Against Solutionism

‘It’s coming ever more sharply into focus’, declared Anthony Blinken on a recent trip to Doha, speaking of a ‘practical, timebound, irreversible path to a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel’. America’s Arab clients have also been invoking the two-state paradigm, with both the Saudis and Qataris stressing the need for such a ‘comprehensive settlement’. In the UK, David Cameron has declared his firm support for Palestinian statehood, while in Brussels Josep Borrell has insisted that this is ‘the only way to establish peace’. These statements can be seen as a frantic attempt at imperial containment. If the Palestinians cannot be ignored entirely, as in the Abraham Accords framework, better to push for a demilitarized, segmented Palestinian quasi-‘state’ so that Israeli normalization can proceed apace. Biden, personally and politically minutes to midnight, is desperate to put Jared Kushner’s agenda for the Middle East back on track after its derailing on 7 October.

How should we respond to the inglorious return and cadaverous persistence of two-statism? The most common reflex is to dismiss it as dangerous imperial ‘fantasy’, premised on the diplomatic formalization of the apartheid regime, and to advocate for one state as the only realistic alternative. This latter position was first formally put forward by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the aftermath of the Naksa. It was then adopted by Arafat and Abu Iyad as the official line of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In Oslo’s wake, Palestinian intellectuals – Edward Said, Ghada Karmi, Lama Abu-Odeh, Joseph Massad, Ali Abunimah, George Bisharat and Yousef Munayyer, among others – returned to this framework. Writing in 2002, Karmi noted that although the demand for a secular democracy ‘might seem utopian’, it is no more so than ‘the Zionist enterprise of constructing a Jewish state in someone else’s country’. Last year, she published a book-length intervention on the ‘inevitability’ of a single, democratic state.

Recognition that the two-state solution is foreclosed is increasingly common across the political spectrum. An essay in the latest Foreign Affairs argues that ‘the effect of talking again about two states is to mask a one-state reality that will almost surely become even more entrenched in the war’s aftermath’. On the whole this is a welcome shift, reflecting the mainstreaming of Palestine solidarity and support for multi-ethnic democracy over Zionist supremacism. Yet there are good reasons for the Western left to tread carefully here. Given the current regional coordinates, is one-statism still the most principled and realistic option? The irremediable sickness of settler society, clearer and more horrifying than ever, may be just as much a barrier to one state as the entrenched colonial geography of the Occupied Territories is to two. If the uprooting of settlers from the West Bank is impossible to imagine, it is surely harder still foresee Israelis accepting the end of ethno-nationalism and peacefully cohabitating with Palestinians.

The Palestinian people – in Gaza, the West Bank, historic Palestine and al-Shatat – will inevitably determine the telos of their struggle. Solutionism risks abrogating this basic principle, and even making major strategic and ethical judgements on their behalf. While two-state models tend to deny Palestinians the right of return, one-state discourses might mean telling them to surrender the fight for decolonization, make friends with their oppressors and permit all settlers to stay. Such decisions could at some point be made by the Palestinians themselves – hence the importance of democratizing their national political structures to enable genuine popular deliberation – but they cannot be presupposed. In this sense, valorization of final-status political forms can involve losing sight of anti-colonial first principles. It can also neglect the objective conditions needed to establish lasting peace in the region. For no ‘solution’ that fails to command mass support from the Palestinians will endure, and only an endpoint that upholds their inalienable rights is likely to have such democratic standing.

It is on this basis that organizations like Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign have long refused to take a position within the strictures of solutionist debates: one state, two states, no state. For them, the primary aim is to build political pressure to redress the crimes on which Israel was founded: the denial of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and the return of refugees. The struggle against these brutalities must precede the development of political blueprints for the region; indeed, the course of the former will invariably determine the shape of the latter. As the Palestinian scholar Karma Nabulsi puts it: ‘I’m very secular about what the solution should be. Some people are very keen on two states . . . There are those who argue for one, bi-national state. I would say, it’s much simpler than that. Allow the injustice to be rectified . . . Once people can return to their homes, let those people democratically decide, the people that live there, what kind of framework they want.’

This perspective has particular relevance to the post-7 October reality. Given both the historic strength and popular legitimacy of the Palestinian armed resistance, it cannot be assumed that the establishment of one democratic state in, say, the coming three decades is more plausible than the liberation of some Palestinian land from colonial occupation. In 1974, the PLO’s Political Programme stated that it would ‘employ all means . . . to liberate Palestinian territory and to establish the independent combatant national authority for the people over every part of Palestinian territory that is liberated’. This vision, of asserting Palestinian rule over portions of liberated land, now seems remarkably contemporary. As Tareq Baconi has shown, the strategic conception of Hamas’s founders was not dissimilar, in aiming to secure a ‘complete withdrawal from the West Bank, the Strip and Jerusalem without giving up on 80% of Palestine’. Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi looked to Hezbollah’s success in forcing the Israelis out of south Lebanon as a model for how this approach might work.

Such a trajectory, however unlikely, may now be more probable than the miraculous deradicalization of Israeli society. Of course, the odds remain daunting, not least because of the triumph of counter-revolutionary forces across the Arab world over the past decade. Perhaps the single most consequential and dispiriting factor here is the decimation of radical civil society in Egypt under the iron rule of El-Sisi – which, until it is overturned, could well preclude justice for the Palestinians. Yet the picture is complicated by the gradual waning of American dominance and the striking durability of the ‘resistance axis’. On such overdetermined terrain, there is no reason to think that the Palestinian struggle will conform to neat teleologies or ideal-types. Both imperial two-statism and more honourable visions of secular democracy long for quick-fixes: the former hoping to impose ‘order’, the latter to end the unbearable suffering in Gaza and the West Bank. But it is vital to note that most Palestinian conceptions of the struggle are temporally indeterminate. This is a national liberation project that has learned to distrust false promises of imminent salvation. We might therefore ask whether there is an element of projection in the search for rapid ‘solutions’ which are more easily assimilable and less discomforting for Westerners than a protracted, armed, anti-colonial struggle.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The House of Zion’, NLR 96.