By JOSEPH M. STEINER
On July 7, U.S. journalist and commentator Peter Beinart published an article in Jewish Currents entitled Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine. A shorter version appeared in The New York Times the next day (“I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State”).
In them, Beinart asserts that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer possible, and he advocates for a single binational state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, with equal rights for all.
In the succeeding days, Beinart’s article garnered much attention in the Jewish world, most of it highly critical, some verging on caustic.
I approach the task of evaluating his thesis and the critiques to which it has been subjected as someone who has long been committed to a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is important to be clear on the elements of Beinart’s argument, which has three components:
• That settlements have so penetrated the West Bank that separation from Palestinians there is impossible. Hence a two-state solution is impossible, and a single state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is inevitable. Indeed, he says, a single state is already in place as a result of Israeli settlements and the legal and physical infrastructure created to support those settlements.
• A binational state won’t be so bad. In fact, it would be a good outcome.
• A binational state has an intellectual “pedigree” going back to some early Zionist luminaries.
All of the many responses I have read focus only on Beinart’s second and third arguments, but not on his first. Even a response from Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, two of the most astute analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, addresses only Beinart’s benign view of a single state, failing entirely to respond to his first argument – that a single state is inevitable. (“Don’t Give Up on the Two-State Solution,” The American Interest, July 14, 2020).
I don’t propose to address Beinart’s second and third arguments for the simple reason that if Beinart is correct about the impossibility of the two-state solution, the issues arising from his other two arguments will not affect the outcome, even if he is dead wrong in both cases.
The only issue is whether the single state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean will be a genuine binational state – one in which all current Israeli citizens and all current Palestinian residents of the West Bank are citizens with equal rights in every dimension – or an apartheid state. In either event, the vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is doomed.
Some might argue that this situation has been brought about by Palestinian intransigence. I agree that the Palestinians have been intransigent in the face of numerous genuine efforts by Israel to negotiate separation on terms reasonable to both sides. But ascribing fault for the present situation is a useless exercise. The point of Beinart’s first argument is that the situation renders separation impossible.
To liberal, progressive life-long Zionists, this is a depressing outlook and not one to which we will readily acquiesce. But, as one test of Beinart’s first argument, ask yourself the following question: Can you conceive of any Israeli government of any political complexion taking either of the following actions as part of a genuine peace agreement, with the Palestinians meeting all of Israel’s security needs?
• Either requiring the residents of the settlements (or, perhaps, only those settlements which are not adjacent to the Green Line), to evacuate and relocate west of the Green Line (or, perhaps, into the settlements adjacent to the Green Line);
• Or, telling the residents of the settlements (or, perhaps, only of the settlements which are not adjacent to the Green Line) that they are on their own, that they will no longer have Israeli defence or economic assistance. They can maintain their Israeli citizenship, but simply as expatriates, or acquire Palestinian citizenship, or both. Those who maintain their Israeli citizenship will receive the same consular assistance, and in the same circumstances, as Israeli expats in any other foreign country, but nothing more.
If the answer to that question is “no,” then, I would argue there is no conceivable separation agreement that could ever be reached between Israel and the Palestinians of the West Bank. And that takes us right back to the single state, which is either genuinely binational or apartheid.
Beinart’s case for the death of the two-state solution is not premised upon annexation according to the Trump plan or Netanyahu’s campaign pledges. He argues that the settlements have already so penetrated the West Bank that separation is impossible. Indeed, there is a great risk that, if the current threat of formal annexation of whatever magnitude fades away, liberal, progressive, life-long Zionists will breathe a sigh of relief thinking that we have dodged a bullet.
More likely, considering 53 years of history since 1967, “creeping annexation” will continue as settlements in the West Bank expand and new settlements are created. Recent experience has shown that when the Israeli government reluctantly takes any steps against any settlement, even one that is illegal under Israeli law, those steps are accompanied by “compensation” to the settlement movement in the form of expansion of other existing settlements or transfer of the affected residents to another location in the West Bank to create yet another settlement. What “compensation” will Netanyahu feel compelled to provide if he fails to deliver on his annexation promises?
Israel needs effective security. While a military presence in the West Bank is currently essential to Israeli security, civilian settlements in the West Bank contribute nothing to that security. Indeed, they exacerbate security issues.
I would be overjoyed to be confronted with a convincing rejoinder to Beinart’s first and primary argument. Like most liberal, progressive, life-long Zionists, I have clung to the two-state solution for decades as the basis for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at some indeterminate time in the future.
Beinart challenges us to ask whether we are clinging to an illusion. If so, whither Israel as a Jewish and democratic state? Whither Zionism?
Joseph Steiner is a member of the boards of New Israel Fund of Canada, Prizmah: The Center for Jewish Day Schools, Bialik Hebrew Day School (of which he is a past chair), and the Shalom Hartman Institute, and an associate member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He is a past chair of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and of its former Board of Jewish Education. The views expressed in this article are his own.