This essay was originally posted on Jewschool.com.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan often insisted that truth has the structure of a fiction. He meant that human beings do not have access to the Absolute. Instead we experience truth in the slippage of everyday speech, which reveals a hidden dimension of thought. Political truth is also conveyed through fiction, and no one demonstrates this more clearly than President Donald Trump. On February 15, during a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump broke with 15 years of established United States foreign policy to say that a two-state solution may not be necessary to achieve peace. “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like,” he said. This pronouncement must have been shocking to State Department functionaries, who have spent years upholding the viability of an independent Palestinian state, and to Jewish groups on the center and left, who have staked their commitment to Israel upon the success of a two-state solution.
While President Trump’s statement was shocking, all it did was affirm the actual policy of the United States government, which values Israeli security and cooperation far more than the creation of a Palestinian state. If anyone doubts this, consider the billions of dollars the US gives to Israel each year in military aid, and the diplomatic cover it provides as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. If domestic policy interests aligned with a viable Palestinian state, the US would (publicly or privately) threaten to withdraw this aid and protection unless Israel followed through on its commitments under international law to withdraw from the West Bank and end the siege of Gaza. Of course, this will not happen so long as Israel remains of such immense strategic and political value to the United States.
If Trump merely stated actual US policy concerning Israel, rather than the fictional narrative, why was it so shocking? Two reasons. First, because the fictional narrative, however dubious, is crucial in upholding the United States’ image of itself as a neutral party that can negotiate peace. The perennially sputtering peace process is not actually about achieving a two-state solution. If it were, the US would take the steps listed above to pressure Israel into an agreement, while exerting equal pressure on the Palestinian leadership to accept. Instead, the peace process is a public relations cover underneath which actual policies are carried out: Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and systematic appropriation of their land and resources. For giving Israel a free hand to carry out these policies, the US receives immense geostrategic advantages, as well as the domestic support of Jewish and Evangelical groups. Moreover, the very idea of Israel—a Jewish democracy occupying Biblical land—has always held special influence over the imaginations of the British and American ruling classes.
The second significance of Trump’s comment gets to the kernel of truth buried in fictions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If his statement is any indication of future US policy, then at some point the idea of a two-state solution will be scrapped. United States policy will align more closely with Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which “openly opposes the two-state solution” and would prefer “to annex major portions of the occupied West Bank while continuing to deprive the Palestinians of full sovereignty,” according to an article in the Huffington Post. Even if the two-state solution were to survive, it would be devoid of meaning because, as Netanyahu asserts, “Israel must retain the overriding security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River,” and no doubt over the Gaza Strip as well. This means that even if the Palestinian leadership assents to a sovereign state (a politically suicidal position without Israel’s withdrawal from settlements and a resolution to the refugee question), they would be agreeing to govern a nation of hostages over which Israel would still dominate in the name of security.
Effectively, Trump is saying that, one way or another, there will not be a two-state solution. Israel will either rule over a puppet state or it will continue to rule directly over the stateless Palestinians. This view dovetails with the prevailing opinion in Israel’s ruling class that no Palestinian state is viable given Israel’s security concerns. By dropping the pretense of a two-state solution, President Trump hopes to score political points with domestic and Israeli audiences. Perhaps he does not fully understand the implications of the policy-shift. “I thought for a while that two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two, but honestly if Bibi and if the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best,” he said during the press conference. In other words, we all know the peace process is a sham, whatever form it takes, so let’s go with the most politically expedient choice at this moment.
This admission is a startling moment of truth. Israel is quickly moving towards a point when settlement construction will no longer be reversible. This means that the West Bank will effectively become part of Israel, or Israel will annex it directly. Two and a half million Palestinians will be included in Israel geographically, but not politically, plus another one and a half million living in the Gaza Strip. Fully one half of Israel’s population will be Arab Palestinians. For Donald Trump to say that a two-state solution may not be necessary is to touch upon the linchpin of the conflict. Israel will soon rule over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians. Without the fantasy of a two-state solution, neither side will be able to pretend the situation is merely temporary. This can only lead to a political crisis, in which Palestinians will rise up against their oppressors. For a nation bordering Syria and lying near Iraq, Libya, and Egypt, the stakes could not be clearer. If the Israeli/Palestinian conflict does not end in a political resolution, then violence—of an intractability and scale tragically characteristic of the Middle East—will fill the gap.
The President’s remarks pushed both Israel and the United States closer to this moment of reckoning. We all know that a political resolution between Israel and the Palestinians would be nearly impossible to negotiate. Today’s peace process amounts to arguing over details of a solution that has no basis in political realities. Beyond the mistrust and deep animosity on both sides, fundamental questions remain unresolved. It is time for Americans to dispense with the fiction of a two-state solution. Such a compromise has never been viable because it has never addressed the question of mutual sovereignty or the right of Palestinian refugees to return home. Neither issue can be dealt with in a two-state framework, so they were excluded from negotiation. Both issues can only be resolved when Palestinians demand full rights and shared sovereignty over Israel. It will be quite difficult for Palestinians to accept this. Much of their identity is based upon resisting Israel up to the point when what was lost can be taken back. In the meantime, negotiations over a separate state secure power, wealth, and a measure of dignity for the Palestinian leadership. But the position of Palestinians as a whole is weakened. To win peace, Palestinians will have to trade an identity of resistance and victimhood for one of struggle towards a better future.
Likewise, it will be especially difficult for American Jews to accept the bankruptcy of a two-state solution. This is because both the issues historically excluded from negotiation—shared sovereignty and the refugee question—challenge Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Many right-wing American Jews have accepted this fact. They understand that in order for Israel to remain a Jewish state it must maintain demographic and political hegemony. Implicitly, they acknowledge that Palestinians will remain stateless—pushed out of sight or made miserable enough to leave. But for liberal and left-wing American Jews, the two-state solution offers an escape from these existential questions. This group is free to criticize Israel’s policies while staunchly maintaining its status as a Jewish state (that neither includes Palestinians nor recognizes their rights). Liberal Jews are right to question Israeli policy and to cultivate a discourse of peace. But if this critical gesture does not extend to the two-state solution, and the central questions it ignores, then liberal Jews are engaged in wishful thinking. A lasting peace can only be achieved when Jews relinquish their right to rule single-handedly over Israel—something just as difficult as Palestinians accepting their historical losses and abandoning their posture of resistance.
It is harder, not easier, to envision peace without two states. Stability must be exchanged for political uncertainty. And neither side is ready or willing to address the fundamental issues that divide them. It will be a long time before negotiations take place that can promise actual peace, within the context of one state. But the truth is that no other peace is possible.