In making his case, Peter Beinart challenged a core tenet of Western foreign policy and of discourse among many Jews around the world of needing to ensure the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
Beinart took aim at decades of failed efforts by U.S. and European diplomats, as well as Israeli leaders who he believes have undermined the idea that establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel is the best way to peace.
“There’s a category of people in the U.S., Jewish and non-Jewish, who had been like me committed to the two-state solution for a long time and have been quietly losing faith in it but didn’t necessarily see an alternative,” Beinart said in an interview, after publishing a July 8 op-ed in The New York Times and a longer piece in the magazine Jewish Currents, where he is an editor at large.
The logic behind the two-state solution is straightforward. If Israel continues to control millions of Palestinians who do not have the right to vote, Israel will have to make a difficult choice: maintain the status quo and stop being a democracy, or grant the Palestinians the right to vote and lose its Jewish majority. An independent Palestinian state is widely seen as meeting both sides’ aspirations.
Beinart said that after decades of Israeli settlement expansion on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians and proposals such as U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan that steadily offered the Palestinians less and less territory, setting up a viable Palestinian state is impossible.
The result, he said, is a de facto binational state where Israelis have basic rights while millions of Palestinians do not.
“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,” he wrote. “It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality.”
Coming just four months before the U.S. presidential election, Beinart's comments could re-frame the debate in progressive circles that may soon be wielding some influence in the White House. That debate has gained strength as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about annexing large parts of the West Bank.
Beinart is seen as a prominent voice among progressives and is popular among younger American Jews, who tend to be more critical of Israeli policies than their parents or grandparents.
His shift has triggered an earthquake in the Jewish-American world, where support for Israel is a consensus issue, even among the staunchest critics of Netanyahu's hard-line government. For many Jews, Israel is an integral part of their identity, on religious grounds or as an insurance policy in the wake of the Holocaust and an age of modern anti-Semitism.
Critics across the political spectrum have accused Beinart of being naive, unrealistic and even anti-Semitic. Some have argued that he has ignored what they contend is Palestinian intransigence or willingness to resort to violence.
“Can anyone recall the NYTimes publishing opeds urging the end of any other nation (& UN member)?” tweeted David Harris, chief executive of the American Jewish Committee, a leading advocacy group.
Even some Palestinian activists have given him a lukewarm reaction, saying he was merely endorsing their long-standing positions. While the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank continues to call for an independent state, the idea of a single bi-national state is popular with young Palestinian intellectuals. Beinart readily concedes that he and many other American Jews have historically paid little attention to Palestinian voices.
But perhaps those most alarmed are Beinart's ideological brethren on the American left. A journalism professor at City University of New York and contributor to The Atlantic, Beinart is a well-known liberal voice who until recently was an eloquent advocate of the two-state solution.
“The image of him here is a mainstream, thoughtful, very intelligent, liberal, pro-Israel guy. That he has reached this point has shaken people,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a liberal Jewish advocacy group in Washington that supports the two-state solution.
Ben-Ami said he has received calls from members of Congress asking about the piece and had to assure them that, in his opinion at least, the two-state scenario is still feasible.
“People are feeling depressed about where Israel has ended up and where it’s headed,” Ben-Ami said. “It’s just another bit of fuel on the fire."
While Beinart himself is an observant Jew who laces his arguments with references to religious texts and Jewish philosophers, he has a history of rattling the establishment.
In the past, he has accused mainstream Jewish American leaders of blind support for what he thinks are self-destructive Israeli policies. He also has criticized U.S. policymakers for paying lip service to the two-state model while refusing to exert pressure, such as threatening to withhold military aid, to halt Israeli settlement construction.
Beinart proposes several alternatives, including a single bi-national democratic state or a “confederation” in which Jews and Palestinians would each maintain large degrees of autonomy in their own communities. “It’s time to envision a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too,” he wrote.
In Israel, where Beinart is not well-known, the essay has generated little debate. Many Israelis object to criticism by diaspora Jews — an argument he rejects, given the generous financial aid and diplomatic support Israel receives from the U.S. And support for a sovereign Jewish homeland is a core tenet of modern Zionism, even among those on Israel’s left who support broad concessions to the Palestinians.
“My parents did not come here and I do not live here because of the good weather,” said Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli Cabinet minister who negotiated the historic Oslo peace accords of the 1990s that tried to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state.
“Israel is interesting to me only because this is a Jewish state — but Jewish and democratic. And if it gives up on one of these characteristics, then it is not my country,” he said.
But in the U.S., there are signs that his call is causing some soul-searching at a time of softening Democratic support for Israel. Many commentators have thanked him for sparking a debate, even if they disagree with him.
Dan Shapiro, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, said Beinart’s call for tougher American pressure on Israel is a “legitimate conversation.” But he said Beinart’s broader ideas are reckless and unrealistic.
“One can agree about the need to change the status quo without abandoning ... the one outcome that actually can resolve the conflict,” Shapiro said.
Beinart said he does not worry about short-term criticism. Instead, he hopes to plant a seed for a long-term discussion about an alternative that provides “equality and justice.”