'Repeated military victory over Palestinians pushed Israel to the far right'

Columnist Soli Özel met Ian Lustick from UPenn to discuss his new book "Paradigm Lost." Lustick says that Israel thought repeated military victory over Palestinians would divide them, with one fraction willing to compromise, but that this policy eventually created a false illusion in Israelis' minds of a weak enemy. Lustick says that this made Israelis reluctant to compromise with Palestinians, birthing the "one-state reality."

Soli Özel / Duvar English

In his most recent book "Paradigm Lost," political scientist Ian Lustick from the University of Pennsylvania explores the disappearance of a two-state solution for Israel, West Bank and Gaza. Lustick says that different moves by different political actors have pushed its achievement over the edge of plausibility into impossibility.

Lustick says that the Israeli government adopted a policy of inflicting repeated military defeat over Palestinians in hopes to divide them into two fractions, assuming that one would eventually be willing to compromise for a solution. But, Lustick adds, this repetition of military defeat created a false perception of the Palestinians as being vicious but weak, persuading increasing numbers of Israelis that it was unnecessary to compromise or seek opportunities to negotiate with moderate Palestinians.

Soli Özel (left) and Ian Lustick (right) pose for a photo.

Lustick told Duvar English columnist Soli Özel about his new book, the one-state reality in the region, and what the future holds for Israel and the Palestinians.

Soli Özel: Professor Lustick, you are trying in your new book to convince people who have invested heavily in the Arab-Israeli or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades and who were engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that the two-state solution that they have cherished and advocated is no longer available. You yourself had been a proponent for most of your career. With your new book you’re recommending that those who are interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should drop the two-state paradigm, that it’s quite obvious that the conditions for a two-state solution to be achieved are no longer there, and you’re suggesting that we start thinking in terms of a one-state “reality.” You’re not saying that there is a one-state solution. Emphatically, you’re saying “Let’s accept the one-state reality, let’s start with this.” What do you mean by a one-state reality and how do you go from that reality to a solution, if there is a solution?

Ian Lustick: Well, thank you. I make a distinction between a solution and a reality, or an outcome. From my point of view, a solution includes two things. One, a pretty picture of the future — a picture that one would really like to see as reality, but is not reality. But that’s the easy part of the solution. There are many pretty pictures about the future that I and others can entertain with respect to the Israelis and Palestinians. We can imagine two states living in peace: One democratic state, one bi-national state. Two and a half states, a confederation, many pretty pictures… the problem is how do you get from here, where we are, to any pretty picture? A solution includes a plan for getting from where we are to some pretty picture. In the past, I’ve worked to convince people that it was possible for negotiations and processes of political moderation in both Israel and Palestine to result in a two-state solution, which for me, while not a perfect picture, had enough justice in it to be a path to peace. The two-state paradigm started with Israel next to territories that were not Israel, that were available for becoming a Palestinian state, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

SÖ: How was that different from the original partition suggestion of the Peel Report back in 1937? 

IL: They’re both partition solutions, but in the 1930s and 1940s, when the United Nations suggested it, there was no already-existing state of Israel. There was just a territory that had been a colony. So the British were considering dividing something into two states, neither of which had been a state. Now you have a different situation in which the territory contains one state, Israel, and it supposedly had territory in it that wasn’t Israel. That’s what I call the ontological assumption. That was the paradigmatic belief that we had in Palestine, one state in part of the country and no state in the other part of the country. It wasn’t just supporters of the two-state solution who saw the situation that way, it was also two-state solution opponents. People like the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, they also saw that there was an Israeli state in part of the land but not (yet) in all of it. The problem for them was that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which were not yet the Israeli state. So when I say that the two-state paradigm is outmoded, I’m not just talking about the inability to get that solution but the impossibility of thinking clearly about the situation by imagining it as anything other than a reality of one state, Israel, already ruling the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, though not ruling all areas in the same way or treating everyone living in each area according to the same rules and norms.

SÖ: Why didn’t it work?

IL: Many reasons. Many errors were made by Palestinians, by Americans, and by Israelis that made it less likely to come to fruition. In my book “Paradigm Lost,” I argue that the main reason is the way Israel changed. Israel had much more power than the Palestinians. One factor that pushed Israel in its right-wing, maximalist direction is that the Israel lobby in the United States made it impossible for the United States to pressure Israel effectively to moderate its policies. Under these circumstances it was difficult for pragmatic Israeli leaders, prepared for real territorial compromise, to win elections. That resulted in a long series of Israeli governments who refused to accommodate reasonable Palestinian demands and to negotiate seriously. Now the question is why did so many Israeli governments take such intransigent positions and why did the few governments that were inclined to some sort of compromise fail in their efforts? My book identifies three main factors. One is the unintended consequences of what was called the “Iron Wall Strategy.” The strategy that Zionism adopted when it realized it couldn’t offer the Arabs anything that could convince them that Zionism was in their best interest. Zionism decided that the only way to get Arab acquiescence in the long run was to defeat them militarily so often and so crushingly that the Palestinians and Arabs would divide and some would agree to half a loaf, to negotiate a compromise even though they didn’t think it was right. That effectively happened. You had the acceptance front and the rejection front. You had moderates and extremists after the 67 war. But what the Iron Wall Strategy didn’t anticipate was that inside the Wall, inside Israel that is, the effect of constant victories over the Arabs gave a feeling of power and righteousness and irredentism that made it politically impossible or very difficult to go back to a moderate position and say “OK now, even though we can take more territory, we should compromise.” The unintended consequences of the early stages of the Iron Wall made it impossible to accomplish the later stages, which meant that you would have to compromise with the Arabs. That was one thing that caused this whole problem. 

SÖ: Is there no difference between labor governments and the big electoral earthquake in 1977 that brought the descendants of the Iron Wall doctrine’s author Jabotinsky into power? 

IL: I do think there were many differences between the Labor Party and Likud in the 1970s. Had the Likud not won that election and subsequently become the dominant party, there would have been more opportunities for the two-state solution. Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Labor Party,  enforced Jabotinsky’s idea. He and Jabotinsky completely agreed that there was no way to negotiate a peace with the Arabs because Israel had nothing to offer them. The question is why did Israel change to become what I would say, in American terms, is a red state like Oklahoma and not a purple state or a blue state like New Jersey. I’ve already said one reason: The consequences of many victories over an enemy that came to be seen as vicious but weak. Another reason as I’ve mentioned is the Israel lobby in the US and the cocoon of protection it spun around Israeli democracy.

Another reason, a very sensitive problem that produced the answer to your question “Why no two-state solution?” is the way that the Holocaust, the destruction of six million Jews in World War 2, which was an overwhelming event for Jews and for the world, has been remembered in Israel. I’ve written a great deal about this, and in the book I explain at length how one particular way of thinking about the Holocaust, advanced by Menachem Begin, gained ascendance in Israel. It’s a way of thinking that teaches Jews that the Holocaust means all gentiles are potential Nazis. This is a danger that Jews must always keep in mind, especially when dealing with Palestinians. Therefore, “don’t be a sucker and trust the gentiles, don’t sign agreements that give up our own control of our things because in this world, only Jews will protect Jews” — that political culture made it also extremely difficult for Israeli politicians to convince Jews they should be prepared to compromise with Palestinians. 

SÖ: So what is this one-state reality? Your time frame is another 30 years, even more. Is there really time for that? And secondly what makes you think that if we accepted the one-state reality that things would start moving in the right direction?

IL: Asking whether you accept a one-state reality is like asking whether you accept the law of gravity. When I say a one-state reality, I’m not advancing a program that I’m encouraging you to accept, I’m telling you that’s how the world is. You can decide to accept or reject the law of gravity but it’s not going to affect whether you can fly. When you look at the territory between the Jordan River and the sea, instead of seeing one state inside the old borders and then territories outside of those borders that are not part of any state, you should see what’s actually there: One political state that rules everyone in that area with different rules and different laws and different uses of violence, according to different groups in different parts of the land.

Different castes, let’s say, live in this state. There’s an Ashkenazi (European-American) Jewish caste that’s at the top of the society. There are Sephardi Jews—mostly from Middle Eastern and North African countries. There’s an Arab caste that has Israeli citizenship. There’s an Arab caste that has Jerusalem citizenship but not Israeli citizenship. There’s an Arab caste affiliated with the Palestinian Authority that operates as a sub-contractor for the Israeli government. And there is a very low caste of Gaza Palestinians who are locked into a ghetto, who have almost no rights and few life chances. They’re all dominated by Israel, which can determine at any point how secure someone can feel about their life and their property. That is the basic meaning of a state — the organization that enforces property rights. Once you see that, you see that the problem isn’t “How can we draw a line between two states?” but “How can we change the character of the state that rules these areas, and what are the dynamics of such a process?”

It is an interesting question, What are the dynamics of change for states that are complicated and non-democratic and filled with populations who are unhappy with their status? To answer that question we can look at how limited democracies have expanded to include groups that were excluded in the past, whether that’s Irish Catholics getting excluded after Ireland was annexed, freed black slaves who were excluded from American politics for generations, and women, who were also excluded for generations before they won political rights. How does that work? The importance of this question is one of the many new things you see when you switch to viewing the situation as a one-state reality.

This “gestalt” shift produces many new insights. For example, when you think of the land as two states, or potentially two states, then you can argue as an Israeli progressive, that it’s impossible to live with the Arabs, they’re distasteful, disgusting, and untrustworthy. You argue this way because you want to convince Israeli Jews who are not happy living with the Arabs that they they should therefore support Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. If the fact is that Israel will never get out of the West Bank and Gaza, that these areas are a part of Israel, and if you’re a progressive Israeli Jew, it makes no sense to argue this way. Bytell other Israeli Jews that Arabs are distasteful, disgusting and untrustworthy you’re effectively calling for mass expulsion—of just the group you need as allies in the struggle to democratize the country.

And Israeli progressives certainly do need Arabs as allies. We are seeing this in Israeli elections. The only way Blue and White can come to power is if there’s a large Arab party that supports them. In the future, many Jews will see Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza as the same resource. It’s hard to imagine now, but for generations it was inconceivable that blacks would one day become such a crucial voting bloc in America that no Democratic candidate could win the Presidency without a massive black vote.