What Last Week’s Historic Changes in America Mean for Israel

Without a two-state solution, Americans will one day embrace one non-Jewish state, in the name of equality.

Peter Beinart
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Stuart Gaffney (L) and John Lewis (C), plaintiffs in the 2008 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) case, celebrate Supreme Court decision at Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco.Credit: AFP
Peter Beinart

In 1995, the great South African journalist Allister Sparks titled his book about the transition from apartheid, “Tomorrow is Another Country.”  That’s how it felt last week to live in the United States.

All my life, I have seen Confederate symbols as an ugly, but incorrigible, part of Southern identity. I grew up watching the Dukes of Hazzard, whose good-old-boy protagonists named their car “General Lee,” after the man who led the Southern army. When visiting my in-laws in northern Virginia, my wife, kids and I often drove along a highway named for Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s president. Then, on June 24, prompted by the murders of nine African Americans by a Confederacy-supporting white man, the entire political leadership of South Carolina — one of the most right-wing states in America — said slavery’s flag should come down. Across the country, that is now happening. Suddenly, the debate is over.

All my life I had assumed America was too individualistic, too capitalist and too racist to do what most Western countries did long ago: make health care available to all. Even after Obamacare became law, itself a political miracle, it still seemed destined to polarize Americans for decades. Then, on June 25, John Roberts, a conservative chief justice appointed by George W. Bush, made it clear that Obamacare is here to stay. That debate too is now, effectively, over.

All my life, gay and lesbian Americans have been mocked, brutalized and denied equality under the law. (Transgender Americans were not even acknowledged). In the 1990s, the idea of gay marriage seemed so absurd that when my then-New Republic colleague Andrew Sullivan began advocating for it, even prominent gay rights groups would not lend their support. Then, on June 26, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative Catholic appointed by Ronald Reagan, declared gay marriage a constitutional right

Three days, three American revolutions, and a reminder: cultures change slowly and quietly over long periods of time, and then, suddenly, with little warning: the dam breaks.

I wrote on the eve of Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection, “Over the past six years, and especially the past six weeks, Bibi has placed himself on the wrong side of the tectonic shifts that will shape American politics for decades to come.”

 In 1980, the United States was 80 percent white. Today, it is 63 percent white. By 2060, according to projections, it will be 44 percent white.

Americans under the age of 24 are almost five times as likely as Americans over the age of 75 to express no religious affiliation. 

In debates pitting the advocates of cultural tradition, religious authority and capitalist theory against the advocates of equality, these demographic shifts are tipping the balance. Overwhelmingly, younger and non-white Americans simply do not believe that because white Southerners love their ancestors, conservative evangelicals read the Bible literally and Republicans revere capitalism, Americans should be denied health care, be denied the right to marry the person they love and be forced to watch their government honor a racist flag.

Sooner or later, one way or another, unless the Israeli government changes course, these shifts will change American attitudes toward Israel too. The change is hard to see now because it is happening far from Washington and the mainstream media. But minorities and the secular youth, the same groups that tipped the balance on the Confederate Flag, health care and same-sex marriage, are the groups most critical of Netanyahu and most sympathetic to Palestinian rights. And in the years to come, they will increasingly encounter a new generation of Palestinian spokespeople, born in the United States, and fluent in the language of the American left. These new Palestinian activists do not speak about nationalism; they speak about equality.

The lesson of last week is that in this new America, you cannot beat appeals to equality with appeals to heritage, God or the free market. And you are unlikely to beat them with appeals to security either. (Especially when so many of Israel’s own security experts think a Palestinian state would make Israel more safe).

If defenders of the Jewish state can speak convincingly about equality themselves – If they can detail the steps Israel is taking to give Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip citizenship in a state of their own, and the steps Israel is taking to give Palestinians inside the green line more equal citizenship in Israel itself, then they have a chance to stem the tide. But currently they cannot because the Israeli government is taking no such steps. It is doing exactly the opposite.

I suspect that U.S. President Barack Obama, although he cannot publicly say it, understands this. He remains, after all, the leader of the new American coalition that made last week’s momentous events possible. This fall, in all likelihood, he will offer Benjamin Netanyahu the last off ramp of his presidency: a United Nations resolution endorsing the two-state solution and mapping out a path to get there. Before Bibi rejects it, he should think for a long, long time about what just happened in America. Not in Europe, where everyone knows Israel’s position is weaker, but in America, the country Bibi has always considered Israel’s defender of last resort.

When the two-state solution indisputably dies, and the only way to advocate legal equality is by advocating the full enfranchisement of everyone between the river and the sea, the Americans who today embrace same-sex marriage and the removal of the Confederate Flag will embrace that one state option, in equality’s name. When that will happen, I don’t know. But we learned last week that after long periods of apparent stalemate, change can come with astonishing speed. And by the time the defenders of the status quo realize they’re losing, it’s already too late.