“That parrot is definitely deceased.” (Dead Parrot Sketch, Monty Python, 1969)
The much-touted, long-deferred Two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off, like the parrot of Monty Python notoriety, appears to have passed on. It is bereft of life. Recent obituaries (e.g., by Nathan Thrall, 2021); Jonathan Ofir, 2021; Peter Beinart, 2020, 2021; Mitchell Plitnick, 2019; and Gershon Baskin, 2019, Yousef Munayyer, 2016) collectively document the cause of the demise. Joining this chorus now is Jonathan Kuttab, Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist, whose Beyond a Two-State Solution echoes this emerging consensus: Jewish settlements have “totally, fully, and radically contradicted and undermined the possibility of a two-state solution” (14).
For Kuttab, the “facts on the ground” are decisive: the growing settler population (now 700,000 including East Jerusalem), settlement location, settler-only roads, government subsidies and retroactive legalization, military protection and the myriad ways settlements are integrated into greater Israel’s cultural fabric—all of this means today’s Jewish settlements in the West Bank are an “irreversible fact” that has made a Two-State solution “impossible” (17; cf. 16-25, 91).
For some observers, the inoperable, terminal condition of the Two State solution has been evident for a while. Already in 1999 postcolonial Palestinian theorist Edward Said, seeing inextricable links between Jews and Palestinians, rebooted talk of a single bi-national State. In 2003, former-Zionist Tony Judt explosively called the idea of a Jewish state an “anachronism” and said the two-state solution was “probably already doomed.” Likewise, anthropologist-activist Jeff Halper and New Historian Ilan Pappé have long contended that the Two-State solution was always illusory, never viable, and a fundamental misconception of the “conflict.”
Like the sanguine shopkeeper in the Monty Python sketch, however, other observers insist that the parrot isn’t dead. He’s resting. Or perhaps he’s stunned. After all, Two States has been official U.S. policy for almost 2 decades. In Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, he declared (to applause) that Two States was “the only resolution.” The last U.S. congress likewise detected a pulse, as has President Biden who lately reaffirmed Two States as a desideratum of his administration, unlike, ahem, his predecessor’s.
Nor is the U.S. government alone in its call to replace the Israeli Occupation with a viable State of Palestine alongside a secure Jewish state. Two-States-for-two-peoples is hard-wired into liberal Zionist organizations like J-Street and Americans for Peace Now, no less than (the old guard of) the Palestinian Authority.
If it was the Oslo process (in which Kuttab participated) and the formation of the Palestinian Authority that kindled Palestinian hopes for a state alongside Israel (34-35), Trump may get credit (time will tell) for extinguishing any lingering flames. Trump apparently thought
Palestinians would line up to embrace his Deal of the Century, trading statehood for prosperity, and settling for subsidized enclaves and employment rather than demand national sovereignty (35-36). Whether or not the Deal was “the official death” of the Two-State solution (36), all that
remains now, says Kuttab, is “a mirage which permits the status quo of settlement expansion to continue” (94).
The first seven chapters of Kuttab’s slim volume track the putative demise of the Two State solution, and why two-state language lingers (hint: fear and lack of plausible alternatives); the second half of the book finds Kuttab making his case—legal, moral, practical—for a binational, single state, a compromise in which “neither Jewish Zionism . . . nor Palestinian Nationalism . . . can get everything it wants” (42).
Nothing if not brave, Kuttab first sets out to catalog what each side would require in order for a single, hybrid state to have a shot: “non-negotiable, minimum requirements” for Jews, he reasons, include the need for “a safe haven where any Jew, anywhere and at any time, can feel free to go and live” (43) and, further, permission for “Jews to have the same right to live in all parts of Eretz Israel as Palestinian Arabs” (44). Palestinians, for their part, would need national identity and self-determination (not necessarily statehood) (47), and full equality under the constitution (45).
In a display of pragmatic flexibility, Kuttab would have the State’s new constitution mandate a Jewish head of the Ministry of Defense and of the Army (albeit with Arab deputies), and an Arab director of the police force (with a Jewish deputy) (52). Similarly conciliatory is his idea that returning Palestinian refugees would receive compensation and/or alternative property; they would not, nota bene, displace Jews now living in formerly Arab homes (52). Relative, not absolute, justice is the goal here.
Kuttab anticipates, but does not dismiss, “objections and challenges” (chp. 11), among them the critical question: “why should the stronger party accept this solution?” “It is precisely the military success of the Zionist movement,” he whispers in response, “that now stands in the way of fulfilling the deepest desires for peace, legitimacy, acceptance, and ultimate survival of their project” (65).
Chief among obstacles to peace, Kuttab is all too aware, is the depth of mutual hostility and mistrust between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs (65). Centuries of antisemitism and the trauma of the Holocaust have made Jews understandably reluctant to share power and zealous to maintain demographic superiority. Palestinians, for their part, point to the continuing injustices and displacement wrought by a century of Zionism. Chapter 12 (“False Democracy and the Demographic Demon”) posits the solution: robust democracy. Not just one-person-one-vote (which could yield tyranny of the majority) but also “rule of law, a free press, transparent and accountable government, an independent judiciary” and “iron-clad constitutional guarantees” that . . . “protect citizens . . . from the caprice of volatile majorities” (68).
Notably absent in Kuttab’s treatise are in-house debates with fellow One-State advocates. He does not challenge, for example, those (e.g., the One Democratic State Campaign, ODSC) who frame the problem as settler-colonialism (an asymmetric invasion) rather than as conflict (a struggle between two “sides”). Kuttab certainly calls for a co-equal Right of Return (46, 51, 74, 97), but while ODSC advocates the full Right of Return of “all Palestinian refugees and their descendants . . . to the places from which they were expelled,” Kuttab explicitly opposes Jewish displacement from formerly Palestinian lands.
Also absent is any critique of the Confederation option in which separate states build lasting peace through economic interdependence, “sharing what must be shared, and separating only where they can.”
For Kuttab, ideological purity is sometimes the enemy of progress. Thus, his problem with the Palestinian BDS movement is not their call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, but their hyper-aversion to “normalization” which aversion rules out all cooperative efforts with like-minded Israeli activists (83-84). We need more contact with the Other, not less.
Instead of theory-laden semantics and ideology, Kuttab gently invites us to consider how the minimum demands of each side may be “met within a new reality that is open to another community of roughly equal numbers and legitimate demands of their own, rather than in the spirit of triumphal exclusivity” (p.42). Such gracious equanimity is borne of judicious pragmatism, not of disinterest or resignation.
Christian readers may be surprised by the absence of Bible verses and theological reasoning. Kuttab prefers to “show” rather than “tell.” Rather than preach a sermon or expound Scripture, this Mennonite extends an olive branch. Rather than issue an ultimatum or pick a fight, he recounts a vision, like John-the-seer in the book of Revelation. Except his is not a binary vision of heaven’s victory and evil’s defeat, but of nonviolent generosity and mutual respect—one that embodies Jesus’ call to radical peacemaking.
Like John the Baptist, Kuttab speaks truth to power and calls us to prepare for a new dawn. Like Jesus, he shows us how to love, not fear, our enemies.
At the end of the Dead Parrot Sketch, the customer (John Cleese) finally gets the shopkeeper (Michael Palin) to admit the obvious, that the parrot is in fact dead. As Monty Python fans would expect, the sketch ends without resolution: all out of parrots, the shopkeeper can provide no satisfactory replacement.
By contrast, Kuttab dares to imagine bi-nationalism as a satisfactory, even noble replacement for the two-state option that he sees as defunct. That would mean Palestinians agreeing to build a national home within an inclusive commonwealth, and Jews likewise conceding that if Zionism provides not a Jewish state but a safe Jewish home in the land of Israel, it is no dream.