Wednesday 19 April 2023

From Unsayable To Undeniable

The third episode of The Labour Files is The Hierarchy, about the hierarchy of racism in the Labour Party. It has won the Gold Award for documentaries at the New York Festivals TV and Film Awards. Those awards, those festivals and that city must be anti-Semitic.

The struggle goes on, with Marc Wadsworth hosting this Zoom event next Tuesday for the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Although he tries to insinuate a connection to the Lawrence case, the speakers at that event will not include the man of whom we now know that, Sir Keir Starmer got free football tickets from a firm that was ordered to pay out £10.8million over defective cladding in a landmark court ruling after the Grenfell Tower disaster.

And in a sign of how long ago was the contact between the CIA’s Alec Station and at least two 9/11 hijackers, which could not have been any later than a whole nine days ago, the Saudi Foreign Minister was visiting Syria just as Israel was hosting the ridiculous fantasist Reza Pahlavi, who is supported by a mostly elderly three per cent of Iranian-Americans, heavily concentrated in and around Los Angeles, and by almost no one else in the world. Yet Rabbi Leo Dee, of and from whom we may expect to hear a very great deal over the next 40 years, practically anointed Pahlavi as King of Iran and looked forward to visiting him very soon" in his Palace in Tehran. It is in fact the King of Saudi Arabia who has been invited to visit that city.

The caravan has moved on. Returning to New York, Foreign Affairs describes itself, not unfairly, as “the leading magazine for in-depth analysis and debate of foreign policy, geopolitics and international affairs”. In its latest edition, clearly unperturbed at the prospect of ineligibility for membership of the British Labour Party, Michael Barnett, Nathan Brown, Marc Lynch, and Shibley Telhami write:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in Israel with a narrow, extreme right-wing coalition has shattered even the illusion of a two-state solution. Members of his new government have not been shy about stating their views on what Israel is and what it should be in all the territories it controls: a Greater Israel defined not just as a Jewish state but one in which the law enshrines Jewish supremacy over all Palestinians who remain there. As a result, it is no longer possible to avoid confronting a one-state reality.

Israel’s radical new government did not create this reality but rather made it impossible to deny. The temporary status of “occupation” of the Palestinian territories is now a permanent condition in which one state ruled by one group of people rules over another group of people. The promise of a two-state solution made sense as an alternative future in the years around the 1993 Oslo accords, when there were constituencies for compromise on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides and when tangible if fleeting progress was made toward building the institutions of a hypothetical Palestinian state. But that period ended long ago. Today, it makes little sense to let fantastical visions for the future obscure deeply embedded existing arrangements.

It is past time to grapple with what a one-state reality means for policy, politics, and analysis. Palestine is not a state in waiting, and Israel is not a democratic state incidentally occupying Palestinian territory. All the territory west of the Jordan River has long constituted a single state under Israeli rule, where the land and the people are subject to radically different legal regimes, and Palestinians are permanently treated as a lower caste. Policymakers and analysts who ignore this one-state reality will be condemned to failure and irrelevance, doing little beyond providing a smokescreen for the entrenchment of the status quo. 

Some implications of this one-state reality are clear. The world will not stop caring about Palestinian rights, no matter how fervently many supporters of Israel (and Arab rulers) wish they would. Violence, dispossession, and human rights abuses have escalated over the last year, and the risk of large-scale violent confrontation grows with every day that Palestinians are locked in this ever-expanding system of legalized oppression and Israeli encroachment. But far less clear is how important actors will adjust—if they adjust at all—as the reality of a single state shifts from open secret to undeniable truth.

U.S. President Joe Biden seems fully committed to the status quo, and there is no evidence that his administration has thought about the issue or done much beyond crisis management and mouthing displeasure. A strong sense of wishful thinking permeates Washington, with many U.S. officials still trying to convince themselves that there is a chance of returning to a two-state negotiation after the aberrant Netanyahu government leaves office. But ignoring the new reality will not be an option for much longer. A storm is gathering in Israel and Palestine that demands an urgent response from the country that has most enabled the emergence of a single state upholding Jewish supremacy. If the United States wants to avoid profound instability in the Middle East and a challenge to its broader global agenda, it must cease exempting Israel from the standards and structures of the liberal international order that Washington hopes to lead.

From unsayable to undeniable

one-state arrangement is not a future possibility; it already exists, no matter what anyone thinks. Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, one state controls the entry and exit of people and goods, oversees security, and has the capacity to impose its decisions, laws, and policies on millions of people without their consent.

A one-state reality could, in principle, be based on democratic rule and equal citizenship. But such an arrangement is not on offer at the moment. Forced to choose between Israel’s Jewish identity and liberal democracy, Israel has chosen the former. It has locked in a system of Jewish supremacy, wherein non-Jews are structurally discriminated against or excluded in a tiered scheme: some non-Jews have most of, but not all, the rights that Jews have, while most non-Jews live under severe segregation, separation, and domination.

A peace process in the closing years of the twentieth century offered the tantalizing possibility of something different. But since the 2000 Camp David summit, where U.S.-led negotiations failed to achieve a two-state agreement, the phrase “peace process” has served mostly to distract from the realities on the ground and to offer an excuse for not acknowledging them. The second Intifada, which erupted soon after the disappointment at Camp David, and Israel’s subsequent intrusions into the West Bank transformed the Palestinian Authority into little more than a security subcontractor for Israel. They also accelerated the rightward drift of Israeli politics, the population shifts brought about by Israeli citizens moving into the West Bank, and the geographical fragmentation of Palestinian society. The cumulative effect of these changes became evident during the 2021 crisis over the appropriation of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, which pitted not just Israeli settlers and Palestinians but also Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel against each other in a conflict that split cities and neighborhoods.

Netanyahu’s new government, composed of a coalition of right-wing religious and nationalist extremists, epitomizes these trends. Its members boast of their mission to create a new Israel in their image: less liberal, more religious, and more willing to own discrimination against non-Jews. Netanyahu has written that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens” but rather “of the Jewish people—and only it.” The man he appointed as minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has declared that Gaza should be “ours” and that “the Palestinians can go to . . . Saudi Arabia or other places, like Iraq or Iran.” This extremist vision has long been shared by at least a minority of Israelis and has strong grounding in Zionist thought and practice. It began gaining adherents soon after Israel occupied the Palestinian territories in the 1967 war. And although it is not yet a hegemonic view, it can plausibly claim a majority of Israeli society and can no longer be termed a fringe position.

The fact of a one-state reality has long been obvious to those who live in Israel and the territories it controls and to anyone who has paid attention to the inexorable shifts on the ground. But in the past few years, something has changed. Until recently, the one-state reality was rarely acknowledged by important actors, and those who spoke the truth out loud were ignored or punished for doing so. With remarkable speed, however, the unsayable has become close to conventional wisdom.

Democracy for some 

To see the reality of a single state, many observers will need to put on new glasses. These are people who are used to seeing a distinction between the occupied territories and Israel proper—that is, the state as it existed before 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza—and think Israel’s sovereignty is limited to the territory it controlled before 1967. But the state and sovereignty are not the same. The state is defined by what it controls, whereas sovereignty depends on other states’ recognizing the legality of that control.

These new glasses would disaggregate the concepts of state, sovereignty, nation, and citizenship, making it easier to see a one-state reality that is ineluctably based on relations of superiority and inferiority between Jews and non-Jews across all the territories under Israel’s differentiated but unchallenged control. Consider Israel through the lens of a state. It has control over a territory that stretches from the river to the sea, has a near monopoly on the use of force, and uses this power to sustain a draconian blockade of Gaza and control the West Bank with a system of checkpoints, policing, and relentlessly expanding settlements. Even after it withdrew forces from Gaza in 2005, the Israeli government retained control over the territory’s entry and exit points. Like parts of the West Bank, Gaza enjoys a degree of autonomy, and since the brief Palestinian civil war of 2007, the territory has been administered internally by the Islamist organization Hamas, which brooks little dissent. But Hamas does not control the territory’s coastline, airspace, or boundaries. In other words, by any reasonable definition, the Israeli state encompasses all lands from its border with Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. 

It has been possible to overlook that reality because Israel has not made formal claims of sovereignty over all these areas. It has annexed some of the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. But it has not yet declared sovereignty over the rest of the land that it controls, and only a handful of states would be likely to recognize such claims if Israel were to make them.

Controlling territory and consolidating institutional domination without formalizing sovereignty enables Israel to maintain a one-state reality on its terms. It can deny responsibility for (and rights to) most Palestinians because they are residents of its territory but not citizens of the state, cynically justifying this discrimination on the grounds that it keeps alive the possibility of a two-state solution. By not formalizing sovereignty, Israel can be democratic for its citizens but unaccountable to millions of its residents. This arrangement has allowed many of Israel’s supporters abroad to continue to pretend that all this is temporary—that Israel remains a liberal democracy and that, someday, Palestinians will exercise their right to self-determination.

But even within its pre-1967 borders, Israel’s democracy has limits, which become apparent when viewed through the lens of citizenship. Israel’s Jewish identity and its one-state reality have produced an intricate series of legal categories that distribute differentiated rights, responsibilities, and protections. Its 2018 “nation-state” law defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish People” and holds that “the exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People”; it makes no mention of democracy or equality for non-Jewish citizens.

According to this hierarchy of membership, the fullest class of citizenship is reserved for Israeli Jews (at least those whose Jewishness meets rabbinical standards); they are citizens without conditions. Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship and reside in pre-1967 Israel have political and civil rights but confront other limits—both legal and extrajudicial—on their rights, responsibilities, and protections. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem theoretically have the option of becoming Israeli citizens, but most reject it because doing so would be an act of disloyalty. Palestinians who reside in the territories are the lowest class of all. Their rights and responsibilities depend on where they live, with those in Gaza at the bottom of the hierarchy—a position that has only deteriorated since Hamas took control. Asking a Palestinian to describe his or her legal status can elicit an answer that lasts for several minutes—and is still full of ambiguities.

As long as hope existed for a two-state solution that would see Palestinians’ rights recognized, it was possible to view the situation within Israel’s 1967 boundaries as one of de jure equality combined with de facto discrimination against some citizens—an unfortunate but common reality in much of the world. But when one acknowledges the one-state reality, something more pernicious is revealed. In that one state, there are some whose movement, travel, civil status, economic activities, property rights, and access to public services are severely restricted. A substantial share of lifelong residents with deep and continuous roots in the territory of that state are rendered stateless. And all these categories and gradations of marginalization are enforced by legal, political, and security measures imposed by state actors who are accountable to only a portion of the population.

Naming this reality is politically contentious, even as a consensus has formed about the abiding and severe inequalities that define it. A flurry of reports by Israeli and international nongovernmental organizations documenting these inequalities have driven the term “apartheid” from the margins of the Israeli-Palestinian debate to its center. Apartheid refers to the system of racial segregation that South Africa’s white minority government used to enshrine white supremacy from 1948 to the early 1990s. It has since been defined under international law and by the International Criminal Court as a legalized scheme of racial segregation and discrimination and deemed a crime against humanity. Major human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have applied the term to Israel. So have many academics: according to a March 2022 poll of Middle East–focused scholars who are members of three large academic associations, 60 percent of respondents described the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories as a “one-state reality with inequality akin to apartheid.” 

The term may not be a perfect fit. Israel’s system of structural discrimination is more severe than those of even the most illiberal states. But it is based not on race, as apartheid was defined in South Africa and is defined under international law, but on ethnicity, nationality, and religion. Perhaps this distinction matters to those who wish to take legal action against Israel. It is less important politically, however, and is virtually meaningless when it comes to analysis. What matters politically is that a once taboo term has increasingly become a mainstream, common-sense understanding of reality. Analytically, what matters is that the apartheid label accurately describes the facts on the ground and offers the beginnings of a road map to change them. Apartheid is not a magic word that alters reality when invoked. But its entry into the political mainstream reveals a broad recognition that Israeli rule is designed to maintain Jewish supremacy throughout all the territory the state controls. Israel’s system may not technically be apartheid, but it rhymes.

Rude awakening

It is primarily Israelis and Palestinians who must grapple with the one-state reality. But that reality will also complicate Israel’s relationship with the rest of the world. For half a century, the peace process allowed Western democracies to overlook Israel’s occupation in favor of an aspirational future in which the occupation would come to a mutually negotiated end. Israeli democracy (however flawed) and the nominal distinction between Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories also helped outsiders avert their gaze. All these diversions are gone. The one-state reality has long been embedded in Israeli law, politics, and society, even if it is only now being broadly acknowledged. No ready alternatives exist, and it has been decades since there was any meaningful political process to create one.

Perhaps the recognition of these facts will not change much. Many enduring global problems are never resolved. We live in a populist world, where democracy and human rights are under threat. Israeli leaders point to the Abraham Accords, which established Israel’s relations with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to argue that normalization with Arab states never required resolving the Palestinian issue. For their part, Western leaders may simply continue to pretend that Israel shares their liberal democratic values while many pro-Israel groups in the United States double down on their support. Liberal Jewish Americans may struggle to defend an Israel that has many characteristics of apartheid, but their protests will have little practical effect.

Yet there are reasons to believe that the transition from an aspirational two-state world to a real one-state world could be rocky. The mainstreaming of the apartheid analogy and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement—and the intense backlash against both—suggest that the political terrain has shifted. Israel may enjoy more physical security and regional diplomatic recognition than ever before, with few international or local constraints on its activities in the West Bank. But control requires more than brute strength. It also requires some semblance of legitimacy, with the status quo sustained by its taken-for-granted nature, its naturalization as common sense, and the impossibility of even contemplating justifiable resistance. Israel still has the material power to win the battles it picks. But as those battles proliferate, each victory further erodes its fighting position. Those wanting to defend the one-state reality are defending colonialist principles in a postcolonial world.

The struggle to define and shape the terms of this one-state reality may take new forms. In the past, dramatic interstate wars created openings for negotiations and high-stakes diplomacy. But in the future, U.S. policymakers are not likely to confront conventional conflicts such as those that broke out between Israel and Arab states in 1967 and 1973. Instead, they will face something closer to the first and second Intifada—sudden outbursts of violence and mass popular contestation such as those that occurred in May 2021. At that time, clashes in Jerusalem sparked a wider conflagration involving rocket fire between Israel and Hamas, demonstrations and violence in the West Bank, and ugly incidents where Israelis of Jewish and Palestinian ancestry (and the Israeli police) behaved as if ethnicity trumped citizenship. Daily acts of violence and sporadic bouts of popular upheaval—perhaps even a full third Intifada—seem inevitable.

Policymakers in the United States and elsewhere who have long talked about the need to preserve a two-state solution are increasingly being forced to react to crises for which they are unprepared. The problems engendered by the one-state reality have already sparked new solidarity movements, boycotts, and societal conflicts. Nongovernmental organizations, political movements supporting various Israeli and Palestinian causes, and transnational advocacy groups are seeking to alter global norms and sway individuals, societies, and governments with new and old media campaigns. Increasingly, they aim to label or boycott goods produced in places controlled by the Israeli government (or outlaw such boycotts) and invoke civil rights laws to mobilize their supporters and find alternatives to the feckless diplomatic efforts of government leaders.

But all these movements and campaigns seek to mobilize constituencies that are deeply divided. The Palestinians are divided between those who bear Israeli citizenship and those who have other forms of residency, as well as among those who live in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. They are divided between those living in the one-state reality and those living in the diaspora. They are divided between the Fatah political faction that holds sway in the West Bank and the Hamas organization that controls Gaza. They are also increasingly split along generational lines. Younger Palestinians feel less attached to the movements that channeled the political commitments and energies of their parents and grandparents and are more likely to gravitate to new groups and adopt new tactics of resistance.

Israeli Jews are similarly divided about the nature of the state, the role of religion in politics, and a host of other matters, including the rights of gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities. Liberal Israeli Jews have organized massive protests against the Netanyahu government’s assault on democracy and the judiciary, but they have mobilized around the Palestinian issue far less, showing how internal disagreements have edged aside questions about a peace process that no longer exists.

The result is that leaders on both sides do not lead. There are politicians in all camps who want to keep a lid on the conflict, generally not in service of any strategy for resolution but out of a sense of inefficacy and inertia. Other politicians want the opposite: to shake things up and move in a sharply different direction, as U.S. President Donald Trump did with his “deal of the century,” promising an end to the conflict in a matter that virtually erased Palestinian rights and national aspirations. Jews pushing formal annexation of the occupied territories and Palestinians advocating for new modes of resistance to Israeli rule also hope to upend the status quo. But all such efforts founder on the firmly established structures of power and interests.

Under these conditions, any diplomacy undertaken in the name of resolving the conflict in a just manner will likely fail because it misreads both the possible alternatives to the current impasse and the will among all parties to achieve them. Policymakers wishing to construct better choices will have to pay attention to the ways in which the one-state system operates and evolves. They will need to understand how its various inhabitants imagine their homeland, how rights are enforced or violated, and how demographics are slowly but portentously changing.

Ghosts of the Arab Spring

Acknowledgment of the one-state reality has important—and contradictory—implications for the Arab world. The argument for the two-state solution has long assumed the importance of the Palestinian cause to Arab publics, if not to their governments. The 2002 Saudi peace initiative, which offered normalization of relations between Israel and all Arab states in exchange for complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, established a baseline: peace with the Arab world would require a resolution of the Palestinian issue.

The Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration and enthusiastically sustained by the Biden administration, explicitly targeted that assumption by accelerating political normalization and security cooperation between Israel and several Arab states without requiring progress on the Palestinian issue. This decoupling of Arab normalization from the Palestinian issue went a long way toward entrenching the one-state reality.

Thus far, the Abraham Accords have proved durable, surviving the formation of Netanyahu’s government with its extremist ministers. The normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, at least, will likely outlast the next round of Israeli-Palestinian violence and even overt Israeli moves toward annexation. But since the accords were signed, no additional Arab countries have sought to normalize relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia has continued to hedge its bets by holding off on establishing formal ties with Israel.

Arab normalization is likely to remain tethered to the Palestinian issue indefinitely outside of the Gulf countries. It is all too easy to imagine a scenario in which Israel moves to confiscate more property in Jerusalem, provokes widespread Palestinian protests, and then responds to this unrest with even greater violence and faster dispossession—eventually triggering the final collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Such an escalation could easily spark large-scale protests across the Arab world, where long-simmering economic hardship and political repression have created a tinderbox. There is also the even graver threat that Israel will expel Palestinians from the West Bank or even Jerusalem—a possibility, sometimes euphemistically called a “transfer,” that polls suggest many Israeli Jews would support. And that is to say nothing of how Hamas or Iran might exploit such conditions.

Arab rulers might not care about the Palestinians, but their people do—and those rulers care about nothing more than keeping their thrones. Fully abandoning the Palestinians after more than half a century of at least rhetorical support would be risky. Arab leaders do not fear losing elections, but they remember the Arab uprisings of 2011 all too well, and they worry about anything that invites mass popular mobilizations that could rapidly mutate into protests against their regimes.

Exit, voice or loyalty?

Acknowledging the one-state reality could also polarize the American conversation about Israel and the Palestinians. Evangelicals and many others on the political right might embrace this reality as the realization of what they consider legitimate Israeli aspirations. Many Americans who are left of center may finally recognize that Israel has fallen from the ranks of liberal democracies and may abandon the fanciful promise of two states for the goal of a single state that grants equal rights to all its residents. 

The United States bears considerable responsibility for entrenching the one-state reality, and it continues to play a powerful role in framing and shaping the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank would not have survived and accelerated, and occupation would not have endured, without U.S. efforts to shield Israel from repercussions at the United Nations and other international organizations. Without American technology and arms, Israel would probably not have been able to sustain its military edge in the region, which also enabled it to solidify its position in the occupied territories. And without major U.S. diplomatic efforts and resources, Israel could not have concluded peace agreements with Arab states, from Camp David to the Abraham Accords.

Yet the American conversation about Israel and the Palestinians has willfully neglected the ways in which Washington has abetted the occupation. U.S. support for the peace process has been couched both in terms of Israel’s security and in terms of the idea that only a two-state solution could preserve Israel as both Jewish and democratic. These two goals have always been in tension, but a one-state reality makes them irreconcilable.

Although the Israeli-Palestinian issue has never been high on the American public’s list of priorities, U.S. attitudes have shifted notably: support for a two-state solution has declined, and support for a single state that ensures equal citizenship has risen over the past few years. Polls show that most American voters would support a democratic Israel over a Jewish one, if forced to choose. Views on Israel have also become far more partisan, with Republicans, especially evangelicals, growing more supportive of Israeli policies and the overwhelming majority of Democrats preferring an evenhanded U.S. policy. Young Democrats now express more support for the Palestinians than for Israel. One reason for this shift, especially among young Democrats, is that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is increasingly viewed as an issue of social justice rather than strategic interest or biblical prophecy. This has been particularly true in the era of Black Lives Matter.

The one-state reality has especially roiled the politics of Jewish Americans. From the earliest years of Zionism, most Jewish American supporters of Israel held as sacrosanct the aspiration for Israel to be simultaneously Jewish and liberal. Netanyahu’s latest government might be the breaking point for this group. It is difficult to square a commitment to liberalism with support for a single state that offers the benefits of democracy to Jews (and now seems to tread on some of those) but explicitly withholds them from the majority of its non-Jewish inhabitants.

Most Jewish Americans see basic liberal principles such as freedom of opinion and expression, the rule of law, and democracy not only as Jewish values but also as bulwarks against discrimination that ensure their acceptance and even survival in the United States. Yet Israel’s commitment to liberalism has always been shaky. As a Jewish state, it fosters a form of ethnic nationalism rather than a civic one, and its Orthodox Jewish citizens play an outsize role in determining how Judaism shapes Israeli life.

In 1970, the political economist Albert Hirschman wrote that members of organizations in crisis or decline have three options: “exit, voice, and loyalty.” Jewish Americans have those same options today. One camp, which arguably dominates major Jewish institutions in the United States, exhibits loyalty enabled by denial of the one-state reality. Voice is the increasingly dominant choice of Jewish Americans who were previously in the peace camp. Once focused on achieving a two-state solution, these Americans now direct their activism toward defending Palestinian rights, safeguarding the shrinking space for Israeli civil society, and resisting the dangers posed by Netanyahu’s right-wing government. Finally, there are the Jewish Americans who have chosen exit, or indifference. They simply do not think much about Israel. That might be because they do not have a strong Jewish identity or because they see Israel as misaligned with or even opposed to their values. There is some evidence that the more Israel lurches to the right, the larger this group becomes, especially among young Jewish Americans.

Reality check

So far, the Biden administration has sought to sustain the status quo while urging Israel to avoid major provocations. In response to continued settlement construction in the West Bank and other Israeli violations of international law, the United States has issued empty statements calling on Israel to avoid actions that undermine a two-state solution. But this approach misdiagnoses the problem and only makes it worse: Netanyahu’s far-right government is a symptom, not a cause, of the one-state reality, and coddling it in an attempt to coax it toward moderation will only embolden its extremist leaders by showing that they pay no price for their actions.

The United States could instead meet a radicalized reality with a radical response. For starters, Washington should banish the terms “two-state solution” and “peace process” from its vocabulary. U.S. calls for Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table rely on magical thinking. Changing the way the United States talks about the Israeli-Palestinian issue will change nothing on the ground, but it will strip away a facade that has allowed U.S. policymakers to avoid confronting reality. Washington must look at Israel as it is and not as it has been assumed to be—and act accordingly. Israel no longer even pretends to maintain liberal aspirations. The United States does not have “shared values” and should not have “unbreakable bonds” with a state that discriminates against or abuses millions of its residents based on their ethnicity and religion.

A better U.S. policy would advocate for equality, citizenship, and human rights for all Jews and Palestinians living within the single state dominated by Israel. Theoretically, such a policy would not prevent a two-state solution from being resurrected in the unlikely event that the parties moved in that direction in the distant future. But starting from a one-state reality that is morally reprehensible and strategically costly would demand an immediate focus on equal human and civil rights. A serious rejection of today’s unjust reality by the United States and the rest of the international community might also push the parties themselves to seriously consider alternative futures. The United States should demand equality now, even if the ultimate political arrangement will be up to the Palestinians and the Israelis to determine.

To that end, Washington should begin conditioning military and economic aid to Israel on clear and specific measures to terminate Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians. Avoiding such conditionality has made Washington deeply complicit in the one-state reality. Should Israel persist on its current path, the United States should consider sharply reducing aid and other privileges, perhaps even imposing smart, targeted sanctions on Israel and Israeli leaders in response to clearly transgressive actions. Israel can decide for itself what it wants to do, but the United States and other democracies can make sure it knows the costs of maintaining and even intensifying a deeply illiberal, discriminatory order.

The clearest global vision articulated by the Biden administration has been its full-throated defense of international laws and norms in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even if one ignores the one-state reality, the same norms and values would surely be at stake in Israel and Palestine, as is widely understood across the global South. When Israel violates international laws and liberal norms, the United States should denounce Israel for those violations as it would any other state. Washington needs to stop shielding Israel in international organizations when it faces valid allegations of transgressions against international law. And it needs to refrain from vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that aim to hold Israel accountable, stop resisting Palestinian efforts to seek redress in international courts, and rally other countries to demand an end to the siege of Gaza—another supposedly temporary measure that has become a cruel and an institutionalized reality.

But the one-state reality demands more. Looked at through that prism, Israel resembles an apartheid state. Instead of exempting Israel from the strong norm against apartheid, enshrined in international law, Washington must reckon with the reality it helped create and begin viewing that reality, talking about it, and interacting with it honestly. The United States should stand up for international, Israeli, and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations, human rights organizations, and individual activists who have been demonized for courageously calling out structural injustice. Washington must protect Israeli civil society organizations that are the country’s last refuge of liberal values and Palestinian ones whose efforts will be critical to avoiding bloody conflict in the months to come. The United States should also oppose Israeli arrests of Palestinian leaders who offer a nonviolent vision of popular resistance. And it should not seek to stop or punish those who choose to peacefully boycott Israel because of its abusive policies.

Although Washington cannot prevent normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the United States should not lead such efforts. Nobody should be fooled by the mirage of the Abraham Accords thriving while the Palestinian issue festers. Decoupling such normalization agreements from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has only empowered the Israeli far right and cemented Jewish supremacy within the state.

These U.S. policy changes would not immediately bear fruit. The political backlash would be fierce, even though Americans—especially Democrats—have grown far more critical of Israel than have the politicians they elect. But in the long run, these changes offer the best hope for moving toward a more peaceful and just outcome in Israel and Palestine. By finally confronting the one-state reality and taking a principled stand, the United States would stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.

MICHAEL BARNETT is University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

NATHAN J. BROWN is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

MARC LYNCH is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.