Sheldon Schreter

Thinking About Two States

Thinking About Two States       by Shelly Schreter          June 10, 2024

We have a bias in favour of wholeness and completeness, and against partiality and incompleteness. Whatever the problem – a leaky roof, a broken relationship, or budgeting the healthcare system of a country – partial responses are obviously inferior to complete ones. Mediocrity settles for partial understandings, remedies, and performance, leading to flawed results which often cause more damage than benefits. Political, religious, economic and social ideologies offering total solutions to our problems have much greater appeal than those offering phased or incremental solutions. Doubt is a source of anxiety which systems providing total certainty can alleviate, while easing the burden of taking personal responsibility for coping or effecting change.

The Bible provides a compelling metaphor of this preference through King Solomon, the wisest of men. He cleverly confronts two rival mothers claiming the same infant with a partial solution of their conflict: cut it in half! Of course, so we hope and assume, he doesn’t really mean it. He just uses this stratagem to unmask the false mother, who is ready to sacrifice the child, and then to reward the true mother with full custody of her beloved, unmutilated baby. Wholeness restored and preserved. The Tower of Babel story provides another warning against seeking total solutions for the conflicting ambitions of mankind, in futile denial of the realities of human diversity, discord  and imperfection.

The point is that complete and total solutions are not available in real life. Striving for them may be an effective motivational instrument, but taking them too seriously leads to uncompromising rigidity and dogmatism. This not only denies the true incompleteness of our human condition, it also justifies extreme attitudes and actions which compound human suffering. It provides the incubator for totalitarian regimes and atrocities.

This little exegetical exercise serves to condemn the folly of chasing absolute solutions, a habit we revisit in every generation, and which seems inherent in our human condition. The zealots of the Greater Land of Israel movement and of Hamas, for all the differences between them, share the same mindset: the precious baby must never be partitioned! There is no compromise on full custody. God/Allah is on their side and infidels must be subjugated, transferred elsewhere, or in the case of Hamas, liquidated. They share another tragic feature: Both now exert a critical influence on their respective nations, propelling them toward joint disaster.

There are many more Israelis who oppose the two-state solution on security rather than on ideological grounds. They are not obsessed with recreating supposed Biblical borders, but rather with the danger of recreating Gaza immediately adjacent to Israel’s main population centers and international airport. Many if not most of them would prefer some type of separation from the Palestinians, if only this could be engineered without multiplying the security risks involved. The events of October 7th clearly exacerbated these concerns, as its perpetrators precisely intended.

Knocking holes in the two-state proposal is easy. The mistrust between the parties is astronomical. Powerful groups on both sides are violently opposed and will resist. The distance between the core narratives – the demand for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees vs. the demand for a sovereign, secure, Jewish-dominated state – appears unbridgeable. The cultural, religious, economic, social disparities between the two peoples makes the thought of their living peacefully side-by-side seem impossible. Like democracy, the two-state solution is replete with defects and vulnerabilities. Its only advantage is its superiority to any other alternative.

For many, listing the two-state pitfalls is where discussion ends. The grim conclusion is that the conflict between the sides will drag on until one conquers the other, if that is even conceivable, through force of arms. The resultant regime in this state “from the river to the sea” will inevitably privilege one group, one religion, one legal system over the other, and be inherently unstable, in near-constant civil war. If no clearcut victory is achievable, the periodic bloodletting will just go on forever. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will become less “manageable” and “shrinkable”, not more.

What dismal choices! The very factors militating against the two states would function to make a one-state solution an eternal hell for its unfortunate inhabitants. If we assume no likelihood of change, there is no hope. Do the agony of the October 7th massacre and the subsequent destruction of Gaza together constitute enough of a shock to open up new possibilities? It is hard to refute the skeptics, but despair is no option. We have to start by imagining the conditions necessary for giving two states a chance, after understanding that one state is an unmitigated horror for both peoples.

There is another factor that many of us ignore or dispute – the growing probability of the creation of a Palestinian state irrespective of our wishes. So what if on May 10, 2024, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution endorsing acceptance of the Palestinian bid for full membership by a vote of 143-9, with 25 abstentions? So what if, since then, Ireland, Norway, Spain and Slovenia have extended official recognition to the Palestinian state, bringing to 146 the number of states which recognize Palestine? Despite the recent eulogies for the two-state solution, the idea is not dying. It is rather exhibiting real robustness in the wake of the current Gaza War. Israel’s vehement objections that this amounts to rewarding and thus encouraging terrorism are not working.

In my reading, the creation of a Palestinian State has reached the level of near-global consensus and become inevitable. Virtually all of Israel’s allies among the western democracies support the two-state solution in principle. Their willingness to continue backing the Israel Government’s refusal to even consider it, and to persist in obstructing it through further expanding the settlements, is wearing thin.

If the only thing preventing full recognition of a Palestinian State is the US veto in the UN Security Council, then the Israel Government is skating on thin ice. My guess is that the next American administration, of either party, will conclude that a Palestinian state best suits the interests both of the US and of Israel, whether the Israel Government agrees or not. (I remember the answer once given by an Israeli Ambassador to Britain to the question of which party, Labour or the Conservatives, was more favourable to Israel. He said: “The party in opposition.”) This step would reinforce America’s political standing in the Middle East, enable Saudi Arabia to justify its participation in the Abraham Accords (which could eventually include the new State of Palestine), and create a viable political counter-force to the Iran-Russia-China axis. This enhancement of American interests is what Presidents are elected to do.

If there is anything the reactions of the US and the other western democracies to the Gaza War have demonstrated, it is that they will not go on indefinitely supporting Israel’s denial of Palestinian statehood. If change does not emerge from within, it will be imposed from without. That is the fate of middle-range, non-superpower, regional states, which is exactly what Israel is.

Israel’s strategic choice now is between continuing the fruitless effort to halt the growing international forces driving a Palestinian state into existence, or in figuring out how to become part of this process while actively negotiating and influencing its terms.

The biggest obstacle to forward movement is what we can call the Great Exchange between the two core narratives. The two-state paradigm presupposes and requires a double relinquishment: the Palestinians have to give up on their right of return, and the Israelis have to end their negation of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza. These two giant steps are necessary for reinforcing the moderates of both sides, just as Palestinian and Israeli extremists also depend on one another for validation..

The Israeli peace movement has long been advocating this and opposing the West Bank settlement project, while shrinking steadily in the face of unrelenting Arab rejectionism and its concomitant – the rightward tilt of Israeli politics. Only a few lone voices on the Palestinian side, most prominently that of Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, have spoken out in the same vein. The consistent advance of the West Bank settlements has done much to decimate their legitimacy. Both leaderships are deeply invested in opposing such a fundamental change, nor is there any guarantee that new leaders will be more flexible.

The right of return is at the heart of the Palestinian narrative. The romanticization of Palestinian life in rural villages before the invasion of the colonialist Zionists, and the fantasy of turning the clock back to accommodate the refugees and their millions of descendants, is how the Palestinian masses – or so we are led to believe – perceive themselves. Even if many appreciate that this is not remotely realistic, its hold on their national consciousness is paramount, virtually sacred. Sacrificing it would be unthinkable for many, and could even undermine the critical (for them)  image of Israel as a “settler-colonialist” phenomenon, or just the latest temporary “Crusader state”, destined to repeat the demise of its predecessors.

And yet, that is exactly the great transition the Palestinians need in order to begin constructing their future, and their true course of redemptive national liberation. Is it presumptuous of a Jew to tell Palestinians how to achieve their national liberation? Certainly it is, but I do not seek to debunk or deride their narrative, which is their standard approach to the Jewish narrative. I base myself on the highly critical perspective of Jewish intellectuals in assessing “the Jewish problem” of 19th century Europe. That was the euphemism for the homicidal and later genocidal anti-Semitism to which the Jews were subjected for generations. Their approach began with scathing critiques of traditional Jewish society, leading to various radical self-emancipatory ideologies empowering Jews to take control of their own destiny and to build alternative futures.

In my opinion Palestinian intellectuals have by and large failed in their duty to project constructive blueprints for their people’s liberation, by becoming ensnared in the reigning narratives of Third World anti-colonialism and infinite victimhood. It is not that these narratives have no truth. It was obviously necessary to expose the massive injustices inflicted by western imperialism on the peoples of Africa and Asia. But this can and has become a cruel trap. By stressing victimhood and denying their own agency, they get stuck at the stage of heroic resistance, and fail to develop an effective vision of modern, post-colonialist societies. That includes shying away from the confrontation with their own elite power structures holding them back.

This can be criticized for Orientalism, as formulated by Edward Said et al, and for imposing foreign models of development on Arab society. In response, I don’t hesitate to ask, in viewing the sorry spectacle of one dysfunctional Arab society after another, all governed by unaccountable elites, “So how is that working out for you?” The hopes of the Arab Spring of 2011 degenerated into the perpetuation of autocratic rule  by Islamists, military juntas, and traditional monarchs.

The Palestinians offer a particular case of arrested development, having suffered long-term exploitation by fellow Muslims (Ottomans), European imperialists, Jews/Zionists, and certainly not least, by their fellow Arabs. A new generation of Palestinian intellectuals must emerge and fearlessly project a fresh vision, transcending the bankrupt leadership of Fatah and Hamas, and focused on the welfare of their people rather than on the sterile, dead-end obsession with destroying Israel. I mean a pragmatic Palestinian Zionism, that would seek to optimize the magnificent talents and capabilities of the Palestinian people, alongside rather than instead of Israel. The potential of such an approach is gigantic. It would attract major global support.

This Great Exchange sets a high bar for both sides. Without hurdling it, the chances of escaping the vicious circle of endless conflict are slim. The failure of the Oslo Accords and all the subsequent peace initiatives has confirmed that. The only hope is that the synergistic combination of the traumas of October 7th, the subsequent decimation of much of Gaza, and the refusal of the western powers to continue facilitating the mutual slaughter, will be sufficient to overcome the resistance to change of the two sides, and the malicious interventions of Iran and Russia in the region.

Is major social change really catalyzed by the visions of a nation’s leading thinkers and prophets? I won’t attempt to resolve that issue, but will note simply that their contributions are critical, particularly in the digital era we live in. I revert again to Scripture  (Proverbs, 29:18) –  בְּאֵין חָזוֹן יִפָּרַע עָם”  “– and will opt for the King James classic translation: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.

If only we can reach the Great Exchange conceptually, and practically, the list of subjects to be negotiated awaits us, and has been raised before. It includes determination of final borders; implementation and enforcement of demilitarization of the Palestinian State;  disposition and governance of Jerusalem as a joint capital of the two states; articulation of the equivalent rights, protections and obligations of Arab citizens of Israel and Jewish citizens of Palestine; co-ordination and shared jurisdiction over matters of joint concern including law enforcement, central banks, currency controls, customs and duties, water policies and wastewater management, bandwidth, environmental policy, and much, much more.

To those who dismiss the two-state format out of hand or imagine that Israel can succeed in dodging it, the above will seem irrelevant, or worse. To those trying to be realistic about where the Middle East is going, it is an exercise in the kind of thinking we need to be doing, rather than hiding our heads in the sand.

About the Author
Born and raised in Montreal, Canada, studied at McGill, U. of California, Berkeley, and the London School of Economics, living in Israel since 1976, former director of the WUJS Institute (Arad) and of the Israel-Diaspora Institute (Tel Aviv U.), involved in the Israeli plastics industry (former vice-president of ZAG Ltd.), and later in the aquaculture industry in Sri Lanka. Resident in Ra'anana.