top of page
Search

Political Possibility and the Future of Palestine and Israel

 

 

Thoughts on the Politically Possible, Rational Political Action, and the Future of I/P

 

“Not realistic,” “wishful thinking,” “utopian,” “a pipe dream,” “not going to happen”—phrases for perhaps the most common type of objection to a given political proposal: the political goal is simply not possible, or at least so unlikely that it should be treated as if it were impossible.


When it is true, this constitutes a powerful counter to any proposal. Although sometimes our actions are intended merely to express a feeling, attitude, or moral judgment, and we are indifferent to or unmindful of its possible consequences, usually actions aim at an outcome the actor desires, and if the object of that desire is unattainable, the action, as a practical matter, stands condemned. This is especially true of political actions, where tactical and strategic acumen is more highly valued than it is in the practical activities of daily life. “That goal cannot be achieved, no matter what we do,” seems a decisive political objection to any strategy meant to achieve it.


Those who would find an abstract discussion of political possibility and political reasoning tiresome might choose to skip sections 1-4 of this post and go directly to section 5, where the ideas developed in the first four sections are applied to Palestine/Israel activism.


1.    The Nature of the Question


Are political and moral questions distinguishable? Somewhat. The distinction between moral and practical actions, including political ones, is worth making in spite of being interminably murky. All actions have moral dimensions and potential practical effects. While consequentialist moral theories hold that there is nothing more to morality than evaluating actions’ effects, and Kantians (along with other non-consequentialists) hold morality to be independent of consequences, consequentialists would not deny that we have to evaluate the consequences—i.e. judge their intrinsic goodness—and Kantians would allow that any action will have consequences that can be evaluated. The distinction between the practical and the moral is fuzzy on anyone’s account.


Even those who might refuse any theoretical weight to Kantian consideration in politics, the most die-hard consequentialists, would concede that stubborn Kantian impulses are widespread and in practice play a role in judging all of our actions. Nonetheless, in discussing the politically possible, I will take up a purely consequentialist stance, and assess the wisdom of political action in light of political possibilities solely by consequentialist criteria—the goodness of the actions’ outcomes.  That means that I will not assess actions by a “universalization” criterion central to Kantian moral judgments. “What if everyone did that,” is not a question I am politically interested in if there is no reason to believe that everyone will do that.


The issue I address is a practical, not theoretical, question. How should judgments of political possibility affect political actions? Therefore, rather than taking “What is politically possible?” as our fundamental question, answering “What is to be done,” or more precisely “what, politically, should I do,” – practical questions--is my goal. Determining the politically possible is just a stage in the process, albeit the crucial one.


2.    Intractable Uncertainty


Currently, we primarily depend on “gut feelings” for our beliefs about the politically possible. And while that is where my analysis will return us, it is useful to understand the elements of the implicit rationales for gut feelings. Otherwise, rationales determined by gut feelings could have no pretense to being more than arbitrary beliefs or the expressions of a hope disguised as a strategy. It is not foolish to hold that a belief is rational even if we would be at a loss to provide a sound justification for it, but it is helpful to know the form such a justification would take, as well as what some of its key components would be.


Verdicts of the hard sciences preclude certain political possibilities, like colonizing planets in distant galaxies. But concern with the politically possible is typically not about proposals that run afoul of limits on the speed of light or the ability of humans to live without oxygen. Rather, they usually turn on questions of what others will or won’t choose to do. Sometimes the focus is on just what a single other person will or will not choose to do, e.g., Biden, Putin, Trump, Kim Jong Un --or what a small group might do-- the current Republican House Conference, the Chinese Politburo -- or what a large group -- the American electorate, the working class, farmers, indeed humanity, might do. A person who acts politically from a Kantian motive, as one might do when deciding whether to vote, asks “what if everyone did not vote?” This Kantian voter (almost all of us when voting) is not motivated by hope for significant actual effects of her single vote, and so she need not concern herself with what others will choose to do. But for someone who is acting from more pragmatic motives, the actions of others is the fulcrum on which the rationality of their political practice turns.

       

We begin with the claim that it is irrational to pursue the impossible, and that achieving X is politically impossible by time T if no matter what I (we) do, not a sufficient number of the relevant people (which in some cases may be a single particular person) will do what needs to be done to realize X by T. 


The first thing to note is that political impossibility is judged in a time frame. Something may be politically impossible this year but not this decade, or this decade but not this century or this millennium. It may be irrational to pursue a strategy meant to achieve world government in three years but quite rational to work to achieve it in the distant future. Therefore, it is important to specify the time in which a strategy is intended to succeed to judge its rationality.


Secondly, assessing the rationality of one’s political action requires predicting how particular individuals or groups will react, or fail to react, to one’s own actions. This goes beyond predicting how those directly affected by what you do will react, it also requires predicting how those you affect will, as a result of those effects, go on to affect others, and so on until the chain reaction of your actions has fully played out.


Such predictions, needless to say, are rife with sociological and psychological premises that are highly uncertain. It is difficult enough to know how friends and neighbors will react to your words and actions, harder still to know how strangers you personally approach will respond, but the response of those only affected by your acts through the acts of others, perhaps mediated by thousands of others, cannot possibly be based on anything but the most general features of populations you hope to influence. Moreover, they will not only be reacting to the intended domino effects of your actions, but also to the effects of others’ actions aiming at incompatible goals, as well difficult to predict contingent events ranging from the weather, to sports results, to natural disasters, to economic developments, to unintended collective-action effects, etc., etc.


None of this means that it is futile to judge political possibility, especially nearer term ones. But it does mean that those judgments will be highly imprecise and need to be held with due humility. Too often the claim that something is politically inevitable, or a political fantasy, is pronounced with undue confidence. Nevertheless, if political action is to be practically rational, these sorts of judgments are unavoidable, if often only implicit.


3.    Probabilistic Practical Reasoning


Up till now I have spoken of possibilities, impossibilities and predictions, but we are really judging levels of probabilities, and should speak of the more or less probable. We are assigning probabilities to events, not strictly predicting them.


In practice we judge certain levels of improbability to be functionally equivalent to impossibility.  Possible events whose occurrence is extremely improbable I will call “unrealistic.” Increasing levels of probability, in ascending order, I’ll term “longshots,” “substantial,” and “likely.”  I’ll not assign precise percentages to these categories, in part because the first two designations would have misleading connotations in many situations. Forced to pick a number between 1 and 1000, a choice of 73 is no less realistic than choosing any other number. Betting that the Queen of Diamonds will be pulled from a standard deck of cards is no more of a longshot than betting on any other card. So, eschewing precision, and defining these labels in psychological terms, an unrealistic event occurring does not require magic, but has the feel of a “miracle,” (albeit without necessarily being a welcome one); a longshot merely feels, “quite lucky;” substantial is “not very surprising but still not what was most expected,” and likely, is, well, likely, i.e. what we would have predicted against the remainder of the field. Rationally, our assessment of all future outcomes cannot be that they are all unrealistic, nor that there is more than one likely outcome. However, barring those two exceptions, any combination of probability types is possible: all longshots, all substantial, and mixtures consisting of one, two, three, or all four types.


4.    Evaluating Outcomes


The likelihood of an outcome is no reason to pursue it if it is not valued. We have no reason to foster a near certain disaster or work for highly probable catastrophes.  The goodness of an outcome matters too. Of course, the values of outcomes come in as many degrees as their probabilities, and their desirability is relative to the other options. An outcome can be bad but still rational to pursue as the least bad possible outcome, and good but irrational to aim at if there are better outcomes. Like the probabilities, the relative values of the possible outcomes alone do not determine the rationality of action. It is only in comparison to other combinations of outcomes’ values and probabilities, that we are able to justify a course of action.


A toy illustration may be helpful:


Suppose I need $1000 to buy treatment for very severe pain and only have $10, and no prospect of getting any more money except through gambling winnings. Naturally I’d like to have additional money to satisfy other needs and desires, but by far treating the pain is my highest priority. There are only four gambling options open to me, the opening stakes for which are all $10 and each have ceiling on the winnings:


I can play a lottery game with a 1% chance of winning $50,000.

I can play blackjack with a 10% chance of winning $1000.

I can play in a fair poker game with a 25% chance of winning $20.

I can play in a rigged poker game with 0% chance of winning any money and a 64% chance I will lose my entire $10.


I claim that in such circumstances the rational choice is blackjack. The $20 win in fair poker is helpful (I can buy aspirin to slightly mitigate the pain) but simply not nearly helpful enough. The rigged game has a BAD outcome so its high probability does nothing to commend its pursuit. Blackjack has a small realistic chance of getting me what I need albeit not what I’d most prefer. The lottery gets me all I want, but the chance of it having that outcome is not merely a longshot, it is too much of a longshot, i.e. unrealistic, to forgo for the acceptable blackjack option. In sum, although a longshot, blackjack is the only realistic option whose possible outcome is sufficiently valuable.


There will be situations in which the varying realistic probabilities and varying values of acceptable outcomes require deciding how much lower odds are worth a more valuable outcome. Is a 20% shot at your dream job a better option then a 60% shot at a perfectly adequate job? Of course, we can assign numbers to the value of an outcome and with its probability come up with a formula for a rational choice. But, the imprecision of both the probability assessments and value assignment numbers would make it more accurate to contemplate the odds and the outcomes and simply go with one’s gut. *


5.    Political Possibility and Israel Palestine


Now an example very far from a toy model: political activism around Israel/Palestine. As of this writing stopping the surge of bloodletting after the horrific, sadistic Hamas attacks of October 7th, and the subsequent, ongoing callous Israeli military’s immoral massacre and immiseration of well over 30,000 Palestinians, is both possible and clearly valuable, and should be the immediate goal of activism. But I want to use I/P as an example for thinking about political possibility in longer, but still reasonably foreseeable terms.


For decades I have advocated that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict should be resolved by the establishment of two sovereign states. Others, some of whom once advocated a similar “two state solution,” and with whom I generally share political values, advocate the establishment of a single state, either binational, or fully “secular,” i.e., with no officially recognized status for any religion, ethnicity, or national identity beyond being a citizen of that single state. I remain an advocate of two states, largely on the grounds of political possibility.


One state, stable, liberal, democratic, unlikely to devolve into civil war, that discriminated neither against its Jewish nor its Palestinian citizens individually or collectively, that could serve as a refuge for any Jew or Palestinian in their respective diasporas, would be a consummation devoutly to be wished for—a wonderful outcome.


Two states, one with a likely Jewish majority for the next century, the other with a likely Palestinian majority, each that accorded equal rights to all of its citizens, which would include substantial Palestinian minorities in Israel and Jewish minorities in Palestine, each which could serve as a refuge for its co-ethnics the world over, with international recognized and guaranteed treaties ensuring security, would be, if decidedly less desirable than the ideal one state vision, still acceptable, decent, and incomparably superior to the status quo.


A third option is a more humane Israeli occupation regime in the West Bank and Gaza, with local autonomy for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, and a decrease in discrimination against Israeli Palestinians. It would still deny Palestinian political rights in the land of their birth. Better than the status quo, but still, given my fundamentally egalitarian moral and political values, completely unacceptable.


Finally, the institutionalization of the status quo –a violent, internationally lawless occupation, accompanied by increased ethnic cleansing, blatant, pervasive Jewish supremacism, theocratic illiberalism, and daily, extensive human rights violations—an ever-deepening horror.


So, given these evaluations of four possible outcomes, what should political activism work toward? I eliminate the third and fourth options, in spite of my judgment that in the time frame that interests me--the lifetime of contemporary Palestinian and Israeli children—they are most probable. The third has substantial chances and the horrific fourth case is actual, and likely to remain so. That they are the most probable outcomes, however, gives me no reason to help realize them; on the contrary, their probability adds to my reasons to prevent them.


Neither of the first two outcomes are even substantial, let alone likely, in the coming half century. But I judge the first to be unrealistic and the second to be merely a longshot. There are various obstacles to both, but Palestinians ambitions for national independence, and most especially, Israeli Jews deep seated opposition to giving up de facto control of the army and police forces, putting Jewish security in the hands of non-Jews, I believe is not realistically surmountable. Certainly, there is nothing that I can imagine doing that would, even with the coordinated efforts of many others, lead to Israeli Jews in the foreseeable future putting their security and ability to defend themselves in the hands of others. They will not be persuaded and no power can coerce them. Whether this is rational or moral of Israeli Jews is another question. But it is, I believe, a stubborn fact.


The obstacles to the less ideal, but still acceptable, two viable states outcome, are also stubborn facts: it is not the preferred option for either people, and the belief by both peoples that it is impossible because the other side will never really agree to it significantly contributes to its low probability. This shared mirror -image belief is born of experience. For over 30 years Israel has deepened the occupation while claiming it was in good faith negotiations, and Palestinian rhetoric and intentional targeting of Israeli civilians gave Israelis reason to believe that Palestinians would never truly accept two states. But a majority of both peoples were (according to repeated polls} at times ready to accept two states. Its “impossibility” today rests largely on the belief that it is impossible, a belief that could be changed. It probably won’t change, so it is a longshot. However, it is far more realistic than the ideal one state resolution.**


This conclusion is based on my highly fallible judgment of the probabilities and particular moral and political values. Many, both Israeli Jews and Palestinians, would classify any division of the land into two sovereignties as unacceptable even if achievable. Others believe that there is a realistic route to coercing or persuading Israeli Jews to accept a single democratic state that would soon leave them a minority whose safety depended on the Palestinian democratic majority’s good will. With those beliefs, working toward that end is rational. They, however, are not my beliefs; two democratic states that treated all of its citizens equally is morally acceptable, and Israeli Jews accepting minority status in a de facto Palestinian state, however democratic, is unrealistic.


6.    Conclusion


This blog’s presentation of both the theoretical account of rational political action and its application to Israeli/Palestinian activism is extremely sketchy, and, even if fleshed out would ultimately resort to rather than replace “gut feelings.” But a schema can inform gut feelings, inclining them to more rational strategies.


For activists this schema requires firstly identifying who needs to change to achieve the activists’ goal. Secondly activists must judge whether they have the capacity to coerce, manipulate, or persuade, in a timely period, the relevant others to make the needed change. Most often that capacity will involve the capacity to enlist a sufficient number properly positioned others in the cause. One can disregard such considerations, but to do so is to practice politics as moral self-expression, not as a means of procuring a better world.

 

*The relevant and highly technical literature on such topics as expected utility, Bayesian epistemology, decision/rational choice/game theory and a host of other topics, is found in many disciplines--economics, mathematics, philosophy, psychology—and goes back over three centuries. Still, in practice, none of it turns rational political activity into a science.


** For my more detailed discussions of the relative merits of aiming at one or two-states, see my previous blog posts “Is Beinart’s Ambivalence a Smart Stratagem,” (Aug 3, 2020) and “On the Death of Two States,” (March 30, 2023).

78 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

On the "Death" of Two-States

Last month I spoke with a Palestinian who lived in the West Bank town of Beit Jala. He described the hardships and injustices the occupation had inflicted on his life. I asked him what political solut

A Progressive Critique of Reparations Advocacy

Support for reparations for American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) has become widespread among progressives, and some have made advocating and organizing for reparation policies the core of their acti

The Appeal of Consciousness Politics

Many progressives feel energized at the possibilities the moment appears to afford. However, among some on the left, there is a growing unease that the goals and tactics of an increasingly dominant fa

Comments


bottom of page