There’s a great dialogue between Norman Finkelstein and John Mearsheimer in the forthcoming American Conservative. The conversation is moderated by Scott McConnell. My favorite bit is when Mearsheimer asks Finkelstein whether he’s an anti-Zionist; and Finkelstein doesn’t really dig the label. Go read it. My excerpt is the substance, the men’s difference over the two state solution. Realist Mearsheimer says it’s a lost cause. Finkelstein is “optimistic.”
Jumping the gun here, I think the weakness in Finkelstein’s case is that while he believes that Jewish opinion is dispositive of the issue in the U.S., and I agree with him, he argues that the great shift now taking place in that opinion is going to save the two-state solution. When in fact the great shift he heralds among Jewish youth could just as well be for liberal democracy in Israel and Palestine– i.e., one state, or a binational state. Mearsheimer says, rightly, that Finkelstein is adopting the Beinart liberal-Zionist position. Oh and I love the last line here (a great counter to the smear that Mearsheimer is anti-Semitic).
Mearsheimer: The reason that the Oslo peace process is dead and that you’re not going to get a two‑state solution is that the political center of gravity in Israel has moved far enough to the right over time that it’s, in my opinion, unthinkable that the Israelis would number one, give up the Jordan River valley; number two, abandon Ariel and Maale Adumim; and number three, allow for a capital in East Jerusalem….
Finkelstein: I don’t agree with that. There are many reasons to be pessimistic. But there are also some grounds for a reasonable amount of optimism. …
And then the question is trying to change the calculus of power. Here things are changing. There are changes in American public opinion, which are quite significant when you look at the polls.
There are changes in Jewish public opinion. There are major regional changes—what’s happening now between Israel and Turkey that’s part of an Arab Spring….
Politics is about what is realistically possible in terms of your long‑term values, your philosophical perspective. What is really possible now in my opinion are two states, basically what people call the international consensus. It doesn’t mean it’s my philosophical preference. If you asked me, I’d say I would like to see a world without states…
Mearsheimer: Your point that pressure has not been brought to bear on the Israelis up to now is correct. But the reason that pressure has not been brought to bear is because the United States protects Israel at every turn. If the United States were willing to put serious sanctions on Israel, there’s no question that we could get Israel to move to a two‑state settlement very quickly…
But then the question is, who’s going to put pressure on Israel?
Finkelstein: That’s why I said there are new factors. … there are changes in public opinion. The challenge is translating the changes in public opinion into some sort of political force. There is raw material; it still requires work. It’s a hard job, but our possibilities now are greater than ever.
Mearsheimer: Yeah. I hope that you’re right, but I think that you’re wrong. The reason has to do with how American politics works. The way this political system of ours was set up in the beginning gave huge amounts of influence to interest groups, interest groups of all sorts.
In the present situation, interest groups that have lots of money can influence the political process in profound ways. The principal reason that we don’t have any financial reform after the 2008 financial crisis is, in large part, because of the interest groups or lobbies associated with the financial industry. They’re just so powerful in Washington that Congress really can’t stand up to them. As a result, we’ve done very little to fix the system that caused this disaster in 2008.
When it comes to foreign policy, we, of course, have interest groups—like the Cuban lobby, the Israel lobby, the Armenian lobby—that can wield lots of influence. In this day and age, where money really matters, and where the Israel lobby has lots of money to throw at political candidates, it is very easy for it to get its way. And foolishly, in my opinion, the lobby tends to support the hard-line policies of Israel, which I don’t think are in Israel’s interests.
The end result is that virtually nobody on Capitol Hill will stand up to Benjamin Netanyahu. And the president won’t either.
Finkelstein: Everything you said, of course, is true and I don’t bury my head in the ground. The only addition to what you said is, I haven’t seen any real attempt to challenge the lobby. There’s never been a serious opposition in Washington. They’ve never had to contend with anybody…..
McConnell: Are you guys surprised by how quickly Obama seemed to have climbed down from making a solution to the conflict a top priority? By all indications he was someone who understood the moral and political case for a Palestinian state.
Mearsheimer: He did not step away from the problem quickly. Shortly after taking office in January 2009 he began to put pressure on Israel—throughout 2009, throughout 2010, and even earlier this year Obama was putting pressure on the Israelis.
That of course is why Netanyahu came to Washington and spoke before AIPAC and spoke before Congress and went toe to toe, in effect, with Obama. The sad truth is that Netanyahu beat him at every turn, and now with the election looming and the economy in shambles, Obama is in no position to pick a fight with Israel.
Finkelstein: Even if Obama prevailed over Netanyahu, the settlement he was calling for was roughly that map where Israel would keep about 10 percent—9 or 10 percent—of the West Bank, including all the major settlement blocs.
If you include the settlement blocs, like Maale Adumim, there’s no state because the way that settlement bloc is constructed, it separates Jerusalem from the whole West Bank. So you have this little island of Jerusalem. Metropolitan Jerusalem is about 30 to 40 percent of the Palestinian economy. If you separate Jerusalem, there’s no state. Even if Obama prevailed and you got the 10 percent map, it still has no relationship to what a viable Palestinian state would look like….
Mearsheimer: Then I wonder why you’re so optimistic that we can solve this one?
Finkelstein: Oh, because as I said, I totally agree with you on Congress. I totally agree with you on the executive. On those points there’s no disagreement at all. What I said is there is a changed political configuration now. There are changes in public opinion. There are changes in Jewish opinion. There’s a lot of work to be done. But there are reasons to be optimistic.
McConnell: Can you elaborate on the changes in Jewish opinion?
Finkelstein: Trying to understand Jewish relationships with Israel, there are three factors. There is the ethnic factor, which is the one people tend to home in on—Israel, Jewish State, of course Jews love Israel. That’s how people usually reason.
There is a second factor. That’s the citizenship factor, namely American Jews are American citizens, and they have a good life here, and they are very wary of being hit with the dual-loyalty charge. So wherever it looks like there are tensions between the U.S. and Israel, or tensions might be brewing, Americans Jews are very cautious and very wary…
And then there’s the third factor. It’s the ideological factor. American Jews are liberal. … American Jews are having a lot of trouble as liberals—especially young American Jews on college campuses, which tend to be more liberal than American society in general—they’re having a lot of trouble reconciling their liberal beliefs with the way Israel carries on, and Israeli conduct and Israeli society in general…
McConnell: And Birthright Israel isn’t enough to counter this?
Finkelstein: It’s not enough, no, because Birthright Israel, first of all, is self‑selective. Many of them are just…
Mearsheimer: It’s propaganda. It’s very hard to propagandize Jews. They’re very knowledgeable, and they’re critical thinkers.