Book Review: ‘The Two-State Delusion,’ a well-researched but mistitled saga of a failed peace process

12/03/2016 09:42 am ET

"When they have no hope and no vision, they will go. As they did in 1948.

~Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) MK Bezalel Smotrich (Haaretz, Dec. 1, 2016)

University of Massachusetts Boston professor Padraig O’Malley’s The Two-State Delusion is an important addition to the plethora of literature addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Light on hard-core analysis, the book is a well-researched journey along the path of the two sides’ bilateral negotiations since the early 1990s, documenting the multiple failures along the way and culminating in the tinderbox we see today. The book’s title suggests that there is something paradoxical in persevering with a proposed solution of two states, Israel and Palestine, as a way forward; the thrust of the historical accounts and the arguments made, however, are actually geared more toward convincing the reader that what failed is the process rather than the two-state paradigm itself, which has never yet been tested. A more accurate title would have been “Eulogy for a U.S.-Monopolized Peace Process.”

O’Malley’s main tools of investigation are of two kinds: an impressive pool of interviewees from both sides of the conflict and several related stakeholders, plus a comprehensive recap of news coverage and other publicly available materials from or about the various parties. These are all cleverly and seamlessly woven into ten chapters, each addressing a key aspect of the conflict, as it is currently defined. The end result, however, reminded me of a patient who visits a doctor for treatment of an ailment (the inability to achieve a two-state solution) with a list of symptoms (military occupation, U.S. monopolization of the peace process, violence, etc.) carefully recounted. The doctor takes a thorough interest in the symptoms but never digs deeply enough to get to the root cause of the illness, leaving the horrified patient to conclude that the ailment is apparently incurable. In terms of our political reality, what this approach says to the Palestinians is like what O’Malley cites from Israel’s chief negotiator at Camp David, Shlomo Ben-Ami, who noted that “History is littered with injustices. History moves on.” I doubt that Jews fleeing Europe in the 1940s (for example) would have found that kind of insight helpful or humane, and why anyone would expect Palestinians to respond to it differently today is beyond me.

The read is slower than usual thanks to the extensive use of references, both footnotes and endnotes; the extra time is worth investing in exchange for the extra insight into the documentation behind the various arguments presented. This book is a keeper: an invaluable resource for anyone who values easy access in one volume to the key sources of the overwhelming reservoir of pertinent documentary material.

Battle of Narratives, or a Narrative of Battle?

The overall framing of the conflict as being merely between two “competing [and] dueling narratives” that the parties are “addicted” to (chapters 1 and 2) sets the tone for the rest of the book, but also exposes a methodological weakness since it fails to provide adequate perspective for the historical record, even prior to the period when these two sides came into conflict with one another. O’Malley is not the first to employ this faulty, narrative-based analytical starting point; it arose from a Western bias frequently detectable in the work of well-intentioned researchers trying to build an intellectual scaffolding allowing them to reconstruct the bigger picture of this seemingly intractable conflict.

When O’Malley states that the histories of “Israelis and the Palestinians […] intersected in the late 1880s,” he avoids the fact that there was no state of Israel, thus no Israelis, until 1948; any attempt to make believe that any Jewish presence in Palestine thousands of years ago had the faintest resemblance to a modern nation state or homeland, which was a concept that did not exist then, is lame from the outset. O’Malley does note that the entire notion of “homeland” that the Jewish Israeli narrative is pinned on, did not exist at the time it was ostensibly so pivotal, circa 70 CE. He also brings in the Zionist factor, but is too careless in his uses of the terms Zionism, Jews, and Israel, which are in no way interchangeable. I would have liked to see the first chapter speak of the Palestinian community in Palestine—Muslim, Christian and Jew—going about their business, when a “conflict” came to them and invaded their lives, distorting their shared society forever.

Although O’Malley regularly interjects references to international law, he does not permit himself to use it as a referential edifice for his overall framing of the way out of the conflict, preferring to maintain that this conflict is a conflict of narratives. This is made obvious, in what I believe is an unintendedly lax choice of wording, when O’Malley repeatedly uses the term “withdrew” to explain what even the Israeli government at the time called “redeployment” from the Gaza Strip, which to this day remains Israeli occupied territory under international law.

Narrative-based discourse is dangerous because any criminal, individual or state, can claim a narrative and if the civilized world were willing to entertain all such claims, we would find ourselves in a world where only the powerful who have the means to impose their narrative survive. After WWII, as the late Polish mathematician, Dr. Zbigniew Piotrowski, once noted to me, there was a fundamental “reset,” pursuant to which the global system of governance as articulated in international law, international humanitarian law and the system of the United Nations became the guiding structure for the way states relate to one another and to the peoples of the world. Any retreat from international law opens the door to a return to the Law of the Jungle, bringing never-ending misery and havoc to the peoples affected.

From a Two-State Solution to Two-States Toward a Solution

“Two-State Paradigm, Decades of Failure, and Addiction to Process,” the title of Chapter three, reflects the rest of the book’s mantra. But to minimize the fact that the “Two-State Paradigm” is not some natural phenomenon, but rather a conscious political choice, is to pretend that the parties, especially us Palestinians, can randomly opt for our paradigm of choice -- as if we were choosing a meal from a restaurant menu offering the ability to order a different meal with every visit. Once spent, political capital is nearly impossible (not totally impossible) to get back, however; accordingly, not much importance attaches to whether I personally am or am not convinced of the paradigm’s validity, after the Palestinian national movement has accepted this path as the way forward.

In reality, the day the Palestinians accepted the framework of international law, they strategically aligned behind a two-state paradigm, long before the Oslo Peace Process was launched. With a steady rise in the number of right-wing (or fascist, in the view of numerous observers) Israeli members of the Knesset (like the one quoted at the outset of this book review), there is no iron-clad guarantee that Palestinians will remain wedded to international law if the parties who developed that framework are unable to utilize it to hold Israel accountable. Seventy years of dispossession and close to 50 years of military occupation later, the international community in general and the United States in particular would be well advised, to act promptly to end Israel’s military occupation while Palestinians still have an ounce of faith in the prevailing global system of governance.

As I recently quoted in a policy paper titled, Asynchronous and Inseparable Struggles for Rights and a Political End-Game (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) and in Arabic here), the two-state solution began to be entertained by senior Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officials long before the Oslo Peace Process, possibly as far back as the mid-70s, leading to the formalization of this approach in 1988. A foundational essay was published in 1978 by renowned Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi entitled, “Thinking the Unthinkable: A Sovereign Palestinian State.” Mr. Khalidi wrote that the cornerstone of “the juridical status of…Palestine…[is] the concept of Palestinian sovereignty. Not half-sovereignty, or quasi-sovereignty or ersatz sovereignty. But a sovereign, independent Palestinian state.” He argues that:

“Only such a state would win the endorsement of the PLO. Only such a state is likely to effect a psychological breakthrough with the Palestinians under occupation and in the Diaspora. It would lead them out of the political limbo in which they have lingered since 1948. It would end their anonymous ghost-like existence as a non-people. It would terminate their dependence on the mercy, charity or tolerance of other parties, whether Arab, Israeli, or international. It would be a point of reference, a national anchorage, a center of hope and achievement.
“Of all peoples, the Jewish people are historically qualified to understand this. Only such a state, through PLO endorsement, would win the support of Arab opinion and the majority of Arab states. These results could not ensue from a Bantustan "federal" formula under a Hashemite dressing, or the perpetuation of Palestinian minority status under international guardianship. They are less likely to result from an Israeli mosaic of Indian reserves and hen-runs, crisscrossed by mechanized patrols and police dogs and under surveillance by searchlights, watchtowers and armed archaeologists. But there is no reason why the concept of Palestinian sovereignty should not accommodate provisions designed to allay legitimate fears of neighbors on a reasonable and preferably reciprocal basis.”

It is this wise logic that makes the case for two states, which at one time may have been viewed as the basis for a “Final Status Agreement (F.S.A.),” terminology that I cannot but despise, as a student of history, but which today is mandatory to advance any sense of a joint future as we move forward. In other words, if we are to speak in political and not divine terms, two states, meaning two real states and not the paradigm of such, may now be the only way to stop the purposeful hemorrhaging aimed to annihilate Palestinians altogether. Other aspects of the solution may need to wait their turn.

Nitpicking Failure is Useful but Only Provides Partial Insight

The next six chapters of The Two-State Delusion -- Specific Failures, Hamas: Spinning Wheels, Refugees and Right of Return, Settlers and Settlements, The Economics of Sustainability, and Demographics: The Enemy Within --, are all packed with important details of the failed peace process of the past two decades. It actually failed multiple times. Having read most of the sources that O’Malley references at the time they were released, and having lived under Israeli occupation through the entire period under review, I experienced an eerily worrying sense of lost hope when reading them woven into a comprehensive recounting of the last two decades. The chapter on settlers and settlements irrefutably portrays the formidable challenges that lie ahead.

O’Malley ends the last chapter, “Facing the Truth,” with the words, “Ultimately, it is their [Israelis’ and Palestinians’] choice.” What sounds like a logical ending to a saga of sadism and despair is actually reemphasizing the “narrative” framing with which the book opened. What if it is not our choice as Palestinians? What if the Palestinians did accept the establishment by Jewish Israelis of their state atop the remains of our people and the ruins of our villages, did agree to politically recognize Israel and to accept the bitter pills that came with embracing international law and UN resolutions, and so on and so forth? What if all this and more was the “truth,” as it is, and Israel has still refused to budge? This is where the dire need for a third-party reference is a must, bringing us back to international law and its resolutions, rights and obligations, to which the alternative is the Law of the Jungle, where might is right and which offers no perceptible end to all of this suffering.

In addition to a third-party reference, let us also note that “third states,” i.e., all those other states that have been looking on for 70 years, many even underwriting the deteriorating non-status-quo in Palestine, have a distinct role which is barely addressed here by O’Malley.

The Palestinian branch of the Stockholm-based Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Resource Centre, an international development organisation with Christian values, enumerates the circumstances in which third states, under international law, are obligated to play a role:

Third states have obligations where peremptory norms are breached. These obligations include non-assistance and non-recognition:

  • Non-assistance: The obligation by third states when addressing a serious breach is to “not render aid or assistance to the responsible state in maintaining the situation so created.”
  • Non-Recognition: States have an obligation not to recognise as lawful a situation created by a serious breach of international law arising under a peremptory norm. Nor may they render aid or assistance in maintaining that situation. This obligation applies to “situations” created by these serious breaches. For example, where a state attempts to acquire sovereignty over territory through the denial of the right of self-determination of peoples, other States have an obligation to refrain from affording formal recognition of the situation and also to refrain from taking steps that would imply such recognition.

Does anyone in their right mind still question if, establishing a state by military force, expanding the territory of that state by continued military force, militarily occupying additional territory, refusing the right of refugees to return home, annexing territory, moving the occupying state’s citizens into the occupied territory, raping the occupied territory of its natural resources, besieging parts of the occupied territory, and on and on, signal that “peremptory norms” have been “breached?”

Do any of the “third states,” the U.S. and UK being at the top of the list, not see where this is going to take us all? Are they really ready for the final curtain on the two-state scenario followed by the Palestinians’ converting their struggle to an all-out civil rights struggle from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River?

O’Malley’s analysis of populist discourse has its value and offers insights, and as a reference tool the book is, as noted earlier, stellar -- but his analysis cannot replace the political and legal analysis and actions needed to advance us toward a solution to this conflict. I assume that Slavery-Era America and Apartheid-Era South Africa both had their enduring chorus of voices to reinforce their intractable conflicts, too -- until both finally came tumbling down, just as the Israeli military occupation soon will.



Israel and Palestine—A Tale of Two Narratives

By Padraig O’Malley

493 pages. Penguin Books (Viking); July 28, 2015. $30.


Sam Bahour is a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network; Chairman of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy; Director at a Palestinian bank, and Co-editor of HOMELAND: Oral History of Palestine and Palestinians (Olive Branch Press). He blogs at @SamBahour

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