Israel’s impending annexation of the West Bank has put the fate of the two-state solution – or, perhaps more accurately its death – back in the headlines. Yet neither Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement of his annexation intentions, nor the Trump “peace plan”, killed the chances of two states, which ceased to be realistic long ago. What the great drama of annexation playing out in the Anglo-American press is really about – in no small part due to the exclusion of Palestinian voices – is whether liberal Zionists will reconcile themselves to this reality or continue to deny it.
While some liberal Zionists, like the Jewish Currents editor-at-large Peter Beinart, now recognize that, as he wrote last week, “the traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s path,” most seem likely to choose the path of continued denial. For many liberal Zionists – as well as those further to the right – a two-state solution has for decades been less a practical policy proposal than an article of faith, a constitutive political fiction that has enabled them to reconcile their contradictory commitments to both ethnonationalism and liberal democracy.
The abstract idea of two states has also served a valuable strategic purpose for the Israeli government and professional Israel advocates. References to Israel’s putative commitment to two states in theory have become a way to shield Israel from criticism, and consequences, for actions that in practice rendered a two-state solution impossible.
The vast majority of Zionist and pro-Israel groups – even, or perhaps especially, the self-defined liberal ones – will be loth to confront their contradictions, or surrender their talking points, now.
Indeed, faced with annexation, liberal Jewish groups have so far responded with the same kinds of warnings they have issued for decades. In a joint statement, eight Jewish organizations – including the New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now – declared in May that “annexation would show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the government of Israel no longer seeks a two-state solution”. Back in March, when Benny Gantz joined Netanyahu’s government, J Street cautioned that annexation was “an absolute red line” that Israel must not cross.
Yet it’s been obvious for years that Israel’s government no longer seeks a two-state solution: annexation would hardly be the first line Israel has crossed without facing any serious consequences. In fact, since before the Oslo process began in 1993, Israel has continually crossed supposedly decisive lines.
Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, warned in 1982 that, with the settler population in the West Bank approaching 100,000, Israel would cross the threshold past which territorial compromise would become impossible. When Israel blew past that, new lines were drawn: now 250,000 settlers, now 500,000; now construction in the E1 corridor, between East Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim; and now, finally, annexation of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley.
With each new line crossed, believers in a two-state solution have found new excuses to ignore the obvious. This is especially true of liberal Zionists. Since 1967, they have clung to the myth that Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank is temporary, and, consequently, that “Israel proper” – defined as the parliamentary regime within Israel’s pre-1967 borders – can be meaningfully disentangled from the half-century-old military dictatorship on the other side of the Green Line. The occupation’s putative temporariness enabled liberal Zionists to see themselves as genuine liberals, to define Israel as a democracy. Annexation, which would confirm that the occupation is permanent and inextricable from “Israel proper”, would in theory force liberal Zionists to decide between support for democratizing the one-state reality, or support for apartheid.
The idea of two states will continue outliving the end of any realistic prospect for a two-state solution
Wholesale ideological reversals are uncommon, however. With a few notable exceptions, liberal Zionists’ conversion to non-state Zionism, non-Zionism, or anti-Zionism seems unlikely. And, after all, over the course of more than a decade of Netanyahu governments, liberal Zionists have become habituated to the dissonance between their values and those the Israeli government acts on.
But the idea of two states will continue outliving any realistic prospect for a two-state solution for those to the liberal Zionists’ right, too. Israel’s foreign ministry and professional Israel advocates alike recognize that the two-state solution has served as a useful means of deflecting criticism of Israeli territorial expansion. After roughly a dozen Democratic congressional representatives signed a letter, spearheaded by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, calling to condition US military funding to Israel in the event of annexation, Aipac responded that doing so would, paradoxically, “make a two-state solution less likely”.
Netanyahu and his allies in the US are making the argument for annexation in similar terms. In a Washington Post op-ed, Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the US, argued that annexation actually “will open the door to to a realistic two-state solution and get the peace process out of the cul-de-sac it has been stuck in for decades”. Likewise, the authors of the Trump administration’s “peace plan” were careful not only to construe it as an instrument for achieving a two-state solution but as the logical continuation of the Oslo process.
While there’s no small degree of cynicism here, it also reflects a genuine ideological commitment. Most American Zionists, even rightwing ones, do not openly support an apartheid-style single state, unlike hardline Israeli settlers who oppose the Trump plan because it provides for areas of nominal Palestinian autonomy. In this sense, the position staked out by Dermer and the Trump administration is not that different from the liberal Zionist one: both envision a Palestinian “state” as an archipelago of isolated, non-contiguous Bantustans subordinated to Israeli control.
Yet as long as Zionists outside of Israel remain uncomfortable with openly defending an apartheid-style regime in terms that reflect the reality on the ground, the rhetoric of the two-state idea will serve as an invaluable means of obscuring the actual ramifications of their position – not only from the public, but from themselves. Political fictions of such existential importance take a long time to die, if they ever fully do. The lack of a viable two-state solution does not mean liberal Zionists will stop believing in one.
Joshua Leifer is an assistant editor at Jewish Currents, where a longer version of this article first appeared