Prominent US Jewish liberal rejects ‘two-state-solution’, jolts establishment

Peter Beinart proposes several alternatives, including a single bi-national democratic state or a “confederation” in which Jews and Palestinians would each maintain large degrees of autonomy in their own communities.
Sunday 19/07/2020
A new housing project in the West Bank settlement of Naale. (AP)
A new housing project in the West Bank settlement of Naale. (AP)

WASHINGTON/ JERUSALEM— An influential American commentator has sent shockwaves through the US Jewish establishment and Washington policymaking circles by breaking a longstanding taboo: He has endorsed the idea of a democratic entity of Jews and Palestinians living with equal rights between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, arguing that a two-state solution — Israel and Palestine — is no longer possible.

In making his case, Peter Beinart challenged a core tenet of Western foreign policy and of discourse among many Jews around the world of needing to ensure the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

Beinart took aim at decades of failed efforts by US and European diplomats, as well as Israeli leaders who he believes have undermined the idea that establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel is the best way to achieve peace.

Peter Beinart, a prominent Jewish-American commentator speaks in Jerusalem. (AP)
Peter Beinart, a prominent Jewish-American commentator, speaks in Jerusalem. (AP)

“There’s a category of people in the US, Jewish and non-Jewish, who had been like me committed to the two-state solution for a long time and have been quietly losing faith in it but didn’t necessarily see an alternative,” Beinart said in an interview with The Associated Press, after publishing a July 8 op-ed in The New York Times and a longer piece in the magazine Jewish Currents, where he is an editor-at-large.

Israel has gradually come to grips with the realisation that it either has to abandon its commitment to being “a Jewish state” or give up its claim to being committed to the democratic ideal by imposing second-class status on Palestinians. An independent Palestinian state was long seen as meeting both sides’ aspirations.

Beinart said that after decades of Israeli settlement expansion on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians and proposals such as US President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan that steadily offered the Palestinians less and less territory, setting up a viable Palestinian state has become impossible.

About 640,000 Jewish settlers now live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the Israeli and American governments have divested Palestinian statehood of any real meaning,” said the progressive Jewish intellectual.

New realities 

The result, said Beinart, is a de facto bi-national state where Israelis have basic rights while millions of Palestinians do not. The marginalisation of Palestinians coupled with the annexation drive has lent Israel (even among mainstream intellectuals) to accusations of morphing into an apartheid system.

“The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades — a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews — has failed,” he wrote. “It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality.”

He pointed out that “critics will say bi-national states don’t work. But Israel is already a binational state. Two peoples, roughly equal in number, live under the ultimate control of one government.”

Coming just four months before the US presidential election, Beinart’s comments could reframe the debate in US progressive circles that may soon be wielding some influence in the White House.

Beinart is seen as a prominent voice among progressives and is popular among younger American Jews, who tend to be more critical of Israeli policies than their parents or grandparents.

His shift has triggered an earthquake in the Jewish-American world, where support for Israel is a consensus issue, even among the staunchest critics of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's hardline government. For many Jews, Israel is an integral part of their identity, on religious grounds or as an insurance policy in the wake of the Holocaust and an age of modern anti-Semitism.

Critics across the political spectrum have accused Beinart of being naive, unrealistic and even anti-Semitic. Some have argued that he has ignored what they contend is Palestinian intransigence or willingness to resort to violence.

“Can anyone recall the NYTimes publishing opeds urging the end of any other nation (& UN member)?” tweeted David Harris, chief executive of the American Jewish Committee, a leading advocacy group.

Palestinian viewpoint 

Even some Palestinian activists have given the US Jewish writer a lukewarm reaction, saying he is merely endorsing their longstanding positions. While the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank continues to call for an independent state, the idea of a single bi-national state is popular with young Palestinian intellectuals. Recent polls in the West Bank and Gaza have shown split visions on the issue of the Palestinians' political future. Almost half of the Palestinian respondents do not advocate a two-state solution anymore. Palestinians are disillusioned about the two-state concept conveyed by Oslo and endorsed by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s political generation. That option was the result of a long bumpy evolution away from what was perceived as the radical ideal of “one democratic state” long pursued by leftist Palestinian formations.

Beinart readily concedes that he and many other American Jews have historically paid little attention to Palestinian voices.

But perhaps those most alarmed are Beinart’s ideological brethren on the American left. A journalism professor at City University of New York and contributor to The Atlantic, Beinart is a well known liberal voice who until recently was an eloquent advocate of the two-state solution.

Long-term discussion 

“The image of him here is a mainstream, thoughtful, very intelligent, liberal, pro-Israel guy. That he has reached this point has shaken people,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal Jewish advocacy group in Washington that supports a two-state solution.

Ben-Ami said he has received calls from members of Congress asking about the piece and had to assure them that, in his opinion at least, the two-state scenario is still feasible.

“People are feeling depressed about where Israel has ended up and where it’s headed,” Ben-Ami said. “It’s just another bit of fuel on the fire.”

Palestinian demonstrators argue with Israeli forces during a demonstration against Jewish settlements and Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank in the town of Beita, south of the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Nablus  on July 18. (AFP)
Palestinian demonstrators argue with Israeli forces during a demonstration against Jewish settlements and Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank in the town of Beita, south of the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Nablus  on July 18. (AFP)

While Beinart himself is an observant Jew who laces his arguments with references to religious texts and Jewish philosophers, he has a history of rattling the establishment.

In the past, he has accused mainstream Jewish American leaders of blind support for what he thinks are self-destructive Israeli policies. He has also criticised US policymakers for paying lip service to the two-state model while refusing to exert pressure, such as threatening to withhold military aid, to halt Israeli settlement construction.

Beinart proposes several alternatives, including a single bi-national democratic state or a “confederation” in which Jews and Palestinians would each maintain large degrees of autonomy in their own communities. “It’s time to envision a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too,” he wrote.

In Israel, where Beinart is not well-known, the essay has generated little debate. Many Israelis object to criticism by diaspora Jews -- an argument he rejects given the generous financial aid and diplomatic support Israel receives from the US -- and support for a sovereign Jewish homeland is a core tenet of modern Zionism, even among those on Israel’s left who support broad concessions to the Palestinians.

“My parents did not come here and I do not live here because of the good weather,” said Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli cabinet minister who negotiated the historic Oslo peace accords of the 1990s that tried to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state.

“Israel is interesting to me only because this is a Jewish state — but Jewish and democratic. And if it gives up on one of these characteristics, then it is not my country,” he said.

But in the US, there are signs that Beinart's call is causing some soul searching at a time of softening Democratic support for Israel. Many commentators have thanked him for sparking a debate, even if they disagree with him.

Dan Shapiro, who served as former US President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, said Beinart’s call for tougher American pressure on Israel is a “legitimate conversation.” But he said Beinart’s broader ideas are reckless and unrealistic.

“One can agree about the need to change the status quo without abandoning … the one outcome that actually can resolve the conflict,” Shapiro said.

Beinart said he does not worry about short-term criticism. Instead, he hopes to plant a seed for a long-term discussion about an alternative that provides “equality and justice.”

If many conservatives assailed what they described as the lack of realism of Beinart's view of what they see as continuing “existential threats” faced by Israel, progressive and liberal voices have defended his views as helping Israelis and Jews come to terms with reality. “The hope of a two-state solution allowed many Jews to hide from that reality. Now it’s vanishing, we can hide no longer,” wrote Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian.