in some impoverished sense of the word.

Christison says:  “Probably most disturbing is Neumann’s dismissal of any concept of justice as a reason for attempting to find an alternative solution.”  Hell no, I think that’s a terrific reason.  I merely think that, in the case of the one-state solution, the attempt fails miserably:  just or unjust, one state is not an available option.

Jonathan Cook

Cook has me argue that “just because something is called a two-state solution, it will necessarily result in two sovereign states.”  No, I argue that calling something a two-state solution doesn’t make it one.   It’s only a two-state solution if it results in two states, in the normal sense of two sovereign entities.

Cook apparently understood this because he asserts that when Bush, Olmert and Sharon called something a two state solution,  it would not result in two sovereign states.   On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t understand, because he apparently thinks that a sovereign Palestinian state might lack a real army.   He says Israel might not ‘concede’ such an army.  No kidding.  A real-two state solution is the most the Palestinians can get; it hardly follows that they are sure to get it.

Cook says:  ‘”When Olmert warns that without two states ‘Israel is finished’, he  is thinking primarily about how to stop the emergence of a single state. So, if  Neumann is to be believed, Olmert is a dreamer, because he fears that a one- state solution is not only achievable but dangerously close at hand. Sharon, it  seems, suffered from the same delusion, given that demography was the main impulse for his disengaging from Gaza.”   But “Israel is finished” can mean all sorts of things other than a one-state solution.   I see no point in speculating about just what, if anything, Olmert meant.   Whatever he meant hardly transforms the realities, which include Israel’s unwillingness to abolish itself.  As for Sharon, he disengaged from Gaza when he decided that the dream of a Greater Israel was too costly.   No doubt he also didn’t want the demographic hassle of a Jewish state full of Arabs.  How this proves he expected a single secular state is quite beyond me.  He certainly didn’t want one, just as I certainly don’t want a vacation home in Kandahar – but I don’t expect one either.

Cook speaks of “the unimaginable event that the Israel were to divide the land”.  I’m not sure how 1967 borders, which lasted almost forty years, can count as  unimaginable, particularly when Israel has already evacuated Gaza.

Cook says there are practical problems with a two-state solution.

One is water. Yes, Israel might make a water agreement a condition of ending the occupation.  What insurmountable obstacle does this pose?  At least Israel within 1967 borders won’t need water for the settlers’ gardens and swimming pools. Then there’s economic disruption.  If the shift from a wartime to a peacetime economy were a deal-breaker, there would never be any peace, anywhere.   No doubt the US, the EU and the Gulf States would fork up a lot of money to solve these problems. And with endless warfare as an alternative – a war which  diverts untold economic resources – I don’t see any economic argument against peaceful solutions.  That Cook speculates on what water-wars Israel might or might not initiate hardly strengthens his case, especially since Israel hasn’t enjoyed its recent wars very much. As for the idea that Israel’s lucrative defense industries cannot flourish without the occupation – who’s being naive?

Another alleged problem:  the decline of “Israel’s vital strategic alliance with  the US in dividing the Arab world”. Hello, if there’s peace, the alliance isn’t vital any more. And if Cook can speculate on all the “Jewish diaspora”  subsidies Israel will lose, I can speculate on the big bucks Israel will make in trade with the Arab world.  Many Arab governments find the Palestinians a pain in the ass and would be delighted to improve their economic relationship with Israel.

Cook tells us that the Palestinians living within pre-1967 Israel would demand equal rights.Well, they have always demanded such rights; it doesn’t seem to have troubled Israel too much.

Cook raises the spectre of ethnic cleansing within Israel after the implementation of a two-state solution. I have no idea why this would be more likely or more violent than in a single state where the “demographic threat” posed by the Palestinians would be incomparably greater.  And if Israel would resort to ethnic cleansing at the mere prospect of an eventual Palestinian majority, what would Israel not do to avoid a one-state solution, which entails both the certainty of a Palestinian majority and the end of Jewish sovereignty?

Under the two-state solution, the present smaller demographic threat is further reduced by the return of the settlers, and Israel can offer Palestinian Arabs all sorts of inducements to leave. In a single state, Jewish ethnic supremacy can be maintained only by civil war. For Israel’s leaders, even two ‘real’ states are preferable:  Israel has plenty of expertise in keeping real states, with real armies, in line. In short Cook greatly exaggerates both the internal and the external problems of defending Israel against the Palestinians in a two-state world.

Cook says that “As long as Israel is an ethnic state, it will be forced to deepen the occupation… “. Why would keeping millions more Palestinians within its borders improve Israel’s chances of remaining an ethnic state?  Is it to remain Jewish that Israel must hold on to all these non-Jews?

Finally Cook says:  “The solution… reduces to the question of how to defeat Zionism.It just so happens that the best way this can be achieved is by …explaining why Israel is in permanent bad faith about seeking peace.”   This conflates metaphor with reality.   Zionism doesn’t conquer, starve, dispossess and kill.  The state of Israel does that. It is not fought, much less defeated, by explanations, nor by exposing bad faith.  Nor is it defeated by “discrediting Israel as a Jewish state, and the ideology of Zionism that upholds it.” The Palestinians have fought Zionism, not metaphorically. They may succeed in pushing Israel back to 1967 boundaries.  To suppose they can go further, no doubt by moral suasion, presupposes such a good-hearted world that one wonders why there ever was a problem to start with.


Kfoury’s position amounts to this:  ‘One-State is now an escapist fantasy, whatever form one would like to give it, while Two-State is stigmatized by the failed Oslo Accords, a discredited Palestinian leadership, and an “international community” that never enforced its own UN resolutions on Palestine.’  In fact he spends most of his time attacking the one-state solution. Moreover his claims about the two-state solution do little to support the view that it’s not a live option.   That an option is ‘stigmatized’ doesn’t mean it’s not viable – indeed I write in fear that a viable option has been stigmatized.  Besides, it’s not clear why bad leadership, bogus accords, and bad enforcement should stigmatize the two-state solution, any more than, say, crappy musicians stigmatize music.

I do share Kfoury’s belief that our discussions are sterile.   Perhaps our opinions have some microscopic influence in the US – certainly not in Israel – but events are moving beyond our reach.   More and more, what counts is the ability of the Palestinians, in the occupied territories and through Hezbollah, to create facts on the ground.  No longer is that the prerogative of Israel and the United States.  I also agree that it is not for us to tell the Palestinians what to do.  Since most Palestinians appear resigned to a two-state solution, I see the one-state advocates as doing just that.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at:






Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at