Two-State or One-State? This is not a task for the American government.
Originally published on my Wix blog on June 8, 2019.
Amidst controversial discourse on anti-BDS legislation, the American Democratic Party recently introduced its own version. Contained in this new edition, reportedly backed by AIPAC, is a noteworthy stance: the bill supports a two-state solution and is aimed at facilitating peace between Israel and Palestine. Ostensibly, this bill is a more progressive alternative to those put forth by Republicans, which failed to distinguish between Israel and its settlements in the West Bank.
This bill has arisen in a political landscape is currently maintaining a lively discussion about the future of Israel and Palestine. Not only are American politicians deliberating about issues like military aid or international law; they are also coming up with plans and proposals for how the Levant ought to look in the near future.
The opinions of Democratic politicians on the issue expectedly varies, and some generate more reaction than others. Recently, Ilhan Omar penned an op-ed endorsing a two-state solution, after being under fire for her comments about Israel and AIPAC. Omar’s comments took place in a larger context: that is, before her election and the election of other progressives like her, a significant amount of dialogue took place that centred around the future of Israel and Palestine.
Interventions into this discourse by progressives like Omar have become more commonplace in mainstream, institutional politics since the midterm elections that Omar ran in. Some on the left found it exciting to see progressive stances on the issue of Israel’s and Palestine’s future hit the mainstream. I was a bit less enthusiastic while observing the conversation, however, because it indicated to me that the left has confused its priorities when it comes to foreign policy. This confusion of priorities is most clearly shown when we have centred existential questions about Israel’s and Palestine’s future.
Rashida Tlaib’s candidacy initially generated backlash from leftists; partly because her stances on Israel’s and Palestine’s future was ambiguous. Tlaib sought out and retained an endorsement from J-Street, which earned her a grilling from leftist activists because of J-Street’s opposition to a one-state solution. When Tlaib clarified that she supports a one-state solution, she lost her endorsement from J-Street.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was another now-congresswoman to spark this debate during her campaign. Her stance on the issue remains ambiguous. At some point, she affirmed her support for a two-state solution, but then became hesitant to re-affirm that she did. What was key to me in these interviews, however, was that Ocasio-Cortez’s justification for her comments and back-peddling was that she is not an expert on Middle East politics and still has quite a bit to learn on the issue.
I do not blame people like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib for trying to contribute to the discussion and then nervously back-peddling. Nor do I wholly blame Omar for offering her vision for the Middle East’s future in an op-ed. Nor am I surprised that American Democrats are trying to introduce legislation that stipulates conditions about Israel’s and Palestine’s future.
Rather, this to me seems part of a larger issue in American political culture. Namely, Americans with power seem to have an inclination to want to “save” or “solve” the Middle East as though it is one large problem; and depending what they say, the praise of certain communities will compel them to continue. However, this is dangerous. By encouraging politicians to have public stances on how the Middle East’s societal landscape and borders ought to look, we implicitly encourage them to translate their visions into interventionist policy. This, for the left, should be interpreted as part of the problem rather than a progressive solution.
Debating existential questions is not the same as debating tangible policy discussions about issues like military and humanitarian aid. Instead, the “two or one state” discussion goes to grand, design problems about the future shape of Israeli and Palestinian political society. The grander the problem is, the harder it will be to engineer through foreign intervention. This is because a distant actor has to re-cultivate and re-design another political society while lacking the localized knowledge to do so. The United States’ intervention in Libya exhibited this problem; where the United States acted on exaggerated, shotty information with little attention to the intricate nuances of Libyan society. Unintended consequences are bound to occur, and did - such as a brutal enslavement of African migrants.
American economic and military assistance to places like Israel and Egypt are immediate issues that progressives can deliberate on, and that directly pertain to American taxpayers. Yes, aid certainly influences the political landscapes in the Middle East, and leftists should reflect on the consequences of funding foreign militaries; from Israel, to Jordan, to Egypt. But in a post-colonial era, there is something especially wrong with accepting that Middle Eastern lands are the west’s to cut up and redistribute; a notion that is grounded in an imperial, colonial history. While western involvement in the Middle East is often taken for granted, the left should challenge the assumptions behind it rather than encourage it when it’s cloaked in progressive language.
The United States has a history of having a heavy hand in Middle Eastern affairs in a way that attempts to steer the political landscape in particular directions. This involvement has been largely strategic, and started as early as the Mandate era, Here, the US sought to join France and Britain in promoting “good governance” and economic prosperity in the Middle East. The US wanted open access to Middle Eastern oil deposits, and soon left the League of Nations when they could not reach an agreement with respect to accessing the deposits.
The United States has continued to act like a police and arbiter of Middle East affairs. It has not only explicitly sought to make economic gains through the Middle East; but has also appointed itself as the Middle East’s saviour. Oftentimes, its management of this is reckless. For example, Trump’s administration appointed Jared Kushner - a man with no diplomatic experience - to “solve” the problems between Israel and Palestine.
The self-appointment as the world’s police and peace arbiters on the part of the US has often translated to forceful action. Sometimes, the social justice language of the left is borrowed by the American administration when they offer a new vision for Middle East states. For instance, the war in Iraq sought to save oppressed Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime and fight terrorism, and the war in Libya sought to save Libyans from the tyrannical Qaddafi.
While the rationale for intervention sometimes couches itself in social justice language, the left has generally opposed American world-policing when it comes down to it - and it should. American interventionist endeavours are not only costly; they also consistently fail to achieve peace, democracy, and conflict resolution. Instead, they tend to empower extremists at the expense of ordinary civilians. For instance, the United States’ dismantlement of the Iraqi army created a breeding ground for ISIS radicalization, as did the imprisonment of Iraqis in Camp Bucca. The aforementioned Libya intervention was arguably just as disastrous, which empowered previously powerless radical Islamists on top of empowering a slave trade.
In Israel and Palestine, America’s involvement has not facilitated peace. For instance, in its attempt to thwart secular nationalists, they helped Hamas rise to power. They later continued having a hand in factional fights between Fatah and Hamas, escalated conflict, and undermined the Palestinian left.
I provide this background context because I want us to think about what exactly we want from American politicians that have opinions on Middle East politics. As the provided context shows, anyone that is entering American politics is already entering a realm where the norm is to have a heavy hand in the Middle East. As a result, having a Middle East policy is just as normal as having something like a medicare or education policy. It is embedded into American political life in spite of its failures, and therefore American political figures feel obliged to have some sort of stance on how Middle East politics ought to pan out.
However, this is not something the left should encourage. Whether Democrat or Republican, introducing bills that assume America’s right to partake in engineering the Middle East should not be celebrated. Whether states have been carved through foreign diplomacy or full-out military intervention, a dark history is behind both. Given the background context I have provided, and given the damage American interventions have caused, I think it is important for people who demand answers about what “solutions” their congresspeople support to question what they want such support to translate into. The fact of the matter is, most of congress is not Middle Eastern, and most of them - like Ocasio-Cortez has - should probably admit that they are not Middle East experts.
People on the right and the left have made ignorant statements on this issue because Americans get a very limited picture of Middle East politics. Americans consume media that simplifies the identities of those in the Middle East and form a reductionist view of life in these countries. They are ill-equipped to pose “solutions” to the sensitive and complex problems that exist halfway around the world in languages they cannot comprehend.
Those that are scrutinizing the views of Congress’ newcomers must ask themselves: what will a few progressives achieve in the context of American politics when it comes to Israel and Palestine and the x state solution? More importantly, what do we want them to achieve? Putting this kind of energy into rewarding or condemning candidates' views on this assumes that when they are in office, they, as members of the U.S. government, will be intervening in Middle Eastern affairs.
It is good for Americans to educate themselves on the issue and formulate opinions. But we need to stop placing the United States government as the arbiter of Middle East conflicts. Those that focus on the candidates' "one or two" state stances are wasting their time and operating on a dangerous assumption that Israel and Palestine are theirs to divide and cultivate. Instead, it is better for politicians like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib to spend their time in power discouraging the recklessness that American foreign policy has previously exhibited in the Middle East.
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