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Beinart Forgets Zionism’s Moral Legitimacy

By Bernard Bohbot

Recently, an earthquake struck the Jewish world. Peter Beinart, the poster-child of liberal Zionism in the US (ever since the NY Review of Books published his 2010 seminal essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment“) has officially abjured political Zionism.  Still, his about-face was foreseeable.

I have the utmost respect and admiration for Peter Beinart, whose ground-breaking book, The Crisis of Zionism, really impressed me. The Icarus Syndrome is also a profound and thoughtful work. 

While Beinart’s intellectual achievements must not be overlooked, his assumption that the two-state solution is no longer viable is mistaken. According to security expert Col. Shaul Arieli, 80% of Jewish settlers live on 4% of the West Bank.  These areas can be swapped with lands located inside Israel. 

Beinart also lumps together confederalism and binational federalism. One cannot gloss over this major distinction. A confederation would maintain Jewish self-determination, while binational federalism would end it. There is no formal confederation right now in the world, but the European Union has all the features of a confederation (an association of states that share common institutions). A confederation is much closer to a traditional two-state paradigm than to a one-state solution. France and Germany, for example, remain separate nation-states.

There is another conceptual problem with Peter Beinart’s analysis. His claim that prior to the Holocaust a Jewish state wasn’t the goal of Zionism is misleading. Most of those who advocated binationalism or “parity” (to use Ben-Gurion’s terminology), including Martin Buber, wanted free Jewish immigration to Palestine. That would have ultimately turned the Jews into a majority; nevertheless, they were willing to accept a 50/50 power-sharing system so neither community would rule the other. Those who were willing to envisage minority status for Jews, such as Judah Magnes, were rather marginal.

So far, most of those who expressed disagreement with Beinart’s endorsement of one-state argue that it’s desirable but unrealistic. My criticism is different. I oppose Beinart’s call to demote Israel from a “Jewish state” to a “Jewish homeland” on moral grounds. I see Beinart’s utopia as a terrible dystopia and unjust for two broad reasons: 

I. Zionism’s a just endeavor

Anti-Zionists deplore the creation of Israel, as it was established in a land already inhabited by another people. They perceive its creation as a “colonial crime.” This interpretation of the conflict is tantamount to putting Jean Valjean and Al Capone in the same bucket. Extremist partisans on both sides claim the moral high ground, but they can’t change the fact that from a universal moral perspective, both Israeli and Palestinian national claims are totally defensible.

There are two reasonable justifications for the return of the Jews to (only) part of their ancient homeland, leaving aside any “Biblical” or “historical” right:
1) They were a homeless and stateless people, deprived of their right to self-determination.
2) They were persecuted. Thus, Zionism was a necessity for Jews in distress (even facing genocide at times).

Such anti-Zionists as Shlomo Sand, who argues that Israel should have been established in Germany, seem to forget that Zionism was not a response to the Holocaust. Zionism began half a century before the advent of Nazi Germany and close to 500,000 Jews had already found refuge in Palestine before the genocide.

Of course, the Palestinian standpoint is understandable. They argue that stripping them of part of their homeland was an injustice. However, leaving the Jews homeless and defenseless was also unfair. Hence, Amos Oz’s depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a clash of rights, similar to a Greek tragedy, is an apt description.

Unfortunately, very few Palestinian intellectuals acknowledge the legitimacy of the Israeli claim. This is regrettable, as most left-wing Zionists recognize a large measure of justice in the Palestinian cause. Many justify this imbalance by citing Palestinian suffering. I beg to differ. Historically, Jews suffered more and yet, David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann both acknowledged the legitimacy of the Arab/Palestinian standpoint, even during the worst hours of Jewish history in the 1930s and ’40s.  If Weizmann could refer to the Israeli-Arab conflict as a clash “between right and right,” maybe the Palestinians can do so as well.

Both sides bear responsibility for the Nakba, often invoked to delegitimize Israel. Referring to the expulsion of Palestinians – many if not most were not directly expelled, but fled the fighting zones and were not allowed to return after the war – without mentioning that the Yishuv (which became Israel) was attacked in the first place, is grossly unfair. 

II. Israel and Palestinians share blame for the absence of peace

Palestinian terrorism has stymied Israel’s peace camp. Contrary to what many argue, terrorism is not a response to the occupation, as it increased while the Israeli left was in power.

Beinart claims that Israel has not faced any real security threat over the last 15 years. He is mistaken. Since 2005, thousands of rockets were fired on Israel, which forced millions of Israelis to run into bomb shelters. This contributed to the radicalization of Israeli public opinion; the Likud Party ended up with only 12 seats in 2006, but three years later, thanks to Hamas and Hezbollah’s rocket and missile attacks, it was back in power.

Furthermore, the Palestinians have rejected three proposals for the creation of a Palestinian state on almost the entirety of the West Bank (in 2001, 2008 and 2014). Unfortunately, Israel has not always negotiated in good faith. For example, Israel never seriously addressed the 2002 Arab League Initiative. 

I’m familiar with the revisionist recounting of peace negotiations between 2000 and 2014, which I subscribed to without hesitation until 2016-2017. Revisionist scholars and journalists argue that in 2000-01, both sides accepted the Clinton Parameters (President Clinton’s peace plan presented on December 23, 2000) albeit with reservations. This is inaccurate.

To be sure, Israel had one substantial reservation: It wanted an international regime to run the “Holy Basin” of religious sites in East Jerusalem. President Clinton spoke instead of dividing the Old City between Israelis and Palestinians with a vertical sovereignty over the Temple Mount, with Israel being sovereign only underneath. 

Israel also expressed dissatisfaction with Clinton’s call for a 4-6% land swap, but it did not refuse these numerical territorial values outright. The Israeli government was also uncomfortable with the Clinton Parameters granting Palestinian refugees some sort of symbolic right of return to Israel, but it did not explicitly reject this provision. Israel specified that its reservations were negotiable before dropping them during the Taba Summit. Conversely, the Palestinians rejected most provisions of the Clinton Parameters — regarding the borders, the holy sites, Jerusalem, and the thorniest one, the refugee issue. 

The Clinton Parameters tried to satisfy the Palestinians by granting them a symbolic “right of return” to “historic Palestine” or “their homeland,” with most refugees settling in the future Palestinian state in exchange for monetary compensation. But they refused. They demanded a literal right of return to Israel proper. 

The Palestinians argued that they would use this right parsimoniously, respecting Israel’s demographic balance. But if Israel were to recognize a right of return for all refugees, it would open a Pandora’s Box to further demands that might ultimately imperil Israel’s Jewish character. Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf also revealed documentation showing that the Palestinian Authority believes that Israel has the capacity to absorb up to 2 million refugees by 2058 — a far cry from the 100,000/150,000 mentioned by Al Jazeera and The Guardian when they unveiled “The Palestine Papers“ in 2011. 

Many also try to justify Mahmoud Abbas’ failure to engage with Ehud Olmert’s peace plan in 2008 by referencing Olmert’s lame duck status as he awaited indictment. But Olmert wanted to bypass this obstacle by allowing the UN Security Council to adopt his peace plan. Had Abbas accepted, it would have become legally binding. An agreement in principle would have also turned the Israeli election of 2009 into a referendum – with a clear majority of Israelis approving the Clinton Parameters.

In 2000-01, Ehud Barak also resembled a lame duck: he had lost his coalition, he was forced to call a new election, and was way behind Sharon in the polls. But this did not deter the Palestinians from negotiating at Taba in the hope of reaching an agreement in principle that would turn the 2001 election into a referendum on peace. By contrast in 2009, the Kadima Party was in a much better position to win the election than the Israeli left in 2001 (Kadima under Tzipi Livni did win a slim plurality over Likud, but she failed to pull together a coalition government).

Finally, on June 8, 2017, Amir Tibon, the Haaretz correspondent in Washington, revealed that Abbas also rejected the Kerry/Obama peace plan of 2014, despite Obama’s promise to impose it on Netanyahu if he were to refuse. Israel had already accepted a preliminary version that gave the Palestinians fewer guarantees regarding Jerusalem. 

I was sorely mistaken in believing that Tibon’s revelations would lead Israel’s peace camp to do some soul-searching (which is what happened to me). The Zionist left, too, can be dogmatic. Unfortunately, anyone who dared to express doubts about the Palestinians’ commitment to the Clinton Parameters was castigated as a sell-out (even Shlomo Avineri, a major voice of the Zionist left who has long advocated Palestinian self-determination). 

Peter Beinart is a mensch, but he has unfortunately lost sight of the moral legitimacy of Zionism and the Palestinians’ role in failures to achieve peace. Instead of calling for a one-state solution, he should urge the next US administration to endorse a UN Security Council resolution turning the Clinton Parameters into a legally binding framework – for both sides. That would advance peace way more than trying to revive cultural Zionism at the expense of political Zionism. 

2 Responses to “Beinart Forgets Zionism’s Moral Legitimacy”

  1. Philip Mendes
    October 1, 2020 at 5:36 pm #

    Bernard: fascinating phd topic. Have you seen my book:
    https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137008299#aboutBook

  2. Bernard Bohbot
    October 2, 2020 at 7:06 am #

    Dear Mr. Mendes,

    Sure, it was a tremendous book! I also enjoyed Colin Shindler’s one “Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimization”.

    I actually decided to change my MA research topic after reading your book, as I intended to work on the breakup between the Jews and the left as well but your book was just too good!

    My trajectory is also pretty similar to yours: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-07-21/mendes—transitioning-from-a-pro-palestinian-to-pro-israel-per/2804462

    All the best,
    Bernard Bohbot

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