The Resilient Fiction of the Two-State Solution

The lack of a viable two-state solution doesn’t mean liberal Zionists will stop believing in one.

Joshua Leifer
July 9, 2020
An Israeli flag flies over a Jewish-owned house in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem on Wednesday, July 1st, 2020. Photo: Mahmoud Illean via AP

ISRAEL’S IMPENDING ANNEXATION of the West Bank has put the fate of the two-state solution—or, perhaps more accurately, its death—at the center of the American Jewish communal discourse once again. Yet neither Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement of his annexation intentions, nor the Trump “peace plan,” is responsible for the death of the two-state solution, which long ago ceased to be a realistic outcome for Israel/Palestine. What the great drama of annexation playing out in the Anglo-American press is really about—in no small part due to the exclusion of Palestinian perspectives—is whether American liberal Zionists will reconcile themselves to this reality or continue to deny it.

While some American liberal Zionists, like my colleague Peter Beinart, now recognize that, as he wrote earlier this week, “the traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s path,” most seem more unwilling to make a similar reappraisal. Indeed, if the past is any indication, it’s likely that most liberal Zionists will continue to choose the path of denial. For most American Zionists—liberal Zionists and those further to the right—a two-state solution has long been less a practical policy proposal than an article of faith, a constitutive political fiction that has enabled them to reconcile their seemingly contradictory commitments to both ethnonationalism and liberal democracy. It has also served a valuable strategic purpose: shielding Israel from criticism for actions that, in practice, rendered a two-state solution impossible. The vast majority of Zionist groups—even, or perhaps especially, the expressly liberal ones—will be loath to confront that contradiction, or surrender their talking points. 

Liberal Jewish groups and Israeli doves have so far responded to the threat of annexation with the same kinds of warnings they have issued for years. In a joint statement, eight Jewish organizations (including the New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now, and T’ruah) declared in May that “annexation would show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the government of Israel no longer seeks a two-state solution, and that it has a chosen a system of permanent repression and inequality over liberal democracy”—as if it were not obvious that the Israeli government made this choice long ago. In June, a group of 25 former Knesset members similarly warned in a joint letter that “if Israel continues down this path, it will threaten Israel’s democracy,” without any reference to the military occupation that Israel has already maintained in the West Bank for more than 50 years. Back in March, when Benny Gantz joined Netanyahu’s government, J Street announced that annexation is “an absolute red line” that Israel must not cross, yet annexation would hardly be the first line Israel has crossed without facing serious consequences. 

Indeed, even before the start of the Oslo process in 1993, which made the two-state solution into a mainstream idea, Israel has continually crossed supposedly decisive red lines. As early as 1982, Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, set 100,000 settlers in the occupied West Bank as the threshold past which territorial compromise would become impossible. When Israel blew past that, new lines were drawn: now 250,000 settlers, now 500,000; now construction in the E1 corridor, between East Jerusalem and the settlement of Maaleh Adumim; and now, finally, annexation of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. With each new line crossed, believers in a two-state solution have found new excuses to ignore the obvious. 

Today, annexation poses the greatest ideological challenge to liberal Zionists, who maintain that Israel can be both a liberal democracy and a Jewish ethnostate. Reality never supported this position: Palestinians lived under martial law until 1966, and in 1967 Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank. But liberal Zionists have long been willing to look past these inconvenient facts. Since the Six-Day War, liberal Zionism has sustained itself on the myth that Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank is temporary, and consequently, that “Israel proper”—defined as the parliamentary regime within Israel’s pre-1967 borders—can be meaningfully disentangled from the half-century-long military dictatorship on the other side of the Green Line.

The occupation’s putative temporariness is what has enabled liberal Zionists to see themselves as genuine liberals. It’s what allowed them to justify a policy position to themselves that in practice treats Palestinians’ human rights—considered universal and inalienable for everyone else—as conditional, to be held in perpetual suspension. Annexation, which would confirm that the occupation is permanent and inextricable from “Israel proper,” would in theory force liberal Zionists to decide between support for democratizing the one-state reality, or support for apartheid.

But wholesale ideological reversals are uncommon, and Zionism has become as central a pillar of liberal American Judaism as ritual practice, if not more so. With a few notable exceptions, liberal Zionists’ conversion to non-state Zionism, non-Zionism, or anti-Zionism seems unlikely. More likely is that they find a way to hold on to their existing political orientation. That already appears to be the path for the Reform and Conservative movements—the two largest, and nominally liberal, denominations in the US—which, in their statements on annexation, explicitly stress their unequivocal commitments to a two-state solution, to Zionism, and to the State of Israel. Recent remarks by leaders of liberal Zionist groups—such as Israel Policy Forum and J Street—express the same commitment. This is not surprising: Over the course of more than a decade of successive Netanyahu governments, American Jews have become habituated to the dissonance between the values they profess and the ones the Israeli government acts on. As Anshel Pfeffer recently wrote in Haaretz, “You can bet that new formulations will be found to deny the already bleedingly obvious fact that there is a gaping gulf between the democratic sensibilities and sensitivities of the majority of Jews living in western liberal democracies and the nationalistic certainties of most Israeli Jews.”

For those to the liberal Zionists’ right—who face a less glaring ideological contradiction—the idea of two states will also continue to outlive the end of any realistic prospect for a two-state solution. That’s because of the persistent strategic utility of the two-state idea, despite its obvious impracticability. The Israeli Foreign Ministry and professional Israel advocates alike recognize that the two-state paradigm has served as a useful means of deflecting criticism of Israeli territorial expansion. Robert Satloff, executive director of the AIPAC-aligned Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has publicly criticized unilateral annexation for the very reason that it risks making any Israeli commitment to two states seem too implausible. “By maintaining a commitment to the idea of peace through compromise,” Satloff wrote in June (emphasis mine), “Israel not only achieved an enviable global standing and enjoyed remarkable prosperity, but it was able, along the way, to hold increasingly unchallenged control over the territories in dispute with the Palestinians.” Here, Satloff admits what Zionists slightly to his left typically deny: that the peace process has been valuable not because it increased the odds of territorial compromise but because it has enabled Israel to consolidate its territorial gains. The danger annexation poses, in Satloff’s framing, is that it would make Israel vulnerable to international censure by revealing Israel’s real opposition to two states. Why take the risk, when de facto annexation has continued apace, with minimal diplomatic consequences?

Netanyahu and his allies in the US are sensitive to Satloff’s concerns, and they have taken pains to argue that annexation will actually advance a two-state solution. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer argued that annexation, in accordance with the Trump plan, “will open the door to a realistic two-state solution and get the peace process out of the cul-de-sac it has been stuck in for two decades.” Dermer recognizes that merely mouthing the words “two states” has kept the US and EU from putting any significant pressure on Israel, even as Netanyahu has further entrenched Israel’s control over the West Bank. Likewise, the authors of the Trump administration’s “peace plan” were careful not only to construe it as an instrument for achieving a two-state solution but as the logical continuation of the Oslo process, even paying homage to assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. 

Jewish establishment organizations have also framed responses to criticisms of annexation in terms of defending a two-state solution. After roughly a dozen Democratic congressional representatives signed a letter, spearheaded by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that called for conditioning US military funding to Israel in the event of annexation, AIPAC responded that the letter would, among other consequences, “make a two-state solution less likely.” An FAQ on “Israel’s Changing Policies on the West Bank,” issued by the Jewish Federations of North America parrots the point, made by Dermer, that annexation “will lead to further negotiations with the Palestinians.” 

While there is no small degree of cynicism in this use of the two-state idea, it nonetheless also reflects a genuine ideological commitment. Unlike the hardline Israeli settlers, who oppose even the Trump plan because it provides for areas of nominal Palestinian autonomy, most American Zionists, even right-wing ones, do not openly support an apartheid-style single state. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s May interview with the Adelson-funded newspaper Israel Hayom is instructive because it illustrates quite bluntly the conundrum that a two-state solution is meant to solve for right-wing Zionists. “Nobody wants to establish sovereignty over the entirety of Judea and Samaria and provide citizenship to the millions of Palestinians that are there,” Friedman said. But, he added, “[t]here is no way in the modern world that a country, especially a country as great as Israel, could possibly have two classes of citizens, where one votes and the other doesn’t.” Friedman is a settlement donor and a territorial maximalist, but he also seems to retain a residual attachment to a certain liberal democratic conception of citizenship. 

In this sense, his position is not that different from the liberal Zionist one. The salient distinction is where they draw the line. For Friedman, “to give up Hebron and Beit El is like giving up the Statue of Liberty,” while for someone like J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, Haifa and Tel Aviv are more important. But both insist on the fiction of Israel as “Jewish and democratic,” even as Israel has held Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as rightless subjects for more than half a century. Both are committed to the racist logic of a Jewish demographic majority. Yet as long as American Zionists remain uncomfortable with openly defending an apartheid-style regime in terms that reflect the reality on the ground, the rhetoric of the two-state idea will serve as an invaluable means of obscuring the actual ramifications of their position, not only from the public, but from themselves.

The lack of a viable two-state solution does not mean that American Jews will stop believing in one. Political fictions of such existential importance take a long time to die, if they ever do. As annexation unfolds and American Jews cling more desperately to this fiction, they will have the backing of their communal institutions, which will continue to instrumentalize the two-state idea to shield Israel from consequences for its actions. Rather than catalyzing a paradigm shift in American Jewish politics, annexation will likely lead to more of the same.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.