It was a night of contrasts: the American Peter Beinart talking to the Israeli Yehouda Shenhav. The young pragmatist pitted against the older radical. The humble journalism professor from the City University of New York battling the righteously indignant sociology professor from Tel Aviv University.
But by far the most important contrast of the night was their dueling visions for ending the Israel/Palestine conflict. Beinart remains convinced that the two-state solution, while not a perfectly just one, is the most practical way to end the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians. On the other hand, Shenhav believes it’s impossible, that it reeks of separatism and that it’s fundamentally immoral.
Beinart and Shenhav, two Jews offering starkly different solutions to the same problem, faced off at Columbia University Monday night in a talk sponsored by the prestigious school’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. Over 100 people–the vast majority of whom were presumably Jewish–showed up to witness the respectful, though at times rancorous, debate over the question of whether there was a “way out” of the Israeli-Palestinian “quagmire.”
The backdrop to the debate was Ian Lustick’s New York Times piece on the death of the two-state solution, and, more broadly, the death of the Oslo peace process 20 years after it began. While Lustick’s article was only brought up sparingly, the themes the University of Pennsylvania professor touched on in the Times were prominent throughout the night.
Beinart began the event with praise for Shenhav’s work on Mizrahi Jews, and then launched into a spirited and compelling defense of the two-state solution. He was reserved for his prepared remarks, speaking of why an Israeli and Palestinian state living side by side was the “least bad solution.” Beinart dove head-first into his task: convincing the audience why the arguments against a two-state solution don’t hold water.
Beinart was frank in acknowledging that the two-state solution is not perfect, saying that it wasn’t a good solution for Palestinian refugees or Palestinian citizens of Israel. But he also argued that Israel was not alone in having a religious identity, pointing to countries which have crosses on their flags that still have full citizenship for minorities. On the flip side, he argued that it would be beneficial for Palestinians to have a state they can call their own, with their own national anthem and army.
“While I can see that there are elements of injustice in this arrangement, I also want to acknowledge there are deeply just claims that the two-state solution does fulfill,” said Beinart. “The Jewish desire to have one state in the world dedicated to Jewish self-protection–given the Jewish experience in the diaspora…culminating in the Holocaust–is just.” He added that Palestinians, who are dispersed throughout the globe, also deserve to have a state to protect their own.
And he forcefully took on those who say the two-state solution is impossible. Majorities on both sides support this solution, he said. The settlers can be removed, and those who warn of an internal Israeli civil war sparked by the removal of settlements are wrong, as the Gaza experience in 2005 showed. And while the two-state solution is less possible now than it was back when the peace process started, it’s “less impossible” than the alternative: a shared space for Israelis and Palestinians. Beinart also cast doubt on the viability of whether a joint Israeli Jewish-Palestinian army could work. His argument is confined within what he thinks is in the realm of political possibility, and a shared space just isn’t, according to Beinart.
Shenhav came out slashing, jokingly referring to himself as a “lunatic.” Where Beinart stood still, Shenhav walked all over the place, wagging his finger and speaking directly to Beinart. His talk largely rehashed themes in his book, Beyond the Two State Solution: A Jewish Political Essay.
Shenhav objects to the two-state solution because it’s impossible, and because solutions like “land swaps” are unworkable because there’s no land of value to swap. There is no viable land to swap between Palestine and Israel, he says, and a Palestinian state will be a Bantustan. He also argued that the two-state solution is based on separatism, which is “the disease, not the cure” and that separatism is the “crisis of Zionism.” He pointed out that the conflict is based around two different paradigms: the 1948 paradigm that Palestinians operate under and the 1967 paradigm Israelis–particularly liberal Zionists–adhere to. “We Jews…have to take responsibility for the Nakba,” he implored. Talking directly to Beinart, Shenhav said that Palestinian citizens of Israel will pay the highest price in a two-state solution–and that it’s a “recipe for major transfer.”
His forceful statement that most Jews in Israel/Palestine “are settlers”–including those in proper Israel–was a novel one to most of the people in the audience. “What is so unique about settlements over the Green Line?” he asked, before saying that the Israeli liberal left uses the settlements as a scapegoat to make themselves seem democratic and liberal.
Shenhav also asserted that the future of the Jewish people in the Middle East was bound up with reaching a just solution that atones for the Nakba. Shenhav doesn’t want to live in a Middle Eastern bunker, he says–what kind of home is that for Jews? His ultimate solution is premised on changing most people’s understanding of soveriengty. Wanting to do away with the Western–and “violent”–notion of sovereignty, he proposes a shared space with some kind of arrangement allowing for communities to organize themselves with equal rights for all.
By the time Beinart responded, he dropped his reserved stance. He said Shenhav’s solution was a fantasy, that the game of politics is filled with tragic compromises.
Beinart had a point: in response to a question from the moderator, Shenhav said he’s no politician and doesn’t know how to get from his proposed solution to the real deal.
But Shenhav said his role is that of airing ideas, churning out a radically different solution to an intractable and bloody conflict. He wants to open up the realm of possibility, to break through the tired and failed U.S.-brokered peace process. It may be fantastical at the moment. But 20 years after Oslo, with John Kerry still trying the same old thing without a different result, Shenhav’s ideas are a breath of fresh air.