In Carlo Strenger’s April 9 post in The Huffington Post, the Tel Aviv University professor of psychology and frequent news commentator finds more of a basis for agreement with Sari Nusseibeh than Peter Beinart. Whether right or wrong about the policy consequences, he puts his finger on the change in perception wrought by the Second Intifada and the years of violence coming out of the Gaza Strip since the Hamas takeover.
I fear that Strenger is correct that most Israelis are now too traumatized to take the plunge toward a two-state solution, but he’s vague about the alternative. Just as he and all of us liberal Zionists find it hard to conceive of a unitary Israeli-Palestinian state as workable, his invocation of a possible confederation in his concluding paragraph seems fraught with difficulties. Nevertheless, I take this as the beginning of an honest quest, by a profound and humane thinker, for a better answer:
Dear Peter Beinart. … 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…. 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 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
…. 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. … 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.
… 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. … 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 … 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 … 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. …. I think it is difficult to reject these concerns of mainstream Israelis as overblown. …
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…. 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. ….
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 …. 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. …
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.