The intractable problems in Israel over sovereignty have produced a number of responses. Aside from the notion of a ‘two-state solution,’ there is the ‘one state solution’ of a bi-national state; and in addition to this, various ‘three state solutions’ have also been offered. It may be that there are others, I am not sure; but in any case, the standard formula of number + state(s) + solution is certainly common enough.

However, the word ‘solution’ is potentially bothersome. In his book ‘A Conflict of Visions,’ Thomas Sowell discusses the difference between a tragic or realist or pragmatic vision of politics, and an optimistic or idealist or principle-based vision (or to quote Sowell’s own encapsulation of the distinction, people often tend either towards ‘constrained’ or ‘unconstrained’ visions). One key facet of both visions is their attitude towards solutions-based politics. Those of a more idealistic bent will seek solutions to problems. Those of a more pragmatic bent will seek trade-offs.

Either, of course, can be problematic:

Make Poverty History

The War on Poverty

The War on Drugs

The War on Terror

The Final Solution

The End of History

I should think that each of these are on a scale ranging from worrisome to truly horrifying. On the other hand, of course, trade-offs can be (but need not always be) cynical and opportunistic in character. To consider an example from the USA: if Neoconservatives are imbued with the starry-eyed Quixotian fervour of Liberal Interventionists, they are no less complicit with the vicious Darwinian Realpolitik of IR Realists. Kissinger and Clinton, les extrêmes se touchent… and meet they do, in the half-brutish, half-immaculately-civilized figure of a Cheney or a Bush.

If all this is so, then it might be asked: is this all relative then? Is the problem of trade-offs versus solutions a question purely of context? Is neither intrinsically more worthy than the other?

It might require a long essay, if not a weighty tome, to discuss in detail my conviction that solutions-based politics is never correct; while trade-offs can be legitimate, but need not always be.

So for the sake of concision here, I will not insist on my view that solutions-based politics is never legitimate. Instead of pushing this opinion of mine without giving an adequate account of it, I will take the fairly modest approach of evaluating the notion of the ‘solution’ with regards to the Israel-Palestine issue.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the notion of a ‘solution?’ I do not claim to be able to provide an exhaustive list, but here are a few ideas.

Firstly, on the positive side, the notion of a ‘solution’ aims high, and thus can act as a strong encouragement. If you shoot for the moon, you might get Everest, or at least a decent sized apartment block. The notion of a ‘solution’ is invigorating and exciting…

Especially to the young, naïve and impressionable anti-capitalist ideologues staggering around campuses and student bars, hawking their Amnesty International petitions and wildly waving their easy read ‘Das Kapital for Babies’ raving-street-corner-Calvinist emancipation pamphlets.

For, after all, it cannot be denied:

‘Roll back the Patriarchy’ doesn’t have the same rhetorical appeal as ‘Smash the Patriarchy.’

‘Decrease the prevalence of homophobia’ sounds rather dusty in comparison to ‘End homophobia now!’

And ‘Contribute towards discrediting and delegitimizing racism’ is not half as exciting as ‘Make racism history!’

No doubt sexism, homophobia and racism are horrible enough phenomena; but it is not clear how far absolutist (non-)thinking will be of benefit in curbing such deeply unpleasant prejudices and thoroughly repugnant hatreds.

If all this is so, then ‘Endeavour to create a relatively peaceful and harmonious and free and egalitarian modus vivendi for the overwhelming majority of Israelis and Palestinians’ might indeed sound like a bit of a cop-out, for some.

Yet sadly, apart from the rhetorical appeal of the notion, I am finding it hard to find anything else positive about the word ‘solution.’

And to found the legitimacy of a word or a slogan on its rhetorical power, rather than on any plausible rationale grounded in reasonable argumentation, is problematic at best; and utterly inadmissible at worst.

Indeed: to me, such a strategy seems to tend dangerously close to the unfathomable curate’s basket of ‘Noble Lies’ recounted by the myriad hordes of strong (if immeasurably weak of conscience leaders) throughout the whole of history…

From the ‘Universal Khan’ of the Mongol Empire to the ‘Dear Leader’ of North Korea.

From the self-styled leader of the international proletariat to the self-appointed Anglo-Saxon liberator of the ‘pitiful natives’ who surely know not their right hand from their left.

I must insist furthermore that the notion of a solution, while very appealing to some people on a sentimental level, is intrinsically vague. Some probing questions are very much worth the asking:

  1. By what criteria must a ‘solution’ be judged?
  2. How might one know the pertinent criteria had been fulfilled; or at least go about finding out?
  3. Does ‘solution’ mean an absolute resolution of the problems in Israel and Palestine?
  4. If so, is such an absolute resolution materially possible or even logically coherent?
  5. How might one know?
  6. Or if not, then why use the term ‘solution’ at all? For, if what people really wish for is a practical and just accommodation and mutual concord which is (at least in principle) sustainable for a long period and (again, at least in principle) satisfactory to a substantial majority of Israelis and Palestinians… Then is it not difficult enough to achieve even this, without using a word which implies that nothing less than absolute success is remotely entertainable?
  7. Ultimately, in the long run, will the word ‘solution’ distract Israelis and Palestinians from the important work of pragmatism and compromise; by disincentivizing any proposed agreement that falls even one inch below the impossibly high and dizzying bar of the ‘solution?

I do not claim to be an expert on Israel, or on the Israel-Palestine issue. However, there is nothing more important in any intractable political and military conflict than ‘mere semantics.’ Sneering at semantics always comes from a position of privilege; what is mere ‘idle quibbling’ to the head will be inevitably a matter of life and death to the tail.

And if all this is so, then ultimately: if Israeli and Palestinians with power and influence are dismissive of the semantics of trade-offs and solutions, it appears the only ‘trade-off’ in question will be for the two parties at issue to ‘trade off’ their own people (or indeed, both great peoples from this difficult and intractable dispute) to the lowest bidder.

And this, of course, by some harsh and inexorable law of iron necessity…

Will be absolutely no solution at all.