Peter Beinart’s Grotesque Utopia (Part Two)
This article is published as a series of three posts, which will appear on consecutive days. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 is below:
Present: Why Not Two States?
No surprise that that is the method Beinart applies to analyzing how the two-state solution — something he once claimed to support — is no longer possible.
Beinart, to his credit, does not assign all of the responsibility for his change of heart to factors external to him. He openly admits that he also changed his mind. But the narrative behind his change of heart is a familiar one. We could have had two states, but then Israel went and settled the West Bank so much that we no longer can. People tend to believe this narrative when they really want to — that is, when they want to hold on to both the belief that a Jewish state shouldn’t continue to exist but also want the probable victims of Israel’s end, the six million Jews living there, to be the ones held morally responsible for the state’s demise.
For anyone else it remains unclear why this narrative should be so convincing. If so many Jews moved from Israel to the West Bank in recent years, why can’t they just move back? Or, if Israel has a large Arab minority, why can’t a future Palestine have a large Jewish minority? The border might be complicated, but no more so than borders in other former conflict zones.
For Beinart’s argument to work, two things need to be true which are not. First, the prospect of two states for two peoples needs to have been possible at one time but no longer be possible now by some measurable metric. And second, it needs to be Israel’s fault that it is no longer possible.
Twenty-five years ago, during the Oslo peace process, developed areas of Israeli settlements took up less than 2% of West Bank land. There were at the dawn of Oslo a total of 118 settlements in the West Bank (figures are taken from Peace Now’s invaluable settlement database). In 2000, when Arafat rejected a peace deal that would have created a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, built-up settlement areas were still just under 2% of West Bank land and the total number was 123. Today, the settlements still take up less than 2% of West Bank land, and the total number is somewhere around 127 (there is disagreement on what counts as a new settlement). The geographical distribution of Jews in the West Bank has not materially changed at all in the past 27 years (1993–2020), and that’s significant because it did change very dramatically in the 26 years before that (1967–1992) in ways that did have consequences on potential peacemaking. In particular, the seven years of right-wing Likud led government (1977–1984) saw 76 new settlements established, nearly two-thirds of the total in the entire 53 years of the Israeli presence in the territory. This reckless building spree surely changed the geography of the West Bank rather dramatically in ways that arguably limited future diplomatic options (that was certainly the aim at least), but nothing like that happened during the Oslo years or since.
And just as the geography didn’t change very much in the past three decades, nor did the demography. The Jewish population of the West Bank and East Jerusalem has been steady at roughly 15% throughout the past three decades — again, after a dramatic increase in the previous three (from zero). The place where the demographic balance changed, interestingly, is inside Israel, where the Arab population grew in the same period from 17% to 22%, yet no one blames Arab Israelis for killing the two-state solution.
If a two-state solution was geographically and demographically possible in 1993, it was still possible in 2000. And if it was possible in 2000, it was still possible in 2008. And if it was possible in 2008, it was still possible in 2014, and it is still possible now. Nothing on the ground has changed in those years to affect the feasibility of partition except for the rapid disentanglement in the 1990’s of the Palestinian and Israeli economies which until well after the First Intifada started in 1987 were fully integrated (on an appallingly unequal basis, it should be said) and mutually dependent — and this one change makes two states more, not less, feasible.
The argument that settlements killed peace is a familiar one, and it’s a tempting one for anyone who wishes to see an Israeli fault for any failure — settlements, after all, are deeply unpopular even among most of Israel’s international supporters.
But the argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. At least three times in the past generation there have been serious negotiations between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the United States about a peace deal involving two states. They were not theoretical, but rather involved maps and timetables and concrete arrangements for borders and security. Such talks took place in 2000–2001 (Camp David and Taba), 2007–2008 (Annapolis and Jerusalem), and 2013–2014 (back channels in London and elsewhere and then Washington). In all three cases talks broke down when the Palestinian side refused to accept a state as part of a peace deal that would mean an end of claims (fully recognizing Israel, renouncing demands for resettlement of descendants of refugees from the 1948 war inside Israel, etc.). Yes, even the talks brokered by John Kerry between Netanyahu and Abbas ended with an American bridging proposal which was accepted by Netanyahu and rejected by Abbas.
What’s notable in all three failed attempts is how little the settlements ultimately mattered. In the first two cases in particular, there was an almost automatic Israeli willingness to embark on a broad evacuation of many isolated settlements on land that would become a Palestinian state. In the last two there was an explicit acceptance of the principle that settlements which would be annexed to Israel would be offset by land swaps. All three cases led to plausible borders no more tortuous than those that exist between other once warring neighbors without natural barriers.
Even Beinart’s claim that the growing population of Israeli settlers in the West Bank inevitably led to less territory for a prospective Palestinian state is false. Beinart may occasionally be alarmingly ignorant about the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but here he is being knowingly dishonest.
The claim he advances is that with a growing settler population, Israel offered less and less land to the Palestinians for a future state. This claim has the double benefit of both laying all the agency at Israel’s door (“Israel has redefined statehood to include ever-less territory”) and to put the blame on an unpopular Israeli action, namely settlement activity (“as more Jews have settled in the West Bank, Israel has demanded that a Palestinian state include larger and larger Israeli carve-outs”). What’s the evidence? As Beinart lays it out, in 2000, with the settler population (he is counting East Jerusalem) at 365,000, Palestinians could make peace with Israel at the cost of 9% of the West Bank, but by 2020, “with the number of settlers approaching 650,000,” the Trump plan would have them concede 30% of the West Bank.
But using more than two data points shows just how hollow the empirical claim Beinart is making here is, as well as the larger claim about the causal process. It’s true that in 2000 the Palestinians rejected a state along the lines Beinart sketched out. But it’s also true that in 2001 the Clinton Parameters proposed a significantly smaller Israeli annexation of 5%, even though there were more settlers in 2001 than in 2000, and the Palestinians rejected this too. It’s also true that in talks at Annapolis in 2007, even smaller land swaps were mooted, but no deal was reached — and there were more settlers in 2007 than in 2001. In 2008, Prime Minister Olmert proposed a Palestinian state with a roughly 2% land swap, and Palestinian President Abbas walked away. And yes, there were more settlers in 2008 than in 2007. The connection between the number of settlers and the contours of a two-state solution is not the one that Beinart posits. Fitting the curve on only two data points is radically dishonest.
Nor is Beinart’s claim that more and more Israelis are settling in the West Bank particularly robust. The number of Israelis settling in the West Bank has dropped rather dramatically in the past generation. In 1996, 6,000 Israelis migrated from Israel into the West Bank; twenty years later in 2016 that number fell to only 2000. Nearly all the growth of Jewish population in the West Bank has been from births, not from “settling” at all. Three-fourths of the population growth in the last forty years has been in three settlement blocs which can be accommodated with land swaps of less than 5% of the territory (much less, even, if some of the rejected proposals are taken seriously).
Looking just at the past fifteen years, during most of which Israel was governed by a right-wing pro-settlement government, nearly all the population growth was concentrated in two ultra-Orthodox settlements with high birth rates, Beitar Ilit and Modiin Ilit, neither of which is affiliated with nationalist settler movement. I urge everyone to open up a map and look where those two are. One starts about 600 meters from the old armistice line and the other about 700 meters (about one third of a mile). The settlement enterprise may very well be a moral and strategic catastrophe for Israel (I am convinced it is and have written about this often), but there is no sense in which Beitar Ilit and Modiin Ilit make drawing a line between a State of Israel and a State of Palestine impossible in any way. The settler movement and the nationalist right in Israel prefer that you not know the numbers and the lay of the land, for obvious reasons. Beinart, perversely, works just as hard to obfuscate this reality.
This essay continues with part 3 tomorrow.
Shany Mor is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Herzl Institute for the Study of Zionism and a research fellow at the Chaikin Institute for Geostrategy, both at the University of Haifa. He is also an associate fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter at @ShMMor. This series was originally published as one article at Medium.