Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics and Beyond the Two-State Solution

By Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick. The New Press, 2021. 240 pages. $25.99/hardcover or eBook.

By Jonathan Kuttab. Nonviolence International, 2021. 110 pages. $13.95/paperback; $3.99/eBook; free PDF download at nonviolenceinternational.net.

People who consider themselves liberal or progressive routinely espouse a commitment to equality, social justice, and human rights for all. Yet, according to Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick, many progressives in the United States do not apply these “universal humanistic values” in a “consistent manner” when it comes to Israel–Palestine. In their challenging new book, these coauthors explore this moral inconsistency among many U.S. progressives; ask their readers to take a closer, more critical look at the situation in Israel–Palestine; and make the case to reject all U.S. policies that financially, ideologically, or diplomatically support the Israeli system of apartheid within historic Palestine.

Their book is well-written and well-researched, yet I suspect it resonates so strongly with me because it parallels my own life experience. In my 2017 Pendle Hill pamphlet, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions? A Quaker Zionist Rethinks Palestinian Rights, I detailed my own long-standing moral inconsistency of being a “progressive Zionist” (due to my horror at the Holocaust and antisemitism, which I still stand by) and my ignorance of the on-the-ground reality of the U.S./Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing, military occupation, and discrimination against Palestinians, which I now reject. Indeed, only after being pushed by progressive Jewish friends to look more critically at Zionist propaganda and its denial of Israel’s unjust treatment of Palestinians, and ultimately becoming willing to listen to the perspectives of Palestinian human rights activists, did I even begin to move toward a more balanced and ethical position.

Hill and Plitnick’s book may play the same role in the lives of other confused progressives who unwittingly support the U.S.-backed system of apartheid in Israel–Palestine, while also espousing “anti-racist, anti-imperialist, humanistic, and intersectional values.” In contrast to this morally muddled outlook, Hill and Plitnick urge people to reject both the apartheid status quo that oppresses Palestinians today as well as any vengeful or antisemitic fantasies like “the unthinkable annihilation” or “reprehensible ejection, of Israeli Jews.” A truly progressive stance, they argue, means working to create a liberating alternative embodying the principles of justice, equality, and human rights for all in Israel–Palestine.

The good news is that there are signs that this outlook appears to be growing among U.S. progressives. As the authors point out, for many decades “taking substantive action to pressure Israel into changing its behavior toward the Palestinians was the view of a small, fringe minority within the Democratic Party.” This minority is growing, however, and becoming much more mainstream within the grassroots of the Democratic Party, and its outlook is even growing among progressive elected officials in the U.S. Congress. A number of Independents also support this more consistent ethical framework. If this perspective continues to grow, the status quo in Israel–Palestine could ultimately change for the better. As the authors conclude: “We have seen how much influence the United States can wield in creating injustice. Now is the time to see how much power we have to dismantle it.”

For all its strengths, Hill and Plitnick’s book doesn’t articulate a detailed progressive vision for the future of Israel–Palestine beyond mentioning the possibilities of either a two-state or one-state solution. The first alternative represents the long-standing international consensus that envisions a free and democratic Palestinian state made up of Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The vision includes this Palestinian state living in peace with an Israeli state that confines its population within its internationally recognized borders, which are those that existed before the state of Israel militarily occupied all of historic Palestine in 1967 and started illegally colonizing it by creating Jewish-only settlements. While resisted by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders committed to mutually exclusive ethno-nationalisms, such a two-state compromise would undoubtedly be more fair than the present apartheid status quo. For a time, it was also the preferred vision of both Palestinian and Israeli progressives.

This was certainly true of Jonathan Kuttab, the Palestinian human rights lawyer who headed the legal committee negotiating the Cairo Agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1990s. For years, Kuttab worked hard to envision and implement a two-state solution for Israel–Palestine that was consistent with this broad international consensus. As he puts it:

The outrages of the Holocaust and the desperate need of a Jewish population for a safe haven, which led to the creation and acceptance of the state of Israel, as well as the needs of the Palestinians for a state of their own both seem to be met by the two-state solution.

Kuttab’s position has shifted, however, and he has now joined other Palestinians, Israelis, and a growing number of U.S. Jews and others in supporting the even more progressive vision of a single democratic state in historic Palestine that guarantees religious liberty, equality, justice, and human rights for all Palestinians and Israeli Jews. In his new book Beyond the Two-State Solution, Kuttab details this more progressive vision of justice for all in Israel–Palestine. It is a vision worth considering.

For one thing, as Kuttab rightly notes, the decades-long expansion of U.S.-backed Jewish-only settlements in the occupied territories as well as Israel’s ultimate sovereignty over all of historic Palestine and its inhabitants have created “facts on the ground” that make the two-state solution increasingly impossible.

For another, such a solution doesn’t address the internationally recognized right of return for those Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from what became Israeli territory after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. These people were forced from their homes and land so that Israel could settle Jewish people there, and allowed to resettle only within the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Neither does the two-state solution deal with the ongoing discrimination against the Palestinians who still live in Israel. This small minority of the Israeli population is made up of those Palestinians who were not forced out of Israel in 1948. A single, democratic state in historic Palestine with guarantees of equality for all Palestinians and Israeli Jews might do a better job.

To flesh out this alternative, Kuttab outlines what he sees as the minimum necessary needs of both communities for security, equal rights, and democracy. He then constructs a “vision for a new state that addresses the needs both of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.” There is not enough space here to explore Kuttab’s specific proposals for military security, public safety, religious liberty, desegregation, freedom of movement, reparations and compensation, or the “recognition of the historic and cultural connection of both Jews and Arabs to the Land.” We also don’t have the space to discuss the specific provisions he proposes for “an iron-clad constitution that is deliberately crafted to ensure majority rule, but which will safeguard basic freedoms of the individual, as well as minorities from the caprice of the majority.” Yet all of his proposals are visionary, ethically consistent, and worth debating and refining.

To his credit, Kuttab is wise enough to realize that “there will be those on both sides, not to mention numerous actors from outside the area, who will oppose this vision and work to prevent it from gaining any legitimacy or acceptance.” Yet he also argues that it may become the visionary alternative supported by more and more people of good will with a stake in a future of peace and justice for Israel–Palestine. I, for one, hope he is right.

Steve Chase is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and the author of the book Letters to a Fellow Seeker: A Short Introduction to the Quaker Way (QuakerPress of Friends General Conference).

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