Believing in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today is a little like looking for unicorns on the moon — it doesn’t matter how much you search, you still won’t find any. As recognition of this fact has become increasingly widespread, grappling with its implications has been hampered by the lack of normatively attractive or politically viable alternatives. In his review of Padraig O’Malley’s “The Two State Delusion,” Peter Beinart calls the book and its research impressive but nevertheless faults the author for not telling us how the story ends.
Although Beinart and others committed to a two-state solution make it sound like the alternatives are a great mystery, the search for unicorns has been distracting them from increasingly plausible outcomes. As the two-state solution fades into history, its alternatives become increasingly likely: civil war, ethnic cleansing or a non-democratic state. Although all three are possible, the third is rising on the horizon. Whether it goes by the name of an apartheid state, an illiberal democracy, a less than free society or a competitive authoritarianism, the dominant theme will be a Jewish minority ruling over a non-Jewish majority. Although such an outcome would be an emotional blow to those who favor the two-state solution as a way to maintain Israel’s democratic and Jewish character, it looks quite familiar in a world where liberal democracy not only remains the exception but has actually lost ground over the last decade.
Discussions of “solutions” always presuppose the existence of a problem and a limited universe of permissible outcomes. The two-state outcome is supposed to solve the century-old problem of two different peoples struggling for independence and sovereignty over the same territory. From the standpoint of those who want to maintain Israel’s integrity as a Jewish and democratic state, the two-state solution becomes not just the only solution but also an increasingly urgent one as the Arab minority becomes the majority. For most two-state advocates, this is only possible if Israel surrenders the territories and its Palestinian inhabitants. Anything else means that Israel either ceases to be a democracy (making Palestinians second-class citizens to retain its Jewish character) or ceases to be Jewish (because the first thing Palestinians do with the vote is change Israel’s identity from Jewish to something else). For those committed to an Israel that is both democratic and Jewish, then, there is no alternative to a two-state solution.
But they are allowing their ideological commitments to cloud their empirical analysis. Ideologically, they are committed to a Jewish and democratic Israel, and so they cannot (and must not allow themselves to) think of nondemocratic possibilities. Historically, we have many examples of states that have a defining ethnonational character with a substantial minority; the “problem” for those who cherish Israel’s democracy, however, is that these are not cases of liberal democracies.
There is a rich literature in political science on solutions to deeply-divided societies. Two of its key findings are directly relevant for this discussion: If divided societies are going to have a modicum of democracy and stability, then the in-group must vastly outnumber the out-group; and the more evenly divided are the in and out groups, the greater chance there is for conflict. These tendencies are especially robust in states that have a defining religious or ethnic character. Stated historically, there are few, if any, instances in which an ethnonational or religious state is able to govern with legitimacy over a “minority” that is greater in number than the ruling class. Stated pointedly, those who argue in favor of a binational state need to identify the precedents or the reasons why they believe Israel/Palestine can create a binational state out of decades of conflict.
What does the political science literature say about a two-state solution? Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and a lot depends on the conditions. For instance, clean partitions, where there are few opportunities for contact (and thus mischief-making) between the populations can work. Conversely, partitions that allow for considerable contact — such as the sort many Israelis imagine would connect Jewish settlements surrounded by a Palestinian state to Israel — are playing with fire.
So what is the alternative to the two-state solution? A non-democratic but Jewish Israel. I am not arguing that a non-democratic Israel is desirable but rather that it looks like a good bet. The tendency to separate Israel from the territories helps to mask this outcome. If Israel is judged just according to the pre-1967 borders, then, according to Freedom House, it is squarely a democracy (though one rated better on political rights than civil liberties). However, the Israel Democracy Index paints a less rosy picture, with Israel ranking in the bottom third of democracies on issues of civic engagement, political stability and civil liberties. The principal reason for Israel’s low ranking is because it is an ethnonational state with a large Arab minority, in which being Jewish has distinct advantages. Simply put, as a Jewish state, the Arab minority must be relegated permanently to the margins. For Jews, Israel is “free,” but for the Arab minority it is much “less than free.” Israel’s ranking plummets further when turning to the occupied territories. Some will object to including the territories, but at a certain point it is probably worth thinking about the “occupation” not as temporary but rather as permanent: a half-century is a long time to be temporary.
Three responses to this emerging prospect of a Jewish minority dominate the political scene among Israeli Jews. Some are panicked and continue to work for a two-state solution. A larger camp is satisfied with the status quo. Finally, there are those attempting to confront the future by considering different ways of thinking about the status of the Arabs. These formulations start with the premise that the Palestinians cannot be full citizens. If not citizens, then what? There are many legal categories, including residents, inhabitants, natives or subjects. Israel has experimented with plenty of different legal categories; Arabs that were residents of Jerusalem before 1967 have more rights than do Arabs who were residents of, say, Jericho. Contemporary discussions among Israeli politicians and intellectuals regarding the status of the Arabs include not simply Palestinians of the occupied territories but also Israeli Arabs, who increasingly call themselves Palestinians. If the choice is between conferring the same rights on the inhabitants of the territories as those enjoyed by Israeli Arabs and downgrading the rights of the Israeli Arabs, a growing number of politicians and intellectuals are explicitly advocating the latter.
These kinds of conversations make American Jews very nervous, in part because they want their Israel to be Jewish and democratic, and they treat anything else as a betrayal of Zionism inconsistent with their American Jewish identity. But I am not so certain that all Israeli Jews view the trade-off with the same level of concern. There is a growing constituency in Israel for whom democracy matters relatively little: the religious community. Although many participate in the democratic process, for them, God has sovereignty, not the people, and religious law should trump popular will and basic individual liberties.
Moreover, the majority of Israeli Jews who do not identify as religious aren’t necessarily wedded to democracy either. Israelis are much more familiar with a trade-off that Americans have only come to confront since Sept. 11, 2001: democracy vs. security. Palestinians are not just a demographic threat; for many Israeli Jews they also represent a security threat. According to them, Israel does not have the luxury of granting Israeli Arabs and Palestinians the same rights as Israeli Jews; to do so would be to license a fifth column. And when the conversation expands from security and democracy to the Jewish identity and democracy, Israelis are increasingly likely to choose the former over the latter. According to the Israeli Democracy Index, the percentage of Israeli Jews who believe that it is important for Israel to be both democratic and Jewish has slipped from 48 percent in 2010 to 24 percent in 2014.
So, what can be said about the idea of Jews and Palestinians dividing the land of historic Palestine? Well, it probably won’t happen. In an odd way, then, Israel is about to become a “normal” country. Most countries in the world are not democratic and have evolved a national identity and discourse to normalize this reality. The evidence suggests that Israeli Jews are prepared to join the club.
Michael N. Barnett is a professor of international affairs and political science at the George Washington University and author of the forthcoming book, “The Star and the Stripes: A History of the Foreign Policies of American Jews,” (Princeton University Press, 2015).