The one-state reality goes mainstream

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  April 21, 2023

A new article in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs bursts the illusions underlying the two-state solution and the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel.

For years, Palestinians have been telling the world that Israel and the territories it has occupied since 1967 are one territory administered with intense discrimination by Israeli authority. In recent years, that point has been echoed by an increasing number of observers who can see the obvious reality before their eyes. 

But when an article making that case appears in as mainstream, even conservative, a journal as Foreign Affairs, it demands attention. In an essay published in part to promote their recent book, The One State Reality, scholars Michael Barnett, Marc Lynch, Nathan J. Brown, and Shibley Telhami state firmly that “it is no longer possible to avoid confronting a one-state reality.”

The authors point out that this one-state reality contrasts with the illusory idea that there is a democratic Israel, however flawed, that is a distinct entity from the area under its military occupation since 1967. That illusion is the basis upon which the idea of a two-state solution stands. As long as we see Israel as distinct from the West Bank and Gaza, we can continue seeing Israel’s rule over all the territory as divided between “the only democracy in the Mideast” within Israel’s internationally recognized borders and an occupation we can oppose, within limits (which mostly forbid any significant action), and pretend will be resolved. 

Once that illusion is dispensed with, they conclude, “Analytically, what matters is that the apartheid label accurately describes the facts on the ground and offers the beginnings of a road map to change them.” It also opens the possibility of considering a wide range of solutions. Within that range, a two-state solution is one possibility but only one among many.

Exposing the hoax

A two-state solution as the only viable option—no matter how remote, how much Israel is doing to make it impossible, or how little effort is expended on bringing it about—sustains the hoax that Israel’s control over Palestinian lives in the West Bank and Gaza is temporary, as long as you can make your audience believe that something that has dug in roots and existed for 56 years can possibly be called temporary. 

That hoax is the basis for the fallacious belief that a state can simultaneously be both a Jewish ethnocracy and a liberal democracy. The two conditions are mutually exclusive, but Israelis and many, especially liberals, who support it, are desperate to cling to it. That desperation has been most visible lately in the protests against the so-called “judicial reform” planned by the ultra-right-wing government Israelis elected. The massive PEP rallies (Progressive Except for Palestine) protesting the reform have gradually been forced to accept the presence of a small minority of Israelis who recognize the connection between the assault on democracy for Jews only and the oppression of Palestinians. 

It is this hoax that the authors explode with their book and article. It is, ultimately, a point directed not at Israeli Jews, who are dropping their façade of ignorance of this reality, and certainly not at Palestinians, who have never had any way of escaping it. Rather, the target audience here is primarily Americans, and because of that, it’s the identity of these authors that is so significant. 

Barnett, Lynch, Brown, and Telhami are all well-respected scholars whose expertise in international affairs, in general, and the question of Palestine and Israel, in particular, are beyond reproach. But more importantly, all of them have been involved in policymaking circles to one degree or another over the years, aided by their proximity to Washington (Barrett, Lynch, and Brown are all at George Washington University, Telhami at the University of Maryland, College Park). They are precisely the type of academics who have always been cautious about stirring up a hornet’s nest around Palestine, even if these particular scholars have pushed that envelope over the years.

With this latest effort, they have made a case that must be made clearly and without reservation. It is not merely that Israel is an apartheid state. Rather, as Michael Barnett told an audience in a Brookings Institute webinar on Tuesday, “I would not want the debate over apartheid to distract us from what’s really going on. The realities, even if they don’t add up for you to apartheid, they add up to something quite ugly and discriminatory.” 

Confronting the one-state reality

It is this reality that must be addressed. And addressing it can be threatening. Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and long-time supporter of the two-state paradigm, was quick to respond to the article on Twitter. 

“My friend Shibley Telhami describes well the one-state reality that exists in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories today,” he tweeted. “But his prescription for a U.S.-imposed binational state is a recipe for continuing the conflict, not resolving it. The US should never give up on the two-state solution, no matter how distant it is today, because that would be giving up on ever resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of an alternative that will only deepen it. It would be better for the U.S. to put some real muscle behind its opposition to actions, such as settlement activity, that close off the hope of a two state solution. 75 years ago the UN called for two states for two peoples. That remains the only way to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

In fact, Telhami and the others do not discount a two-state solution. As he pointed out, they “are not recommending a ‘solution’ and not ruling out two states in distant future, as we say in [our] article.” They are presenting a different, more realistic analytic framework that can accommodate many potential solutions. 

But Indyk correctly recognized that the insistence on a two-state solution to the exclusion of any other path, as he so strongly endorses, depends on seeing the situation as one where an Israeli settlement freeze—itself a political impossibility, as the last three decades have shown—is the key to achieving peace and Palestinian independence. But the existing settlement network, with its accompanying infrastructure, has already created the control over the whole of the West Bank that a settlement freeze is supposed to prevent. One look at a map of settlements shows this clearly. More settlements absolutely do further harm to Palestinians, but they can do no more to cement control of the entire West Bank than they already have done. If Israel decided tomorrow not to build another settlement, it would make no difference in terms of its total control of the West Bank. 

Therefore, in a framework that reflects the reality on the ground, the whole idea of a settlement freeze is an absurdity, one which can only perpetuate both continued Israeli control from the river to the sea and a continuing slide into the very same Israeli fascism that Indyk and other liberal supporters of Israel are so busy decrying lately. 

Undermining the ‘special relationship’

In their article, the writers make a bold and important statement, albeit a flawed and obvious one. They write, “The United States does not have ‘shared values’ and should not have ‘unbreakable bonds’ with a state that discriminates against or abuses millions of its residents based on their ethnicity and religion.”

Now, it’s easy to pounce on that statement, pointing out that the U.S., in fact, shares a great many of the values of a discriminatory state. One need look no further than the ongoing crises of mass incarceration of people of color and other marginalized groups; the increasing legal assault on women’s rights; ongoing police violence; the widening income and wealth gaps; and so many other barbaric conditions in the current United States—let alone our history of genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, etc.—to recognize that we are an unfit arbiter of justice in other places. 

But the four authors put this call for policy change in its proper context, writing,

“The United States bears considerable responsibility for entrenching the one-state reality, and it continues to play a powerful role in framing and shaping the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank would not have survived and accelerated, and occupation would not have endured, without U.S. efforts to shield Israel from repercussions at the United Nations and other international organizations. Without American technology and arms, Israel would probably not have been able to sustain its military edge in the region, which also enabled it to solidify its position in the occupied territories. And without major U.S. diplomatic efforts and resources, Israel could not have concluded peace agreements with Arab states, from Camp David to the Abraham Accords.”

The case they make is a political one. It is not divorced from ethics; they explicitly advocate an approach based on equal rights for all people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But the policy call here is based on pragmatism—the U.S. being the entity that Israel depends on more than any other—and on placing responsibility where it belongs, at the White House door and the halls of Capitol Hill. 

The argument for the “special relationship” has long since moved away from security interests. Instead, the argument that we “share values” with Israel has taken precedence. When that falters, as it increasingly has in recent years, there is a desperate attempt to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, but that is a blunt tool with a limited shelf-life, leading to a diminishing efficacy already observable as the tactic has been overused. In short, spurious accusations of antisemitism muddy the debate and intimidate some who might otherwise speak out in support of Palestinian rights, but they are not compelling policy arguments.

The “shared values” argument is the foundation of support for Israel for members of Congress and the Biden administration. It is the argument they use most regularly to justify support of or inaction about Israeli crimes. However disingenuous that may be, it is what the public debate in support of Israel depends on.

That’s why Barnett, Brown, Lynch, and Telhami’s article is crucial. The U.S. does not have the moral high ground to criticize Israeli barbarity toward the Palestinians any more than Israel would if it criticized our ongoing racism, misogyny, and corruption. But despite our own behavior in international affairs, most Americans, especially those outside of the Republican party, do believe in democracy, the rule of law, and at least the struggle for justice. For many, the idea that Israel shares those values, at least aspirationally, is why they support it. 

The authors of this piece demonstrate that those values are not shared, so the most basic argument for the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel falls to dust. Instead, the authors call for a normal relationship between the U.S. and Israel. “A better U.S. policy would advocate for equality, citizenship, and human rights for all Jews and Palestinians living within the single state dominated by Israel. Theoretically, such a policy would not prevent a two-state solution from being resurrected in the unlikely event that the parties moved in that direction in the distant future. But starting from a one-state reality that is morally reprehensible and strategically costly would demand an immediate focus on equal human and civil rights.”

It’s a simple call, even if it’s a daunting political task. But if it were pursued, it would, in time, lead to a much better world for Palestinians, Americans, and, yes, Israelis too. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy