You have to wonder if John Kerry enjoyed his coffee on the morning of September 14th, 2013. It was a Sunday morning, and the morning after Yom Kippur. Mr. Kerry would have just left Geneva, where hard talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Syria would eventually pay off with a negotiated high diplomatic compromise. But if Mr. Kerry opened up the New York Times that morning, he would not have been thinking about chemical weapons and great power politics. Sitting in his breakfast nook, Mr. Kerry would undoubtedly have been thinking about the 3 foot tall map of Israel splattered across the Sunday Review, borders painted over borders like an Arthur Dove watercolor.
Mr. Kerry should have been feeling confident about that map on Sunday, September 14th, 2013. After all, prospects for the land of Canaan had been looking up – just a few short months earlier, Mr. Kerry had orchestrated a historical re-start of the perpetually hot-and-cold Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Sure, last-minute prisoner relocations, pop-up settlements, and disagreements over the meaning of ‘in writing’ had annoyed the process, but this is the Middle East! – Rome, let alone two sovereign states, was not built in a day. Historically speaking, the two-state train had left the station, and Mr. Kerry got to play conductor. But then there is Dr. Ian Lustick, the New York Times Sunday Review, and that pesky op-ed: Two-State Illusion. Dr. Lustick is a professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and an authority on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His headline says it all: the two-state solution is a mirage, hoodwinking social scientists and policymakers alike that cannot perceive the range of truly available futures for Israel and Palestine, which run from peaceful co-existence to blood-filled catastrophe. The cake is a lie.
This is not a post about the two state solution, how to get it, or what it should look like. This is a post about that queasy feeling that I imagine hit Mr. Kerry’s toast-and-coffee-filled stomach when he opened up the New York Times on that Sunday morning. It is a post about how we, as social scientists, can study that queasy feeling.
Lustick’s core argument is simple but fundamental. Here it is in a nutshell: the two-state solution is an idea; more specifically, it is a hegemonic idea that structures and dominates the political behavior of almost anyone that thinks about the future Israelis and Palestinians – from the high political lineage of U.S. Secretaries of State to the undergraduate in his or her ‘Middle East politics’ class. The two-state solution emerged in the 1970s to contest the then-dominant ‘Jordanian solution’(now in quiet retirement), before reaching its hegemonic zenith in the 1990s with the Oslo Accords, where the reality of two states is supposed to have been nearly touched. Political interests formed, and entrenched. Since that missed ‘moment of truth,’ Netanyahu’s conservatives, Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, a succession of U.S. policymakers and the talking heads of a burgeoning American ‘peace industry’ have all put significant political skin into the two-state game.
But while political discussion was plodding toward a two-state finish line (but never getting there), reality was sliding back in the other direction. From the proliferation of Israeli settlements to the radicalization of Palestinian politics, the carpet of reality was pulled from beneath the feet of the two-state idea. To exploit Lustick’s useful vocabulary, what was once a plausible outcome for Palestinians and Israelis has now become merely possible but highly unlikely. Yet, the two-state solution is still sold as the only solution, and therefore necessarily plausible, by all those that have skin in the game and would lose out if it either failed or was achieved. Lustick’s op-ed yanks back the curtain on the two-state mirage; this is the logic behind the queasy feeling that – I imagine – ruined John Kerry’s breakfast.
A quick thumb through the popular responses to Lustick’s op-ed reveals a peppering of predictable critiques. Here is a tasteful selection of responses, two from readers’ comments and two from letters to the editor:
- “He seems to miss the very basic point that the Russian and “Arab” Jews left lands they had been living in for generations and came to Israel for a reason, and this had something to do with being Jewish.”
- “It’s ludicrous to entertain the possibility that Israel will go back to the pre 67 borders. Anyone who thinks that Israel will go back to the pre 67 lines is totally out of touch with the geography, topography or the population dispersal.”
- “ Yes, the two-state solution is difficult to achieve, but it is the only one that provides opportunity for Palestinian self-determination without abandoning Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.”
- “Both Israelis and Palestinians want to fulfill their national aspirations in their own country. Neither will be satisfied with less, and the two-state solution remains the only way to achieve that.”
*(this selection is not representative of the entire population of responses to Lustick’s piece; it shows a common trope that I seek to use for illustrating a larger point)
Interestingly for my point, these critiques miss the target and inadvertently confirm Lustick’s core argument. In doing so, they evidence the power and fragility of a hegemonic idea. The dominance of the two-state idea rests on a handful of foundational assumptions that render it the only outcome conceivable as both possible and a solution. The assumption is that the Israeli and Palestinian requirements for self-determination can only be met by mutual sovereignty. Each of these critiques merely repeats the assumption with varying degrees of outrage.
At the core of Lustick’s argument, however, is a claim about relative likelihood; about what is plausible and what is merely possible. To support this claim, he provides a handful of counterfactual thought experiments: Israeli nuclear capability alongside an atomically naked Palestinian state versus an enforced W.M.D.-free zone across the Middle East; a tenuous Jewish national identity versus the advent of a salient Arab Jewish identity; population redistribution versus a confederative administration. The reason Lustick can engage in this kind of exercise – what makes these counterfactual futures even conceivable in the first place – is a suspension of the assumption of a two-state monopoly on the possible. Failure to also suspend this assumption prevents any would-be two-state defender from engaging Lustick on his own analytical turf and confirms his core argument that the two-state idea is a hegemonic one. However, if the assumption is lifted and the hegemony of the two-state idea is shattered, what is revealed is a methodological wild west of ideas-in-battle, where every soldier is vulnerable, even a grizzled veteran like Lustick.
Lustick has taken the first step: identifying a hegemonic idea as such. But the two-state solution is not the only hegemonic idea in town. Its most tenacious competitor is a familiar one: the hegemonic idea of state sovereignty. Social scientists like Jeffery Herbst and Will Reno have shown how the normative bias towards maintaining a neat, tidy, status-quo map has privileged state incumbency in the eye of the international community (this is why de-facto recognition of the Palestinian state by the UN was no small achievement). Students of human rights are well aware of how the idea of sovereign statehood can be a powerful tool in the hands of ‘ambitious’ state leaders like Slobodan Milošević. The entire subfield of International Relations can credit its existence to this hegemonic idea.
So, in our Israeli case: what makes the two-state idea hegemonic, but the sovereign state idea, with its bias towards the status-quo map, not? And which one is on the rise, and which on the fall? Lustick’s argument that the two-state solution is possible but no longer plausible is based on an implicit claim that the hegemony of the two-state idea is in its twilight – that eventually the ideational bubble will burst. This requires a second step: objectively assessing the relative strength of two or more potentially hegemonic ideas in a wrestling match, where the winner gets to determine what is possible, what is plausible, and what is even conceivable. This is the methodological baggage that comes with lifting a hegemonic assumption: the challenge of assigning causation to ideas in structural change, or in Gramscian terms, the challenge of picking winners in wars of position.
The methodological toolset available for social scientists to meet this challenge is limited. Lustick’s exercise exploring the relative plausibility of counterfactual futures for Israelis and Palestinians is an example of the qualitative expert judgement approach. Phillip Tetlock and his book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? have led the documentation of a battery of political, heuristic, and cognitive biases to which qualitative expert judgement is susceptible; Lustick himself is an active participant in this research program. The best theorists of hegemony are also of limited help. The classics, Gramsci and Foucault, as well as contemporary scholars like Lisa Wedeen and Lustick, generally identify hegemonic ideas as those with muscle – the support of a big and bad state apparatus. But here, in the supra-national realm international relations, it is the very nature of that state apparatus that is under contestation. As a result, this scholarship has focused on the ways incumbent hegemonic ideals are practiced, constituting the subjects that enact them; the achievement of hegemony by specific ideas themselves has received less theoretical attention. There is rich explanation for how single hegemonic ideas dominate, but not for how multiple ideas compete for hegemony.
But all is not lost. If we journey to the darker, less-traveled corners of the social science world, we can glean some foundational principles from evolutionary and complexity theory. This is raw material from which to forge our methodological toolset. A relevant and (surprisingly) tractable starting-point is Alexander Wendt’s treatise on teleology, “Why the World State is Inevitable.” Each stage of Wendt’s teleological progression to the world state is a struggle between competing hegemonic ideas – a war of position. At each stage, the idea of state sovereignty is wielded as a structural effect against some emergent challenger – say, the two-state solution. The mechanism by which challengers arise is what Wendt terms ‘upward causation’ – commonly referred to by complexity theorists as ‘emergence.’ Emergence is the aggregation of individually tractable causal processes at the micro-level of analysis to generate patterns of effect at the macro-level. So to study causation in the world of competing hegemonic ideas, we need to study emergence.
Two methodological tools show particular initial promise for studying emergent ideas. The first is network analysis – specifically, the application of pedigreed network techniques to semantic networks, which has only recently become possible with the innovation of crude but promising applications for narrative content analysis. The second is agent-based modeling, which allows the user to specify algorithmic rules for interaction of individual cellular units and observe the emergent macro-level effects. Applied to our Israeli-Palestinian case, network methods might allow us to peer through the fog of war-of-position to identify structural advantages in the positioning of discourse on status-quo sovereignty or the two-state solution. Agent-based modeling, especially as a method of rigorously specified abstract experimentation, could be used to assess the conditions under which ideational hegemony like the two-state solution is truly fragile or durable. These two approaches represent the inductive and deductive side, respectively, of new methodological ground that is premised on the goal of determining objective measures for the identification of causality in environments of dense, tangled complexity where ideas compete for hegemony.
So what does John Kerry do now? The Sunday breakfast was a tragic loss, but Lustick’s rude awakening should set an agenda that broadens analytic horizons not only for the John Kerrys, but for everyone that thinks about the future – or the many possible futures – of Israelis and Palestinians. Shattering the authority of a hegemonic idea opens up a space for emergent hegemonic ideas-to-be to do battle. Understanding that battle and even picking winners is possible and maybe even plausible, but only if social scientists think conceptually and creatively about how to expand the methodological arsenal at their disposal. As it turns out, if you are a social scientist, a queasy stomach can tell you a lot.