Can the Unsustainable Be Sustained?

Israel's prime minister has indicated it might shelve the two-state solution. How would the world react, and how much would it matter? By Haviv Rettig Gur
Why do people cling so passionately to political opinions, even when a preponderance of facts suggests their views might be wrong or incomplete? To the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (2012), the arguments and narratives we present in defense of our positions are, in fact, “mostly post-hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.” As such, those constructions are often impervious to new information or alternative narratives. “Intuitions come first,” Haidt writes; “strategic reasoning second.”    

Enter Elliott Abrams. In his essay in Mosaic, Abrams tackles one of the key unexamined truths upheld by the Israeli-Palestinian commentariat: the vague, dire warning that the current state of the conflict is “unsustainable.”

Abrams does two things very well. First, he lays out a comprehensive, reasoned case, founded on well-known facts and recent events, that the current Israeli-Palestinian status quo might be the least dangerous of the many bad outcomes currently available to Israeli and Western policy makers. Second, in making this case he effectively invites us to weigh a startling question: given the woeful results of Israel’s withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza, the dysfunction and instability that characterize Palestinian politics even at its most moderate, the looming dangers from IS and Iran, which together inspire, fund, train, and/or direct most of the terror organizations already operating under Palestinian authority, why do people still cling so thoughtlessly to the “unsustainability” argument?  One can decline to take this discourse seriously, as Netanyahu, Yaalon, Abrams, and others do. It is indeed shrill, ignorant, and unresponsive to evidence or events. But it is no less politically potent for that. For many in the troubled Arab world, the Palestinians’ weakness is a stand-in for their own sense of civilizational vulnerability and failure, while Israeli power highlights their galling helplessness in a world that is quickly leaving them behind. For many millions of others, including Europeans and North Americans, the simple sense of a vast disparity in power and economic wellbeing between Israelis and Palestinians tilts the moral scales definitively. The strong, they feel, can afford to lose far more than the weak.   

f course, Netanyahu’s own statements, and the positions he took in the last round of peace talks, are far more nuanced than this. He has essentially mapped out what he is willing to offer the Palestinian national movement now, under current circumstances, while tacitly acknowledging that circumstances can change, and new governments will react to those new circumstances. In the meantime, the Palestinians would enjoy far greater independence and autonomy than they do now, in addition to the security benefits of being behind the Israeli defensive line. And they would gain formal recognition from Israel of their statehood, a dramatic move forward in diplomatic terms.

But such nuances do not really mitigate the troubling possibility that the tacit shelving of the two-state solution, however temporary, would be widely seen as proving Israel’s worst detractors correct. Netanyahu cannot be trusted, Barack Obama once said, a little too close to a microphone. That was when Netanyahu was on record in support of the two-state solution. “What Now for Israel?” Abrams’ title asks. What now indeed, when Israel’s supporters won’t even be able to point to an Israeli declaration of intent?