Peter Beinart and Yousef Munayyer had a debate about the solution of the conflict last night at the New America Foundation in Soho (on video at the link). This was a historic encounter in that a mainstream organization was pairing a Zionist with an anti-Zionist; and Beinart, a leading liberal Zionist often asked to debate Zionists to his right, was engaging a Palestinian publicly on this question for the first time I’m aware of. Beinart writes for The Atlantic and Haaretz, Munayyer is leader of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
In days to come, we are sure to run several responses to the debate, but it seemed most important to get up transcripts of what the two men said. This is a painstaking process (and it’s a beautiful day) so I’m going to start out with substantial excerpts of their opening statements (and fill in some of the substantive clashes as the day and weekend proceed).
I think those problems are basically two. The first is that millions of individual Palestinians lack basic rights. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinians are not citizens of the state that controls their lives. Even inside Israel proper, Palestinian citizens suffer structural discrimination. This is the unjust, immoral one state reality that exists today. On this I think Yousef and I probably agree.
Where we may not is that I see a second problem that must also be addressed… and that is that the Israeli Palestinian conflict is not merely a clash of individual, deracinated human beings, it is also a clash of rival nationalisms. Most Israeli Jews and most Palestinians do not only want individual rights, they also want national rights. They want a Jewish or Palestinian state.
Individuals and activists may find this primitive, parochial, antiquated, but intellectuals and activists no matter how well meaning get themselves in trouble when they craft political arrangements that sound lovely in a seminar room, but don’t take account of the actual identities of the people on the ground. Modern history is replete with countries with beautiful sounding constitutions that descended into civil war.
[Beinart relates the support for partition, including recent polling of Palestinians by Khalil Shikaki and James Zogby]
He [Zogby] concluded that, “a two state solution remains the only viable option that remains acceptable albeit with differences to both sides. The one state solution is rejected by all parties, including Palestinian refugees.”
Why is this the case? First, as I said, because most Israeli Jews and Palestinians remain deeply committed to their separate national identities. I am sure we will talk tonight about the tension between Zionism and liberalism. There is absolutely such a tension. I acknowledge it in my book. The kind of Zionism I support would reduce that tension dramatically by stripping away many aspects of Jewish privilege inside Israel proper and of course it would require Israel to end its undemocratic control of the West Bank and Gaza. But it would still allow a preferential immigration policy for Jews and some Jewish public symbols. And even this thin Zionism would privilege Jews.
But if there’s a tension between Zionism and liberalism, there is also a tension between Palestinian nationalism and liberalism. If Zionism privileges Jews who are both an ethnic group and a religion, then Palestinian nationalism privileges both an ethnic group, Arabs, and a religion, Islam. Article one of the Palestinian constitution declares that “the Palestinian people are part of the Arab nation.” Article four says Islam is the official religion of Palestine. The principles of Islamic sharia shall be the main source of legislation. This is from the PLO, I haven’t even mentioned Hamas. I’m not saying this to demonize Palestinians. The Palestinian constitution also contains lots of terrific language about individual rights.
I’m simply arguing that when people reject two states in favor of one binational state, which is the main proposed alternative, I wonder where exactly do they see the appetite for this binationalism on either side. Binational states are exceedingly hard to keep together. Binationalism barely works in Belgium. The Czechs and Slovaks couldn’t make it work, Scotland is seriously considering seceding from the U.K, as is Catalonia from Spain, and these are all far, far more placid environments than the land between the river and the sea.
What would we call this Israeli Palestinian binational state? In post-apartheid South Africa the answer was obvious, because whites and blacks both considered themselves citizens of South Africa. In Israel and Palestine by contrast, this imagined binational state, we have no name because no national identity undergirds it. Let’s imagine that someone did create Israstine. What is its army going to look like? It would be an Army operating under conditions of unbelievable stress.
[Beinart relates situations in which the army would be torn apart by tensions due to orders to evict or not evict Jewish or Palestinian residents.]
This is not progressivism; it’s the great temptation of progressives, utopianism.
Is my view shaped by the fact that as a Jew I’m attached to the idea that in a post-Holocaust world, there should be one state on earth devoted to Jewish self protection and Jewish self-expression? Yes. I plead guilty. I’m not a pure universalist either. But I’m not trying to convince you to care about Israel in the way I do. I’m simply arguing that the two state solution as problematic as it is is better than any one state alternative, and you don’t have to be a Zionist to believe that. Listen to Marwan Barghouti, probably the most popular Palestinian politician alive, who told Al Monitor in 2013 that if the two state solution fails, “the substitute will not be a binational one state solution but a persistent conflict that extends based on an existential crisis, one that does not know any middle ground.”
Is the two state solution hard to achieve? Absolutely. But it’s easier than the alternative. We know what the rough outline of such a partition would look like. It was agreed to by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Geneva in 2003. Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas were converging on something similar in 2008..
[Beinart speaks of how many settlers would remain in their homes under redrawn boundaries, and details his support for pressure on Israel, boycott of settlement products, and opposition to BDS, as a one-state movement]
The two state solution is not a utopia, it does not represent perfect justice. It is in fact for both Palestinians and Jews in important ways a tragedy. Like democracy, it is the worst outcome except all the others. But it at least offers Palestinians and Jews what they most want, the dignity that comes from citizenship in a state of their own, and in a middle east that today flows with blood it it would be an achievement in which our generation of Palestinians and Jews could take enormous pride.
I see the problem we’re trying to solve very differently than Peter and most liberal Zionists do in general…
As Zionists, they see the problem first and foremost through the prism of Israeli interests, not through the prism of justice for those being denied basic rights. So for liberal Zionists the primary problem is Israel’s identity crisis, and by this I mean liberal Zionists look at the situation and they see a state which claims the mantra of being both Jewish and democratic. But at the same time they see a reality on the ground that belies this claim. Because you have millions of Palestinians being ruled by a state that does not allow them any voice in government.
So for liberal Zionists that is the challenge, Israel’s identity crisis… Let’s just examine that analysis of the problem at first. To conclude as liberal Zionists do that Israel’s identity crisis is the primary problem, you have to do some very problematic things. One of them is you have to deemphasize the Nakba, which is of course the single most important event in the Palestinian historical narrative and experience. And ignore or deemphasize those directly affected by the Nakba, like the refugees.
We heard earlier from Peter about Palestinian citizens of Israel to some extent and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. We heard less about refugees… Because of this, liberal Zionists tend to begin their historical narrative in 1967.
Adding to the problem of the liberal Zionist analysis of the situation is that they have to promote this false dichotomy, and we heard it from Peter, between the state of Israel and the territory that it occupies and began occupying in 1967. This was explained by Peter in a piece that he wrote for the New York Times, making a distinction between a democratic Israel and a non democratic Israel. Of course this false dichotomy leads to a series of different problems. Ignoring the Israeli state’s history with the Palestinian citizens of Israel and its lasting legacy. There’s this sort of romanticism of the pre 1967 Israel that exists in the liberal Zionist narrative but did not exist in reality, certainly not for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
This false dichotomy leads again to downplaying the incompatibility of Zionism and liberalism even inside Israel. The facts that the so called democratic Israel refers to non-Jewish citizens like myself as demographic threats, prevents them from living with their Palestinian spouses to prevent what they call demographic spillover, and passes various discriminatory laws against them, are considered tolerable evils by liberal Zionists.
Some liberal Zionists not only downplay this incompatibility between Zionism and liberalism inside Israel, they have accepted this, as Peter seemingly has. He told Jeffrey Goldberg in 2010: “I’m not even asking [Israel] to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.”
So I want to take this opportunity and Peter– I’m sure he can respond to this in rebuttal– to ask whether or not Peter still stands by this statement and how he can justify such a thing with a concept of liberalism.
If he does, and others do as well, these are questions for him and other liberal Zionists as well. How many Arabs are too many in Israel? What percentage of people like me, Palestinian citizens of Israel, is too many for you? How many can you not handle? Is it 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent, 45 percent? Please draw the line and then explain to us, which illiberal policies are you willing to support to prevent the Palestinian citizen population of Israel from growing to that point, or beyond it. We deserve to know the answers now.
[Munayyer addresses the boycott positions of liberal Zionists.]
This false dichotomy also leads to another conundrum for liberal Zionists, which is that the window for a two state solution is always closing, but it can never really close. If it’s not closing there’s no urgency, but if it closes, they must answer the question they dread. What happens next? This argumentation is of course susceptible to the boy cries wolf syndrome and quickly loses credibility. Time has been running out for a two state solution for nearly three decades now after all.
S,o if the liberal Zionist analysis of the problem is flawed for the reasons that I mentioned, what really is the problem? I believe that the problem is that to achieve its aims in Palestine, the Zionist movement set up a system of injustice which it had to perpetuate to maintain itself. This system of injustice has manifested itself in multiple ways over time, and the main instrument upholding this system has been the state of Israel.
These manifestations of injustice to name a few include: The depopulation of Palestine and the denial or return for refugees through law to insure a Jewish majority at the expense of the native inhabitants of the land; the adoption of colonial-era British emergency regulations as martial law to govern Palestinian citizens of Israel until 1966, regulations which a person named Menachem Begin who if you’re familiar with him is no lilywhite dove, likened to the laws of the Nazis; adoption and then adaptation of those same laws to govern the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since then.
And of course another manifestation is the harsh repression of any dissent against this system through the use of overwhelming state level force…
These manifestations exist on a direct historical trajectory which goes back to 1948 and not 1967 and they represent an evolving yet, very importantly, singular system. Maintaining this system of injustice has required the routine use of force, which over the years has led to countless casualties, most of which are Palestinians but include Israelis as well. The most recent and severe example of this was of course the war on Gaza last year which left over 2200 Palestinians, most of them civilians, dead.
So how do we solve this, now that I’ve defined the problem? I believe there’s only one way. This system of injustice must be dismantled. Not part of it, but all of it. And we must work toward something more just. I think there are a number of steps we can take in this direction. One of them hopefully we can begin tonight by expanding the number of people who actually agree on what the real problem is that we are trying to solve.
Step number 2, which I hope will happen concurrently with step number 3 is working together to bring the necessary pressure on Israel until these changes happen. And to this end I support full BDS, not partial BDS; because if you want to get Israeli state behavior to change, you must target the state not parts of the state or little hilltop settlements, but the state itself, until the decision makers come to a different conclusion than the conclusion that they have today, which is that the status quo is sustainable.
And the third step is engaging in serious conversation about what the practical implementation of a new system would look like. So many of the questions that Peter threw out to scare us all away from an alternative situation can be answered in a serious and rigorous way.
This is not a call for the destruction of Israel any more than the anti-apartheid movement was calling for the destruction of South Africa, but I realize some pro-Israel minded listeners may not accept this. And so I ask them, and I will end with this, What sort of state faces an existential threat by merely respecting the human rights of those whose lives it governs? How did it come to find itself in such a predicament, and is that really the kind of state that you want to support?