The Crisis of Zionism: An Interview with Peter Beinart by Alan Johnson

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Peter Beinart is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York. He is senior political writer for The Daily Beast and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. The author of The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2006) and The Icarus Syndrome. A History of American Hubris (2010), his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, is published by Times Books in April 2012.

Alan Johnson is Senior Research Fellow at BICOM, a Senior Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Centre and an editorial board member of Dissent magazine. He is the editor of Global Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews, Foreign Policy Centre (2007).

The interview was conducted on April 3, 2012.

Part 1: Personal and Intellectual Influences

Alan Johnson: Some reviewers have gone in for pretty ugly personal attacks on you. How about we start by inviting you to introduce the real Peter Beinart? What was your journey to the writing of this book?

Peter Beinart: Israel has been very important to me since I was a child. I was raised in a very Zionist home; my family are South African Jews and was particularly influenced by my grandmother whose life was filled with turmoil because she had to leave Jewish community after Jewish community. She was born in Egypt and then moved to the Belgium Congo and then to South Africa. The ancestral community in Rhodes was totally destroyed in the Holocaust. I was very struck by her feeling that Israel was the one place that gave Jews a sense of security. She had a brother who had moved to Palestine before it became Israel, and that had a very profound impact on me.

I went to Israel several times as a child, and I was just amazed by this society of Jews from all over the world who had come together after this extraordinary experience of the recreation of peoplehood. This is not a topic I wrote about very much for quite a few years because I felt conflicted about it; I felt disturbed by some of the things Israel was doing, but I was also worried about publically criticising Israel. I was concerned about the impact that such public criticism would have in our community, which had an orthodox synagogue and was fairly conservative politically in its views. But I gradually began to feel that I had obligation to my own children to do what little I could to talk about what I believed were the threats to Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state. I believe so strongly that we have an obligation to do everything in our power to pass on to our children the miracle of a democratic Jewish state as it was passed to us, and I think there are trends in Israel today that put that in grave peril. We don’t do ourselves or our children any favours by trying to pretend that they don’t exist.

Part 2: The Crisis of Zionism – the thesis

Alan Johnson: Your book is about “a tragedy of incalculable proportions” that is taking place for Israel, in your opinion. Can we start there? What is this “tragedy”?

Peter Beinart: The tragedy is that Israel was created to be a Jewish state that offers, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, complete equality of social and political rights irrespective of race, religion and sex. In fact there is a tension between those two ideas, between a state that has a particular mission to safeguard the Jewish people and a state that offers complete equality. Inside Israel’s original 1949 lines, there is a foundation upon which to try to resolve that tension, because it offers citizenship and the right to vote to its non-Jewish population, particularly its Palestinian Arab population. However, in the territory Israel conquered in 1967, particularly the West Bank, the Palestinian population is not offered citizenship and the right to vote and lives under military law. Israel has no way of giving citizenship to the Palestinian population in the West Bank without destroying its existence as a Jewish state; it would no longer have a Jewish majority. So, if Israel’s occupation of the West Bank becomes permanent, and I fear we are moving towards it becoming more and more permanent every day, then Israel cannot be a democratic and Jewish state, and ultimately will have to choose between being an undemocratic Jewish state or a state that’s not Jewish. And that is the tragedy I am writing about.

Alan Johnson: You write about a “tension” between Zionism and liberal democracy; between Israel’s responsibility to the Jewish people and its responsibility to all its people. Some say these two principles can’t be reconciled. But you think they can. What does Israel need to do to resolve the tension between Zionism and liberal democracy? First, what does it have to do inside the Green Line?

Peter Beinart: I think Israel has to make a much more expansive effort in reaching out to its Palestinian Arab citizens and trying to deal with the serious discrimination that even the Or Commission itself – set up by the Israeli government – acknowledged exists in that relationship. It has to do with things like services, funding for education, funding for roads, for clinics, dealing with the enormous difficulties that Palestinian citizens of Israel have with housing; building new housing in their towns or in finding housing in historically Jewish towns. We need affirmative action for Palestinians Arabs in Israel’s civil service. And we must find ways, even if Palestinian Arabs are not likely to serve in the military, to allow them to do national service, because their career prospects are undermined otherwise, military service being so very important in one’s professional life in Israel.

The one Israeli Prime Minister that really went down this path in a courageous way was Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s. I suggest that his actions had an impact on the way that Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel thought about their relationship to the state. It produced a sense of good will on the other side. That is in stark contrast to this current government. Foreign Minister Lieberman has spent his entire career demonising, and trying to disenfranchise and limit the rights of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens, including for instance trying to prevent certain Israeli Arab parties from running in Knesset elections.

Alan Johnson: You claim there is less and less separation between what you call “democratic Israel” and “non-democratic Israel” – the two Israel’s that exist, in your view, on the two sides of the Green Line. You argue that “illiberal Zionism beyond the Green Line destroys the possibility of liberal Zionism inside it.” The occupation, you claim, has “infected democratic Israel”. In what ways does “non-democratic Israel” impact on “democratic Israel” in your view?

Peter Beinart: First, the conflict in the West Bank has a real impact on the way that Israelis and Palestinian citizens of Israel interact within the Green Line. The greater the conflict is with Palestinians in the West Bank, the more Israeli Jews are likely to see Israel’s Arab citizens as a fifth column and the more radicalised Israel’s Arabs are likely to become, due to the suffering of their cousins – and they often are literally cousins – across the Green Line in the West Bank. So it came as no surprise during the Second Intifada, in the wake of the horrific violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, that there were violent protests by Israel’s own Arab citizens, and then a harsh crack down by the Israeli state which led to 12 Israeli Arab citizens dying.

Second, the fear that is engendered by the occupation, and then the hatred that the occupation produces, is corrosive of democratic norms. I quote the novelist David Grossman on this point. I think that when the predominant experience that many Israeli Jews have with Palestinians is through their military service, which is of course very stressful and frightening – an experience of dealing with people not as equal citizens but much more in a kind of master-subject relationship – it really has an impact on the way they see Palestinians and Arabs more generally.

One of the most frightening things is the Israeli government’s inability and unwillingness to deal with even the most radical settler population – even those outposts that are illegal under Israeli law. People talk about what a two-state solution would ultimately look like; Israel would incorporate some settlements, but a significant number of others would have to be dismantled. Yet when the Israeli government is unwilling to dismantle outposts that are illegal under its own law, and which are populated by settlers who actually represent in some cases a threat to the Israeli state itself, then it makes you feel that this is a system that has got completely out of control. Gershom Gorenberg does a good job of illustrating that in his 2011 book, The Unmaking of Israel. That is very frightening, that feeling that the Israeli government may have created a process that it no longer has control over.

Alan Johnson: You argue that “American Jews are helping [Israel] to fail” to reconcile the tension between Zionism and liberal democracy. Who do you mean by “American Jewish Establishmen”? In what sense has it “failed”?

Peter Beinart: The “US Jewish establishment” is the large mainstream Jewish organisations. There are different categories. There are the federations which engage in philanthropy. There is AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations, which lobby the US government. Then there is the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which do Israel advocacy but also engage in domestic anti-discrimination work.

For all these organisations, there was a shift that took place around the 1970s that I try to chronicle in the book. The dominant focus of American Jewish organisations switched from the fight for equality of opportunity and civil rights inside the US to the defence of the Israeli government. I think that the problem here is not that the US Jewish organisations are focusing on Israel, but the definition that they have adopted of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” Their definition is essentially that we support whatever the Israeli government does. Israel is always put within the framework of the threat of a “second Holocaust.” The idea is that the Jews are a victimised people fundamentally and essentially in peril of being destroyed, so we need to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I think it blinds American Jewish organisations to the other kind of threats that exist to Israel which are internal, which come not from Israel’s weakness but from its inability to ethically wield power.

As I say in the book, I don’t think American Jewish organisations have found a way of talking about Jewish power and ethical responsibility. I think they have failed to understand there is another way of being pro-Israel, i.e. thinking about and being in solidarity with Israel’s founding document. In the same way we think about being “pro-America” is to help America to be as close as possible to the principles in our Declaration of Independence and our constitution, rather than supporting whatever policies a particular American president is pursuing, especially if those policies run counter to our own founding principles.

There’s an unwillingness to recognise that the Jewish condition has changed. Although Israel does face security threats, it also has far more power to shape the nature of those threats than Jews did when they were a defenceless diaspora people in Europe. Only by recognising the capacity to abuse that power can we then build the liberal-democratic restraints that prevent the abuse of power. I think that’s what the Bush administration didn’t understand, post 9/11. And that is the danger of the occupation, because beyond the Green Line many of those restraints are not active. Even though the young Israelis going to serve there may be very decent, thoughtful people, every bit as good as you or I, maybe better in some ways, they are operating in circumstances that don’t have the liberal democratic constraints that are necessary to prevent abuses from taking place.

Narratives of Obama and Netanyahu

Alan Johnson: The central four chapters of the book use the figures of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu to tell a bigger story about Israel’s future. Let’s explore those chapters. You call President Obama, “the Jewish president.” What did you mean by that?

Peter Beinart: I describe him as being more influenced by Jewish culture and by relationships with American Jews than any previous President. He came of age politically in Chicago in an environment in which Jews were very influential. Many of his key mentors were Jews. In the 1980s, Obama was interested in recreating the civil rights coalition and the Jews that he became connected with in Chicago were largely interested in the same thing. They had been connected to the Harold Washington campaign – the election of the first African American mayor in Chicago was kind of Chicago’s civil rights movement. Obama had a real affinity to these people because he had the same political agenda as them.

Obama also discovered the Jewish social justice tradition, the tradition of Abraham Joshua Heschel, and he became friendly with Heschel’s former private secretary, Arnold Jacob Wolfe; all that had great appeal to Obama. And he read David Grossman’s novels and I think became intrigued by the social justice aspects of the Zionist tradition; he has talked about that at various points. And all that is why I call Obama “the Jewish President” – because he was so influenced by Jews in Chicago and because he felt a genuine affinity to the Jewish tradition of the struggle for dignity and justice.

Alan Johnson: You tell the story of President Obama’s journey as a gradual retreat from “the liberal Zionism he … learnt in Chicago” until he adopted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “monist” Zionism. You argue that this was because the President “accommodated himself to an American political reality … largely created by American Jews.” Do you not worry that by using formulations like this you are lending credence to the Walt and Mearsheimer thesis about the supposed unstoppable power of “the Israel lobby”? Could it not be that President Obama changed his mind about a lot of things once he got in office, including the Middle East peace process, for a variety of reasons, not least that things look very different from the Oval Office? Think of Guantanamo.

Peter Beinart: Gradually, in a series of confrontations starting during his campaign, and continuing throughout his presidency, Obama realised the high political price of trying to put forward a liberal Zionist vision that would lead to Israel taking steps towards a two-state solution and the end of the occupation. Those political struggles took a toll on him, and I think shaped the nature of his advisors. There was such an emphasis put on reassuring the organised American Jewish community that Obama was not going to put too much pressure on Israel towards a two-state solution. So the people who ended up rising to the top of Middle East policy in the Obama administration, such as Dennis Ross, were people who were more cautious and closer to the mainstream American Jewish organisation’s views than Obama himself.

Ultimately, Obama came to the realisation that he has many fish to fry, politically speaking, and only a certain amount of political capital. If the American Jewish community, through its influence in Congress and elsewhere, is dead-set on giving the Israeli government the freedom to continue to pursue its own self-destructive policies, then it’s not in his interests to risk his entire Presidency on trying to confront that. I think he’s said that in various ways. Ultimately, I blame not Obama but us. We created a political environment in which it was so hard for Obama to do what I think is right for Israel and the most true to the Jewish tradition as I identify with it.

Alan Johnson: You portray Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the inheritor of Jabotinsky’s revisionist Zionism. Some might say “Hold on! Bibi has had two terms and no wars, signed the Wye agreement, withdrew from Hebron, gave the Bar-Ilan speech, and introduced the settlement freeze…some Jabotinskyist!” Why would they be wrong?

Peter Beinart: I think Netanyahu has been willing to submit just enough to outside pressure to prevent an outright crisis with the US, but no more than that. Let’s look at the Bar Ilan speech, for example. Let’s look at his whole position on two states. This is a man who was against the two-state solution his whole career, who did not publically support a Palestinian state when he ran in 2008, did not support one when he created his government, and did not support one in 2009 when he visited the White House. Then, in June 2009, he did make this speech in Bar Ilan but with a series of caveats that led even his father to say, as I quote in the book, that he has “included conditions that he knows would make a Palestinian state impossible.” In that same year he reissued his book, A Durable Peace, which explicitly opposes a Palestinian state. He has never made any effort to change the Likud party platform which is explicitly opposed to a Palestinian state. Benny Begin, one of the members of the interior cabinet, said just this week that the position of the Israeli government is not in support of a two-state solution, and that the Bar Ilan speech was just made for international consumption. The vice-Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said a few months ago that we are working hard to prevent a two-state solution. This is the vice-Prime Minister!

I think we have to apply the same level of scepticism that we would apply to the Palestinians. And we should be sceptical of the Palestinians in terms of their dedication to a two-state solution. I think perhaps most importantly of all, there will be no Palestinian state that isn’t on 95 per cent plus of the West Bank. That’s pretty clear in the wake of Clinton Parameters of December 2000 and the Olmert-Abbas negotiations of 2007-8. But when Obama spoke about a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines plus swaps, Netanyahu came out in furious rejection of that. Any realistic observer has to understand that there will be no Palestinian state that is based on anything other than the 1967 lines plus swaps, whether the swaps are 3 per cent or 5 per cent, or whatever. That’s not to say that Netanyahu might not, under much greater pressure, go further. But he hasn’t experienced that pressure from the Obama administration. He certainly has not experienced the kind of epiphany that it seems that Ehud Olmert did when he came to believe that he had to make aggressive and proactive steps towards trying to create a Palestinian state because Israel’s future required it.

A “Zionist BDS”?

Alan Johnson: You write, “unless American Jews help end the occupation that desecrates Israel’s founding ideals” then “Zionism will become a movement that fails the test of Jewish power.” Let’s talk about the practical things that diaspora Jews and Friends of Israel should be doing, in your view.

Controversially, you have argued for a “Zionist BDS” – a global boycott of the settlements, albeit matched by increased support for Israel inside the Green Line. But won’t this be counter-productive? I’ve been working on a pamphlet for Trade Unions Friends of Israel, to try and persuade UK unions not to break links with the Histadrut. Can I put to you the case of Bagel-Bagel? Unilever relocated the plant from the community of Barkan, located beyond the Green Line, to the Safed industrial zone in northern Israel after pressure from Dutch boycott activists from United Civilians for Peace. They ran giant ads in the newspapers calling on Unilever to abandon Barkan. They were successful… and 60 Palestinians lost their jobs. The Israeli union centre, the Histadrut, is pro-two-state and has an agreement with the PGFTU but it opposes a boycott of settlements. So does the US lobbying organisation, J-Street. I have to tell you, I had friends text me after your NYT op-ed and say “well, he’s just lost me.” Why do you favour a boycott?

Peter Beinart: On the question of Palestinians losing jobs, the PA itself has launched a boycott of settler produce. I think the Palestinian leadership has made it very clear that they think this is a good idea, even though there are economic costs. It is actually quite significant, and valuable that they are not boycotting all Israeli goods but only settler goods, which is a two-state solution statement. I came up with this proposal because I was inspired by what Israeli writers David Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua had done in their unwillingness to play in the Ariel settlement’s cultural centre, in their insistence on making a distinction between what I call “democratic Israel” and “undemocratic Israel.” We are confronted by both an Israeli government and a BDS movement both of which are trying to erase the Green Line and create a one-state reality. They have very different visions of that one state reality, but they are both pushing towards it. Against that, we have to find ways of keeping alive the possibility that these two areas can be separated and that’s the basis of my desire to treat them differently. Now people can argue that politically this may be counterproductive. But I think there have been successes, as you yourself have mentioned, from this kind of effort, even though the Jewish community of course has been entirely against it – Barkan wine and the Multilock Company.

Look, the current state of affairs, in which the Israeli government is treating the settler population and the population of democratic Israel in the same way, is only leading to greater and greater settlement growth. I consider this to be a grave threat to Israel’s existence as a democratic and Jewish state, so I have opened up a conversation about how we are going to stop this process of sleepwalking towards a one-state solution. If people have other alternatives about how they believe we can get a handle on the process, while still subsidising settlements, then I am open to it. But I felt like we needed to have this conversation before it is too late.

Alan Johnson: Some critics saw in your book, and in your NYT op-ed, unintended support for the “good Jew / bad Jew” trope. “Good Jews” are one side of the Green Line, “bad Jews” on the other. I guess the fear is that the book will reinforce the “good Jew / bad Jew” frame in the West among the boycott activists and allow them to take it into the mainstream. They will say good Jews oppose the Israeli government, while bad Jews do not, and so they can be boycotted, even attacked.

Peter Beinart: I disagree. The choice between doing nothing and all out BDS is what worries me most. I try to make it emphatically clear at every opportunity I can that I am absolutely opposed to any boycott of all of Israel, of Israel inside the Green Line. My fear is this: there is a struggle within these various organisations year after year – in labour unions, academic groups – in which the Jewish organisations say “do nothing”, and the Palestinian organisations say “full BDS”. Maybe the Jewish organisations can win one, two or three years. But over time, when people see the one-state reality being entrenched, the BDS movement will continue to gain ground. This is especially true in an environment where we have no meaningful peace process – and I am not sure we are going to have one any time soon, frankly, given the political reality with this Israeli government, this US presidency and the Palestinian leadership. What was useful about Grossman, Oz and Yehoshua’s proposal was that it offered people an alternative: a way of actively affirming Israel’s right to exist, which is so important, whilst expressing opposition to the settlement of the West Bank. That’s the alternative that we need to offer people, precisely so we can prevent the growing success of the BDS movement to which I am very strongly opposed.

Part 3: The Crisis of Zionism – the critique

Alan Johnson: I’d like to explore a series of substantive criticism of the book and invite your response. However, first I want to raise the question of the tone of the debate. What has struck me has been the following. First, as you noted in your reply to Bret Stephens, you have been attacked for having empathy (with Palestinians) per se. Second, some of the criticism has had an ugly and ad hominem cast. Third, while much of the book is about the impact of the post ‘67 territories on Israel, I struggled to find a serious response to that argument. Fourth, the flat-out distortions! One reviewer said “Here is what he thinks: Israel is an oppressive, apartheid-type state” and alleged that Orthodox Jews are “bigots to a man, in his telling”. Neither of these claims are true. Has the tone and style of some of the reviews surprised you?

Peter Beinart: Much of the style of the organised American Jewish community’s discussion about the book is about evasion. And it’s not just my book. When criticisms are raised about what Israel is doing, things that are contrary to Israel’s best interests, to its founding principles and to the best of the Jewish tradition, the reaction is ‘well, what about all this other stuff’?

It’s not that this other stuff is unimportant. In the first chapter of the book, I make quite an effort to say that it’s precisely because I think Israel’s accomplishments have been so impressive in creating a democratic system under such stress, that we have to be concerned about the potential erosion of that. I even say at one point in the first chapter that given that Israel has been at war virtually since its inception, and given the way America has responded to minorities during its war time, we Americans have no right to think we would have done any better. In fact we might have done worse. I talk about some of the specific rights that Israeli Arabs enjoy and about their improved economic conditions. It’s not that I think that these things shouldn’t be talked about or that Israel shouldn’t be praised for these things. In fact, I do it myself. Nor do I think the Palestinians are blameless. I think they are the weaker party, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they are blameless: I say that Arafat’s role in the Second Intifada was a crime, and I say that there were real reasons to question whether he would have given up the right of return, particularly given what a corrupt and dictatorial leader he was. So those things should be said, and I say them!

But ultimately you still have to grapple with the question of whether Israel’s policies serve the interest of Israel as a future democratic Jewish state. I find that these questions are very frequently met with evasion. This is because the organised American Jewish community wants to be able to say that it supports a two-state solution, but doesn’t actually want to have to do anything that would lead to the creation of a two-state solution and might be in conflict with Israeli policy. So I think the commitment to the two state-solution, on the part of the organised American Jewish community is a very thin and weak commitment. That is part of what I was trying to get at in the book, and in many cases I feel like the response has illustrated some of the arguments I make in the book.

Treating Israel as the only actor?

Alan Johnson: To move on to questions of substance, some claim that you think the two-state deal is in Israel’s gift, when it isn’t. At one point you write “were Israel to permit the creation of a Palestinian state.” I thought that was significant. David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee has said “A consistent majority of Israelis want nothing more than to extract themselves from an unsought occupation for the sake of peace, but it just can’t be done unilaterally.” Harris went on: “Peter seems to think that there’s an easy way to get [to the two state solution] that Israel hasn’t taken,” whereas “The Palestinians have not been prepared to do their part, irrespective of what they might say to some all-too-receptive Western ears.”

Peter Beinart: I don’t think it’s easy. I spend a lot of time trying to explain why it is hard. It’s hard partly because it is a territorial dispute: Israeli governments have wanted to keep more of the West Bank – maybe 8 per cent in Barak’s case, maybe as low as 6 per cent in Olmert’s case – plus some longer-term presence in the Jordan valley. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have been down towards more of a 2 per cent land swap. There are also a lot of very difficult issues associated with the right of return, in particular whether the Palestinians would ultimately accept the lack of a large scale right of return. I think the Israelis are right to worry about that. There is also the very difficult question of the Temple Mount, which was a very important issue in negotiations in 2000-2001.

I don’t think the solution is easy. It’s precisely because it’s hard that it’s so self-defeating for Israel to build settlements that make the territorial gap harder and harder to close and – and this is what a lot of the critics don’t understand – make it harder to close the territorial gap. Settlements make it easier for the Palestinians to evade their most wrenching concession, the right of return. It’s one thing for the Palestinians to give up on the large scale right of return if they are getting a Palestinian state on 98 per cent of the West Bank with a 2 per cent land swap; it’s another thing to ask them to do that when they have to accept a state that is not going to have control over the Jordan Valley, that is going to have to accept settlements like Ariel that cut deep into the West Bank. This, in some ways, lets them off the hook; you make it very easy for them to refuse to give up the right of return because they don’t even feel like they’re getting a contiguous state in the West Bank.

Robbing the Palestinians of agency?

Alan Johnson: Second, some claim that you rob the Palestinians of agency. Many reviewers picked up on this. For example Alana Newhouse wrote in The Washington Post, “From this book you would think that Palestinians are just the passive and helpless victims of Israeli sadism, with no historical agency; no politics, diplomacy or violence of their own; and no responsibility for the miserable impasse of the conflict.” Bret Stephens accused you of making Palestinians “props in the drama known as Being Peter Beinart.” The Arabs in the book “have no moral agency: They never act; they only react. The very thought that Palestinians need not celebrate suicide bombers or cheer the murder of Jewish children seems never to have crossed Beinart’s mind.” Gal Beckerman argued that you think only Israel has agency: “In his telling, Israel’s relations with Turkey went sour over the past three years only because of Israeli actions (that is, Operation Cast Lead and the disastrous raid on the flotilla headed for Gaza). He makes no mention of the fact that Turkey’s leaders had their own political and strategic reasons for turning on Israel.”

The Jewish Review of Books claimed that “the most important defect of Beinart’s argument is that it essentially exonerates the Palestinians of any accountability.” The reviewer pointed out that while you cited the former Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath’s declaration that “probably the settlement issue was the single most important destroyer of the Oslo agreement” approvingly, you then “cast doubt on the notion that any factor on the Palestinian side—like, say, the unrelenting demand for the right of return—truly impeded a deal.”

How do you respond to this criticism?

Peter Beinart: I think it is based on a wilful misreading of my book. In the chronology that I offer from the beginning of the Oslo Accords to the 2005 Gaza Disengagement and Operation Cast Lead, I argue that there is Palestinian culpability and Israeli culpability. I say that during the Oslo process the Palestinians didn’t live up to their obligations to fight terror, that at times they actively aided and abetted terror, that Arafat responded terribly to Clinton’s offer at the Camp David Summit in December 2000, that there are good reasons to question whether he would give up the right of return. I critique his corrupt and dictatorial rule and say that his acquiescence to the Second Intifada was a “crime.” I talk about how vile the Hamas’s charter is.

Bret Stephens says that it didn’t cross my mind that Palestinians would commit acts of terrorism. That’s nonsense. I went out of my way to give the gruesome details of the Itamar massacre and of the lynching of the Israel soldiers in the Ramallah police station, precisely because I wanted graphic descriptions in my book of Palestinian violence and how horrible it was. I am not even sure I give as graphic a description in my book of Israeli violence against Palestinians. How can he think it hasn’t occurred to me, when I describe it in the book itself?

It’s funny, this claim that I am denying the Palestinians agency by talking about the realities of the occupation. It is partly a product of the fact that so many of the American Jewish community don’t actually talk to Palestinians. I don’t actually find that Palestinians feel that you are robbing them of their agency when you are talking to them about the realities of the occupation under which they live! I actually think that the beginning of understanding their humanity is to recognise the reality in which they live.

Israeli and Palestinian behaviour is a dynamic interaction; both populations influence the way the other behaves. I don’t think the Palestinians are purely reactive; not at all. If I did, I wouldn’t have called Arafat’s role in the Second Intifada a crime, which suggests that he absolutely did have agency over how he was going to respond to the outbreak of stone throwing following Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. I do suggest at numerous places that the Palestinians could have reacted differently, and I do say they bear blame for not acting differently.

What is so striking to me about so many of these reviews is exactly the opposite: It is that they deny Israeli agency. They are not even willing to acknowledge that Israel bears responsibility for its policies to subsidise people moving to the West Bank. No matter what you want to say about the Palestinians and their repeated failures – and I think there have been repeated failures on their part to move towards a two-state solution – the Palestinians are not the ones subsidising Israelis moving to the West Bank. To not grapple with that is to deny Israeli agency. As I say in my response to Bret Stephens, this is an illustration of one of the core arguments in my book: that we in the American Jewish community have not found a way of talking about the ethical responsibilities of power.

Ignoring Israel’s security challenges?

Alan Johnson: Third, some worry that you underestimate Israel’s security challenges. Bret Stephens sums up your view as “Israel has no real mortal enemies—other than itself.” He claims that you offer only “some glib and equivocal acknowledgment that Israelis live in a less-than-super neighbourhood.” Rosenblatt writes, “Beinart weakens his moral case by ignoring Israel’s security concerns.” I was struck myself by the fact that a book on Israel published in 2012 has only one index entry for Iran, and you do not discuss the Iranian nuclear threat. Do you underplay the security threats that Israel faces?

Peter Beinart: I think it’s a misreading of the book. The book is not about Iran. I’ve actually written a lot of columns about Iran, which represents a threat and shift in the power balance against Israel. But I believe, as [former Mossad chief] Meir Dagan believes, that military action would be a very counterproductive way of trying to deal with the threat of a shift in power towards an Iranian regime that has hostile intent to Israel and its allies, and to the potential threat of nuclear proliferation.

My book is primarily about Israel and the Palestinians, but it does actually spend a fair amount of time talking about the potential security threats of a Palestinian state. And there are risks. I quote Martin Van Creveld, the eminent Israeli military historian, saying Israel can survive giving back the West Bank. But then I say that Creveld might be too nonchalant. There are very real threats, particularly from terrorism and rockets. But I try to make the case that given that Israel is going to be in one way or another subcontracting some of its security to the Palestinians, (given that Israel is never going to go back to direct occupation of all the towns and cities in the West Bank) that it’s better for Israel to subcontract to a Palestinian state. Such a state will have greater capacity and incentive to crackdown on those who would threaten Israel’s security through terrorism because those forces would also be threatening Palestinian statehood itself. That is why I think the peace deals with Jordan and Egypt have held up relatively well, at least so far, despite the fact that there is a lot of hostility in those populations towards Israel.

Whatever happened to your Niebuhrian realism?

Alan Johnson: Fourth, have you forgotten Niebuhr? Have you allowed ethics (the prophetic tradition) to trump politics? Have you allowed the future to trump the present (and the past)? Have you given up on negotiating that terrible but inescapable tension between what Niebuhr called “moral man and immoral society”? In your first book, The Good Fight, you discussed your admiration for the mid-century American theologian and liberal Reinhold Niebuhr. You quoted his criticism of the anti-imperialist left: it “would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul.” Some critics have argued that even though you proclaim it as the central dilemma of modern Israel, you yourself don’t actually deal with the complexities of wielding power. You don’t acknowledge the lesser evils, the excruciating no-win choices, and so on. They claim to see a simplistic dualism in which universalism and tribalism are Israel’s only two options. According to Gal Beckerman, “Beinart is not doing the hard work of figuring out how to balance these competing impulses … he does precious little grappling with what it means for Jews to wield political and military power, what it means to govern and to be forced to choose constantly between the lesser of two evils.” Why are they wrong?

Peter Beinart: Being supportive of a Jewish state at all is very Neibuhrian. If I were a pure Universalist then I would be supporting a secular bi-national state. There are many people to my left who believe it is a compromise of universalistic liberal democratic values to support a state that has any ethnic identity, and that tries to protect one particular people. I argue that in fact, precisely because of the fallen state of the world, as expressed through Jewish experience in the diaspora, we do have the right to have a state that safeguards the Jewish people, even though that does mean infringements upon the rights of non-Jews living in Israel. That is a very Neibuhrian perspective.

But look, there is a danger with Niebuhr’s recognition of the harshness of the world, and with his understanding that ethics can’t fully enter politics. In short, the danger is that these insights are mis-used to give carte blanche for whatever you want to do. One has to balance Niebuhr’s critique of utopian moralism with his other injunction, which is to always remember the way in which we may not be aware of the degree to which self-interest corrupts us. We do not always have the capacity to honestly evaluate our own behaviour because we always tend to consider ourselves to be acting for the best of reasons.

Both sides in the American foreign policy debates post 9/11 could have applied Niebuhr. We can say that a pure return to international law would have been utopian under those circumstances. Equally, it would also have been very dangerous to say that – simply because Niebuhr recognised that we live in a harsh and difficult world, and that ethics and politics were not the same – that we can justify Guantanamo Bay and America’s torture policy. I would like to believe that Niebuhr would have opposed those things precisely because he recognised the degree to which we had lost sight of our own ability to interrogate ourselves and be sceptical of our own pretentions to pure virtue.

To view the full BICOM Symposium, including reviews by Jonathan Rynhold, Stephen Pollard, Hannah Weisfeld and Jeremy Newmark, click here.