Opinion

Peter Beinart Doesn't Go Far Enough

Liberal Zionists are belatedly waking up to the only just alternative: a single state, shared by Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. But if Israeli Jews won’t endorse a one state solution, will they have to be dragged unwillingly into it?

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Whether or not annexation actually happens, it has already had far-reaching effects. 

It has forced liberal Zionists like Peter Beinart and Gershon Baskin, pro-Israel figures like Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel, and even some Israelis – albeit mainly readers of Haaretz – to confront the political and moral flaw at the heart of Zionism: its inability to reconcile Jewish national rights and Zionism’s exclusive claim to the Land of Israel, with the national rights and existence of the Palestinian people. 

This inherent conflict was evident and recognized from the very first days of Zionism. The essayist Ahad Ha-am wrote about it. As a member of Brit Shalom, Arthur Ruppin, the head of the Palestine Office of the World Zionist Organization, supported a bi-national state. Jabotinsky confronted it in his famous "Iron Wall" doctrine.

And in 1942, when the intention to establish a Jewish state (and not merely a "national home") was finally admitted, Ben-Gurion himself said plainly: "[This is a] decision based on force, a Jewish military decision…We want the Land of Israel in its entirety. That was the original intention."

Indeed, the idea of "transfer" was in the air decades before the right-wing racist Meir Kahane and his followers arrived on the scene in the 1970s. Yosef Weitz, the Director of the Jewish National Fund’s Land Settlement Department and an architect of "Judaizing" Palestine, wrote in 1948: "It must be clear that there is no room in the country for both peoples…The only solution is a Land of Israel without Arabs…There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, to transfer all of them, perhaps with the exception of Bethlehem, Nazareth and the old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one tribe." 

Since 1967 the two-state solution played a key role in covering over this inherent, unavoidable and finally fatal flaw. As a tool of conflict management, it held out the illusion that Jewish claims to the Land of Israel and Palestinian claims to Palestine could somehow be reconciled.

We accept the "notion" of two states, we keep the illusion of "two sides" alive by creating a collaborationist Palestinian Authority, we negotiate (or not) forever, and in this way we avoid having to deal with the underlying reality that Zionism has set up a zero-sum game: either "we" win or "they" do. And in the midst of the stalemate we continue the 125-year Judaization of the country. 

Annexation did not expose the illusion – any informed person knew it existed – but rather made it impossible to sustain. The two-state solution rested on the notion of "occupation." This implies that a country has taken control of a territory that does not belong to it and must be prepared to negotiate its final status, which may or may not result in annexation

International law does not permit unilateral annexation. For this reason Israel has always rejected the idea that it even has an occupation – it prefers to speak of "disputed territories," a concept with no legal legitimacy – and therefore has never applied the Fourth Geneva Convention which prevents settlement, harming the local population and, of course, annexation. 

Ever the master in legal manipulation, Israel’s current government therefore rejects the term "annexation," speaking instead of “extending Israel’s sovereignty.” Whatever it’s called, Israel’s intention of incorporating 30 percent of the West Bank makes it impossible to sustain the two-state illusion anymore.

And so the anguish of liberal Zionists. Where do we go from here? Peter Beinart has raised the possibility of a bi-national state in a New York Times op-ed and a longer Jewish Currents essay. "Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex parts of the land that Israel has brutally and undemocratically controlled for decades. And watching all this unfold, I have begun to wonder, for the first time in my life, whether the price of a state that favors Jews over Palestinians is too high," he writes. 

"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. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish –Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality."

Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israeli flags held at a protest against annexation of parts of the weest Bank, Tel Aviv, June 6, 2020
Tomer Appelbaum

Gershon Baskin, another leading voice of liberal Zionism and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, recently published a piece entitled "Israel and Palestinians Must Join Forces in Creating a New Shared Vision." That shared vision means a single state shared by Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. 

A single state is the only alternative to what exists today, and what annexation plainly offers for the future: apartheid. Some have suggested confederation, but that fails for the same reason the two-state solution does, Israel is simply unwilling to provide the Palestinians with any meaningful political or economic space.   

Fortunately, there are Israelis and Palestinians who are giving Beinart, Baskin and, indeed, Israel itself, somewhere to go. The One Democratic State Campaign has formulated a political program that calls for a single democracy of equal rights, the homecoming of the refugees and the emergence of a shared civil society. It goes even further, recognizing that Zionism and Palestinian nationalism can co-exist within a pluralistic democracy – and both may eventually transform into something new, shared and vibrant. 

Will Israeli Jews buy into it? No, of course not. Why would they? To such a degree do they enjoy the benefits of an apartheid regime, that the occupation and Palestinian rights have been reduced to a non-issue. 

The refusal of most whites in South Africa to willingly dismantle apartheid resembles that of Israeli Jews. So Palestinians and the few Israeli partners that share the vision of a shared society must take a leaf from the ANC playbook. 

Like the ANC, we must create a direct link between the international public, for whom Palestinian rights is a major issue (including among a growing proportion of young Jews), and our one-state movement. In that way we render Israeli apartheid unsustainable, as the ANC did in South Africa, finally bringing the Israelis into the transition process when they have no choice but to cooperate.

The struggle for a single state, for justice, should be seen as a challenge to all of us, not as a threat. South Africans, the Northern Irish, Black and white Americans in Mississippi and many other peoples once locked in seemingly endless conflict discovered that when issues of inequality and justice are addressed, their “irresolvable” differences become manageable. 

Beinart, a die-heart Zionist to this day, reaches the only conclusion possible. "It’s time," he says, "to envision a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too." Zionism’s very purpose was to restore our self-determination. Well, here’s the challenge. 

Are we going to become actors in creating a state for all of us living in this country, in which we enjoy both democratic rights and, within that framework, a national life in our country shared with others, or will we have to be dragged unwillingly into it? In my view, and maybe Beinart’s, the former is the "Zionist" answer.

Jeff Halper is an Israeli anthropologist, head of the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, a founder of the One Democratic State Campaign and author of "War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification" (London, Pluto Books, 2015).