A Debate About The Two-State-Solution with Norman Finkelstein

Last month I wrote to Norman Finkelstein offering to debate the chapter dealing with the Israel lobby theory of Walt and Mearsheimer in his new book, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End. He wrote back to say that’s just one section, and the book has much larger aims, why not discuss them? I agreed, and our email dialogue of the last two weeks follows. Note that this dialogue preceded Finkelstein's appearance on Democracy Now! Monday. 


Norman Finkelstein: My new book is the fruit of three decades of scholarly reflection on the Israel-Palestine conflict and also of being an active participant in the solidarity movement. (I first got involved on June 6, 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon.) It is also the result of perhaps five years of intensive research, and three comprehensive rewrites of the manuscript. An honest reader would, I think, conclude that my book is the substantive version of the "Beinart thesis," which, as it happens, I articulated in multiple venues long before Beinart came along. You might recall the conversation we had on the bus in Gaza after the 2008-9 Israeli invasion where I laid out my thesis that liberal American Jews were distancing themselves from Israel, and you expressed deep skepticism.

We are now at a crossroads in the conflict. I truly believe it is possible—not certain, not even probable, but still possible—that we can achieve a reasonable settlement within the two-state framework. But achieving this goal will require a maximum of political clarity and a vastly reduced amount of sloganeering.


Weiss: Here is where we differ. A historic compromise has been vitiated. Even David Shulman in the New York Review of Books understands this. And the crossroads we face is explaining to Americans that one regime exists between the river and the sea, and the trick is to make it a democracy. Unlike you, I believe, I would have been a bourgeois in the 1850s, and a Lincoln Republican; I would have been for a two-state solution that allowed slavery to persist in the south and vanish in time. Those historic compromises were also vitiated in the space of a few years; and lo and behold some Americans grew impatient and quoted the words, All people are created equal. As Palestinians are impatient today, and who can blame them. There is no equality under the Israeli regime. There has been none since it was founded.

The error here, on the part of American leaders and maybe you too, is the belief that somehow the failure of the peace process between 1994 and 2012 represents some form of treading water before we really swim. But 18 years is a very long time historically; it blights more than a generation; Arabs took Obama at his word when he went to Cairo and said that the settlements must end.

When the historic compromises of 1830 and 1850 were flouted in the 1850s, there were real results. People became impatient and within six years there was war. And my belief that the intractable question in Israel/Palestine is also likely to be resolved by "verry much bloodshed"—as the revolutionary egalitarian John Brown put it, a person I am sure I would have opposed at the time—is why I support BDS. It is a peaceful process.

Finkelstein: Our disagreements are three-fold: historical, political, and material.

A. There never has been a peace process, but rather an annexation process that used the "peace process" as a facade. The record is quite clear that the Israelis never envisaged a full withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territory and the emergence of a truly independent Palestinian state. Rabin explicitly said this in the Knesset just before his death in 1995. (I run through the record on pp. 232-237 of Knowing Too Much.) Interestingly, even the International Crisis Group, which is generally strong on facts, but feeble (if not awful) on analysis, and which has championed the "peace process" since its inception, comes close to conceding these facts. (See its latest report, "The Emperor Has No Clothes.") The Palestinian leadership under Arafat signed onto the "peace process" at Oslo because it was headed towards oblivion (bankruptcy) after backing the wrong horse in the First Gulf War. In return for being rescued by Washington and Tel Aviv, the Palestinian leadership agreed to act as Israel's subcontractors in the occupied Palestinian territory. (Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, in Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, is very frank on this point.) It is therefore analytically incorrect to draw any inferences for the prospects of a two-state settlement from a process that, from the outset, was never intended to achieve a two-state settlement. The only possibility for creating a real peace process, and not the sham of the past 20 years, is to mobilize the Palestinians' most potent asset—i.e., the population itself—in a nonviolent grassroots struggle along the lines of the first intifada. The succession of practical victories won by the Palestinian hunger strikers (with relatively little concrete support from the Palestinian population) again demonstrated the efficacy of this strategy.

B. The question then becomes, if and when such a grassroots movement takes flight, what will be its goal? Here I think the answer is practical-political, not abstract-moral. Even an invigorated grassroots movement cannot possibly succeed unless it wins the backing of international public opinion, both popular and governmental. In the absence of such broad public support, Israel will have carte blanche to crush Palestinian resistance, however nonviolent. If the mass movement to end Apartheid in South Africa won international support, it's because the international community had already embraced democratization—i.e., internal self-determination—as the appropriate goal in the South African context. When the Bantustans declared "independence" in the mid-1970s (first Transkei, then Ciskei, Bophuthatswana, and Venda), the international community overwhelmingly voted (in the case of Transkei, 134-0; the U.S. abstained) to declare these entities null and void under international law. But the identical overwhelming majority of UN member States has repeatedly voted to support a two-state settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict (167-7 in the last General Assembly vote). It's easy to proclaim abstract-moral solutions when you lack the obligations of power, but each time a Palestinian leadership has reached a position of official responsibility (first the P.L.O. in 1974 when Arafat spoke at the UN, then Hamas in 2006, when it won the parliamentary elections), it had to revise its political program from a "one-state" to a "two-state" settlement, because otherwise it could not function on the international stage. Many self-described radicals have called this "selling-out," I call it accommodating intractable—at any rate, in the here and now—political exigencies.

C. But is a two-state settlement materially feasible? Here, I think one has to look closely at the facts on the ground. In my opinion, the Palestinians have presented reasonable proposals for resolving the borders/settlements issue—a 1.9% land swap that leaves 300,000 of the illegal Jewish settlers in situ, without encroaching on the future Palestinian state’s territorial contiguity. But these proposals can only be properly assessed if one is attentive to the facts, and doesn't fabricate preposterous numbers (such as David Samel's figure of "600,000-750,000" illegal Jewish settlers posted on your web site) in order to "prove" the impossibility of a two-state settlement. I acknowledge the difficulties of resolving the refugee question within the two-state framework, but I do think a body modeled on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which, recall, had to confront,in the case of Guatemala, the perpetrators not of ethnic cleansing but of genocide), and composed of respected and authoritative figures (such as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu), and after allowing all sides to air their grievances and reservations, can come up with a reasonable proposal.

In my opinion, your invocation of Lincoln and the Abolitionists is morally stirring, and I do like to be morally stirred—although my preference is Rosa Luxemburg—but it lacks any historical, political or material grounding. It's as if I were now to advocate DOP (the Dictatorship of the Proletariat—the abbreviation of my youth back in the day, before BDS came along), and Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution in Palestine. I can't help but feel, with all due respect, that you are being swept away by the throbbings of your heart and the flutterings of your soul, while blithely ignoring the mundane, un-poetic facts of the situation. If we can coerce a real Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territory, and you are there at the rendezvous of victory, I am sure that tears will be streaming down your cheeks, because you will have realized how significant a victory it is, and how hard-won it was.

Weiss: Two quick points, Norman. 600,000 settlers is not that much of an exaggeration of Jeremy Ben Ami's 550,000 the other night at B’nai Jeshurun. And I’m glad you're morally stirred. Notice that I am invoking your inheritance, of radical imaginers, as opposed to my bourgeois stick in the mud types. In this case I have joined up with the imaginers, and not because of a daring feeling, but from a sense of American realism.


Finkelstein: The two principal groups monitoring settlement growth are B'Tselem and the Foundation for Middle East Peace. You can check their web sites now (btselem.org/topic/settlements; fmep.org/settlement_info/overview.html). Each puts the figure for the number of settlers at around 500,000. I noticed that Jimmy Carter the other day put it at 525,000 (I assume his staff keeps him up to date). To leap from there to 600,000-750,000 is either ignorant or irresponsible.

A few weeks ago on the plane to and from the UK I read a new edition of Rosa Luxemburg’s letters. You cannot conceive how it swept me away. I was, if only for a fleeting moment, transported back to the high spirits of my youth. Each of her five senses was so refined, and alive. I even made some resolutions after reading her, such as my early morning RLW—Rosa Luxemburg walk—in order to take in the world around me. (Unfortunately, I spend most of my time lost in thought cursing its denizens!) So, I remain an “imaginer,” even if one verging on decrepitude. But I cannot let my imaginings get the better of my moral responsibilities.

People are suffering; isn't that why we—or, at any rate, I—first got involved in the conflict? It’s also why I can't leave it behind, even though G-d only knows how sick I am of it, and how I would like to move on finally and do something else, just one other thing, with my life, before I pass into eternity. I noticed in the just-released BBC World Service Poll (May 2012) that Israel's stock is plummeting everywhere in the world, except here in the US, where it has bounced back a bit. So, so frustrating. But how does it help to advocate political solutions that have zero traction, and zero possibility of gaining traction, among Americans, who will never support a settlement that—whatever euphemism you use and however you articulate it—entails Israel's disappearance?

Weiss: I am also impatient to be done with this conflict. But I must say that our weariness is an easy one. We lead good lives in the U.S. This is why I listen to the Palestinians. They are the people who have to suffer the occupation.

I believe that the conservative side of you is showing when you allow an establishment consensus to guide your dreams. And it's unbecoming. Again to go the 1850s frame, I as a bourgeois want-to-be insider, would likely have been for colonization—sending the blacks to a country in Africa where they could be free, because we were afraid they would murder us if we set them free here… You would have said that's racist, and all people are created equal. But I would have had powerful consensus entirely on my side, or not even entirely. The slave power was regnant in NY and the South. My position would have been the J Street of the time. The lesson is that consensus changes very quickly. People's ideas actually shift when they recognize the new reality. I made many stupid comments about homosexuality when I was young. Today I’d be ruined if I expressed these ideas, and that’s a good thing.

David Shulman preparing American Jews for the end of the Jewish state in New York Review of Books is informing people about reality. There is only one regime, and realists should work to convert it to equality. American Jewish consensus will dissolve under the force of this logic, if we will only stand up and say, I believe in democracy.


Finkelstein: You confuse and conflate support for a two-state settlement with support for racism. If the two-state settlement really were a racist goal, it would be hard to comprehend why it has been endorsed by nearly the whole of the United Nations (including many African and Arab-Muslim states) as well as by the human rights community and the International Court of Justice. So far as I understand it, nothing in the two-state solution inherently validates a discriminatory state on either side of the Green Line. The original 1947 UN Partition Resolution, although recommending the creation of a “Jewish” and an “Arab” state in historic Palestine, also explicitly called for complete equality of rights for the respective minorities. Personally, I have said many times that Palestinians should not recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" (whatever that even means), unless Israel also explicitly endorses full and equal rights for its minorities and rescinds all discriminatory legislation. You might then argue that, if I oppose discriminatory states on either side of the border, then "logically" I should, like you, also support a single democratic secular state. Alas, a huge chasm separates logic from politics. The U.S. stole half of Mexico, about one of every ten Americans is of Mexican descent, and the Mexican economy is totally dependent on remittances from Mexican workers in the U.S. So "logically" we should solve the problem of illegal Mexican immigration, which causes several hundred grisly deaths along the border each year, by merging the U.S. and Mexican democracies into a unitary secular state. Indeed, isn't it "racist" to oppose such a solution? But, this “solution” has exactly zero prospects of gaining traction in the U.S., so politically serious people work for immigration reform. Does it make them racists or sellouts? I think not.


Weiss: But Mexicans haven't called for a single state. I do believe in self-determination. I also believe in the legal principle of stare decisis. Preserve a peaceful status quo. Partition was racist, inasmuch as it was rejected by the majority who lived in the region. But it was effected—more or less. And rejected by the Palestinians and ultimately dissolved by the expansionist Israelis.

I might accept partition if it had any basis in reality. I believe there are many unjust situations that are beyond my control and that, out of the desire to preserve order, I'm not attempting to overturn. I'm a realist in that regard. Stare decisis meant not wanting to revolutionize slavery in the south during the time of historic compromises. In this situation, a realist recognizes that these people, Palestinians, whom neither of us can really speak for, have never had any sovereignty and are being bullied and oppressed from one day to another to the point that hundreds have put their lives on the line in nonviolent protest and hunger strikes. What is the likeliest way to freedom? You care about that goal; that's why you're for the two-state solution. I care for it, it's why I heed Palestinians, most of whom I talk to don’t believe that the two-state solution is possible any more. My friends simply don’t believe a viable state can be created in what's left of the 22 percent.

Wanting to end their suffering and subordination is also why I have heeded the

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