Peter Beinart and the Impossible Future of Liberal Zionism

At this stage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it doesn’t seem probable that Israelis can save themselves or equitably end the conflict on their own. At nearly every junction over the last 60 years, Israel has chosen to deepen its stranglehold over Palestinian life and land. Instead of using the Oslo peace process to disentangle itself from the Palestinians, Israel has steadily ramped up settlement activity and entrenched its complex matrix of control over the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

This unavoidable reality hasn’t stopped Israel’s influential liberal supporters from passionately fighting for a two-state solution to the conflict. Faced with an existential challenge to their understanding of Israel, the gatekeepers of liberal Zionism are beginning to see the writing on the wall.

Peter Beinart, an influential writer on Israel, has broken free from the shackles of hollow support for a two-state solution that will never be realized. In two new articles for Jewish Currents and the New York Times, Beinart outlined a Jewish case for equality in Israel and Palestine in the form of a one-state solution. While the arguments Beinart puts forth are nothing new, the piece represents a landmark shift for how the conflict is understood and debated in the West, particularly in the United States.

Impending annexation of large areas of the West Bank and the legal responsibilities these shifts would place on Israel has hit a nerve with liberal Zionists such as Beinart. Under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country has essentially removed its veneer of working towards an equitable solution with the Palestinians. What remained of the left has disappeared from the Israeli political spectrum only to be replaced by an aggressive right-leaning centrist movement that supports a perpetual status quo.

Addressing the viability of a one-state solution, Beinart deftly reveals that the present reality is one state in which one group of people has rights while the other doesn’t. The equitable solution, then, is a single state with a strong constitution that guarantees the same rights for all nationalities and ethnicities living under Israeli rule. Surprisingly these calls for equality by Beinart don’t involve a substantial discussion of decolonization and radicalization.

Borrowing heavily from Palestinian writers, Beinart articulates the farce of the two-state solution as it currently exists. From continued Israeli settlement building in the West Bank to the routine deprivation of Palestinian rights, Beinart outlines the unsustainable situation on the ground. But this is nothing new. Lana Tatour astutely notes that Palestinian calls for a one-state solution “did not get the attention that Beinart is now receiving, showing that Palestinians are still fighting for what Edward Said called “the permission to narrate”. The erasure of Palestinian voices from the conversation reveals the racism that renders Palestinian voices less intelligible than white Jewish voices in liberal circuits of power.”

What it is particularly striking in Beinart’s writing is that he repeats so many arguments Palestinians have been making, loudly and passionately, for years, if not decades. Yet, he remains almost entirely unaware of the anti-colonial complexion of the Palestinian debate. For a writer of Beinart’s stature to expound this position in 2020 is remarkable. In 2010, he published a manifesto in the New York Review of Books called “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in which he chastised his community’s silence on Israel. Given his position in the American media landscape, that piece elevated Beinart to the status of high prophet for the truths that he spoke.

Then, as today, these landmark articles were supposed to bring about a sustainable change in the liberal Zionist discussion and perhaps a real shift in the blind allegiance of the American Jewish community towards Israel. The shift never occurred and 10 years later, Beinart is back with another bold perspective.

In reviewing Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, a book born out of the New York Review article, I wrote that “perhaps the actual crisis of Zionism is the fact that liberal Zionist writers, who deeply care for Israel, are unable or unwilling to accept that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly being defined as a battle over rights and equality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.” Why did it take nearly a decade for this shift to occur?

The answer, unsurprisingly, has to do with Zionism. In his new work, Beinart addresses the issue of statism and Zionism. He notes that the ideology wasn’t committed to a state in its early carnations. Rather, early Zionists sought Jewish autonomy and a home in the land of Israel. From Beinart’s perspective, there is no inherent tension between Zionism and a one-state solution.

While the early history of Zionism is a fascinating topic, it won’t help break the status quo in Israel-Palestine today. To get to the heart of the matter, we need a serious discussion about the colonial complexion of the conflict and the ideologies that perpetuate inequality. In other words, we need to focus on Zionism.

After all, Zionism is the ideological framework that has guided every Israeli state-building decision including the largest project in the country’s history: the occupation of the West Bank. While it might have welcomed varying viewpoints and iterations in the past, Zionism today is monolithic.

To usher in a new ideological framework committed to the rights and equality of both Israelis and Palestinians, Zionism and any other exclusivist ideologies must be abandoned. It seems that Beinart, with his newfound support for the one-state solution, is close to realizing that Zionism has long since served its purpose. We might have to wait another ten years to read that article, though.

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