When I asked Peter Beinart to tell me what he thought about the cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, announced last week, his tone was resigned. “I’ve actually been in an Israeli shelter with my daughter when she was younger and I have a lot of friends and family in Israel, so I was grateful,” Beinart said. “But I also felt that nothing had been solved and that in all likelihood something like this would happen again, unfortunately.”
Beinart is a writer and an editor, but above all else, he is an unusual figure for many American Jews. He’s Orthodox, has considered himself a Zionist. He’s also a human rights advocate. And his position on Israel has shifted over time. Having once been a staunch defender of the Jewish state, he’s now something else—an interlocutor, challenging everyone to look closely at Israel, and tell him if what they see looks fair.
The people he’d really like to talk this out with are in the Biden administration. From the beginning, Beinart’s noticed Biden has seemed to want to ignore conflict in Israel. “It makes a certain kind of realpolitik sense, except for the fact that America is deeply implicated in this deep oppression,” Beinart said. “The Biden administration is really stuck. I think the path of least resistance will be for them to try to put on enough of a Band-Aid and just cross their fingers that something like this doesn’t erupt again while he’s president.”
The president might be stuck, but when it comes to Israel, there are signs that other Democrats are shifting their positions. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Beinart about how significant that shift really is and whether the left flank of the party will influence the White House. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Back during the Democratic primary, you wrote a deeply reported piece that seemed to anticipate this very moment. It was titled “Joe Biden’s Alarming Record on Israel.” And it laid out Biden’s hesitancy around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You say that Biden’s reluctance to act has been a political calculation. There wasn’t much to be gained, Biden argued, from having public disagreements with Benjamin Netanyahu or his government. And to explain his reasoning, Biden used this phrase: “Never crucify yourself on a small cross.”
Peter Beinart: It’s kind of an ironic metaphor to use for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a conflict between Jews and Palestinians, who are mostly Muslim. But look, I don’t blame Biden. I blame us, which is to say, Biden is a politician. Most of the time, politicians respond to political incentives. Most of the time, politicians aren’t courageous. When Obama was running for president in 2008, maybe 2007, he was asked by a progressive American Jew whether he would be willing to pressure the Israeli government to change its behavior. And Obama told this story in which the African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph went to Franklin Roosevelt and asked Roosevelt to start desegregating the United States government. And Roosevelt said something along the lines of, “You put 10,000 people on the White House lawn and make me do it.” And the truth is that those of us who care about the freedom and dignity of Palestinians, who believe that it is a matter of Jewish honor that we are not oppressing other people, we have not done that yet. We have not created enough political force that changes the political calculations for Joe Biden. And although I wish that he would be more out front and more courageous, that ultimately will be the determining variable.
So I guess the question now is really are the politics changing? Because if you were paying attention over the last week or two, you could see various politicians putting themselves forward and making the moral case here, whether that’s Sen. Bernie Sanders with his op-ed in the Times. Or Rashida Tlaib, who spoke directly to the president when he was on a visit to Detroit and also spoke on the floor of Congress very movingly about her Palestinian heritage. Are you seeing other things, too, that folks should be paying attention to that show some kind of movement?
In the quote-unquote mainstream media, there’s definitely been a significant shift. I think that the Black Lives Matter movement and other things have made the media more conscious of questions of representation and more, frankly, embarrassed at the historic absence of Palestinian voices in these conversations. And so I think you have seen more Palestinian voices in the conversation during this conflict than in previous ones.
There’s been so much conversation about bias, just really transparent conversations.
Yes, and that’s a big deal. And you are seeing some of that filter into the most progressive members of Congress. But I’m not sold on the idea that we’re necessarily seeing a fundamental shift overall. First of all, the Democrats are only one of two parties in the United States. And so even though there’s a little bit of progressive movement happening in the Democratic Party, the Republican Party has gone way backwards. Twenty years ago, you could find Republicans who were willing to talk about Palestinian rights and about American pressure. George H.W. Bush was the last U.S. president to ever condition aid to Israel to restrain settlement growth. That’s completely gone inside the Republican Party.
And why is that? My understanding is that that’s because the Republican Party has become entwined with these religious interests that make it make sense to align yourself with the state of Israel. But is that your understanding too?
Yes, you can say it’s because of white Christian evangelicals and their influence in the Republican Party and also those American Jews who are involved in the Republican Party, who are disproportionately Orthodox. And so it’s a powerful kind of alignment.
But I think just focusing on the religious aspect is perhaps too generous. One of the things we’ve certainly learned in the Trump era is that when one talks about this category of Christian evangelicals, you’re talking about a racial category, not just a religious category. And so part of what’s going on is that Israel has hierarchies, ethno-religious hierarchies. You can see it most explicitly in immigration policy, where I as a Jew could go to Israel and become a citizen tomorrow. And virtually there’s no way for a Palestinian or almost any other non-Jew to actually to go to Israel and gain citizenship. That’s very appealing to a lot of people in the Republican Party who are basically focused on defending—not the same hierarchies—but a set of hierarchies and an ethno-religious, racial definition of America. Tucker Carlson said just the other day, basically, “Why can’t we have an immigration policy like Israel?” So there is a deep ideological association between the kind of America that many Republicans want and the kind of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu presides over today.
You’ve said the reason the American debate over Israel and Palestine could shift dramatically and quickly is that behind closed doors there are plenty of politicians who are convinced already that what Israel is doing is wrong, but they just need to be convinced that they can say that out loud without hurting their careers. What is it that would convince those politicians of that?
Seeing other politicians be able to do so and survive politically. It’s really important that Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar both won their reelection challenges, even though there were a lot of people who really put a lot of effort into trying to defeat them. That’s really important.
I think it’s possible that in the Democratic Party you will see more people realizing that this AIPAC, establishment infrastructure that they’re often so afraid of actually isn’t as powerful as they might believe. But you have to go through that experience before you can believe it.
AIPAC is the lobbying group that advocates for a strong American-Israeli relationship. And a lot of people have cited them when they talk about the influence of Israel in Washington. Do you feel like there’s been any change there? In terms of how much influence they have in the halls of Congress.
AIPAC’s problem is that it’s a bipartisan organization. It has to be a bipartisan organization. Its whole point is to basically ensure that U.S. policy toward this war remains largely the same.
No matter who’s in power.
And it’s just hard to be a bipartisan organization on anything in Washington. AIPAC’s problem is that the momentum in AIPAC is toward it being a more Republican organization, and it’s struggling very, very hard to hold on to its Democratic flank, talking constantly about progressive values in Israel, LGBT this and blah blah. But the momentum is clearly for AIPAC to become less influential in the Democratic Party.
Rep. Jerry Nadler wrote this op-ed in the New York Times Friday, making an argument that Democrats have always seen the nuances in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and that Democrats in Congress agree on this. I wondered if you agreed with that or whether you thought what you’re seeing now is new.
Eh. I mean, Democrats have seen the nuances, but the vast majority of them have basically still wanted Israel to be able to act with impunity. The really significant shift is among a small number of Democratic members of Congress—Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Betty McCollum from Minnesota—who actually speak full-throated in the language of Palestinian rights and want the U.S. to use its leverage to change Israeli policy. It’s still nowhere near a majority of even the Democratic Congress who are taking this position.
What will be significant is when someone like Jerry Nadler is willing to say U.S. money should not be used to imprison Palestinian children and demolish Palestinian homes. That’ll be important. But we are not there yet.
You say that the problem with U.S. support for Israel is that it has been so unconditional, right? You don’t want the U.S. to remove itself from Israeli affairs entirely. Congress could attach some strings to Israel’s nearly $4 billion in U.S. military aid.
First of all, there are certain kinds of practices that are simply too inhumane for U.S. money to be used for. One would be the demolition of Palestinian homes. It’s important to understand that the vast majority of Palestinian homes are not demolished because Palestinians have been accused of anything other than not having building permits. And you know what? They can’t get building permits because when you’re not a citizen, the government doesn’t have any real interest in giving you a building permit. So you build illegally because that’s the only way you can build. And then they show up one day and say, “Sorry, we’re knocking down your home.”
The second thing is that we should condition U.S. aid on Israel actually stopping settlement growth and being open to the idea of a Palestinian state. I myself think that probably the ship has sailed on Palestinian statehood. But we should be using our leverage to say to Israel, “If you want this $3.8 billion, then you have to change your policy.” I think this would change Israeli politics. I think that one of the reasons Benjamin Netanyahu has been so successful is that he has convinced Israeli Jews that they can have their cake and eat it, too. They can continue this project of inexorably taking more and more Palestinian land and entrenching this oppression of Palestinians, and pay no international price because their big friend America is giving them international impunity. If that were not the case, if there really were a price internationally for Israel’s behavior, I think that would strengthen Netanyahu’s centrist and progressive critics.
You wrote a piece last year about how your views had changed. Originally you’d been quite in favor of a two state solution, a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. But the more and more this conflict deepened, the less and less possible you thought that was. Why?
I just came to the conclusion that the Israeli settlement enterprise, not just the number of settlers, but the vast infrastructure that Israel has built in the West Bank—and when you see it up close, nothing about it looks temporary. And so I began to fear that in continuing to use this paradigm of two states, I was actually blinding myself to the reality that existed on the ground and that the paradigm, instead of being a helpful way of understanding the conflict and a potential solution, was actually becoming a way of essentially justifying this immoral status quo.
So I spent a fair amount of time trying to think about alternatives and trying to think my way through to an idea of one equal state that I thought could work for both Jews and Palestinians.
And I think that that scares a lot of American Jews who think that they will lose power in that situation where it’s not a Jewish state, it’s a state that’s shared.
Yeah, tell me about it. It scares me. There’s a lot of trauma in the Jewish experience and a lot of fear. But I ultimately came to the conclusion that our fears cannot be a moral license to crush other people. That is actually antithetical to the way I understand Judaism. We’re not simply a tribe. Judaism has an ethical message. It makes a case about the infinite value of all human life. The Torah doesn’t start with Jews. It starts with human beings who are not Jews. Noah, Adam and Eve—these are not Jews. The point is to emphasize the infinite value of all human life. So that’s one reason I took this position.
The second is I ultimately don’t think that Israeli Jews will be more safe in a state where they are brutalizing and dominating another people and making their lives utter hell.
Because those people have nothing to lose.
Yes. The harsh reality is that in virtually every movement of national struggle by people who are oppressed, there is some faction that uses violence. We’ve sanitized Nelson Mandela, but he was not an apostle of nonviolence. He supported armed resistance. The IRA planted bombs in and around England. In Myanmar now, there are many people moving to armed struggle. The point is that there will always be some group of Palestinians who are going to meet the violence that they experience, through state oppression, through violence, unless you show them that nonviolence can actually lift that oppression. And Israel has done the opposite.