Ian Lustick’s iron dice

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on September 24.

As both Jonathan Tobin and Jonathan Marks have previously written here [at Commentary], University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick, author of a recent op-ed promoting the “one-state solution” and featured prominently in the New York Times, isn’t an outlier. To the contrary, American academe is full of Lusticks: 60-something Jewish radicals who went through some transient phase of simplistic far-left Zionism before discovering that the real Israel is complex. Disillusioned, they rode their leftism to minor eminence as repentants in departments and centers of Middle Eastern studies, where Jewish critics of Israel provide ideal cover for the real haters. Such Jews used to be devotees of a Palestinian state, but now they’re scrambling to keep up with the freakish fad of a “one-state solution” set off by the late Edward Said’s own famous conversion (announced, of course, on the pages of the New York Times, in 1999). Because Lustick’s piece ran in the Times, it was a big deal for some American Jews who still see that newspaper as a gatekeeper of ideas. In Israel, it’s passed virtually unnoticed.

Whatever the article’s intrinsic interest, it’s particularly fascinating as a case study in intellectual self-contradiction. For Lustick has reversed his supposedly well-considered, scientifically informed assessment of only a decade ago, without so much as a shrug of acknowledgement.

Let’s briefly recap Lustick’s dismissive take on the two-state solution in his new article. It is “an idea whose time has passed,” it is neither “plausible or even possible,” it’s a “chimera,” a “fantasy.” The “obsessive focus on preserving the theoretical possibility of a two-state solution is as irrational as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Conclusion? “The pretense that negotiations under the slogan of ‘two states for two peoples’ could lead to such a solution must be abandoned.” In fact, negotiations do actual harm: “Diplomacy under the two-state banner is no longer a path to a solution but an obstacle itself. We are engaged in negotiations to nowhere.”

The ultimate two-stater

Yet only a decade ago, Lustick thought that the success of the “peace process” in achieving its aim of two states wasn’t only plausible and possible. It was inevitable. Lustick explained his thesis in a lengthy 2002 interview peppered with analogies and metaphors, including this one:

I like to think of it as a kind of gambler throwing dice, except it’s history that’s throwing the dice. Every throw of the dice is like a diplomatic peace process attempt. In order to actually succeed, history has got to throw snake eyes, 2. And, you know, that’s not easy, you have to keep throwing the dice. Eventually, you’re going to throw a 2. All of the leadership questions and accidents of history, the passions of both sides, the torturous feelings of suffering, the political coalitions, the timing of elections will fall into place.

What is Lustick saying here? Remember that the odds of throwing snake eyes on any given toss of the dice are 36 to 1, so only a fool or an idiot would despair after, say, a dozen or even two dozen throws. Even failure is just a prelude to success, since as long as you keep throwing, “eventually, you’re going to throw a 2.” The old sawhorse that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is belied by the dice-thrower, who repeats the same action knowing that each result will be different. And that’s why the United States keeps repeating the diplomatic moves that Lustick now finds so tiresome. The “peace processors” are just adhering to his logic, circa 2002, which guarantees that one of these initiatives is destined to succeed—provided there are enough of them.

And what did Lustick in 2002 have to say to those Israelis who “want the West Bank and Gaza to remain permanently under Israeli rule”? “You will have to roll a 13,” Lustick told them.

But you can’t roll a 13, which is to say that the right has no plan for how it can successfully keep the territories anymore. They don’t even advocate as a realistic option expelling the Palestinians. So they have no plan. So if you are the right and you know you have to roll a 13, the strategy is, don’t let the dice get rolled, keep trying to stop every initiative and subvert it if it gets started…. It’s the only rational thing to do in order to prevent history from eventually producing what it will produce, which is a two-state solution.

So the Israeli version of a one-state solution—an Israel from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean—was the hopeless cause of dead-enders who defied “history” itself. In 2002, Lustick was certain that “one of these days,” Israel would leave the West Bank:

Israel is caught between the inability to make the issue disappear by making the West Bank look like Israel, and the inability to make it disappear by actually withdrawing, by getting through that regime barrier, that regime threshold. Some day, one of these days, that regime threshold is going to be crossed.

The Palestinian version of the one-state option? Lustick didn’t even mention it in 2002.

So Lustick was the ultimate two-state believer. I don’t think even the inveterate “peace processors,” whom he now dismisses so contemptuously, ever assumed that repeated failures would bring them closer to their goal. Lustick did believe it: one couldn’t “prevent history from eventually producing what it will produce, which is a two-state solution,” and it was just a matter of time before “that threshold is going to be crossed.” So certain was Lustick of the inexorable logic of the two-state solution that he believed even Hamas had acquiesced in it. And because Israel had spurned Hamas, Israel had squandered an opportunity to turn it into a “loyal opposition.”

Here lies the problem—perhaps dishonesty is a better word—in Lustick’s latest piece. Lustick ’13 never takes on Lustick ’02, to explain why “history,” destined to lead to two states only a few years ago, is now destined to end in one state. It’s tempting to make light of the seemingly bottomless faith of “peace processors,” and I’ve done it myself, with relish. But the case Lustick made for them in 2002 had a certain logic. The case he’s made against them in 2013 is weak. Indeed, he never really builds much of a case at all.

Is it the number of settlers? If so, he doesn’t say so. Lustick knows how many settlers there are, and he numbered them in a lecture in February. In 2002, he says, there were 390,000 (West Bank and East Jerusalem). In 2012, he says, there were 520,000. That’s 130,000 more (two-thirds of it, by the way, natural growth). Presumably, some significant proportion of the 130,000 have been added to settlements whose inclusion in Israel wouldn’t preclude a two-state solution, because of their proximity to pre-1967 Israel. So we are talking about some tens of thousands. Which 10,000 increment, between 2002 and 2013, put Israel past the “point of no return”?

Lustick doesn’t say. In the Times, he claims that American pressure could have stopped Menachem Begin’s re-election in 1981, precluding the building of “massive settlement complexes” and prompting an Oslo-like process a decade earlier, in the 1980s. It’s a we’ll-never-know counter-factual, but it doesn’t solve the conundrum. Lustick knew all this in 2002, and it didn’t dampen his faith in the historic inevitability of the two-state solution. So the question remains: what’s happened since 2002 to change Lustick’s mind so drastically?

“The state will not survive!”

Here we come to Lustick’s supposedly original contribution to the “one-state” argument. He isn’t repeating the usual claim that Israeli settlements have made a Palestinian state unachievable. He’s arguing that the Israeli state is unsustainable. “The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project, through war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum, is at least as plausible” as an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. The best indicator? Israelis say so! “Many Israelis see the demise of the country as not just possible, but probable. The State of Israel has been established, not its permanence. The most common phrase in Israeli political discourse is some variation of ‘If X happens (or doesn’t), the state will not survive!'”

I don’t know any research that’s established “the most common phrase in Israeli political discourse,” and I’m guessing that Ian Lustick doesn’t either. He just made it up. In his February lecture, he did cite one work, from 2009, that counted how many articles published in the left-wing Haaretz employed the phrases “existential danger” or “existential threat.” There’s a bump up after 2002 (Second Intifada), then a spike up in 2006 (Second Lebanon War). The “study” proves absolutely nothing. After all, this is Haaretz, the Wailing Wall of the Israeli left. A perfectly plausible explanation is that the paper’s editorial bias, exacerbated by the eclipse of the left, has tended to favor doomsday prognostication.

And Lustick is contradicted by real research on real people, which he either ignores or of which he’s ignorant. The Israel Democracy Institute’s latest large-scale poll, for 2012, shows that optimists outnumber pessimists among Israeli Jews by a margin of 79 percent to 18 percent. Over 85 percent say Israel can defend itself militarily and only 33 percent think Israel will become more isolated than it now is. The Tel Aviv University academic who oversees the poll summarized the results: “It is important to note that most Israelis view the country’s future optimistically. Our national resilience rests heavily on the fact that even though people are negative on Friday evenings at their family dinner table and the zeitgeist is discouragement, when you scratch a little deeper, people are not really depressed here.” That may be an understatement. Israel is ranked eleventh in the world in the latest UN-commissioned World Happiness Index, which hardly correlates to any level of depression.

According to the Peace Index poll ahead of this Jewish New Year, only 16 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country’s security situation will worsen. 46 percent think it will stay the same, and 28 percent think it will actually improve—this, despite the chaos in Syria and the Sinai, and the spinning centrifuges in Iran. The only thing Israelis are persistently pessimistic about is the “peace process,” but that doesn’t sour the overall mood—except for the small minority, including those op-ed writers for Haaretz, who apparently constitute Lustick’s “sample.”

(Lustick also alludes to “demographic momentum” as working against Israel, and he has puttered around with figures in an attempt to show that Israelis are lining up to emigrate. He got away with this until an actual demographer, Sergio DellaPergola, took a hammer to one of his amateur efforts and left nothing intact. It’s a must-read takedown.)

Israel the balloon

But in the end, for Lustick, it doesn’t really matter how prosperous or stable or viable Israel appears to be, even to Israelis. That’s because Israel is like… wait for it… a balloon. “Just as a balloon filled gradually with air bursts when the limit of its tensile strength is passed, there are thresholds of radical, disruptive change in politics.” Zionist Israel is a bubble that’s bound to burst. It’s been inflated by American support, and the “peace process” has protected it from rupture. But the larger the balloon gets, the more devastating that rupture will be. In February, Lustick revealed that he is writing an entire book on this thesis, evoking “history” again, with a fresh analogy to exchange rates:

History will solve the problem in the sense of the way entropy solves problems. You don’t stay with this kind of constrained volatility forever. When you constrain exchange rates in a volatile market by not allowing rates to move even though the actual economy makes them absurd, rates will eventually change, but in a very radical, non-linear way. The more the constraint, the less the adaptation to changing conditions, the more jagged and painful that adaptation is going to be.

Better, thinks Lustick, that the “peace process” in pursuit of the two-state solution be shut down now, so that both sides can slug it out again—this time to “painful stalemates that lead each party to conclude that time is not on their side.” Israel, which has defeated the Palestinians time and again, has to stop winning. Pulling the plug on the “peace process,” he writes in the Times, would

set the stage for ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror, Jewish and Arab emigration and rising tides of international condemnation of Israel. And faced with growing outrage, America will no longer be able to offer unconditional support for Israel. Once the illusion of a neat and palatable solution to the conflict disappears, Israeli leaders may then begin to see, as South Africa’s white leaders saw in the late 1980s, that their behavior is producing isolation, emigration and hopelessness.

And that’s where we want to be! Enough rolling of the diplomatic dice! It’s time to roll the iron dice! It may sound cynical to you, but Lustick thinks it’s destiny: “The question is not whether the future has conflict in store for Israel-Palestine. It does. Nor is the question whether conflict can be prevented. It cannot.” Remember, this is someone who just a few years ago insisted that a two-state solution was inevitable. Now he argues exactly the opposite. The world should get out of the way and let the inescapable violence unfold—only this time, the United States won’t be in Israel’s corner, and so Israel will be defeated and forced to dismantle itself.

The problem with rolling the iron dice, as even an armchair historian knows, is that the outcome is uncertain. What Lustick would like “history” to deliver is a defeat of Zionist Israel of such precise magnitude as to create a perfect equilibrium between Jew and Arab. But it may well be that the outcome he desires is the equivalent of rolling a 13, because Israel has deep-seated advantages that would be magnified greatly were Israel ever to find itself up against a wall. (The fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war may be an apt moment to remember that.) Or something in his scenario could go wrong. As Clausewitz noted about war, “No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance.”

One of the possible outcomes Lustick imagines is that “Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as ‘Eastern,’ but as Arab.” Given that even “the Arabs” don’t think of themselves anymore as “Arabs” (especially when they gas or bomb one another), and that Jews never thought of themselves as “Arabs” even when they lived in Arabic-speaking countries and spoke Arabic, one wonders how many thousands of dice rolls it would take to produce that outcome.

Prophet of Philly

In the end, it’s pointless to debate Lustick on his own hypothetical grounds, invoking rolling dice, bursting balloons, and volatile exchange rates. That’s because nothing has happened since 2002 between Israel and the Palestinians, or in Israel, that can possibly explain his own total turnaround. I suspect his Times article has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and everything to do with Lustick’s attempt to keep his footing in the shifting sands of American academe.

Ever since Edward Said veered toward the “one-state solution,” the pressure has been growing, and it’s grown even more since Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor at Columbia, finally gravitated toward the same position (something I predicted he would do well before he actually did it). This turn of events left Lustick in the rear of the radical vanguard and far from the action. Ever since Tony Judt passed on, there’s been a vacancy for a professorial Jewish supporter of the “one-state solution.” So this is Lustick’s late-career move, and I anticipate it will do for him a bit of what it did for Judt, transforming him from an academic of modest reputation into an in-demand hero. Invitations will pour in. Soon we will hear of a controversy involving an invitation rescinded, which will raise his standing still higher. And it’s quite plausible that the Times piece will land him a heftier advance for his next book (as of February, “I’ve not written the conclusion yet”), and the promotional push of a major publisher.

In anticipation, Lustick is already casting himself as a prophet of Israel, exemplified in this quote from an answer he gave to a question last winter:

I argued in 1971 that 1,500 settlers in the West Bank were a catastrophe that would lead Israel into a political dungeon from which it might never escape. I was laughed at. I also argued for a Palestinian state alongside of Israel in the early 1970s, but it took twenty-five years before the mainstream in Israeli politics agreed with that. It may take another twenty-five years before they realize that what I’m saying is true now and will be even truer if Israel is still around in twenty or twenty-five more years.

This is not a human measure of prescience, as Lustick himself has acknowledged. How far in advance would anyone have been able to imagine the Iranian revolution or the fall of the Soviet Union? Lustick: “Ten years? No. Five years? Maybe two, if you were very, very good.” If, as Lustick claims, he consistently sees the future of Israel twenty-five years forward, he must inhabit a sphere far above the regular run of prognosticating political scientists. He is now compiling the Book of Ian. Read it, O Israel (enter credit card here), and weep.

Ian Lustick says so

Professors of Middle Eastern studies say the damnest things, and I’m collecting their wackiest assessments of Hamas’ rise to power. Most of the so-called experts are at pains to suggest that the commitment of Hamas to its professed ideology is just show, and that the movement is really an improved strain of Palestinian nationalism, devoted to clean, accountable government.

But Ian Lustick, the Bess W. Heyman Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, goes even further in an interview with the Voice of America. Here is the key quote:

If you go back to the beginning, the Palestinians and Zionists had completely contradictory ideas. The Zionists had the idea that all of Palestine would be a Jewish state and the Palestinian Arabs had the idea that there would be no Jewish presence at all. Now, the center of gravity inside the Israeli political system is that there will be a Palestinian state. And Hamas is mainly popular because one of the things it is trusted to do is probably be ready to live with Israel, even if not officially, for a very long time.

Do you get that? Hamas isn’t just going to adjust to Israel by force of circumstance, as many analysts argue. According to Lustick, Palestinians elected Hamas precisely because it’s ready to live with Israel! It represents, on the Palestinian side, a parallel to the Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state.

For Lustick, it’s just a matter of time before Hamas reveals itself to the rest of us. Hamas, he says, doesn’t want negotiations–for now. “But they do want a period of calm and they are manifestly able to enforce that calm. So there is a logical deal in which Israel and a Hamas Palestinian Authority wait, a year or two, before any serious negotiations and each of them moves slowly toward it.” Of course, how logical! Isn’t it obvious? In a couple of years, we’ll have “serious negotiations.” The “peace process” is alive! If the United States and Israel fail to seize the opportunity–well, we’ll all know where to lay the blame.

But gee, I’m really confused. Here I’ve got this piece by Steven Erlanger, New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem, who almost persuaded me that “the ‘peace process’ is effectively dead…. A long, hostile quiet may be possible. Israelis and Palestinians may pursue parallel unilateralisms. But serious negotiations on a peace settlement? Very unlikely.” Whom do I believe? Logical Lustick? Or ear-to-the-ground Erlanger?

Ian, I so want to believe your message of hope! It’s just that the last time I noticed you, you were on a rant about the neo-con “cabal” foisting the Iraq war on America. Then you were signing a bizarre petition against Ariel Sharon’s supposed secret plan to expel the Palestinians under the cover of an Iraq war. I’m confused, too, by all these contradictory statements coming from Hamas leaders. So I await your fuller, deeper, theoretically sophisticated, empirically-based analysis.

Ian Lustick will speak on “Israel and Hamas: Ways Forward” tonite, Monday, March 27, 6:00 pm, at the University of Pennsylvania, Jon M. Huntsman Hall, Room F95, 38th and Walnut Streets. Refreshments will be served.

Goldilocks Warrior at Penn

Last week, a Columbia University anthropologist made the New York Times and other national media, when he told 3,000 students at a campus teach-in that “I wish for a million Mogadishus”—the 1993 battle that cost the lives of 18 U.S. soldiers. (By the way, the same prof also emitted this statement at a Columbia sit-in last year: “The heritage of the victims of the Holocaust belongs to the Palestinian people. The state of Israel has no claim to the heritage of the Holocaust.”) The wish for a “million Mogadishus” is in a class of its own—leave it to Columbia faculty to scrape bottom—but it does have some interesting parallels in more respectable quarters.

For example, consider a talk delivered by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick. Lustick, who works mostly on Israeli and Palestinian issues, isn’t a raving campus radical. Still, he has admitted that the radical 1960s “affected me long term.” It looks like the prime effect on Lustick has been a susceptibility to conspiracy theories. He’s a big promoter of the “cabal” theory of policymaking, which he’s tirelessly advanced on Nightline and in The Nation. Lustick has described the war in Iraq as a “supply side” war: 9/11 created a surplus of political capital, which the neo-con “cabal” diverted away from the legitimate war on terror to a “criminal” war in Iraq.

In Lustick’s theory, there is another crucial factor that preserved this political capital from erosion: the ease of the American victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan. Lustick (verbatim):

I supported the war [in Afghanistan] but I warned that we needed a Goldilocks outcome and we didn’t get it. And what did I mean by that? What I meant was if we did not win quickly enough, if the war lasted through to the summer we would end up destabilizing Pakistan and risking nuclear events in South Asia. On the other hand, if we won too quickly, if we broke things in Afghanistan too successfully, and that’s definitely what we’re good at, we’re fantastic at breaking anything we can find—it’s putting things back together that’s the tough question—but my fear at that time was that if we broke the Taliban too fast and it was perceived in the United States that we had a quick and relatively bloodless on the American side victory, that this would give the necessary fill to that wing, that cabal in the administration….What I wanted was a war, a Goldilocks war, not too fast and not too slow but we didn’t get it. We got one that was too fast and it gave the whip end to the cabal.

To borrow academic jargon, this statement can be “unpacked,” and if you unpack it, this it what you get: regret that American forces didn’t suffer some sort of Mogadishu in Afghanistan, so that the victory would not have seemed “relatively bloodless on the American side.”

There’s probably a valid if banal analytical point lurking behind this: military superiority is its own temptation. But there is something more sinister and cynical in Lustick’s remarks, because he’s stating a personal preference, not an analytical thesis. And the remark’s cynicism extends beyond possible American losses. For if a bit more American blood had been shed in a longer war in Afghanistan, it’s certain that a lot more Afghan blood would have been shed as well.

It’s just not enough to plant an American flag on the podium, as Lustick did before one of his anti-war talks. (Even this gesture was tinged with camp: “Every demonstration must have American flags,” he told his audience, “if only to prevent the cops from beating you.”) No, it really is the thought that counts. Lustick’s Goldilocks thought is another example of why anti-war activists got so little traction opposite the so-called “cabal.” If you want to change outcomes in Washington, you have to speak the language of national security and solidarity, with feeling. That’s something well beyond the capacity of those “affected long term” by Vietnam-era radicalism. And that’s why they never stood a chance.

I’ve been fascinated by Professor Lustick’s computerized attempt to simulate the behavior of a typical Middle Eastern polity, a project he’s now extended to terrorists. “I think about terrorism in terms of popcorn,” Lustick has said. “You assume you’ll always have some kernels that are going to pop. How much lower does the temperature have to get before you have a dramatic decrease in the ability of terrorists to operate?”

Interesting idea, but why not test it in a more familiar environment? I’d like to see it applied to the professors. How much higher does the temperature have to get before still more of them pop, so that they clamor openly for American defeats? Sandstorm will employ the latest equations from the laboratories of the political sciences, to provide as much advance warning as possible.