Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (July 13, 2020) - Peter Beinart no longer believes in a Jewish state


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Why do you want to deal with Beinart’s recent NYT article advocating a democratic one-state solution in Israel/Palestine? Are Israelis persuaded? Interested?

A. Very few Israelis paid attention to Beinart. Israelis like myself who did read him find him badly disconnected from Israeli and for that matter Middle East realities. But Beinart is a major figure in American liberal culture, including liberal Jewish thinking. Beinart’s article should be understood in Israel as a stark and eloquent warning of the extent to which the gap between the world’s two great Jewish communities is widening, not the least due to misbegotten Israeli policies.

In recent years, the Israeli right-religious political mainstream led by Prime Minister Netanyahu has distanced itself from liberal America and American Jewry at its peril. Yet if the American Jewish mainstream ceases to be a strategic ally of Israel, not only Israel is in trouble. That is the real significance of Beinart’s argument, particularly insofar as it reflects the thinking of a growing segment of the American Jewish community. It is out of profound respect that I address the lacunae and misperceptions in Beinart’s gratuitous one-state program for Israel.

Q. Why is Beinart disconnected from Israeli realities?

A. First of all, how did Beinart just discover, in 2020, that the two-state solution is defunct? For most Israelis and Palestinians, it slid off the agenda at least a decade ago. We’ve been on a slippery slope toward a one-state outcome at least since the Olmert-Abbas talks ended in 2008. That Beinart is just waking up tells us his finger is not on the Israeli pulse. Or, for that matter, on the Palestinian pulse.

Secondly, Beinart’s understanding of the failure of the Oslo process seems dangerously one-sided. Rabin, Peres, Barak and Olmert all made valiant efforts to reach a compromise agreement with the Palestinians. Even Ariel Sharon, as prime minister, changed his mind, adopted the two-state solution and sought to empower Palestinians in Gaza. Where was their Palestinian partner, the PLO? Making extreme demands, splitting into two conflicted polities, avoiding their own democratic elections.

Yet Beinart seems to blame only Israel. “I knew Israel was wrong to deny Palestinians in the West Bank citizenship. . . . In practice, Israel annexed the West Bank long ago,” Beinart asserts. Yes, Israel’s leaders are guilty of years of colonial greed that ignores basic Palestinian rights. And the Palestinians? They didn’t contribute to the current mess? The horrific suicide bombings of the second Intifada did not persuade Israelis to abandon the notion of co-existence with a neighboring Palestinian state? Arafat and Abbas did not, at Camp David exactly 20 years ago, demand the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugee descendants and assert that “there never was a Temple on the Temple Mount”?

Beinart opens his essay with a recollection of watching the famous Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn in 1993 launch a process to “create a Palestinian state alongside Israel”. A Palestinian state was not, by the way, the agreed or declared goal of the Oslo Accords. Moreover, even then that was not the perception of many Israelis. I recall asking my boss at the time, Major General Aharon Yariv, if he planned to watch the signing ceremony live on Israel TV. “I can’t,” Aharele said. “Too painful. I know who the real Arafat is. My close friend Yitzhak knows.”

Aharon Yariv was a “peacenik”. It turned out the real Arafat would remain a terrorist. And Rabin would be murdered by Israeli terrorists bred by the evils of occupation. In retrospect, the Oslo process never had much of a chance.

Beinart’s factual errors also say something about his understanding of the processes of recent years. The Trump plan awards Palestinians “as little as 70 percent of the West Bank”? It awards them 70 percent plus more than ten percent of the Israeli Negev too, in two bizarre enclaves, which is one reason why not only Palestinians but not a few hawkish Israelis as well reject the plan.

“Even in Gaza, Palestinians cannot import milk, export tomatoes or travel abroad without Israel’s permission”? The Gaza Strip borders on Egyptian Sinai. Israel in no way interferes with traffic across the Israel-Egypt border. It was Sharon who saw to that. And it is Egypt that constantly restricts the traffic. Why, Israelis ask, are the Palestinians’ Arab neighbors so suspicious of them?

Beinart is dead wrong when he lays Israelis’ hang-ups about Palestinians on Holocaust memories. To this day, polls show that a majority of Israelis accepts the idea of a two-state solution. The problem is the perception of Palestinians as bad candidates for that two-state solution. It is the perception that has evolved among Israelis over 70 years of conflict and two intifadas. It has emerged from Israelis’ confrontation with Palestinian leaders, even among Israel’s own Palestinian Arab population, who reject Jews as a people enjoying the right to self-determination in its historic homeland. It has emerged from the horror of Palestinian mothers praising their children who blew themselves up among Israeli civilians as recently as 15 years ago.

Q. Well, here Beinart asserts that a Jewish state “is not the essence of Zionism”. Rather, the essence is “a thriving Jewish society that can provide refuge and rejuvenation for Jews”. That, he argues, is possible in the Land of Israel within a binational Jewish-Arab state.

A. This is indeed the essence of Beinart’s argument. He correctly notes in his op-ed and elsewhere that right-wing Israelis like Moshe Arens and President Rivlin have advocated that Israel and Palestine become a democratic state of all its citizens. He ignores the fact that they, like their ideological mentor Jabotinsky, have always assumed some form of constitutional guarantee that Jews would have the last word; Jabotinsky envisioned that the Zionist state would have a Palestinian vice president. But not a Palestinian president.

Then too, in its early days Zionism was indeed hard put to even imagine achieving statehood. Even when in 1947 David Ben Gurion insisted on declaring a state, he was in a minority among Zionist leaders of the day. And yes, the Holocaust played a role in the creation of the State of Israel, particularly in world opinion.

But this is where Beinart’s grasp of Israel’s essence ends. Israel became a state and remained a state through the efforts and sacrifice of generations of Jewish fighters. It faced unmitigated and brutal Arab opposition from the start, both military and ideological. The Palestinians in particular have cultivated a narrative of victimhood and exile that insists not on a democratic, egalitarian binational state but on recognition that Zionism was born in sin. The Jews are not a people with national rights in their historic homeland. The 1948 refugees must have the right to return to the (no-longer existent) homes their forefathers abandoned or were expelled from (yes, expelled from; war is war, and Israelis have not behaved like angels).

Recall that, prior to 1988, the PLO’s demand was precisely a binational state in all of mandatory Palestine--not two states. That state would have a Jewish minority, usually specified as only descendants of those Jews who arrived before 1918 or, at a stretch, 1948. All the Palestinian refugees would return.

Q. Are you suggesting that this is what Beinart’s binational state would look like. He says it will be democratic. He compares it to Northern Ireland and South Africa, both democratic. He says Lebanon is a bad comparison because Israel is more advanced.

A. Just as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has for a hundred years defied efforts to resolve it, so its ultimate resolution defies comparison to the world’s multiethnic and multi-confessional sovereign solutions. To understand this, just go back to the Peel Commission’s conclusion in 1937 regarding Arab-Israel conflict under the mandate: “An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country. . . . Their national aspirations are incompatible.”

Here is David Ben-Gurion testifying in a June 1919 speech, nearly 30 years before Israel became a state: “Everybody sees a difficulty in the question of relations between Arabs and Jews. But not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question. No solution! There is a gulf, and nothing can fill that gulf ... I do not know what Arab will agree that Palestine should belong to the Jews . . . . And we must recognize this situation. . . . We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.”

Peel and Ben-Gurion wrote these words when Israel-Palestine was binational. Of course a lot has changed since then in Jewish-Palestinian relations, but, frankly, not necessarily for the better. This is the ethnic-ideological equation Beinart’s binational state would plunge us back into.

Q. Not democratic and egalitarian?

A. Not for long. Veteran and new Arab citizens of Israel-Palestine would combine political forces to pressure for “return” of millions of great-grandchildren of the 1948 refugees. Demography would work in favor of an Arab majority which, within a generation, could make this happen. Many Jews would confront the demise of Zionism and flee, rendering this demographic revolution easier and quicker. The country would no longer be a haven for Jews in distress (yes, Peter, today it still is, even when Bibi consorts with ultra-nationalists like Orban, Bolsonaro and Trump).

Meanwhile, extremists on both sides would have at it, spreading violence everywhere. Islamist anti-Semitic Hamas would attract more Palestinian adherents. The messianic settlers would rally more Jews to their exclusionist cause too. Lebanon, which is currently broke, highly factionalized and dominated politically by Iranian-proxy Hezbollah, would look good by comparison.

Recall that when Peel and Ben Gurion wrote about bi-nationalism the surrounding Arab world was under European colonial rule or influence. Today, the surrounding Arab world is fragmented and violent. Syrians, Yemenis and Libyans are killing one another, egged on by a variety of outside powers, Arab and otherwise. The only Arab countries functioning half-well are monarchies. In this sense it might be more realistic of Beinart to suggest that we all, Palestinians and Jews, shelter under the benevolent rule of King Abdullah II of Jordan.

Well, of course not! Beinart’s frame of reference is the values of liberal Americans. But that is not where we are in the Middle East. Nor have we ever been there. Sadly--for Beinart, for me, for many of us--Israel is increasingly behaving toward Palestinians in a nasty Levantine manner. Israel is increasingly fascistic and messianic. Like its neighbors. Beinart is on another planet.

Q.But if the two-state solution is dead and Israel is in any case sliding down a slippery slope toward apartheid, why not hold up the alternative of a democratic binational state. Surely that is a better end-game.

A. Yes, the current reality is grim. And yes, it looks like it will get worse. But that does not make Beinart’s imagined alternative better. I argue that it would be far worse: a violent, dysfunctional entity; a Lebanon on steroids. Sure, discussing it in a New York Times op-ed can be a fun exercise for liberal American Jews and others and for a portion of Israel’s shrinking political minority of liberals. But this is not reality.

We saw the more realistic approach exercised in recent weeks. America’s and Israel’s megalomaniac and criminal leaders tried to steer Israel toward unilateral annexation of West Bank territory, a move that would constitute another giant step toward single-state apartheid. A lot of Arab and world leaders of good will warned against this. So did much of the American Jewish mainstream, its institutions and the politicians who express its values. So too did a lot of Israeli security leaders and even, for their own messianic reasons, settler leaders. Economic boycott threats were levelled. (Covid-19 spread helped too.) The upshot was that the status quo was maintained.

Is this a model for future activism on the part of liberal and security-minded Israeli Zionists and their American Jewish counterparts. The goal would be to prevent or slow any further Israeli descent down the slippery slope. To keep alive the prospect of a democratic Jewish Israel that can only exist if it does not rule over Palestinians. For how long, I have no idea.

That is not the same as arguing for a two-state solution tomorrow--the illusion that Beinart has so painfully awakened from. But if he wants to start a serious conversation about alternatives, that is at least a more realistic place to begin.

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