Elan Journo and Danny Sjursen debated how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and while Sjursen rightly won, both were wrong on a few key points.
On March 18, 2019, the Soho Forum hosted a debate in which Elan Journo argued in favor and Danny Sjursen against the resolution that, “To resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel must first achieve defeat of the Palestinian movement.”
Elan Journo is the Director of Policy Research at the Ayn Rand Institute, and Danny Sjursen is a US Army major and former history instructor at West Point. The debate was filmed by C-SPAN and also covered by Reason. Rightfully so, Sjursen came out the decisive winner, having successfully persuaded 14% of the audience to change their minds by the end, resulting in a final tally of about 51% disagreeing with the resolution, 37% agreeing, and 13% remaining undecided.
While Sjursen certainly took up the correct position in this debate and for the most part did a great job of countering Journo’s arguments with factual and logical rebuttals, in the end, his assessment about the path forward was also fundamentally flawed in important respects.
Journo essentially reiterated certain key arguments he made in his book What Justice Demands: America and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which purports to offer a fresh pro-liberty approach to the subject, but is instead filled with all the same tired Zionist propaganda that has always been used to justify Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.
During the debate, Sjursen complimented his opponent by saying that Journo has “written an excellent book on the subject”. I have to strongly disagree. On the contrary, Journo’s book is a shameless work of propaganda that has no value apart from illustrating the great lengths some Zionists will go to in order to defend Israel’s violations of international law and human rights abuses against the Palestinians.
In fact, I’ve written a detailed response to Journo’s book that systematically dismantles his deceptions and falsehoods. My rejoinder e-book is titled Exposing a Zionist Hoax: How Elan Journo’s ‘What Justice Demands’ Deceives Readers about the Palestine Conflict.
During the debate, Journo’s basic argument was that we have evidence of what it would look like for the Palestinians to exercise their right to self-determination with a state of their own in the rule of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which he argues represent authoritarianism and religious extremism, respectively. Since we must reject tyranny and extremism, we must therefore also deny the Palestinians their own state by violently suppressing their national movement.
One of Journo’s fallacies is his assumption that, were the Palestinians to gain their freedom from Israel’s occupation and establish a sovereign state, it would resemble either the PA or Hamas’s rule in Gaza. Since these are both regimes that have arisen as a consequence of Israel denying the Palestinians their right to self-determination, it does not follow that if Israel were to instead recognize and respect that right, then the resulting Palestinian state would have a government like either the PA or Hamas.
It is true enough that the PA is an authoritarian regime, but Journo overlooks how the PA was established under the Oslo Accords essentially in order to serve as Israel’s collaborator in enforcing its occupation regime.
He also falsely claims that Hamas came to power in a “coup” in Gaza, when actually what happened was that Hamas legitimately won legislative elections and then successfully fought off a coup attempt by Fatah, which is the party of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, that was backed by Israel and the US.
It is obviously nonsensical, as well as dishonest and hypocritical, to point to the consequences of Israel’s ongoing occupation regime as evidence of what it would look like for Israel to end that regime and respect the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.
Journo also argues that the two-state solution is the only thing that’s been tried for many years, and since it hasn’t worked, it’s time to resolve the conflict by militarily crushing the Palestinian movement. Sjursen does a superb job of arguing about the need to avoid bloodshed and instead to use diplomacy to resolve international conflicts, even when it means negotiating with organizations like Hamas. However, the audience was left with the impression that the two-state solution has been the goal of the US-led “peace process”.
The truth is just the opposite: the so-called “peace process” is the means by which Israel and the US have long blocked implementation of the two-state solution based on the applicability of international law.
Journo goes so far in his shameless defense of Israel’s occupation as to claim that the Palestinians have benefited from it. To support this claim, he points to economic growth that occurred after Israel invaded and occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, which is another argument he makes in his book. To debunk this nonsense, in Exposing a Zionist Hoax, I cite a World Bank report detailing how this growth occurred not because but in spite of Israel’s economy. As one would reasonably expect, the World Bank concluded that greater and more sustainable economic growth could otherwise have occurred had it not been for Israel’s oppressive occupation regime.
To defend Israel’s violations of international law, Journo rejects its applicability to the conflict, such as during the debate when he denies that people have a right to armed resistance to foreign military occupation. When Sjursen points out that the UN Charter explicitly recognizes the inherent right to individual and collective self-defense, Journo rejects it on the puzzling grounds that it is not consistent with moral principles. The corollary of Journo’s reasoning is that, although Israel is a party to the UN Charter, it should not be obliged to adhere to its principles and should not be held accountable for violating it or any other treaties to which it is party that comprise the body of international law, such as the Geneva Conventions.
Journo’s rejection of international law is also evident during the debate when he criticizes what he calls “illegal” Israeli outposts in the West Bank. He’s referring to settlements the Israeli government itself regards as illegal. By limiting his criticism to only these settlements, he is implicitly approving of the rest of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, all of which exist in violation of international law.
Journo naturally also rejects the Palestinians’ right to return to their homeland, from which they were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 war in order for the “Jewish state” to be established. This is where Sjursen, too, gets it fundamentally wrong. While pointing out that the Zionists engaged in ethnic cleansing operations in 1948, Sjursen agrees with Journo that Israel “has a right to exist”.
On the point of ethnic cleansing, Sjursen cites Israeli historian Benny Morris, and Journo rebuts that Morris has rather denied that ethnic cleansing occurred. Sjursen unfortunately doesn’t respond to that criticism, but here is Benny Morris in his own words:
“A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them.”
That’s ethnic cleansing. It’s true that in more recent years, Morris has argued that ethnic cleansing did not occur, but his denial is untenable and, indeed, contradicted by his own research. I’ve written about this in great detail in my essay “Benny Morris’s Untenable Denial of the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” (which is also available for purchase as an e-book.)
While acknowledging the ethnic cleansing, Sjursen at the same time maintains the irreconcilably contradictory view that Israel has “a right to exist” as a demographically Jewish state. As I explain in my recent article “Why Israel Has No ‘Right to Exist’”, there is no such right as the “right” of a state “to exist”, and the claim that Israel has such a right serves two fundamental propaganda purposes: (1) it attempts to legitimize the ethnic cleansing of Arabs by which the “Jewish state” came into being, and (2) it shifts the focus away from the proper framework for discussion, which is the right to self-determination, which is a right being denied to the Palestinians by Israel, not vice versa.
Given Journo’s rejection of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, he naturally opposes the two-state solution. Sjursen reasonably favors a two-state solution, but unfortunately also rejects the Palestinians’ right of return except on a “symbolic” basis of allowing a limited number of refugees to go back to their homeland.
Sjursen’s position during the debate is also that Israel should negotiate with the Palestinians, implying that such negotiations are the path through which a solution is to be found. But why should the Palestinians have to negotiate with their occupier while the occupier continues to prejudice the outcome of any negotiations with its continued occupation and settlement regime?
To anyone believing that the path to a just peace lies in negotiations between the occupier and the people living under its oppression, I recommend my book Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which puts to rest the notion that such negotiations are the answer. (Obstacle to Peace also features a Foreword by Richard Falk and an Introduction by former Barron’s editor Gene Epstein, who is the Soho Forum director and debate moderator.)
The path to peace, I argue, does not lie in the Palestinians negotiating away even more of their rights, but in the recognition of the applicability of international law to the conflict and the enforcement of that law. The Palestinian leadership should pursue legal remedy through the UN and other international organizations including the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and International Criminal Court (ICC).
Unfortunately, Israel’s collaborator regime, the PA, has proven reluctant to pursue that course, just as there remains no reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas today. And so their divided leadership is one of the major obstacles that the Palestinians must overcome.
Another major obstacle is the US government’s policy of financially, militarily, and diplomatically supporting Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians, which is a problem all Americans who seek a just peace should focus their efforts on overcoming.
While Sjursen may be wrong to reject the single-state solution, many advocates of a single democratic state are also wrong to reject the two-state solution, which is essentially synonymous with ending the occupation. Only once the occupation is ended and the Palestinians are able to exercise sovereignty over their own territory will they be able to acquire the political leverage necessary to then pursue remedy for the plight of the refugee population.
Sjursen argues that an end to the occupation should also involve removal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank, but I actually disagree on this point, as well. As I write in the conclusion to Obstacle to Peace:
On the question of Israeli settlements, having been established in violation of international law, the fact of their existence does not confer to the state of Israel rights to the land upon which they have been built. All private land stolen for their development should be returned to its rightful owners, whose options would include selling or allowing the current residents to continue living there as tenants. In the case of housing developments on land considered to be public Palestinian property, any Jews who wish to continue their residence there following the complete withdrawal of occupying military forces should be allowed to do so, to live side by side with their Arab neighbors as fellow Palestinians. Those who would prefer not to remain as residents of Palestine would be equally free to move to Israel, or elsewhere. Any abandoned housing units could be utilized to provide shelter to Palestinian refugees as part of an organized resettlement program. Israel would have an incentive to coordinate with the government of Palestine under such a program if the transfer of Israel’s improvements and developments on that stolen land was considered part of a compensation package in furtherance of the goal of a just resolution to the refugee problem and settlement of all claims against Israel.
I elaborate more on the root cause of the conflict, the true reasons for its persistence, and the path forward in my books The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination, Benny Morris’s Untenable Denial of the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Obstacle to Peace, and Exposing a Zionist Hoax.