An influential commentator has sent shock waves through the Jewish establishment and Washington policymaking circles by breaking a long-standing 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, a journalism professor at the City University of New York, 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 peace.
“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, 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.
The logic behind the two-state solution is straightforward. If Israel continues to control millions of Palestinians who do not have the right to vote, Israel would have to make a difficult choice: Maintain the “status quo” and stop being a democracy, or grant the Palestinians the right to vote and lose its Jewish majority. An independent Palestinian state is widely 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 Middle East peace plan that offered the Palestinians less and less territory, setting up a viable Palestinian state is impossible.
The result is a de facto binational state where Israelis have basic rights while millions of Palestinians do not, he said.
“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. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality,” Beinart wrote.
Coming just four months before the US presidential election, Beinart’s comments could reframe the debate in progressive circles that might soon be wielding influence in the White House. That debate has gained strength as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about annexing large parts of the West Bank.
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 Netanyahu’s hard-line 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 in the 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 willingness to resort to violence.
“Can anyone recall the NYTimes publishing opeds urging the end of any other nation (& UN member)?” American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris tweeted.
Even some Palestinian activists have given him a lukewarm reaction, saying he was merely endorsing their long-standing positions. While the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank continues to call for an independent state, the idea of a single binational state is popular with young Palestinian intellectuals.
Beinart readily concedes that he and many other American Jews have historically paid little attention to Palestinian voices.
Perhaps those most alarmed are Beinart’s ideological brethren on the left. Beinart is a well-known liberal voice who until recently was an eloquent advocate of the two-state solution.
“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, the president of J Street, a liberal Jewish advocacy group in Washington that supports the 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. It’s just another bit of fuel on the fire,” Ben-Ami said.
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 also has criticized 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 binational 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 — a viewpoint Beinart rejects, given the financial aid and diplomatic support Israel receives from the US.
Support for a sovereign Jewish homeland is a core tenet of modern Zionism, even among those on Israel’s left who support 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.
“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,” Beilin added.
In the US, there are signs that his call is causing some soul-searching at a time of softening support for Israel from the US Democrats. Many commentators have thanked Beinart for sparking a debate, even if they disagree.
Dan Shapiro, who served as former US president Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, said Beinart’s call for tougher pressure from the US on Israel is a “legitimate conversation,” but adding that his broader ideas were 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 such criticism and hopes to plant a seed for a long-term discussion about an alternative that provides “equality and justice.”
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