Noam Chomsky and Tony Klug have given the cognoscenti of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a fascinating if bittersweet discussion. There’s a nostalgic feel to revisiting bygone failures, missed opportunities, rehashing intricate disputes over who thought or did what when, and diving again into counterfactuals about whether it would have mattered had only X done (or not done) Y. Emotionally, it seems like commiserative and partially self-promoting conversation a shiva—a shiva for the two-state solution. (“Yes, it was a good solution, a genuinely good solution, and I was there with it when it could have been implemented, and if it is now gone, still its memory lives on in our hearts.”)

Analytically, the Klug-Chomsky dialogue reveals a predisposition toward “solutionism” (the idea that complex and protracted ethno-political conflicts are standardly susceptible to rational stabilizations by agreeing on a shared “vision” or compromise “blueprint” whose implementation will mutually and at least minimally satisfy the parties to the dispute). This kind of posture was crucial after the 1967 war for the development and promotion of the “two states for two peoples” project. It did give that idea as much opportunity to be realized as observers of the fate of other schemes for the solution of historically similar problems should have expected it to have (i.e., some, but not much). In fact, it is difficult to think of any comparably deep and complex conflict that has ever been settled by implementing a detailed agreement designed to thread moral and political needles with careful phrasing and complicated compromises.

Transformation of the Conflict During the Rabin Years

One of the most prominent Klug-Chomsky subconversations is an argument over whether Yitzhak Rabin ever really endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Klug says yes, he did, eventually, assessing that had Rabin not been assassinated, Oslo could have well been on track to produce a two-state solution (one of many similar counterfactuals he advances, usually associated with the tragic failure of various actors not to take his advice when he gave it). Chomsky disagrees, repeating that in neither his statements nor in his behavior did Rabin ever explicitly or convincingly embrace the idea of an independent Palestinian state. Klug can offer no evidence to the contrary. Instead he insists, sixteen times by my count, that Rabin was “on a journey…” in his thinking “the destination of which was yet to be determined,” but that could have included real acceptance of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

What Klug often, but not always, ignores, and what Chomsky, in his otherwise razor sharp and unrelenting analysis, neglects to point out, is that it was not just Rabin who was “on a journey,” i.e. undergoing a process of transformation. The Israeli-Palestinian problem itself was “on a journey,” meaning, among other things, that reaching and implementing a two-state solution, or some other partition-based agreement, was not a fixed probability, or even a constant possibility. Even if one assumes that in the 1980s or 1990s there was a 20%-30% probability of success, there is no guarantee, or even likelihood, that the odds would remain anywhere near that favorable as Israeli control of the territories was consolidated, Israeli politics and culture moved steadily to the right, Arab solidarity with the Palestinians waned, and U.S. support for Israeli expansionism remained effectively, if not officially, overwhelming. 

At some points both Klug and Chomsky allow as to how politics interfered with the achievement of a rational solution to the problem—as if the conflict were not entirely and inevitably embedded in politics. It is amateurish to opine that “if only this or that American President had acted according to my plan (and not in his perceived political interest), then all would have been well.” Useful counterfactual thought experiments require careful attention to what else would have had to have been true of the world 
for the desired antecedent condition to have been present. Failing to do so is akin to arguing that Napoleon would have won at Waterloo had he had nuclear weapons. Too much of the world in the early 19th century would have had to have been different for Napoleon to have had atomic bombs, and had the world been that different, Napoleon wouldn’t have been Napoleon, and there would have been no battle at Waterloo.

Overuse of the ‘Point of No Return’ Argument

The irony is that the “point of no return” argument (“if a two-state solution is not soon implemented, the world will change to make it impossible”) was the refrain of two-states for decades, despite the selfcontradicting character of such a claim if it is made too often for too long. Indeed, both Klug and Chomsky have difficulty reconciling their current recommendations for policies and political action with their own analysis of the implausibility of achieving a negotiated two-state solution. Klug quotes a policy paper he submitted to the Obama administration in 2009 advocating an urgent effort to secure a two-state solution because, as he put it “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on the verge of becoming irresolvable” and “President Obama's first term offers a final opportunity to settle it.” Klug ruefully notes Obama’s failure to implement the plan. Nevertheless, even though that “final opportunity” was missed, eleven years later it seems, that for Klug, it perhaps did not quite vanish.

The problem is that as long as the two-state solution is treated as either possible, or not so implausible as to be unworthy of the opportunity costs associated with pursuing it, the silent apartheidists (those who prefer domination and the pretense of peace-seeking to sharing power with Arabs) hold center stage. They (think Gantz, Livni, Lapid, etc.) use it to reduce the political and psychological space for considering alternatives, thereby discouraging creative thinking and effective political action. To Klug’s credit, he does seem to recognize the difficulty, decade after decade, of advancing the same two-state solution blueprint and calling for the same combination of sensible Arab “moderation,” mass nonviolent Palestinian action, liberal Jewish mobilization (in Israel and in the United States), Palestinian-Jewish alliances, strong American pressure, and effective diplomacy. He does call for all these but refrains from portraying a real possibility of success. Forlornly, he describes prospects for a two-state solution as “not exactly rosy,” saying only that he “wouldn’t rule it out as a possible future direction.” Meanwhile, he proposes accompanying this traditional, faith-based exhortation with demands for “equal civil and political rights within a common sovereign entity.”

President Shimon Peres, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Mahmoud Abbas at the World Economic Forum, in Jordan on May 26, 2013

While occasionally used by liberal Zionists over the years to scare mainstream Israelis into leaving the territories by evoking the “specter” of millions of new politically empowered Palestinian citizens, Klug’s version of “annexation now” (a phrase he does not use) suggests the possibility of something less disingenuous. “The compelling question in the short-term,” Klug says, “is whether this single state / single sovereignty will move in an apartheid, unitary or binational direction”. But a fight to end apartheid in the single Israeli state that systematically discriminates against millions of its inhabitants means enfranchising those—the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem—who must be in the front lines of the struggle. This Klug does not advocate, or even mention. Despite his insights, his fudged language shows how difficult it was for him to let go. The same sentence that refers to “the new impending reality” and to the fact that “the situation has moved on and we are now faced with a de facto one-state reality” also includes the comment that perhaps this one-state reality is really not yet here, or it is here but is not yet “entrenched,” or it is “on the verge of becoming further entrenched, although to what extent is not yet certain.”

Still, more than Chomsky, Klug opens the door to understanding and real work. What hope Chomsky has for the future is for a renewed campaign to implement the two-state solution. It lies entirely in the United States, where he imagines that by telling the truth about Israeli nuclear weapons a burgeoning progressive movement will use the big stick of pressure and threats to cut off aid to decisive effect. But nowhere does Chomsky, on this point, offer what he regularly demands of Klug—direct evidence that those in power, or likely to be in power, are committed to acting as he wants them to act.

Visions Cannot Be Blueprints for Solutions

A favorite Israeli expression, when reaching a conclusion, is to say that “at the end of the day” this or that is true. The deep truth about politics is that there is no such thing as “the end of the day.” Politics never stops. More to the specific point, with protracted conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli dispute, the future holds no “solution” in the sense that a stable arrangement endorsed by permanent majorities on each side allows it to pass into history. No amount of clever boundary drawing, land-swapping, or linguistic gymnastics about parallel states or a confederation can amount to more than a politically unimplementable pretty picture. Indeed, my most profound disagreement with both Chomsky and Klug is the emphasis they put on the need for a clear “vision”—a grand plan for solving the problem. Such visions may indeed inspire action and sacrifice by specific groups, but they will not be, they cannot be, blueprints for the implementation of a solution. What will come will be the result of that which has produced what is—the resultant of conflicting projects with conflicting visions, no one of which has been achieved, and no one of which will be achieved. This point takes much of the force out of the querulous attacks that both make on BDS—for lacking a vision capable of being implemented.

Israel is no longer a country holding territories separate from it. It is a state inhabited by more than 14 million persons. They live in different zones, belong to different castes, enjoy different rights, and are protected or oppressed by different laws. Yet, for all of them, their property rights and life chances are mainly, if not entirely, a function of decisions made by the governments of the only state that exists between the river and the sea—the state named Israel. As I have argued at length in Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality, for progressives, the one-state reality includes an imperative to act on behalf of values rather than for the sake of an institutional form; to think in terms of transformative processes operating over generations rather than policy-making in a time frame of months or years; to abandon counterproductive demographic arguments (since more Arab voters in the Israeli state are crucial to progress); to trade irrelevant battles (such as whether E1 will be settled; or whether the United States will restart the “peace process”) for more productive struggles (such as how to overcome Palestinian Authority opposition to municipal voting by East Jerusalem Palestinians; and how to change the terms of an annexation so that it doesn’t include everything except equal rights for all).

Israelis now face the challenge of democratization—the reality of a fundamental contradiction between democracy and rules for participation that exclude a large, historically feared, despised, and/or hated population. This problem confronted all industrial democracies before women gained voting rights. It was faced by the United States, for centuries, when blacks were either enslaved or denied equal rights as citizens and equal access to voting. It was faced by the United Kingdom when Irish Catholics could not vote for Parliament. And it was faced by South Africa for many decades under apartheid. As in those cases, so too in Israel must there be a very long and complicated set of struggles before the current state of affairs that no one wants, or at least no one is willing to say they want, is replaced with partially improved arrangements emerging from disjointed processes and shifting balances and alignments of political interests. Our job is to work and struggle, not for an end of problems, but for better ones.