What's the Point of a "One-State" Solution?
A moral case, or a bid to shift domestic politics
Editors’ Note: Shadi begins the conversation. Damir responds. Disagreement ensues, including over the role of morality in foreign policy. The goal, as in all Wisdom of Crowds conversations, is to explore why we believe the things we believe, working through the tensions and contradictions in real time. If you like what you see, subscribe to the newsletter to get future issues before the crowds do.
I’m a bit torn on Peter Beinart’s proposals for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (I’m hesitant to use the word “solution” because I don’t believe that problems can necessarily be solved). Going into our conversation with Peter on the podcast, I was a skeptic and even an opponent of one-state. My skepticism has generally been of a more philosophical and moral nature. One injustice—the dispossession of Palestinians at Israel’s founding—can not and should not be undone through another injustice, in this case the ending of a state that, for many of its residents, is all that they have and all that they have known.
The one-state option would require the dissolution of Israel, deeply flawed but still democratic. Presumably, this could be done by either forcing it to dissolve or by persuading a large enough majority of its citizens to, in effect, self-dissolve and become a different state altogether. From a moral standpoint, the latter option is the only one that passes muster, deferring as it would to the will of voters. But, of course, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews believe in a Jewish state. For that to change to allow a referendum on altering the nature of the state would require one of the more remarkable shifts of public opinion in human history.
Beinart brings up several examples as analogs—in South Africa, Ireland, and even the American civil rights movement—but these are not quite equivalent for any number of reasons. In short, Beinart’s proposal is if not impossible then extremely unlikely.
On the other hand, drawing on the universalist language of equality, dignity, and justice to argue for a binational state has the advantage of being much more morally compelling than the two-state solution could ever hope to be, at least from a Palestinian perspective. In short, Beinart’s articles have confirmed to me, after considerable hesitation and reluctance, that I can’t in good conscience ask (or want) Palestinians to stick stubbornly to a vision devoid of moral purpose.
Of course, morality, as I’m sure you’ll remind me Damir, is only one part of a larger story. Which raises the question: to what extent does the sheer unlikelihood of a one-state solution undermine it?
On our special Patreon episode of the podcast, I confessed that while I enjoyed reading Beinart’s essay as an example of what seems to me to be an effective call to action (as well as a kind of harbinger of a politics soon to come), I felt distant from it at the same time. Part of that has to do with me suffering from what I described last time as a particularly narrow circle of empathy, a tendency that has led me to cultivate a natural aversion to universals. Let me be clear: I didn’t read the essays dismissively! He makes as good a case as can be made given how he has chosen to make it. I just remain convinced that such moral(istic) arguments, because they misunderstand human nature, tend to misunderstand politics, and can lead to unintended consequences.
Unlike you, I’m not at all tempted to weigh the inherent democratic legitimacy of the Israeli state versus the inalienable human rights of Palestinian Arabs. That’s a useless exercise as far as I’m concerned, only “resolvable” based on one’s prior affinities and commitments—in other words, not resolvable at all. At its heart, Beinart’s essay tilts hard in the direction of the universality of human rights and all but dismisses the legitimacy of democratic decisions backing what he sees as immoral actions. Once again, let me be crystal clear: I’m neither troubled nor heartened by Beinart’s rhetoric, as neither democratic legitimacy nor universal human rights strike me as particularly real. Human rights can only be guaranteed within and by a state, and a state’s right to exist does not extend beyond its ability to defend itself from annihilation. Privileging one over the other is just rhetoric. This rhetoric matters, of course, but not in the way that either Beinart or his fretting critics think it does.
I am intrigued by how his argument is likely to play out in the real world. Here’s a stab at sketching out my reservations. Above all, I doubt his claim that democracy can act as a kind of salve that promotes reconciliation. I cited Bosnia as it’s a case study I feel a little bit more confident talking about than most others, but it seems generally accepted that a functioning democracy relies on the existence of an already-cohesive society that shares some deeply-held foundation myths, buys into a set broad of political rules of the road, and is committed to sustaining a set of institutions. Of course, participating in a democracy can reinforce these pillars, but it feels like Beinart has staked a whole lot on what is only a partial account of how democracies work. If his ideas were somehow put into practice, I remain convinced that the experiment would end badly—and quickly.
But even more pragmatically, I think the political effects of his argument will be far more destructive and disruptive than he allows. The real goal of his essay is to shift the mainstream of the American left into a more consistently antagonistic stance with Israel, further undermining a longstanding bipartisan policy consensus (against which, admittedly, Benjamin Netanyahu struck the first blow during Obama’s second term). For all sorts of reasons, I suspect Beinart will succeed in his narrow goal.
But given his intellectual commitment to the power of universal ideals, I believe he has misjudged what the broader effect will be. The world as a whole is moving in the opposite direction as American relative hegemony wanes, and Israel has lots of options for balancing. Yes, America remains an outsize supporter, but the partisan split also means that Beinart’s policy preference—the exertion of maximum moral pressure—if attainable at all, will be seen as a temporary thing by every Israeli government. The result will be even more heated political games in America, and more geopolitical brinksmanship and dealmaking abroad. Beinart’s optimistic, progressive vision will, I suspect, be even further out of reach—precisely because his professed idealism undermines it.
Despite my ideological attachment to small-d democracy—it colors nearly everything I believe—I agree with some of your skepticism, in part because we know that young democracies can become aggressive, expansionist, and illiberal. And a one-state solution would either have to entail one new state or two fledgling mini-states in a confederal arrangement. Democracy may be right, but that doesn’t make it a panacea. Democracy should not be viewed as a way to unleash the best of humanity; it should be seen as a way to regulate the damage that comes from the worst of humanity. There’s a built-in sense of optimism in Beinart’s articles on this and little sense of the tragic, which makes me a bit nervous. (It’s living in and studying the Middle East that made me pessimistic about the human condition in the first place!)
But none of this matters all that much if we assume that the one-state option has no real shot of actually happening in the foreseeable future. You allude to this when you refer to Beinart’s desire to shift the mainstream of the American left, which, in turn, would undermine the bipartisan consensus on Israel. In this case, the “bipartisan consensus” has been stultifying, preventing the U.S. from being even minimally creative in addressing the conflict. So perhaps we should be glad about that. This is precisely why when anyone speaks of the “peace process,” the most appropriate response is to roll one’s eyes.
So if, in fact, Beinart’s proposals end up being little more than an “Overton window shifter,” then there may be some utility in that—if pressure on Israel’s leaders will persuade them to pursue a two-state solution with some degree of seriousness, which they haven’t done for some time.
As you note, though, in such a scenario—with American power (supposedly) declining and Israel building relationships with fellow right-wing governments in India, Russia, and Hungary—U.S. pressure may not have the intended effect. That would mean a permanent occupation and, in effect or in practice, the Israeli annexation of the West Bank. If that comes to pass, then perhaps it’s best that the U.S., while still protecting Israel from existential threats, begin to distance itself from the more immoral and self-destructive behavior of Israeli governments. If Israeli leaders insist on pursuing such a course, there’s no reason we should be seen as facilitating it.
So we’re back, then, to morality, I suppose. But I don’t share the starting premise that the United States will be outside of history, insisting on the importance of values and ideals while the rest of the world continues its embrace of the darker arts. It’s precisely an insistence that values still matter in foreign policy that will allow them to retain their relevance.
Most of the pushback we’ve received on Twitter for the interview so far has stemmed from the perception that we were not hard enough on Peter in his presence. Re-reading our exchange here, I’m wondering if at least some of that criticism isn’t at least partially right: We certainly didn’t get into this level of back-and-forth in front of him.
And yet, thinking back, I do think that we voiced almost all of our above-detailed skepticism during the interview in one shape or another, while still giving Peter the space to outline what appears to be an earnest attempt on his part to work through impossible issues. Our conversation with him started with a little exchange about “cancel culture,” but the crux of the criticism we received seems to be not just of platforming, but of the tenor of the discussion. I’m pleased that our conversation was based on friendly engagement rather than on contentious point-scoring, and not just because we have more than enough of the latter on social media and cable TV already. The way we went about it allowed us to get at what this is really about: as you put it, shifting the Overton window on domestic U.S. debates about our foreign policy.
I cringe at and fret about the over-moralization of U.S. foreign policy, but as our readers and listeners should know by now, I never begrudge people (like you, Shadi) the attempt at wielding moral arguments in the service of a cause. I tend to think that such efforts generally end in tears, because, as I said earlier in our exchange, moralizing generally leads one to misread the world. This is not a brief against trying to, on balance, be more humane when crafting foreign policy. As you put it, values will continue to retain some relevance, if for no other reason than that Americans simply can’t function without them. But it is a brief for contextualizing them.
Our conversation contextualized for me what we’re talking about here: this is less about a concrete moral case for a one-state solution and more a bid for a historic shift among Democrats on the Israel-Palestine question. Being neither Jewish nor of the broader left, I have no dog in that particular fight (as James Baker remarked in different circumstances). But as an American, I do care about how we end up doing foreign policy. I asked Peter repeatedly whether his essay was inspired by the current political moment in the United States—whether the self-righteous crusade for social justice that is shaking our institutions played any role in his deciding to come out now for a one-state solution. He only partly demurred. And that, I think, is the biggest tell.
If Peter even partially effects the shift he seeks—and I think he stands a pretty good chance, given where the left is mentally and emotionally in this country at this moment—what does it mean? On balance, I think it means that as yet another foreign policy issue becomes a domestic political football, America will become more erratic, unreliable, and ineffective on the world stage. “Sad!”