Several commentators have now weighed in on Ian Lustick’s op-ed, “The Two State Illusion,” which the New York Times gave the front page of its Sunday Review section. In the op-ed Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, calls on concerned parties to drop the idea of separate Palestinian and Israeli states. He advances what he considers a more practical idea: abandon peace talks, let violence break out and intensify, then rely on “rising tides of international condemnation” to convince Israel to give up on a democratic Jewish state. With that pesky vision out of the way, “fresh thinking” will bring about a “mixed state,” in which Palestinians and Israelis will forget their differences and live side by side.
If you don’t believe the New York Times gave 2283 words to this fantasy masquerading as hardheadedness, read the op-ed, then read this, this, this and this. You will learn, among other things, that Lustick misrepresents the history of peace negotiations, “demonstrates his total lack of familiarity with Israeli society,” and “seems almost eager to envision the chaos and bloodshed that would accompany the demise of the Jewish state.”
One might be tempted to think that Lustick is uniquely thoughtless and callous, but his approach is not new. As Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada and BDS stalwart observes, “Ian Lustick is of course right. Just very late!” Lustick is not a lone wolf but reflects the views of the anti-Israeli left, which, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, stands not against the present government and practices of Israel but against the very idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East. It is not surprising that Abunimah and others are delighted to claim him because he shares a number of understandings with their movement.
First, as Jonathan Tobin points out, Lustick, like other anti-Israel activists, considers Israel in “the category of imperialist projects rather than as the national liberation movement of a small people struggling for survival.” So Lustick compares Israel to the British in Ireland and the French in Algeria (Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss is thrilled that Lustick “invokes my favorite historical analogy”), even though the Jews of Israel, surrounded by peoples who have been fed a diet of vicious anti-Jewish propaganda “have nowhere to go” and good reason to fear for their safety in a Middle East without a Jewish state.
Second, Lustick writes as if Israeli democracy does not exist. And like the BDS movement, which purports to speak for Palestinian civil society, he takes the views of Palestinians to be of no consequence. He concedes that the “sentiments of the Jewish Israeli majority” favor a two state solution and must be aware that large majorities of non-Jewish Israelis and Palestinians also support the peace process, albeit without optimism. But he nonetheless insists that the two-state solution is sustained entirely by corrupt elites. Americans are doing the bidding of (who else?) “the pro-Israel lobby.” Israeli politicians need a fig leaf to cover their relentless expansion into the West Bank. Palestinian leaders need to subsidize their lifestyles and hope to “strut on the stage” of a Palestinian state. And “the “peace process” industry — with its legions of consultants, pundits, academics and journalists — needs a steady supply of readers, listeners and funders.”
Only the anti-Israeli left, evidently, is unsullied by the need for readers, listeners, and funders. It is perhaps because Lustick and his allies imagine that politics is a matter of pure elites wresting power from impure ones, that they are completely unperturbed that, as Hussein Ibish and Saliba Sarsar remind us, “no political movement of any significance among either Palestinians or Israelis has adopted [a bi-national state] as a policy goal.”
Or perhaps, to bring us to a third understanding Lustick and the anti-Israeli left have in common, Lustick believes that the one state solution is unpopular because it has been “stifled” almost “completely.” The BDS movement regularly claims that it must work to counteract “Israel’s exceptional status in public discourse as immune to criticism.” Never mind that U.S. governments have often criticized Israel and that prominent academic critics of the U.S.-Israel relationship are not exactly invisible; if anything has proven immune to criticism, it is this demonstrably false claim about our public discourse. Similarly, Lustick does not appear to see anything ironic in putting the claim that his point of view has been rigorously suppressed on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Review section. Before being hidden away there, Lustick had made a similar argument in the L.A. Times. If that is what Lustick considers being stifled, I would like his agent’s phone number.
Although Lustick bizarrely compares Israeli democracy to Baathist Iraq, criticism of government policy is permitted in Israel. The two state solution is open to question not only in Haaretz (“Obama Chasing Rainbows With Two State Solution”) but also, albeit from an angle of which Lustick would not approve, in the Jerusalem Post. While Lustick considers the unpopularity of his ideas as evidence that they have been squelched by corrupt elites, maybe Ibish and Sarsar are on the right track when they propose that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are excited about a state that Lustick thinks just may emerge, in Ibish and Sarsar’s words, as “the product of further wide-scale bloodshed” in “scores of decades, if not centuries.”
But Lustick, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as a “consultant on analytic techniques and on Middle East affairs for each of the last seven administrations,” can’t bring himself to admit that his ideas have been altogether without influence. To be sure, the Carter administration did not listen to him when he boldly, as he reports in the op-ed, declared himself “so sure of [his] analysis that [he was] willing to destroy the only available chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” But the administration of George H.W. Bush, did listen to him, as he explains in an interview: “for an hour and a half I got to talk to the president and his top advisors and helped, I think, to convince them to give the kind of speech that James Baker gave to AIPAC, which led to the loan guarantees suspension, which led to the victory of the Rabin government in the 1992 elections, and then led to Oslo.” At least he says he only “helped” change the course of history by moving that notorious philoSemite James Baker to criticize Israel. Had his ideas not been stifled, perhaps he could have brought Oslo about without Baker or Rabin.
Similarly, although BDS insists that it is fighting against powerful, deep-pocketed foes who will stop at nothing to prevent its message from getting out, it also insists, despite the relative strength of Israel’s economy and the seemingly undiminished appetite for investment in it, that Israeli officials are in “fear,” and at times even “near panic” over BDS’s victories. Since the movement regards the unwillingness of Elvis Costello and Roger Waters to play in Israel as major blows, and feels compelled to trumpet victories that never actually happened, such as TIAA-CREF’s divestment from SodaStream, one must take these assertions, like Lustick’s assertions about his influence on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with more than a grain of salt.
Although the contradiction between how Lustick and his allies lament the suppression of their ideas while they boast about their world-historical significance is striking, what is more striking is that both the lament and the boast fit not reality but a David and Goliath story, in which they have cast themselves as David and Israel and the whole corrupt international community as Goliath. Lustick and the anti-Israeli left share not only a set of understandings but also this story line. Whether Lustick is writing about Israel’s status in the Middle East, or comparing Israel to Iraq, or imagining that, if people will only listen to him, a bi-national state will miraculously emerge from deadly conflict, he seems to prefer a good story to the challenges of policymaking. This preference, disturbing in an op-ed writer, is dangerous in a political movement. Lustick has done us a valuable service by indicating much more forthrightly than others on the anti-Israeli left have, that his story cannot come true without, as he puts it, “blood and magic.”
Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at Ursinus College. This piece was written for SPME.