Israel and the Two-State Solution: Fantasy or Reality?

John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago

John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago

John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of political science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1982. He graduated from West Point in 1970 and served for five years as an officer in the US Air Force. He received his PhD in Government from Cornell in 1980. Mr. Mearsheimer has published five books, including Conventional Deterrence (1983), The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), and The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (2007), as well as numerous pieces for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He has written on diverse topics, such as Bosnia, nuclear proliferation, US India policy, Arab-Israeli peace efforts, and the US invasion of Iraq. In 2003, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In your 2006 book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, you argue that the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC has had a significant impact on America’s posture in the Middle East, encouraging policies that are neither in America’s nor Israel’s long-term interest. Could you briefly elaborate on this thesis and how your views have changed, if at all, since you first published the book?

The main argument that my co-author Steve Walt and I make in our book – and in the London Review of Books article before that – is that the United States has a “special relationship” with Israel that has no parallel in recorded history, and serves neither America’s national interest, nor Israel’s. Specifically, the United States gives Israel a large amount of economic and military aid every year, and it protects Israel diplomatically whenever it receives criticism from other countries or international institutions like the United Nations. Most importantly, Washington gives this aid to Israel unconditionally. In other words, even if Israel behaves in ways that are not in our national interest, we still continue supporting Israel to the hilt. This is a remarkably foolish way for the United States to deal with another country.

One might argue that there is really no problem here, because Israel and the United States have the same interests almost all the time. But this is not true. No two countries always have the same interests. To give one example, every American president since 1967 has opposed the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories. Israel, however, is deeply committed to colonizing the West Bank and has been continuously building settlements over the past 45 years. Yet, given the special relationship, no US president has been able to put meaningful pressure on Israel to stop building settlements, even though it would clearly have been in our interest to do so.

Of course, the central question is why the United States is unable to act in its own interest when it comes to dealing with Israel. Steve and I argue that it is because of the Israel lobby, which is one of the most powerful interest groups in America, and which puts enormous pressure on US politicians and policymakers to support Israeli policy no matter what.

Many of Israel’s supporters disagree and argue instead that the reason the United States has a special relationship with Israel is because the American people have a deep attachment to Israel and demand that their politicians support Israel unreservedly. All the available survey data, however, contradicts this claim. There is no question that most Americans have a favorable view of Israel, but there is virtually no evidence that they think their government should support Israel unconditionally. Indeed, polls consistently show that roughly 70 percent of Americans say the United States should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

My views about Israeli policy, the special relationship, and the lobby itself have hardly changed since the book was published in 2007.

J-Street, a more ideologically centrist pro-Israel lobbying group, emerged in 2008. The group identifies itself as the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans and advocates in favor of a two-state-solution. J-Street has significantly grown over the past four years and, according to their website, now includes more than 177,000 online supporters. Has the rise of J-Street changed the political climate in the United States? Has it provided a powerful alternative to AIPAC?

I like J-Street’s politics for the most part, especially its support for a two-state solution. Unfortunately, it is not going to have much effect in Washington, and ultimately Israel, for two reasons. First, it is no match for AIPAC or even some of the other organizations in the lobby, like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Zionist Organization of America. J-Street simply doesn’t have the resources, the know-how, or the backing in the American Jewish community that is necessary to take on and defeat a powerhouse like AIPAC.

Second, J-Street is unwilling to support cutting American aid to Israel if it does not stop building settlements and undermining a two-state solution. Without threatening to cut off economic and military aid, as well as diplomatic support, there is no hope of getting Israel to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own. J-Street, in essence, supports the special relationship, which makes it almost impossible for the United States to put consequential pressure on Israel. If J-Street did come out in favor of cutting aid to Israel, it would lose much of its support among American Jews and make it even weaker than it is now. For the Netanyahu government, which is determined to thwart a two-state solution and create a Greater Israel instead, J-Street is little more than a minor irritant.

In 2010, you delivered the Hisham B. Sharabi Memorial Lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. In this address, you argued “the two-state solution is now a fantasy because Israel is not going to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own in Gaza and the West Bank.” How did you reach this conclusion? Have your views changed at all over the past three years?

The key words in this question are “viable state.” There is little doubt that most Israelis, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, are willing to give the Palestinians a handful of enclaves in the West Bank as well as Gaza, and let them call that political arrangement a state. But the Palestinians will never accept that deal, because they want a viable state, not a handful of disconnected and impoverished enclaves. Thus, the relevant question is: will Israel allow the Palestinians to have a viable state?

The answer is almost certainly no when one considers what a viable Palestinian state would entail and what prominent Israelis have said about the ingredients that would make up that state. If anything I am more convinced now than I was three years ago that a viable Palestinian state is a fantasy. I wish that were not the case – indeed, I would like to be proved wrong – because the best outcome for all parties is a two-state solution.

For the Palestinians to have a legitimate state of their own, they would have to control virtually all of the West Bank, including the Jordan River Valley. Some of Israel’s big settlement blocs in the West Bank would become part of Israel, but in return, Israel would have to compensate the Palestinians by ceding them an equivalent amount of pre-1967 Israeli territory. Israel would have to give up control over Ariel, a large Israeli settlement bloc deep inside the West Bank. In essence, the new Palestinian state would have to be based on the pre-1967 borders with minor adjustments. Critically, East Jerusalem would become the capitol of the new Palestinian state. Finally, there would be a largely symbolic “right of return;” in practice, only a small number of Palestinians would return to pre-1967 Israel.

I see no way the Netanyahu government or any future Israeli government will give up East Jerusalem, Ariel, or even the Jordan River Valley. Netanyahu has said that he is adamantly opposed to dividing Jerusalem, as well as giving up sovereignty over the Jordan River Valley. Plus, he has told the residents of Ariel that it will always be part of Israel. And he is hardly a lone voice on these matters within his governing coalition. Furthermore, the settlers wield significant political power, and many of them will fight hard – to include using violence – to prevent a Palestinian state.

The fact is that Israel is committed to absorbing the West Bank – or what many Israelis call Judea and Samaria – and creating a Greater Israel that runs from the Jordan River Valley to the Mediterranean Sea. The best evidence that this is the direction Israel is headed is that settlement building and road building continue unabated in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Importantly, there is no well-organized opposition to those policies in Israel, much less a powerful political constituency that favors giving the Palestinians a viable state of their own.

None of this is to deny that the Palestinians appear to be divided over the virtues of a two-state solution, and thus, are hardly ideal peace partners. Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian National Authority, favors a two-state solution, but Hamas does not, although its position sometimes shows signs of softening. Regardless, what the Palestinians think matters little at this point because Israel is in the driver’s seat and it is bent on creating a Greater Israel. And thanks to the lobby – coupled with the fact Israel is far more powerful than the Palestinians – Israel will get what it wants.

In the same lecture, you contended that the Obama Administration and most Americans favored a two-state solution. If this is true, what factors have prevented the United States from brokering a peace agreement between Israeli leaders and their Palestinian counterparts? In your opinion, did Obama’s recent visit to Israel change the political outlook in any way? If not, why?

There is no question that President Obama and his principal advisors are firmly committed to a two-state solution. There is also no question that the American public would enthusiastically support a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel.

The president surely understands that Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians is one of the main causes of our terrorism problem. The 9/11 Commission describes Khalid Sheik Mohammad as the “principle architect of the attacks,” and reports, “By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with US foreign policy favoring Israel.”

I am also confident Obama understands that a Greater Israel will be an apartheid state, which means the United States is going to end up having a special relationship with a country that looks a lot like white-ruled South Africa. That can hardly be in America’s interest on moral as well as strategic grounds. And it is certainly not in Israel’s interest. But that is where Israel is headed. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said as much when he proclaimed in November 2007 that if “the two-state solution collapses,” Israel will “face a South-African-style struggle.” He went so far as to argue that, “as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”

Obama actually went to considerable lengths in his first term to try to get the Netanyahu government to move toward a two-state solution. By my count, the president and the Israeli prime minister had four major clashes; Netanyahu won all of them, humiliating Obama in each case. Of course, the reason Netanyahu beat Obama was the lobby, which brought enormous pressure to bear on the president, who caved in every time.

Obama’s recent trip to Israel – which kicked off his second term – was all about convincing Israelis and Israel’s supporters in the United States that he really loves Israel. There is little evidence from that trip, or anything Obama has done since then, that indicates he is going to try again to put real pressure on Israel to stop building settlements and accept a two-state solution. I think Obama knows it is hopeless to try, because the lobby will thwart him at every turn. In effect, the lobby is helping Israel turn itself into an apartheid state and there is hardly anything Obama or any American president can do to prevent that disastrous outcome.

In your opinion, what role should the United States play in managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict going forward?  

In an ideal world, the United States would put much economic and political pressure on Israel to leave the West Bank and allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.  America is an enormously powerful country and there is good reason to think it could get its way with Israel on this matter. Contrary to what many Israelis and their hardline American supporters think, a two-state solution would be in Israel’s interest. So pressure from Obama would be good for Israel. A two-state solution would also be the best outcome for the Palestinians and the United States, which is why there is so much support for a two-state solution in America.

But we do not live in such a world. Instead, we live in one where no American leader can put significant pressure on Israel, even when it is pursuing policies that are harmful to the United States. The Israel lobby simply will not allow it. Regrettably, this means that we have no meaningful role to play in managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as we go forward. All we can do is watch as Israel continues to abuse the Palestinians and turns itself into an apartheid state. One can only wonder why Israel’s American supporters are facilitating this outcome.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the interviewer or this publication.

Feature Photo: cc/(michael loadenthal)'
Jonathan Grabinsky
Jonathan Grabinsky is a staff writer for The Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is interested in social policy, international affairs, and urban affairs.

Comments are closed.