Mondoweiss / September 28, 2022
The false promise of a two-state solution is key to the myth that one can reconcile a “Jewish and democratic” apartheid state with liberal values.
For Democrats in the United States and the political “centrists” in Israel—represented by Joe Biden and Yair Lapid, respectively—the loss of credibility for the two-state solution has meant losing more and more support for Israeli policies. As the respected polling site 538.com noted recently,
These facts explain the theater we have witnessed in recent days at the United Nations General Assembly and in the American media scene, where the lone Palestinian woman ever elected to Congress has come under unrelenting attack from her own party as well as the opposition.
At the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly, Biden devoted one brief mention to the question of Palestine, but what he did say was telling. “And we will continue to advocate for lasting negotiating peace between the Jewish and democratic state of Israel and the Palestinian people,” Biden told the Assembly. “The United States is committed to Israel’s security, full stop. And a negotiated two-state solution remains, in our view, the best way to ensure Israel’s security and prosperity for the future and give the Palestinians the state which — to which they are entitled — both sides to fully respect the equal rights of their citizens; both people enjoying equal measure of freedom and dignity.”
While stumbling over his words, and certainly unintentionally, Biden said the quiet part out loud. The U.S. will advocate for lasting negotiations, the hallmark of the Oslo process; endless negotiations that led nowhere while Israeli settlements spread farther across the West Bank, Gaza slowly dies of poverty, and the status quo in East Jerusalem gradually fades into Jewish dominance. And above all, Israeli “security” is guarded “full stop,” and if there is any room left for any Palestinian rights, those will be considered according to Israel’s wishes.
Acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid spoke at more length about a two-state solution, but said little more. Spending most of his time urging the world to abandon diplomacy with Iran and instead launch a war, presumably to change the regime there, Lapid stated that “An agreement with the Palestinians, based on two states for two peoples, is the right thing for Israel’s security, for Israel’s economy and for the future of our children.”
Lapid’s speech was littered with falsehoods. He went on at length about how Israel is victimized by “fake news,” citing an incident in May 2021 where a photo of a toddler who was said to have been killed in an Israeli strike on Gaza circulated on social media. The post was a fake and was quickly debunked. But Lapid failed to mention that, while the toddler, referred to as Malak al-Tanani, was, indeed, made up, there was an entire family of Tananis–Ra’fat Tanani, 38, his pregnant wife Rawiye, 35, and their children Ismail, 6, Ameer, 5, Adham, 4, and Mohammad, 3—who were killed in an Israeli strike on May 13, 2021. A fact-check by the Agence France-Presse confirmed both the fake photo and the real family. B’Tselem also posted a video in May 2022 interviewing a relative of the Tanani family that was killed.
Having established, through misleading statements and outright dissembling, Israel as a “victim,” Lapid then made sure to let the assembly know that, while he was coming out in support of more talks, and the idea of a two-state solution, Israel would do nothing to make that solution, or any other, a real possibility.
“The burden of proof is not on us. We have already proved our desire for peace. Our peace treaty with Egypt has been fully implemented for 43 years now. Our peace treaty with Jordan for 28 years. We are a country that keeps its word and fulfills agreements,” Lapid said
Aside from the fact that Lapid omits the crucial point that these peace agreements have been enforced by billions of dollars of U.S. aid to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, Lapid elides the many times Israel has refused to agree to various conditions or interim deals, or has made demands on Palestinians it knew they could not accept.
The absence of a single word about what Israel or the United States would do to achieve freedom for Palestinians or to advance any solution, two state or otherwise, to the ongoing conditions of apartheid and dispossession is unsurprising if one considers that the goal was not to appease the Palestinians, but to address domestic constituencies.
Lapid surely knows he was lying when he said that “Despite all the obstacles, still today a large majority of Israelis support the vision of this two-state solution.” In fact, a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that only 31% of Israeli Jews and only 60% of Palestinian and other Arab citizens of Israel support the two-state solution.
But his own constituency in the Yesh Atid party supports such negotiations. More importantly, he wants to make sure he has the loyalty of the small Labor and Meretz parties, both of which support the two-state solution, against his center-right rival, Benny Gantz. Right now, all the polls show that neither Lapid nor Gantz will come close to being able to assemble the coalition of 61 seats needed to win the upcoming election, while their far-right competitor, Benjamin Netanyahu, has better, although also far from certain, prospects of reaching that mark.
Lapid also hopes to bolster his chances by demonstrating his compatibility with Biden and the Democrats, and they are more than willing to oblige. Targeting Rep. Rashida Tlaib plays a key role in both bolstering Lapid as a bulwark against Netanyahu—whom Democrats would not want to see back in office, given his very close ties to the Republican Party—and in trying to smother the growing support for Palestine within the party.
According to a poll conducted by Pew Research back in March, 61% of Americans between 18 and 29 years of age have a favorable opinion of Palestinians. Among those aged 30-49 it is 55%, and even among older voters, 45-47% have a favorable opinion of Palestinians. While many of these people also hold positive views of Israel, American sympathy for Palestinians has grown immensely over the past two decades, when only 16% of voters viewed Palestinians positively.
This sits poorly with mainstream Democrats and their corporate, and especially, pro-Israel funders. So, when Tlaib made a self-evident and fact-based statement, Democrats joined Republicans in piling on her and branding her an antisemite.
Tlaib, of course, stated that you cannot be progressive and support Israel’s apartheid government. The response was as vicious as it was disingenuous, with the usual anti-Palestinian hatemongers like Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, and a long list of Democratic members of Congress stumbling over each other to see who could come up with the most scurrilous and spurious accusations against Tlaib, who did no more than point out what so many international, Palestinian, and even Israeli human rights groups have proven.
It’s no coincidence that these attacks came at the same time as the UNGA speeches. Tlaib was very careful to point her finger only at the Israeli government and its policies; at no time did she ever hint at the question of Israel’s existence nor of the presence of Jews in the land. Indeed, even the avowedly Zionist group Americans for Peace Now rose to Tlaib’s defense, splitting with J Street, which shamefully supported the attacks on Tlaib.
The two-state solution and the myth that you can support apartheid and still be true to progressive values go hand in hand. Consider the words Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz used in her hateful rant against Tlaib. “The outrageous progressive litmus test on Israel by Rashida Tlaib is nothing short of antisemitic. Proud progressives do support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler elaborated further. “I fundamentally reject the notion that one cannot support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state and be a progressive. I proudly embrace both of these political positions and identities, even as I have criticized some of the policies and actions of democratically-elected Israeli governments over time. I would happily put my progressive record and credentials up against anyone’s. It is both wrong and self-defeating for progressive leaders to abide such an offensive litmus tests.”
The legitimacy of many of the Congress-members claiming the “progressive” label is clearly questionable, but Wasserman-Schultz, joined by other Democrats, calling Tlaib antisemitic for expressing support for a view that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, al-Haq, and B’Tselem have all expressed and backed up with extensive research is cynically perverse, whether you think Tlaib is right or wrong.
Both she and Nadler call Tlaib’s statement a “litmus test,” as if the question is not whether Israel practices apartheid, but whether supporting it anyway is acceptable within the bounds of anything that can be labeled “progressive politics.”
Nadler also talks about his occasional criticism of “Israeli policies,” as did many of the Democrats who ganged up on Tlaib. How must those words look to a Palestinian in Gaza or Masafer Yatta, or to a Palestinian-American who might be a constituent of one of these Democrats who express such passionate solidarity with Israelis and such stony indifference, if not outright hostility, to Palestinians?
For years, the idea of a two-state solution in Palestine and Israel has been exposed as a pipe dream. However viable it may once have been, more and more people have come to realize in recent years that it simply isn’t a realistic option anymore.
Some years ago, a well-informed colleague observed to me that the two-state solution is never impossible, but the costs—fiscally, politically, diplomatically—just keep getting higher. He was right, of course. It is never physically impossible to dismantle Israel’s settlements, sever the existing infrastructure in the West Bank from Israel, work out realistic borders, open Gaza, and pour the many billions of dollars into Palestine that would be required after seven decades and counting of occupation to build a truly viable state.
It’s all possible, but the cost would be enormous, and the price—allowing the option of refugees returning to their homes, allowing Palestine the means to defend itself like any other country, compensating Palestinians for their dispossession and suffering, all on top of reining in the most radical of the nationalist settlers, resettling the hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the West Bank, shifting borders to accommodate a connection between Gaza and West Bank, sharing water resources equitably, and a hundred other details—is far higher than anything Israel would consider in its wildest dreams.
But that doesn’t mean the two-state solution isn’t seen as crucial for Israel and the United States. Its implementation may be undesirable for Israel, but the idea of it serves a crucial purpose: it is the very lifeblood of the myth that one can support a “Jewish and democratic” apartheid state and reconcile that with liberal or progressive values. That allows them to characterize their “disagreements” with Israel as being about specific policies, not an apartheid system at the very heart of Israel’s character.
Apartheid is not a policy; it is an institution. It is a political and legal system. It is a crime under international law. It is not merely one decision to demolish a home, to detain a Palestinian without charge, to beat an elderly man at the al-Aqsa Compound, or to launch one missile at a Gaza apartment building.
That system is not just incompatible with progressive values, it’s incompatible even with classical Liberalism. To maintain the self-deception many Democratic supporters of Israel, in and out of politics, need for their consciences, they need to believe that there is a genuine striving for a Palestinian state that can deliver rights to those living under Israeli rule right now.
But it’s an illusion. Israel has been disrupting the possibility of it from the beginnings of Oslo through today, with massive settlement expansion, the isolation and starvation of Gaza, and the gradual erosion of the long-standing agreements on the holy sites in Jerusalem.
Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are desperately trying to save this phony duality, this illusion that you can support an Israeli ethno-state that, by definition, cannot be a state of all its citizens and must, by its nature discriminate against Palestinians and still call yourself a progressive without irony.
No one would suggest you can be progressive but be against a woman’s right to decide about what to do with her own body. Nor can you be progressive and oppose LGBTQIA* rights. Nor can you support racial discrimination, or autocracy.
Similarly, no matter how loudly you insist otherwise, you cannot be progressive and be in support of an apartheid regime. The illusion of a two-state solution that hasn’t been a viable possibility for many years doesn’t change that. It only reinforces one discriminatory illusion with another.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics