INTERVIEW: A Zionist change of heart

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 1 Jun 2021

Peter Beinart explains why Israel’s settlement growth has changed his views on Zionism

A Zionist change of heart
In 1948

Peter Beinart is a City University, New York professor of journalism and political science who writes and tweets about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (some of his work can be found at Once an unequivocal Zionist, the media face of the issue is now thoroughly revising his views in response to Israeli policies: the recent crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem and offensive on Gaza, which killed hundreds and injured thousands, felt like the right moment to tease out his thoughts.

A Zionist change of heart
In 2021

On 12 May — two days after Israel started its bombardment of Gaza — Beinart published an opinion piece in The New York Times that was widely circulated on social media in which he harshly criticised Israel’s refusal to give the right of return to Palestinians who have been living outside their homeland. “The Israeli government and its American Jewish allies insist that Palestinian refugees abandon hope of returning to their homeland. This demand is drenched in irony, because no people in human history have clung as stubbornly to the dream of return as have Jews. Establishment Jewish leaders denounce the fact that Palestinians pass down their identity as refugees to their children and grandchildren. But Jews have passed down our identity as refugees for 2,000 years,” Beinart argues in the article.

A Zionist change of heart

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Beinart tackled almost everything, from the means to settle this endless dilemma to the necessity of Palestinian unity, and the extent to which Palestinians might be able to control the future of Israel’s escalatory moves against them. 

You used to think of yourself as a “liberal Zionist”. What made you believe that both Palestinians and Israelis can live together in peace - despite a 70-year conflict - and what pushed you to change your views? 

A Zionist change of heart

Throughout my entire life, I was a political Zionist – which meant I believed in the idea of a Jewish state that has a special obligation to Jews. I believed that in a post-Holocaust world, the Jews needed one country that would be particularly dedicated to their protection. Meanwhile, I thought that it was wrong for Israel to govern millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem who didn’t have basic rights like citizenship and the right to vote, so there should also be a Palestinian state next door to Israel, and that Israel should give more rights to them while retaining the core elements of a Jewish state. But over time I began to feel that Israeli settlement growth has made a Palestinian state impossible, and that was when I began to rethink the idea of Jewish statehood. I would say I became what I would now call a cultural Zionist. By being a cultural Zionist, I mean it is very important to have a strong Jewish community – what we would call the land of Israel – in which people can speak and run their schools in Hebrew, which is very important for the Jewish people. But I don’t think this has to be within the framework of a Jewish state. I think we could have a single, equal state where both Palestinians and Jews would be able to run their own schools and speak their own languages. This would also allow for Palestinian citizens to have full equality and the refugees to return. So this was the shift in my thinking. 

What is Israel’s long-term plan on its policy of evicting Palestinians from their homes? Israel is apparently not only doing so in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, but also in Silwan village. 

I think the reality is that Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are not citizens. So it means that the government of Israel has no responsibilities towards them. It is only accountable to Jews in Israel and the West Bank because they can vote. This means that if there are some Jews who want to take this land, they can generally do so because the Palestinians there don’t have their basic right, which is a government that would listen to them. This is the fundamental problem. Israel was created in 1948 with an active mass expulsion of Palestinians. There are still people in Israel – Jerusalem or the West Bank – who want to push the Palestinians out to take more land, and the Palestinians don’t really have much to do because they don’t have rights. So the government cannot protect them against that. 

To what extent are the events that happened in the past month in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza related to Trump’s peace plan? That was the first time a US administration dealt with Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital”. 

Maybe a little. Trump certainly may have emboldened the Israelis a bit, but the truth is that no American president in recent decades – even before Trump – really put any real pressure on Israel to stop its policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This includes Joe Biden. In 30 years, for instance,  none of them have been willing to condition US military aid to Israel. I think this process of people in Israel wanting to make East Jerusalem Jewish, push Palestinians out and also making a Palestinian state impossible by dividing East Jerusalem from the West Bank started before Donald Trump. Maybe it accelerated because Trump was so obviously willing to support Israel no matter what it takes, but it continued before Donald Trump and unfortunately continued after Donald Trump. 

Since Ramadan, when the crisis started, a pro-Palestinian solidarity movement has spread all across the world through social media, with protests and even countries announcing suspending relations with Israel. Combined with the armed resistance of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, could this push Israel once again to make concessions as it did during Oslo? 

I think we are quite far from that. The Oslo accords came as a result of the first Intifada, which lasted for years and showed Israel that it cannot easily and directly control the West Bank, that it needed some kind of Palestinian leadership on the ground to work with. It is not clear that the Israeli leadership really wanted the Palestinians to have a state, but they wanted some kind of Palestinian leadership so that they would not have to do all the work on the ground by themselves. The difference now is that – first of all – Israel already has this kind of Palestinian leadership on the ground in the West Bank. So the costs of controlling the West Bank are much lower than they were before Oslo. Now, if the Palestinian Authority collapsed, I think that would put Israel in a more difficult position.

Right now Mahmoud Abbas is keeping things quiet in the West Bank for Israel. Israel’s settlement project is also much further along. It is difficult to know even what concessions  Israel would really make at this point. I also don’t think the Israelis feel internationally isolated. On the contrary, the Israelis feel more welcome than they have ever been in some ways, with the UAE, Sudan, Bahrain and Morocco deals. But not only that. Their relations with India, for instance, are much stronger than before, and the same applies to their relations with Brazil and Hungary. So it is quite possible that we might get to a point when Israel would make concessions, but I think we are quite far from that right now. 

For the first time in centuries, intra-Palestinian divisions are disappearing, thanks to Israel’s aggression against Palestinians in Gaza, Jerusalem and West Bank. Could this catalyse Palestinian reconcliation and pave the way to elections? 

I hope there will be Palestinian elections, and I think it is crucially important to create a unified and more legitimate leadership. I think this is also what the Palestinians want. But I am not necessarily that optimistic that we will get there because the reason we didn’t have Palestinian elections was that the United States, Israel and Mahmoud Abbas himself were all worried that Hamas might do well. So they all essentially worked  together to cancel the elections. Now Hamas is more popular and will probably do better. It might not even need to join a coalition government with Fatah and rule by itself. It seems to me that Abbas, Israel and the US have more reasons to fear elections. So even though elections are the right thing, this doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to see them any time soon. 

During the Gaza war, Israel clearly underestimated the capabilities of the Gazan factions, mainly Hamas and the Jihad. How did corruption charges and the inability to unify Israeli parties affect Netanyahu in power?

In the short term, I think it helped him. The only way for Yair Lapid could have formed a government was by getting the very right-wing, Jewish parties – and maybe one of the Arab Israeli parties – into a government together, and the violence kind of made that impossible. Israel would probably go to a fifth election: that seems most likely. But I think Netanyahu is in better shape than he was before the war because it is very difficult for there to be an alternative coalition than his. Israeli politics is still quite stalemated, but – at least so far – the war has helped Netanyahu politically. 

Wouldn’t Israel’s major parties, including the right-wing ones, try to convince the public to consider political alternatives, especially since Netanyahu has sent Israel to war with Hamas repeatedly in past years? 

Well, first of all, many of the parties that are running to succeed Netanyahu are no less right-wing than he. So, if anything, they would say hit Hamas harder. Most of the opposition to Netanyahu is just personal. He is corrupt, he has obviously been there for too long and he is threatening the judiciary. So there is no strong, ideological critique of Netanyahu among the Jewish political parties, really. Also, if there were an alternative coalition, it would not really have a clear vision because it would bring together all the different political parties. Netanyahu benefits from fear: people are afraid. Even if it’s not rational, they would often tend to move to the person they perceive as tougher and more experienced. Even if I wish they would, people will not necessarily turn against Netanyahu because of the war. 

Concerning the international responses to the Gaza war and the situation in the West Bank,  do you think they will in any way influence Israel’s relations with the world? For example, the Maldives suspended its ties with Israel, and several international bodies are considering investigations. 

Maybe over the longer term we will see that this is having a negative effect on Israel. Certainly, in the US Democratic Party, there is a bit more support for conditioningmilitary aid than there was maybe a year ago. But there are still a lot of structural factors that put Israel in a very strong position. These changes are only happening in the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party. Even in the Democratic Party, most of the politicians in the US Congress – no matter what Israel does – still pretty much want to support Israel. The Europeans will never really want to do anything  without the United States. When you talk about China and Russia, even India, these are countries that basically believe in letting sovereign countries do whatever they want no matter how terrible it is. So they are not naturally inclined to protect human rights anywhere. I don’t see a dramatic change any time soon. 

I read your piece in the New York Times, which was entitled “Palestinian Refugees Deserve to Return Home. Jews Should Understand.” What would it take to resolve the 70-year-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict? 

I can’t tell you how we could get from here to there. I do know what I would like to see as an outcome, which would be one equal state where everyone is treated equally under the law. But my guess would be that it would take a long time, if we could ever get there at all. I do think that one thing has to happen. Right now, the cost of controlling the Palestinians who lack basic rights is still relatively low for Israel. Yes, there was this war, but things got back to normal, and Israel remains a successful, prosperous country.

I think the cost has to go up for Israel in a much longer and sustained way for there to be a change. I also think that the Palestinian leadership has to be united. The Palestinian leadership is not united and is not effective in terms of making a unified claim like the African National Congress did. The Congress said this is our vision, this is what we are struggling for, and we are the legitimate representatives of the Black Africans. So these things and the international environment need to change for us to get to the point where Israelis would even consider the idea of accepting equality.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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