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A further response to Michael Neumann


A debate on the relative merits of the one-state and two-state solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has recently been conducted through the pages of CounterPunch. The philosopher Michael Neumann opened, by twice taking issue with the advocates of a single state – once in an article in 2007 and again this month. Counterpunch printed responses from me, Kathy Christison and Assaf Kfoury. In turn, Neumann offered a reply to the three of us. I continue to find his arguments deeply unsatisfying, if not evasive, and have written a further response. As CounterPunch has closed the debate, I am making it available on my website for those still interested in the issues. – 18 March 2008

If Michael Neumann’s critics, myself included, have misrepresented his argument, as he suggests, it may be partly because he has been less than helpful in representing it to us.

What is clear is that he intensely dislikes any advocacy of the one-state solution, characterising it at best as time-wasting and at worst as dangerous. In fact, it is the very vehemence of his denunciations of the proponents of a single state, published now in two separate articles, that prompted my rejoinder.

If he wishes to foreclose the debate, then we should expect some very convincing arguments from him as to why we should concentrate solely on supporting the two-state option.

How good a case, for instance, does Neumann make for such a development in the conflict either in his original articles or in his response to the three critiques of his position published by CounterPunch? And, more importantly, how exactly does he think his two-state solution will come about?

It is difficult to say because until now he has not clearly made the case. He has concentrated instead on rubbishing the one-state idea as impractical. Ergo, two states must be a safer bet.

I, and no doubt a few others, had possibly wrongly assumed that two lines in his second article were the core of his argument. I’ll quote them again:

“A two-state solution will, indeed, leave Palestinians with a sovereign state, because that’s what a two-state solution means. It doesn’t mean one state and another non-state, and no Palestinian proponent of a two-state solution will settle for less than sovereignty.”

I was left with the impression from this formulation that Neumann was advocating some kind of just solution, even though he has been so disparaging of those who think justice has a significant role to play in settling this conflict. He seemed to be suggesting that two “real” states — one for Israelis (or maybe just Jews?), the others for Palestinians — would be minimally just, and should be supported because, unlike the alternatives, such a division may one day prove to be practicable.

This reading of his argument shaped my critique. I argued in turn that a “real” two-state solution is not on offer from Israel and, given the current and forseeable balance of forces, won’t be on offer. Therefore, it is no more or less practicable than the one-state solution.

What is far more likely to happen is that a bogus two-state solution, currently backed by Ehud Olmert and George W Bush, will be imposed on the Palestinians and sold to the world as a real two-state solution. The outlines of this solution are well-known: a Palestinian “state” carved out of fragments of historic Palestine by walls, checkpoints and settlements. One analyst has aptly characterised the spaces currently left to the Palestinians as “animal pens”.

Should the Palestinians be ungrateful for these cages, or try to resist them, it will simply prove that they are the inveterate terrorists most American and Israeli politicians paint them to be.

Although I did not spell it out in my previous article, I also think that, if my diagnosis is right, those who advocate a “real” two-state solution will have a hard time preventing their arguments and good names being appropriated to justify the bogus two-state solution.

How likely this is to happen was illustrated in Neumann’s response to me and his other critics. He wrote: “the swift evacuation [from Gaza] increased the credibility of a two-state solution: Israel has shown itself much more ready to get out of the occupied territories than, for instance, to give up on its pre-1967 borders.”

These sentiments could be mischievously interpreted to mean that the occupation of Gaza has ended, or at least been significantly reduced, by the disengagement. That was doubtless not what Neumann meant, but of course neither he nor I are the sole arbiters of what his words mean.

Disappointingly, Neumann failed to address my central argument. But there were two lines at the end of his response to me in which he seemed to suggest that his support for a two-state solution is of a rather different character from the one I had assumed. Here is what he says, having criticised me for supposedly being more concerned with the “metaphor” of Zionism than the physical reality of Israel:

“The Palestinians have fought Zionism, not metaphorically. They may succeed in pushing Israel back to 1967 boundaries. To suppose they can go further, no doubt by moral suasion, presupposes such a good-hearted world that one wonders why there ever was a problem to start with.”

Is this Neumann’s argument in favour of two states? A rereading of his very first article against the advocates of one state suggests that it is. Here is what he says: “The Algerians did the same [force out the French settlers] with settlers much more deeply rooted than in Palestine. If it’s so impossible, why did it already happen — why did Israeli troops make it happen — in Gaza?”

On this reading, Neumann supports two states simply because he believes Palestinian resistance may yet force Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders and concede a Palestinian state — presumably because the price of staying in the occupied territories will grow too onerous. However, he adds, such resistance has no hope of forcing Israel to surrender the rest of Palestine needed for a one-state solution.

If this reading is correct, Neumann is not directly advocating two states; he is advocating more resistance by Palestinians — rocket attacks and suicide bombs? — that may yet succeed in gaining them a real state before another option is imposed on them.

There are some obvious problems with this argument.

Note, first, that success is far from certain, even apparently in Neumann’s view. The Palestinians are in a race against time: they must force Israel out of the occupied territories before Israel persuades the world that the bogus two-state solution is a real two-state solution or, if that manoeuvre fails, before it commits what the late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called “politicide” — a kind of cross between genocide and the destruction of the Palestinians as a political community that has been supported by a succession of Israel’s leaders.

Some of us — though not Neumamm, it seems — fear that the professed search by Israel for a two-state solution may, in fact, provide just the time and cover Israel needs to commit politicide.

Second, Neumann’s argument apparently strips everyone but the resistance in the occupied territories, a few thousand Palestinian fighters, of any role in achieving a solution.

Ordinary Palestinians in the territories, Palestinians in exile, and Palestinians inside Israel proper, as well as, of course, the various solidarity movements, can do no more than watch from the sidelines as this battle is waged.

Third, Neumann ignores the key role of the United States in propping up the occupation financially and ideologically, and exploiting its various mechanisms of subjugation for its own benefits, most notably in its long-term occupation of Iraq.

Why would Palestinian rockets and suicide bombers — or whatever form of resistance Neumann is referring to — inflict a cost on Washington decision-makers that might lead to the Palestinians’ liberation?

And fourth, and most problematically of all, he appears to assume that the success of the Palestinian resistance in pushing the Israeli army and the settlers out of the occupied territories will necessarily entail the emergence of two “real” states.

But why make this assumption? As we have seen since the disengagement, Israel has done a marvellous job of controlling every facet of Palestinian life without being physically in the territory it occupies.

Even were Israel to withdraw in full, would it open the borders, allow Gaza and the West Bank to be connected, concede a Palestinian army, allow the Palestinians control of their airspace, and so on?

The answers to these questions are entirely separate from whether the Palestinians can force Israel out of the territories. In fact, I would suggest that they can only only be answered by making a moral case against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Just as happened with apartheid South Africa, the battle for justice will be at least partly won in the arena of moral argument.

True, the intellectual and moral fight Neumann so abhors may not destroy Israeli tanks but it may slowly erode international support for Israel and its oppression of the Palestinians.

In fact, even given his limited view of the acceptable terms of a debate on the solution to the conflict, an ardent two-stater should be able to concede that advocacy of a single state might produce some benefits for the Palestinians.

If nothing else, were a growing number of Palestinians and international supporters to be persuaded that an absolutely just solution (one state) was required, would this not add to the pressure on Israel to concede a real two-state solution — if only to avoid the worse fate of a single state?

This, in fact, is exactly why Ehud Olmert and many other Israeli politicians are currently in such a panic about the “demographic threat” and the likelihood of an anti-apartheid movement emerging among the Palestinians. Faced with an imminent Palestinian majority in historic Palestine, they are worried about losing the moral argument for a Jewish state.

Neumann can selectively claim ignorance of what the statement by Olmert I quote means but there are far too many such statements — including the longer one I offered that he did not mention — for the rest of us to continue doing that.

Of course, I may have misread Neumann’s argument again. If so, I apologise. Maybe he can clarify it further for those of us still struggling to understand.

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