President Obama’s Middle East Speech: A Two-State Solution?

President Obama spoke about Middle East policy at the State Department on Thursday. (Doug Mills/NYT)

“The status quo is unsustainable and Israel, too, must act boldly….” Pres. Obama stated this morning in his major speech on the Middle East. A “lasting peace” requires “two states for two peoples.” This, he declared, is what everyone knows is needed and the only basis on which “core issues” can be negotiated. Perhaps.

In 1948, on the eve of all-out war between the recently proclaimed (but then not yet recognized) Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, Hannah Arendt wrote an essay entitled “To Save the Jewish Homeland.” (The Jewish Writings, 388-401) The essay warrants being re-read and contemplated today by all those who wish to see an end to the conflict.

In it she warned: “And even if the Jews were to win the war…the land that would come into being would be something quite other than the dream of world Jewry, Zionist and non-Zionist. The ‘victorious’ Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded in ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities. The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people; social experiments [the kibbutzim] would have been discarded as impractical luxuries; political thought would center around military strategy; economic development would be determined exclusively by the needs of war.”

She proposed that the United Nations summon the courage to find a way out of the predicament, avoid partition of the small country, and bring together Jewish and Arab individuals who would make joint concessions, negotiate a truce, and create a cooperative community. “It is still not too late,” she wrote.

Of course, that time has long passed us by. What Arendt warned in 1948 has come to pass.

Today, Pres. Obama endorsed a two-state solution on the basis of Israel’s 1967 borders.

Israel Borders pre- and post-1967

But is this a solution? Or is it, in part, the problem? In other words, is the nation-state an adequate political form for solving the issues we see emerging not only all around the Middle East, but around the globe, as more and more peoples are displaced, made homeless by economic forces that sometimes masquerade as liberalized economies, and by political forces of near-xenophobic nationalism cloaked in the rhetoric of self-determination and the struggle for democracy?

Put differently, will every people–and who determines who the “people” of any “people” are?– staking a claim to a land as “theirs” solve the growing problem of “stateless peoples”?

When Arendt worried, in 1948, and even later, in her correspondence with friends after the six-day war in 1967, that a catastrophe in Israel was likely and feared it would lead to almost unimaginable horrors, she was afraid of what she called “the self-dissolution of the Jewish people” brought about by the politics of a militarized state pursuing national sovereignty blindly and at any cost. For a long time now, the same drive has also mobilized the Palestinian peoples. The result is that the two sides in this struggle are locked in an unwinnable battle that now threatens the “self-dissolution” of both.

Yet, isn’t this kind of battle multiplying all around the globe, including within the U.S. and in the EU, as reflected in the often vitriolic debates about “immigration”?

Can Hannah Arendt’s insights in The Origins of Totalitarianism about “the problem of stateless peoples” and her critique of “sovereignty” inspire other voices to call for new, less nationalistic ways to achieve freedom and political emancipation? Or is her defense of the “right to have rights” merely utopian?

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