Bret Stephens and Peter Beinart debate a topic roiling the Jewish community in America, and beyond.
Bret Stephens and Peter Beinart, thought leaders on opposite ends of the Jewish American political spectrum, agree about one thing: the desirability of a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. But in a debate presented by Penn Hillel in early May, they offered contrasting views as to who bears the biggest responsibility for past failures to bring it about, and which side fundamentally needs to change in order to make it a possibility in the future. Here’s an abridged portion of what proved to be a testy and wide-ranging debate between Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, and Beinart, a liberal contributor to the Atlantic.
Stephens: I think Peter and I both agree that we desperately want to see a two-state solution. We desperately want to see an Israel that maintains its Jewish and democratic character, that can live behind secure borders, and have a good relationship with all of its neighbors. And I think we both desperately want to see the Palestinian people have full access to their rights, both civically and as human beings. Now, how do you get to that? There’s where we disagree. As I see it, Israel has been in a process of asking for peace since 1948 and having one group or another simply refuse to extend that peace. Israel is still fighting not the battle of 1967—and this I think is where we fundamentally disagree—[but] I think Israel is fighting 1948, and has never stopped fighting the war of independence.
There’s no question things have to change on the Israeli side. That’s why I supported Benny Gantz [for prime minster] quite vocally, and to the annoyance of a great many ex-friends of mine. But fundamentally I think the change that has to happen is that a great majority of the Palestinian people have to say: we are prepared to live alongside a Jewish state, and create the institutions of a state that will create prosperity for our own people, rather than simply serve as a springboard for endless grievance, endless terror, and endless war against all of our neighbors.
Beinart: I think if Israel was interested in creating a Palestinian state, first of all, it would have a prime minister that supports a Palestinian state. Which this prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] does not, and has said very explicitly, quite a few times now in recent years—that [Israel] will never leave the West Bank, in his vision. Secondly, if you want to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank, it seems to me, you don’t pay Israeli Jews to move to settlements. Israel massively subsidizes the settlements in all kinds of ways. A study done a little while ago showed that the average settler receives 70 percent more in government subsidies than the average Israeli inside the Green Line [the pre-1967 border].
So you may or may not believe that a Palestinian state could be negotiated tomorrow—obviously the Palestinians are politically divided, Mahmoud Abbas is a very weak leader, and Hamas is still by and large a rejectionist movement. And I think what you need to create a legitimate Palestinian leadership are Palestinian elections to create a legitimate unified Palestinian leadership.
By the way, Israel and the US have opposed every Palestinian effort at unification, while also saying that the Palestinians can’t be negotiated with because they’re divided. But if you want to maintain the possibility of a Palestinian state one day, you shouldn’t be incentivizing people to move into settlements in the West Bank and therefore eating away at the territory on which Palestinians would create a state. And yet, that’s exactly what this Israeli government is doing. In fact, 28 out of the 30 members of the Likud who were elected not only support that—they support outright annexation of the West Bank.
So this talking point that Israel really wants a state in the West Bank, it seems hard to be credible when you have a prime minister who publicly opposes a Palestinian state in perpetuity, and most of the people in his party want to officially annex chunks of the West Bank and officially put the final nail in the coffin. And that worries me a lot, because I think the result of that will be a great deal of violence, and ultimately a Palestinian movement that asks for one person, one vote between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. And that movement, I think, ultimately will be an existential threat to Israel as a Jewish state. —TP