Dear Peter Beinart. I read your book "The Crisis of Zionism" with as much interest as I read your New York Review of Books essay on the failure of the U.S. Jewish establishment two years ago. Both struck a deep chord in me because you and I share a set of basic values: ethical universalism and a firm belief that the lesson of Jewish history and Jewish suffering is that only an uncompromising defense of human rights for everybody, anywhere, can prevent the type of horrors that the Jewish people went through.
Furthermore, I share your feeling that Obama is, as you say in the book, the first "Jewish" president. He reflects Jewish-progressive ethical universalism in his identity, his worldview and in his modus operandi. I also agree with you that the chasm between Obama and Netanyahu is not just about personalities: it is about two utterly different conceptions of history in general and Jewish history in particular. Obama believes in creating win-win situations; Netanyahu believes that only power will make good (as he understands it) triumph over the bad, embodied, for him, in how, following Jabotinsky and his father, Benzion Netanyahu, he conceives of Arabs.
But pitching Obama against Netanyahu creates the wrong impression that the current situation is a showdown between two personalities, whereas it reflects the mindset of Israel's mainstream, including the moderate left. Most Israelis don't like the occupation. To this day, two thirds would leave the West Bank tomorrow if they thought they would get peace in return. But the combination of the second intifada and the shelling of Southern Israel has made Israelis unwilling to take further risks for peace. They think that Palestinians cannot be trusted to maintain the safety of Israel, particularly since Hamas continues to be officially committed to Israel's destruction.
As you very well know, unlike Netanyahu, I do not say this to justify Israel's occupation of the West Bank or the settlements. I think that the settlement project is Israel's historical catastrophe: it contradicts everything I stand for as a human being and as a Jew; and it has shattered the liberal Zionist vision to which both you and I are committed.
Nevertheless, I think you make two mistakes. The first is that, even though you acknowledge the security implications of the second intifada in your book, you underestimate its impact and that of the shelling of Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip on mainstream Israelis. In your interview with Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev, you compare the traumata of 9/11 and the second intifada. Israel's experience of the second intifada and the shelling of Southern Israel from Gaza is very different from the American experience of 9/11. The latter was a terrible trauma and it shattered the American experience of invulnerability; but Americans never thought that the existence of their home country was in danger or felt that terror would become part oft their daily lives. As opposed to this the second intifada and the shelling of Southern Israel made Israelis question how Israel can survive in an environment that, at least in part, doesn't accept Israel's existence and keeps returning to violence.
Secondly, you perpetuate the mistake that has led Israel's electorate to vote the peace-camp out of the Knesset. We used two arguments to push for a quick implementation of the two state solution. The first was that Israel's ethical fiber was being harmed irrevocably by the occupation. The second was that the longer we wait, the lower chances of still finding a moderate Palestinian leadership willing to even talk about the two state solution. Israel's electorate didn't buy our line. They said, "If moderate Palestinians are so weak, if we can get Hamas any time soon again, we would be crazy to take the risk of retreating to the 1967 borders. We'll worry about ethical ideals after security is guaranteed."
The reason for this is, as I have argued, Hamas. Some Israelis appreciate the tremendous work that Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyad have put into Palestinian state building. But they have a simple question: How can anybody guarantee that Hamas will not return to power, as it did in the Palestinian 2006 elections? And if Hamas takes power, how can anybody guarantee that rockets will not keep falling on Tel Aviv, Netanya and Raanana?
The truth is that nobody can guarantee this. And Israelis' fears that life will become impossible in Israel if it is attacked from within the 1967 borders are not paranoid; just pessimistic. So Israelis say: If the choice is between continuing the occupation for the time being and the possibility that Israel's population centers will be under fire, they choose the former. I think it is difficult to reject these concerns of mainstream Israelis as overblown. Let us not forget that even Olmert required long-term security arrangements that Mahmoud Abbas accepted.
The problem is that the settler movement has capitalized on these fears skillfully: In the shadow of the justifiable security concerns of Israelis, the settlement project has continued to grow, gradually making the two state solution impossible. Netanyahu doesn't believe in a viable Palestinian state; and he is deftly manipulating public opinion by paying lip-service to the two state solution while doing everything to make it impossible in the long run.
Where does this leave us now? You have suggested both in the book and in your recent NYT op-ed, to boycott the settlements under title "boycott the settlements to save Israel's democracy." I wonder whether you actually mean this as a move of realpolitik, or whether this is motivated by your need to justify to your children that you did what you could to defend the liberal Zionist dream, as you told Chemi Shalev.
I think that such a boycott is no more than a symbolic expression of your (in itself justified) rejection of the settlement project. It will sharpen the debate within U.S. Jewry, but it will only embitter mainstream Israelis. They will say that it is easy for you to pitch lofty ideals against their security, and that they do not need U.S. Jews to take care of Israel's democracy, but of its security. So your move will neither have any real impact on Israeli policy, nor do anything to strengthen Israel's democracy.
This brings me to the final point of disagreement. You hope to save the two state solution. But I think you try to save spilt milk. You probably know the wisdom of every investment advisor. It is profoundly wrong to handle your investment portfolio reacting to previous losses. You need to look at it as if you were creating it now. There is little use for us to decry the folly of Israel's policy of the last forty years. We need to look at the situation as it is now: No Israeli politician will be able to retreat to the 1967 lines as long as Hamas will not radically change its views, and this, researchers familiar with the movement tell me, is not likely to happen soon.
The problem is that the longer the status quo continues, the more impossible the two state solution will become. In fact, it may already be dead. Hence the real question for liberal Jews and gentile friends of Israel is where we need to aim now.
A year ago, philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, a leading Palestinian peace activist for three decades, published a profoundly disturbing book entitled "What is a Palestinian State Worth?" Nusseibeh argues that on the basis of the Jewish traumatization by the Holocaust and the Israeli traumas from the 1948 war to the second intifada, it is not to be realistically expected that Israel will return to the 1967 borders and relinquish control over the Jordan valley. Nor, he says, will Israelis accept in the near future that the state will be bi-national.
In a profound philosophical meditation on the nature of the state, he argues that the founder of modern political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes, correctly described the most basic function of the state. It is to guarantee the safety and basic well being of its population. Nusseibeh claims that the expressive function of the state, i.e. national self-determination, is secondary.
He therefore calls upon his Palestinian compatriots to renounce the dream of a Palestinian state; and in no case should they return to armed resistance, because it will create terrible suffering for them. For the time being, he says, Palestinians should acquiesce with a status quo in which they will not have political rights. They should focus on improving on their human rights situation, quality of life and freedom of movement.
At first, I rejected its argument completely, and I refused to accept his reasoning. I felt that the status quo must not continue. Like you, I was appalled by the idea of caving in to the settler movement. It has taken me some time to realize the depth of its pessimistic realism and to come to the conclusion that Nusseibeh is probably right: Israelis will not take further risks for peace in the current constellation. All polls indicate that Netanyahu will gain a further term, and by the end of this term, the two state solution will be history.
I think we liberal Zionists need to accept Nousseibeh's advice, too. For the time being, in addition to safeguarding Israel's civic institutions, the most important thing is to make every effort for Palestinians to live in dignity. We must focus on demanding that Israel should retreat as far as possible from Palestinian population centers to minimize interference with their lives, and that ways be found to allow Palestinians to travel abroad without having to go through the humiliating procedures today.
Where will all this lead? I have argued against the one state solution time and again; both in the version of the greater Land of Israel propagated by Israel's right, and in the version advocated by many Palestinian intellectuals and activists and some Jewish intellectuals on the far left. I didn't see how such a state could conceivably function, and I thought the two state solution, imperfect as it is, was preferable to all alternatives. But history has moved on, and the two state solution is nothing but a mirage of the past.
We will have to think deeply and creatively about the future. Let me just give one pointer: I have argued a number of times that even within Israel's Jewish population there is at this point no consensus about fundamental questions, particularly on the relation between religion and state. It might well be that Israel will have to move toward a confederative structure to avoid growing tensions between ultra-orthodoxy, national-religious and secular Jews. If cantons or states (in the U.S. sense) will have growing autonomy, this might in the long run also provide Palestinians with the political self-determination they seek.