Beinart’s boycott plan deals a blow to peace bid

By Steven Bayme, JTA

NEW YORK — Far from charting a path toward peace for Israelis and Palestinians, Peter Beinart’s advice, “boycott the settlements to save Israel,” would make peace far less likely.

Beinart’s boycott plan assumes that Jewish settlement on the West Bank is what is holding up a deal for a two-state solution. Therefore, his logic goes, branding the settlements as “nondemocratic Israel” and declaring economic war on their residents will somehow induce an Israeli pullback and the emergence of a Palestinian state at peace with its Jewish neighbor.

Yes, Jewish settlements create difficulties for Palestinians both in their everyday lives — having to wait at checkpoints is no pleasure — and in the eventual creation of a geographically viable Palestinian state. That is why a succession of Israeli governments, including the present one, has endorsed Palestinian statehood and acknowledged that many settlements will have to go. It is a position endorsed as well by the American Jewish Committee and the mainstream of American Jewry. But that can only happen, and a Palestinian state be created, through bilateral negotiations. For that Israel requires a Palestinian partner.

Beinart has things backward. Time after time, Israel has made generous territorial offers to the Palestinians and each time was rebuffed. It is not settlements that obstruct peace talks, but the Palestinians’ refusal to engage in such talks that makes the Israeli government reluctant to risk domestic political capital to take on the extremist settlers in the absence of any foreseeable payoff at the peace table.

We must face the sad fact that there is today no Palestinian leadership ready to negotiate peace. Hamas, which controls Gaza, still says it wants to destroy the Jewish state and allows an unending barrage of missiles to be launched from its territory onto civilians in southern Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denies historical Jewish ties to Jerusalem and prefers to seek statehood through the United Nations rather than talks with Israel, and anti-Israel propaganda continues to be taught in Palestinian schools and conveyed in their mosques.

Beinart, so ready to declare economic war on Israelis living across the Green Line, makes but minimalist demands of the Palestinians to address any of this, as if they are not to be held accountable for their behavior. Is it not an act of shocking intellectual condescension to expect so little of a people that aspires to join the family of nations? Can such a people, its leadership so unwilling to make peace a reality through mutual concessions and recognition, be declared ready for statehood and sovereignty?

A boycott of the settlements cannot, as Beinart believes, be confined to the West Bank. Inevitably it will tar all of Israel as beyond the pale, a pariah state, the equivalent of old apartheid South Africa. In fact the very term “nondemocratic Israel” undercuts a major pillar of U.S.-Israel relations — the affinity of fellow democracies for each other.

Finally, the notion that a boycott will weaken the settlements and lead to their disappearance is absurd. By painting the settlers as martyrs, a boycott would only embolden them to dig in and might in fact increase sympathy for them within Israel.

Beinart apparently has a “binary” vision of the situation. He thinks there are only two possible paths — continued occupation of the West Bank, or American and American Jewish pressure to end the occupation. AJC, however, endorses a third path — taking down illegal settlements, rejecting religious extremism, reaching final agreement with the Palestinians on a two-state solution, incorporating into Israel those large settlement blocs that will be part of Israel, and dismantling those that fall outside the Jewish state. But this solution is predicated on an end to terrorist activities both within and outside the Green Line, and explicit Palestinian recognition — in Arabic and in Ramallah — of Israel’s right to exist.

In the final analysis, unfortunately, there are no simple and neat solutions to the world’s longest-running conflict. Both sides need to come to the negotiating table and recognize the hopes and fears of the other. Requiring unilateral concessions of Israel as the occupier will only enhance the angst of Israelis concerning the security of their families and friends. Nor will such concessions allay the fears of Israelis that Palestinians desire the elimination of Israel as a sovereign state — a fear that Peter Beinart himself readily acknowledges.

(Steven Bayme is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations.)