November 3, 2009 - 12:00am
Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, which is the leading American group advocating for an independent Palestine alongside Israel, has a new book out, "What's Wrong With the One-State Agenda?" which does a comprehensive job of demolishing the arguments made by those who think that Israel should be eliminated and replaced by a single state of Jews and Palestinians. He has performed an important service with this book by noting one overwhelming truth about this debate: Virtually no one in Israel wants a single-state between the river and the sea. It's useful to remember this salient fact when listening to the ostensibly reality-based arguments of the one-staters.
I spoke to Ibish about his arguments last week, shortly after he spoke at the J Street conference. Here is an edited version of our conversation:
Jeffrey Goldberg: What were your impressions of the conference?
Hussein Ibish: It was impressive as a first step. My impression is that there's still quite a bit of message-cohesion and message-formulation to be done. It seemed to me to be an insufficiently coherent group of people. The range of people was so large.
JG: You mean on the Zionist spectrum?
HI: I mean people ranging from the sort of centrist-center left, all the way to post-Zionists, anti-Zionists, who were there, too. It's not ultimately a group that's going to form, I think, a functional coalition. Right now, they're finding their feet. This is normal, it's inevitable -- but at a certain point, I think they have to clarify what they are, who their constituency is, what they stand for, who they are, who they're not. They've been more successful in creating a space for themselves as a new voice that is compelling, but at other moments it's looked like where they were simply positioning themselves as the alternative to AIPAC. And my sense of things is that, initially, that they would look too much to their rivals. But sooner rather than later, they're going to have to just move on and start to define themselves in a much more coherent and pro-active way, not just in contrast to the traditional Jewish organizations but also to distinguish themselves from people in the Jewish community whose criticism of Israel makes them anathema to the mainstream of the community. They can't go there and I think they've tried not to go there.
JG: You can't be Zionist and non-Zionist at the same time, in other words.
HI: Exactly. I think it's essential for them. For us, it's not important.
JG: Well, isn't it important to have a pro-Israel, pro-two-state organization in Washington that's credibly Jewish?
HI: It is. But I believe that all of the mainstream organizations are moving in that direction. I think begrudgingly, without enthusiasm, I think they're all getting there, because I think ultimately the only organization that I can think of that is absolutely opposed to a two-state agreement are on the far right, the Zionist Organization of America, which is in favor of the occupation without reservations and, on the left, Jewish Voices for Peace, which is a one-state group all the way and without reservation. It seems to me everybody else occupies some space in the middle without being one-staters and without being flag-waving pro-settlers.
Now, the question is, from our point of view, what's really important is that the Jewish community have a range of dynamic organizations that are effective in advocating for peace based on two states, number one. And number two, that we can work with everybody who is in favor of a two-state solution without any other preconditions. I mean, we don't want to get involved in intra-Jewish rivalries. We want to work with everyone who wants peace based on two states. It's as simple as that. We don't have a huge stake in where J Street ultimately positions itself, but I will say this: The more mainstream it can become, the more powerful and important it will be. I think they should be as mainstream as possible, they should avoid the impression they sometimes give that they're perhaps not being sensitive to fears about Israel's security. There's a real appetite for a more robust, more aggressively pro-peace organization in the Jewish community. But from our perspective, the only people we don't want to talk to are the one-staters and the pro-occupation groups.
JG: But the one-staters are a very marginal group. I think one of the interesting things you do in your book is show very coolly, calmly, the essential ridiculousness of one-state advocacy based on the simple fact that in order to have a successful one-state plan, you need Israeli Jews to want it, and today, not even one percent of Israeli Jews want it.
HI: You could put all of them in a small auditorium.
JG: I don't think you need an auditorium. Talk about these guys, the Tony Judts --
HI: I don't want to be too hard on Judt. Judt put out this argument and then he immediately admitted that it was utopian, that it wasn't serious and he was just doing a thought experiment. And since then, he basically has more or less withdrawn from the conversation Judt has not been a person who suggests that this is a realistic plan and a serious proposal for the future.
There are two fundamental flaws with pro-Palestinian strategic thinking that focuses on the idea of abandoning two states and going for a single state. The first is the question of feasibility, and it's hard to argue with that. Obviously anyone who is familiar with this sees the difficulty, and I would be the first to say that success is not assured by any means. Even a two-state agreement looks, at the moment, like something of a long shot. The difference between the two-state solution and everything else is that yes, it's a long shot, but it would work. And if we could conceivably get it, if we did get it, it would solve the conflict.
The fundamental argument that the one-staters seem to be making, which is that we can't possibly get Israel to end the occupation and relinquish their control of the 22 percent of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) but we will inevitably succeed in getting them to relinquish one hundred percent of the territory under their control. This is a problem of logic. The second thing is that once you've realized this, obviously what you've done is set yourself the task of convincing Jewish Israelis to voluntarily do this. The idea of coercing the Israelis into this through military force is absurd, and it could only really be done through voluntary persuasion. What the one-staters argue, actually, is that they don't have to do that. What they're going to do, they say, is bring the Israelis to their knees.
JG: South Africa style?
HI: Well, South Africa style, except we don't have a South Africa equation here.
JG: But they believe they do.
HI: They believe that through the application of what they call BDS - Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions - globally that they can crush the will of the Israelis and break the Zionist movement. To me, even if you believe that boycotts were plausible, which I don't, certainly I don't think the American government and institutions and corporations would participate.
JG: You have to move from the American consensus that supports supplying Israel with the best weaponry to not just a military cutoff but a complete cutoff and boycott. It's very hard to picture.
HI: Anyone who thinks that is plausible in the foreseeable future doesn't understand the nature of the American relationship with Israel. The commitment of the U.S., not just the government but American society, is to the survival and security of the Israeli state. And then there's another aspect, which is the extent to which Israeli institutions, organizations and corporations are interwoven at a very fundamental level with many of those in the U.S.
JG: Right, Intel and Google --
HI: I'm talking about corporate, governmental, intelligence, military, industrial, scientific ties. The point is that you can only take talk of boycott and sanctions seriously if you really don't understand any of this. And if you don't understand any of this, then you're living in a fantasy world. So here's the thing: Obviously the only real task for one-staters is to convince Jewish Israelis to agree to their solution. But instead of trying to do that, they engage in the most hyperbolic discourse about the badness of Zionism, the badness of Jewish Israelis, the rightness and primacy of not just a Palestinian narrative, but the most strident traditional Palestinian narrative, and the most tendentious Palestinian narrative, the one that places lame for the conflict entirely on the side of the Israelis, that casts Israel as the usurper and what they call in one-state circles now the "temporary racist usurping entity." These are the ones, by the way, who won't talk about my book. There's a refusal to acknowledge or read my book. I've nicknamed my book "the temporary racist usurping book."
These people are trapped in the language of the Fifties and Sixties. You're talking about a worldview is anachronistic in the most fundamental sense. It doesn't recognize any of the changes that have taken place since then. For example, the strategic situation that's emerged in the Middle East, where the Arab states and the Arabs generally have a lot of other things to worry about other than Israel. This is a world in which a lot of Gulf states are extremely concerned about Iraq, and where there are Arab states -- Jordan and Egypt -- that have treaties with Israel, where Syria has a motive to be civil with Israel that is unpleasant but completely stable, and where it's a very different environment than simply the Arabs and Israelis are enemies. The other thing that they've missed completely, and this is sort of the amazing thing, is the total transformation in American official policy toward the Palestinians over the past 20 years. Twenty-one years ago, there was no contact ever between the U.S. and the PLO. No contact, zero, and no Palestinian statehood is the consensus American foreign policy and it is a national security priority under Obama. People in the House, key positions like the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Howard Berman, chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East, Gary Ackerman, Nita Lowey on Appropriations - all of them Jewish American members of Congress, stalwart supporters of Israel, and all of them committed to peace based on two states. And all of them, by the way, who were on the host committee of the American Task Force on Palestine gala last week.
JG: You've reached the Promised Land.
HI: Except that we haven't achieved the results.
JG: Yes, there's that. But you're on the road.
HI: Exactly. The transformation in American attitudes is almost mind-boggling, an official American attitude on ending the occupation, which has been the traditional goal of the Palestinians. And at this very moment, a group of Palestinians turns around and says, 'Sorry, not good enough, we want it all. Not only is a single Palestinian state not achievable, it's not desirable, it's not acceptable, it's not enough, we want it all.'
JG: Who are the leaders of the movement?
HI: People like Ali Abunimah, Joseph Massad, Ghada Karmi, Omar Barghouti.
JG: And you think they're succumbing to fantastic dreams. This is the traditional criticism of Palestinian politics over the past sixty years, that it's very hard to separate out the dreams from--
HI: It goes back further than sixty years. It's an article of Palestinian nationalist faith that is almost one hundred years old, which is that demography is destiny, demography is power. This notion that if we just sit here, on the land, have children, are steadfast and don't agree to anything, then political power ultimately will flow to us. In the twenties, they believed if we do that, then, just by virtue of our presence in the land, our numbers, our demography, Israel will never be established. After Israel was established, it was just, "Well if we're steadfast and we don't agree, then Israel will be reversed." Then it was, "Well if we just do this, then independence will come in the occupied territories." Now the latest version is if we're just steadfast, we can create a South Africa-like model and we will reverse the war of 1948 at the ballot.
JG: But I have to tell you that for people like me, this is a real worry. This goes with the argument that the settlements are the vanguard of one-statism.
HI: Now there is some truth to this. I think it's useful for people like (Ehud) Olmert or people like yourself to point out that with the occupation going the way it is, there won't be a Palestinian state, and then Israel will be in a situation where it is neither meaningfully Jewish nor meaningfully democratic. I think you could claim that already, if you talk about the de facto Israeli state rather than Israel in its normally perceived borders, that is already the case and it will be increasingly so. Now here's the thing: The alternative, though, is not going to be a single state in the foreseeable future. It's possible we could get there, but it won't be a solution, it will be an outcome. There's a big difference. An outcome of a horrible, brutal, bloody civil conflict that drags on for generations, because even though this demographic issue and the legitimacy issues are crises for Israel, I don't think they result in the dissolution of the Israeli state
JG: In other words, most Israeli Jews would rather have a Jewish state than a democratic state.
HI: Yes, it's obvious. And I think that what you would get is a protracted civil war that is essentially an intensification of the civil war we've had. So I do say the single state is a potential eventuality, but it would be the outcome of a horrible scenario. Look, the idea that if the current round of talks breaks down and Obama gives up and the U.S. gives up and we all give up, then the alternative is a Gandhian non-violent struggle of sanctions and boycotts that will somehow bring Israel to its knees, that is not the way it's going to go. We know the way it's going to go.
JG: Each intifada is more violent than the last.
HI: And more religious. You'll end up with two sets of bearded fanatics on both sides fighting over holy places and God. It will be a complete disaster. And I think the Israelis will end up ultimately dealing with forces not only beyond its borders, but beyond its comprehension in the long run. This has the possibility of turning into not an ethno-national war but a religious war between the Muslims and the Jews over the holy places with the whole concept of Palestine gone and the Jewish population of Israel in a very unenviable situation, protected in the end only by its nuclear weapons. It's a nightmare.
JG: So you have three scenarios. One, the one-state solution: Somehow the Jews and the Arabs decide, even though their narratives completely contradict each other, that we'll be like Belgium, where we don't have to really like each other but we'll be fine. The second alternative is the one you described of basically endless war. The third is the two-state solution. But, sorry to say it, we don't seem that close right now. You have an Israeli government who seems extremely hesitant to pull down any settlements, you have a Hamas government in Gaza, just for starters.
HI: What you do with Hamas, in my view, is you make the situation such that Hamas has to choose, and you do this by creating progress and by creating momentum - and there are two ways of creating momentum. One is diplomatically, which right now, seems difficult. The other is through the Fayyad plan, which is state building in the occupied territories. That would have a very powerful effect. It is extremely important that we use that idea as a means of gaining momentum, that the Israelis do not block it, that the U.S. protect it politically, and that the Arabs, Europeans and the Israelis support it technically and financially. This is a way of really moving forward in a manner that is complimentary and not contradictory to the diplomatic process, and I think people who suggest that this is some kind of capitulation or some kind of collaboration are dead wrong. This is a very powerful way of effectively resisting the occupation without doing anything violent. Israelis may fool themselves into thinking that this is just economic peace, but it's not; it's Palestinians preparing for independence.
Now with regard to Hamas, I definitely don't think it would be wise for the West to open up dialogue with Hamas under the present circumstances. I think that would simply reward them and it would benefit them in their competition with the PLO and there's a stark choice that Palestinians are facing between two strategies: an Islamist violent strategy and a secular nationalist negotiation strategy. I think it's very important to bolster the second and to make the first appear what it actually is: Non-functional.