Journalist Peter Beinart has a long history of expertise in foreign relations. A Rhodes Scholar, he earned an master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University, and, in his career as a journalist for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other outlets, he was a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations from 2007 to 2009. He served as editor of The New Republic for seven years and now edits the Open Zion blog at the Daily Beast. Beinart discussed his newest book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” at Duke Thursday. The Chronicle’s Julian Spector spoke with him about his critique of the Israeli occupation, visions for the future of the peace process and what to do as an aspiring journalist.
The Chronicle: What is the moral crisis you argue that Israel is facing?
Peter Beinart: Israel doesn’t have a constitution, but its Declaration of Independence promises that it will be a Jewish state that offers complete equality of social and political rights in respect to race, religion and sex. That declaration comes out of a liberal enlightenment sensibility that was an important part of the Zionist movement, and important to the Zionist movement and Theodore Hertzel was the idea that a Jewish state could embody some of the values that Europe had to failed to embody for Jews. There’s a tension between that vision of equality and the idea of a state that offers representation and protection to one people, the Jewish people. But my argument is that inside the Green Line, you have the capacity toward greater reconciliation of that tension because Israel’s accomplishment has been that it does give citizenship and the right to vote to all its people including the Palestinian citizens.
But in 1967, Israel takes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and takes control of these areas and creates a second non-democratic Israel where only Jews have citizenship and the right to vote. That’s now been the case for 45 years and when that becomes permanent, it’s really becomes hard to talk about Israel as a democratic Jewish state. I ultimately believe that the Zionist project itself, if it can’t remain a democratic project, then it can’t survive at all. If Israel becomes one non-democratic Jewish state encompassing the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, then ultimately it’ll be transformed into a bi-national state and ultimately the entire Zionist dream of self determination will collapse.
The book is really about that and the lack of American-Jewish response to that.
TC: Just to clarify, what is the Green Line?
PB: The Green Line is the name for the armistice line. Israel was founded and immediately had a war with its neighbors, and the war ended along this line that we call the armistice line. You had then the West Bank after 1949 controlled by Jordan, the Gaza Strip controlled by Egypt and the Golan Heights controlled by Syria. After 1967 Israel had another war and won those territories—they took Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, took the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. They gave Sinai back to Egypt in the Camp David agreements, but in the Golon Heights and West Bank and Gaza, Israel still remains in ongoing power.
TC: Is democracy is a necessary component of Zionism?
PB: Yes, I think so. Frankly, it is stated as such in Israel’s founding document. But also, simply as a practical matter in today’s world. In today’s post-colonial world that we live, it’s simply not possible to indefinitely hold millions of people as non-citizens without the right to vote, without due process, by virtue of the fact that they are the wrong ethnicity. You may be able to do it for a while, but sooner or later the Israel in that scenario becomes such a pariah in the world that ultimately the world will force it and with Palestinian support will succeed in overhauling the edifice of the Jewish state and turning it into what would be in theory a binational state but in reality would really be an Arab state.
TC: Is that like a South Africa situation?
PB: If you look at the people who support the one state solution, their vision is entirely formed by South Africa. They believe that Israel is an apartheid state throughout and that Zionism is entirely discriminatory and the entire edifice needs to be overthrown.
I disagree with that, and I think the Zionism project is important. But I think that the occupation ultimately is the path toward the death of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state as a whole.
TC: So you would say that Zionism is not racist but the occupation is?
PB: There’s a tension between the idea of liberal democracy and a state that has a special responsibility to a certain ethnic or religious group, but Israel is not the only country that confronts this. You have England and the European contries with crosses on their flags or preferential immigration policies, but we don’t have a problem calling them democracies.
Israel can still retain some Jewish public symbolism and a sense of obligation for Jewish safety around the world, as embodied by the policy of right of return—where Jews in distress will always have a place to return to—and still actually build upon the rights that it offers its own Palestinian citizens and deepen them further and deal with some of the discrimination that occurs inside the Green Line.
And I believe in that project because I believe in the value of having Jewish self-determination, but the project is very much threatened by the existence of the non-democratic part of the Jewish state, in which you don’t offer Palestinians citizenship and the right to vote. If you were to, then Israel would likely cease to be a Jewish state by simple weight of demographics because you’d be enfranchising millions of Palestinians who would not want to live under a Jewish state.
TC: Are there more Palestinians than there are Jews?
PB: If you include Gaza and the West Bank and Israel inside the Green Line, it’s probably getting close to roughly equal at this point.
TC: What would you envision as the two-state solution?
PB: Bill Clinton laid out a set of parameters at the end of 2000. It was basically the Green Line—the 1967 line—with some small land swaps and Israel controlling the Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem but Palestinians having a capital in the Palestinian parts of Jerusalem, which is beyond the Green Line, some international force in the Jordan Valley between the Palestinian state and the rest of the Arab world, compensation for Palestinian refugees and some statement of recognition for their suffering as a result of the Israeli war of independence, but only small scale resettlement into Israel itself.
TC: Why don’t you think there can be a single state solution?
PB: There are definitely people who have that point of view, who say, ‘Why can’t everyone just live together in one state?’ I think it would be a binational state because it would have two nations. The problem is, it’s unrealistic and utopian. You have to imagine how these two peoples who have been at war for years will form a single army, for instance. And that you’ll be able to have a Palestinian neighborhood that would trust itself to be protected by the Jewish brigade, and vice versa. I think it would be a recipe for civil war. It would be a little bit like Iraq in 2005-2006: rival militias under one flag.
Plus, the original experience of Israel’s creation that resulted in 800,000 Palestinian refugees leaving has to all get relitigated if you have one state where people are going to return. If you have a Palestinian state to return to, then you don’t have to reopen this enormously difficult and perhaps impossible can of worms to undo, which is that Palestinians want to go back to towns and homes and villages that no longer exist. Binationalism is very difficult to make work. Czechoslovakia tried this and even it split between the Czechs and Slovaks, and that was under much more placid circumstances.
TC: What do you see as the long term role for the United States if our involvement still doesn’t succeed in forging peace there?
PB: America’s power has been based in part in the idea that we were the only actor that could bring peace, partly because of our general power, partly because of our unique relationship with Israel. The Europeans have always hung back and followed America’s lead and to some degree America’s Middle Eastern allies did that as well. The problem is those actors feel that America’s power is diminishing in general, and that America hasn’t delivered. It seems to me the Palestinians have largely given up on the U.S.
It’s quite possible you’ll see more independent regional actors. Egypt now has a government that’s no longer really a U.S. client, Turkey’s more independent of the U.S. than it used to be, and the Europeans over time will likely pursue their own efforts if they don’t feel like the U.S. is leading them anywhere.
So it’s possible you’ll see these groups pushing a different agenda. I hope it will be an agenda that leads to a two-state solution. It will probably be an agenda in which there are fewer carrots for Israel and more sticks, because the political climate in these countries is significantly less sympathetic to Israel. These countries will probably try some way to put pressure on Israel. There’s been more talk in Europe of some kind of boycott of settlement goods.
The Palestinian Authority is being paid for in large part by the Europeans. If they said we don’t want to pay for this anymore, that would put a lot of pressure on Israel because it would create chaos in the West Bank and force Israel to pay the price of controlling the West Bank in a way it’s not doing now.
TC: What’s the way out?
PB: It’s really important for Americans to go experience Israel and experience Palestinian life, so they understand the ethical issues involved in the Israeli occupation. You also need to change the incentive structure. Right now, Israelis are incentivized to move to the West Bank and deepen the occupation. We need to think of ways to create different incentive structures. That’s why I think we should spend our money inside Israel but not on goods produced in the West Bank.