Questioning the Two-State Solution: A Dilemma for Progressive Jews

By JEFFREY WILKINSON

Recently, liberal Jewish thinker, journalist and teacher Peter Beinart wrote a highly provocative article in the journal Jewish Currents, followed by a shorter piece in the New York Times calling the two-state solution “dead” and advocating for a binational state with equal rights for all.

In his longer piece, “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine,” Beinart reflects on moments in Jewish history where seismic shifts happened in religious and cultural practices that may have seemed threatening at the time, but were instead movements that propelled us to be better and stronger. So how will we respond to Beinart’s call for another seismic shift in our thinking and practice?

Predictably, there were rebuttals from many sides, including complete rejection from the more rigid advocates of Israel, calling Beinart irrelevant. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) went so far as to call him antisemitic (a rich claim to be aimed at a devout Jew).

The focus here is on the response from the “progressive” Jewish community. While the term “progressive” encapsulates a wide swath of Jewish thought, I refer specifically to the large numbers who refer to themselves as Zionists but also voice concern, to varying degrees, over Israeli government policy, particularly in terms of the occupation, settlements, possible annexation, and Palestinian human rights. Beinart has long been a part of this progressive Zionist movement, though he has been retreating from the two-state camp for some time.

He makes three key points. The first, holding on to the two–state solution, based on today’s political realities, including the lack of viable left-leaning political movement supporting it, is akin to supporting the status quo indefinitely.

Second, a binational state has been successfully achieved in other places in the world, so it is attainable.

Lastly, the focus on Israel as the liberation of the Jewish people and the only “insurance policy” against another Holocaust can no longer be used as the sole justification for defending injustice and inflicting suffering on Palestinians.

The dilemma for progressive Zionists is that if the very idea of “progressiveness” is to be willing to challenge the status quo and resist injustice, how do we respond when we ourselves are being called out for maintaining the status quo? In order to answer this, we need to reflect on why so many are resisting Beinart’s call for a re-examination. Is it not innately “Jewish” to reflect and re-examine?

While there are layers to dealing with this dilemma, we must begin with what I would offer is the root of the challenge: Trauma. Historical trauma, present trauma, and the fear of future trauma.

The challenge that Beinart’s article presents for progressives is really a challenge that is already baked into the idea of progressive Zionism: To be pro-peace, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel. I would suggest there is an existing irresolvable tension in supporting Palestinians while also supporting the very institution that oppresses them.

In spite of these seemingly incompatible goals, there are many deeply committed to this trilateral cause to support peace, support Palestinians, while remaining steadfastly Zionist. I have struggled with these contradictions for many years. To deal differently with Beinart’s call, and with the two-state dilemma more broadly, we need to deal with the built-in contradictions in our “pro-pro-pro” stance.

The key to this journey, in my own experience, is in recognizing that that this “pro-pro-pro” commitment is viewed through a 1967-forward lens. If we dig more deeply into this, it means viewing Palestinian oppression only in terms of settlements, the occupation, and the daily injustices that the Israeli government and military inflict on Palestinians.

The two-state solution is entirely a ’67–driven solution: Returning to the pre-’67 borders, sharing Jerusalem, ending the occupation, and resolving the settlement issue. This allows us to maintain Israel without acknowledging or addressing the core trauma for Palestinians: 1948.

It is, in many ways, a “have our cake and eat it too” solution. Yes, it does involve compromise from us, but not in terms of trauma. We get to have our liberation from trauma (Israel), without deeply addressing Palestinian trauma.

There have been many responses to Beinart’s article from Jewish progressives. They centre on the idea that abandoning the two-state solution is tantamount to cultural suicide. In a recent webinar, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of JStreet, a strongly progressive lobby group in the United States, asked Beinart why he would “abandon the Jewish State at a time Jews are under such threat?” That this fear of impending trauma continues to dominate the progressive Jewish narrative means that we have not found a way to deal with the central contradiction of being supporters of both Israel and Palestinians.

To face Beinart’s call head on, we need to be able to see justice for all as a response to the genesis of the trauma for Palestinians. We need to examine whether our call for a two-state solution is in fact “progressive” or is it clinging to the status quo? We need to ask if the binational state is really the existential threat to Jews that we have made it out to be. Granting that this is a genuine fear, does holding on to the status quo create greater safety for Jews in the long-term, and even if it does, is it a just solution for all, including Palestinians?

While I agree with Beinart and have come to similar conclusions myself some time ago, my purpose here is to remind us that re-examination is an essential tenet of our tradition, and that we should never feel that the call to question is inherently dangerous. We are strong enough to have this difficult conversation with ourselves and we must have it if justice for all is indeed our guiding light.


Jeff Wilkinson
Jeffrey Wilkinson, PhD

Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD, is an educator, facilitator and researcher focused on the psycho-social causes of intractable conflicts, researching not only how these conflicts are formed, but also how they may be undone over time. His doctoral dissertation explored the Israel/Palestine conflict through the experiences of Canadian Jews and Palestinians. He is the co-author, with a Palestinian, of an upcoming book addressing the current polarization in Jewish-Palestinian discourse within the two diasporas.

Letter to the Editor – July 27, 2020

The Two-State Solution: What Now?

Thank you Joseph M. Steiner for getting to the most important issue in Peter Beinart’s articles (Peter Beinart’s “Yavne” and its Critics, July 24). You write publicly what many of us have already known. The two-state solution is a mirage. The question becomes, “what now?”

Charlie Lior

Toronto

Peter Beinart’s “Yavne” and its Critics

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 M. Steiner
Joseph M. Steiner

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.