Peter Beinart has made lots of noise in the past three weeks in his turning away from the two-state solution for Palestine-Israel, towards advocating for a single ‘bi-national’ state. His advocacy has been a crisis for ‘liberal-Zionists,’ of whom Beinart was a leading voice, and whose mantra in the past generation has been the two-state separation; and his advocacy has garnered charges of “utopian nonsense,” from a former ambassador, and of his being a Nazi, from Alan Dershowitz.
But reaching beyond the noise, there is a single crucial point that has always divided Zionists and Palestinians, even within the talk of a two-state solution: refugees. The issue of Palestinian refugee return is one single issue that like no other unites Palestinians, cutting to the heart of their continued dispossession. Its denial is also an essentially Zionist issue, as Israeli historian Benny Morris has noted:
“Transfer was inevitable and inbuilt in Zionism – because it sought to transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a Jewish state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population”.
This is not just a historical matter. As former Israeli PM Ehud Barak noted in his dissent to Bill Clinton’s ‘Parameters’ of 2000, “no Israeli prime minister will accept even one refugee on the basis of the [Palestinian] right of return”. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni negotiating under Ehud Olmert in 2008? “Not a single refugee”.
In short, the two-state solution was, as far as Israel was concerned, a means of consolidating the ethnic cleansing and ensuring a Jewish majority for a “Jewish and democratic” state. The whole point of it was demography. And just as allegiance to the two-state rhetoric has been a kind of litmus test for Zionists, entailing support for the Jewish State, the issue of accepting Palestinian refugee return is a real litmus test for seeing whether one is, after all, a Zionist.
And Peter Beinart is still clinging to Zionism in some way, with a certain romanticism of a cultural, or religious, connection, which he now says doesn’t have to mean a Jewish state, but rather a general notion of a Jewish “homeland”, in what he now advocates should be a ‘bi-national’ one state.
So what about those refugees then?
Beinart has been somewhat shy and hesitant in relating to this issue in his over 7000-word essay “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine”, published in Jewish Currents on July 7th. It appears over half-way down the piece, and Beinart cites some quotes on it, mostly in the context of something that needs to be compromised, reduced or trimmed. Here are the passages:
Scholars have imagined various ways to adapt these models to Israel-Palestine while tackling thorny questions of national rights, immigration, and military powers. Some involve federalism, a central government that—as in Belgium or Canada—hands power down to local bodies, through which Jews and Palestinians manage their own affairs. Others involve confederalism, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state that each hand power up to a supranational authority that might look something like the European Union. A Land for All, a group that promotes confederalism, has proposed that Palestinian refugees could return to Israel yet be citizens of Palestine, while Jewish settlers could stay in Palestine and remain citizens of Israel. Alternatively, the famed Palestinian scholar Edward Said suggested in 1999 that in one state, “[t]he Law of Return for Jews and the right of return for Palestinian refugees [would] have to be considered and trimmed together.”
Trimming the Law of Return need not prevent Israel-Palestine from being a Jewish home. What’s crucial, if it is to remain a refuge for Jews, is not that a Jew from New York can land in Tel Aviv and become a citizen on day one. It’s that the state enshrine in its constitution the obligation to be a haven for any Jew—and yes, any Palestinian—in distress.
It is a pretty dry approach, and Beinart does not seem to feel a need to insert much of his own feelings about it, as to why the Palestinian refugee return in itself is important, nor its backing in international law. He could surely take an example from Yousef Munayyer, who wrote:
“The right of return is backed by international law and it is a human right. The right of return is enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration that all UN members, including Israel, agree to uphold. It is further enshrined, among other places, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination—two treaties to which Israel is also a state party. For Palestinians, it is also a sacred right”.
Beinart was actually more morally assertive in a podcast with Americans for Peace Now after his piece appeared (July 11th), even if the issue came towards the end of the hour (from minute 47, in the context of a confederation):
“I don’t think that at this point that a solution, a two-state solution that does not allow for Palestinians to have the right of refugee return, is likely to ultimately be a morally acceptable…”
Hadar Susskind asked, “Refugee return to where?”
“Well I think ultimately the right of a refugee return, not just to the West Bank but also to Israel proper. Now, one of the ways Land for All thinks about that, is through a notion of those Palestinians refugees remaining, being citizens of a Palestinian state based in West Bank and Gaza, even as they live in Israel proper, right? While Israeli settlers stay in the West Bank and retain their Israeli citizenship. Right, so this is where a confederation model could work. But I do think that the way a two-state solution has been conceived by some people, which is essentially to say, virtually no right of refugee Palestinian return to areas inside Israel proper – I have come to the view that I think that would be unlikely to be that effective of a solution. And I also think that we have to really have a conversation about the morality of telling… we are a people who for 2000 years have prayed every morning since the creation of modern liturgy, for a return to this land – how do we tell people who grew up in a place, that they don’t have the right to return to that place? So I think that one of the reasons that I would favor a confederation model over a two-state model, if I had to choose between the two at this point, is that I think it creates more opportunity for meeting people’s legitimate rights to have the option of returning. That does not mean going to someone’s house and kicking them out of their home. And I don’t think it’s the way most Palestinians I know think about it. But it means maybe compensation and it means having the right to return to the city where you were born. I mean again, one of the things that comes across to anyone who spends time with Palestinian writing and learns from the Palestinian experience, is the enormous power and the importance for people of being able to go back to places that were precious to them. And one of the things that I find appealing about the confederation model, even if one doesn’t go fully towards the one-state model, is it provides some way of realizing that. And I am saddened that in our Jewish discourse, that we are people who take so much pride in our ability to remember, to not forget, and to hold sacred memory and to try to fulfil it, are so dismissive of that when it comes to Palestinians”.
Well, that is really a bit better. Let’s look at that last bit, about “remembering”, in terms of Israel’s Law of Return for Jews. The “return” is mythical. Really, it’s about biblical myth from times literally immemorial. And that’s supposed to somehow trump the actual right of return of Palestinians in times still in actual living memory.
When Beinart talks about how “a two-state solution has been conceived by some people”, with “virtually no right of refugee Palestinian return to areas inside Israel proper”– it’s really not just “some people”. This position is one that cuts across the whole Zionist political spectrum.
Zionists have regularly derided Palestinians who long for this return. The liberal hero Amos Oz has also done so – he told a Palestinian refugee from Lifta that the latter is ill, suffering from “Reconstritis”:
“You are ill, I told the man. And I also diagnosed the illness… You are ill with Reconstritis. You are seeking in space, what you have lost in time. If you miss Lifta so much, write a book. Make a film. Write a play. Write up a research. Seek what you have lost in time, not in space… You miss your childhood? That’s OK, but if you start behaving like a 5-year old child [Oz is literally shouting here] because of your childhood longings, you need to be hospitalized!”
But Oz himself was not ill with Reconstritis, by his own diagnosis. He wrote books, but he wrote them in Israel. Because for Zionists, it is not a dream anymore, and if we caused your nightmare by ethnically cleansing you, well, that’s just tough – write a book.
This position has been widely accepted as being morally legitimate by Israel supporters. It has been understood as a “necessary evil”, like Tom Cotton’s “necessary evil” of slavery in the US. Even if not explicitly stated (or not as explicitly as Barak and Livni), it was a Zionist assumption, the gains of ethnic cleansing must not be compromised.
It’s interesting to see how Beinart’s current positions on the ‘binational’ state, are ones that he himself had deemed “utopian” back in 2015. Notice this, from a debate he had with Yousef Munayyer:
“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.”
But now that “utopianism” (which is what his critics now chide him for) has become a viable, necessary vision for Beinart. Which is to say, that if you will it, it is no dream – as Zionist founder Herzl said. And the Zionists could dream it, right? Call it Reconstritis or whatever, but they certainly dreamt it, and boy, did they make it happen.
So why, now that we see that the DNA of Zionism for all practical purposes is settler-colonialism and Apartheid, why can’t we dream of a better future, one of equality and freedom? Is that so sick?
Peter Beinart has opened up the one-state discussion in Zionist circles, and those who could not dismiss him out of hand, sought to engage with him in serious conversation. That conversation leads inevitably to critical issues of righting injustices done to Palestinians, since it gives up to a large degree the assumption of Jewish supremacy and opens up for considerations of real equality. And that conversation definitely needs to be had.