Peter Beinart and the crisis of liberal Zionism

Some liberal Zionists are finally becoming aware of the inherent contradiction in their views on Israel and Palestine.

Author Peter Beinart speaks at an event Wednesday
Jewish American author Peter Beinart speaks at an event in Atlanta on November 14, 2012 [File: AP/David Goldman]

I first met American writer Peter Beinart in March 2019 during my speaking tour in the United States, which was organised by American Friends Services Committee. He invited me as a guest on his podcast, Occupied Thoughts, published by the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

I knew of his political stance on Palestine but I, nevertheless, saw my participation in the podcast as an opportunity to engage him and his Jewish American audience in a critical discussion about Palestinian rights.

He asked me about violence and armed struggle and I explained that Palestinians are under military occupation and have suffered decades of violence at the hands of one of the most advanced armies in the world. He also asked about how Palestinian refugees can return when there are Israeli families who have already build lives on top of their land, and I explained that the process would not be that difficult and emphasised reneging the Palestinians’ right to return would encourage more ethnic cleansing around the world.

It was clear to me that Beinart disagreed with what I had to say but he was polite and respectful.

So when in July, I saw his article, titled I no longer believe in a Jewish State, in the New York Times I was a bit surprised. But I guess the transformation of his view of Palestine made sense.

In the piece, Beinart wrote that he used to believe in Israel as a Jewish state because he saw Israel’s impact on his grandfather and father. “I knew that Israel was a source of comfort and pride to millions of other Jews, some of whose families had experienced traumas greater than my own,” he said.

He thought Israel was wrong to deny Palestinians citizenship, free movement and the right to vote, but hoped this would be remedied when a Palestinian state is established.

Eventually, however, Beinart realised that such a state is no longer possible, especially after the release of President Donald Trump’s so-called “peace plan”, which gave Israel even more control over the West Bank and normalised Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.

Beinart concluded that “changing the status quo requires a vision powerful enough to create a mass movement. A fragmented Palestinian state under Israeli control does not offer that vision. Equality can.”

The significance of Beinart’s article does not lie in its intellectual propositions. For decades, Palestinian intellectuals have been talking about the failure of separating Palestinians from Israelis and have called for a solution based on equal rights.

Rather, it is important because of who Beinart is: He is one of the most prominent figures of the liberal Zionism in the US. The change of his position can be seen as an indication of a slightly positive development within Zionist liberalism, as some of its members are no longer able to reconcile their liberal values with their support for Israel and the injustice and inequality of its policies.

Israel has long drawn its legitimacy among Jewish communities around the world by presenting itself as a safe haven for the Jewish people that can protect them from hostility and genocide. The establishment of Israel gave Jews, such as Beinart’s father and grandfather, a sense of pride and comfort. This has been seen by liberal Zionists like Beinart as the moral justification for the existence of Israel.

But this moral justification has always had one gaping weakness: The Palestinians and the injustice, displacement and death they have had to suffer so that European Jews would feel safe. Early liberal Zionism sought to erase the existence of Palestinians and their suffering, propagating the myth that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”.

But as Palestinians resisted erasure, colonisation and occupation and their identity, culture and activism grew stronger and more visible to the rest of the world, the liberal Zionists had to seek another solution. So they mollified their unease about the victimisation of Palestinians with the idea of a Palestinian state and embraced the “peace process” after the first Intifada.

But the only thing the Oslo Accords did was create an illusion, a fake optimism that Palestinian rights will be heeded and that a Palestinian state is possible. While many Palestinians did not believe in it, Oslo became a sedative for the conscience of the pro-Palestinian movement and a convenient cover for the colonial face of Israel.

This cover has now been finally lifted, as the Trump administration has said and done publicly what successive US administrations had said and done only behind the scenes. The Israeli political elite never intended for a Palestinian state to be created; the goal has always been full control and colonisation of historic Palestine. And that cannot be ever achieved without the gruesome massacre, subjugation and expulsion of Palestinians.

Some liberal Zionists like Beinart seem to have finally opened their eyes for this simple inconvenient truth and have decided to speak up. This has rattled Tel Aviv. The hardline Israeli leadership and their supporters see such support for the one-state solution even among a minority of Liberal Zionists as a grave threat.

They are staunchly opposed to equality between Israelis and Palestinians because that would undermine the Zionist project founded on the idea of inequality between the colonial settlers and the native population. Israeli hardliners also fear that equality would allow Palestinians to achieve demographic and eventually political dominance.

That is why, the reaction to Beinart’s article has been vicious. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, for example, chastised the writer, saying: “Beinart’s advocacy of a binational state to replace the Jewish State of Israel is far more insidious than it may appear at first glance. That advocacy, if actualized, would ultimately destroy Israel and bring as calamitous a result.”

While Beinart’s article is an important development as it signals a shift in attitudes among some liberal Zionists, there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve justice for the Palestinians.

Israel’s hardliners and their allies will continue to resist the one-state solution with any means possible. The pro-Palestinian movement will have to resist this enormous pressure and continue building a wide coalition which can eventually force Israel to abandon its racist regime and embrace equality and justice.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.