Forget the notion of a binational state replacing a divided Israel, Gaza and West Bank, a radical solution to the conflict rejected by nearly all Israelis.
Israeli Aluf Benn remembers when his homeland was a binational state.
“It was here,” said the editor-in-chief of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, recalling the days before the first Palestinian intifada from 1987 to 1993. “No borders. No checkpoints. We [Israelis] went to dentists in Qalqilya and mechanics in Jenin [both in the West Bank].”
Benn spoke in conversation with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic on Feb. 20 as part of the Manovill Conversations, a lecture series at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco that is presented in partnership with Haaretz.
As editor of the nearly century-old Haaretz, Benn, 49, helms what is often viewed as Israel’s most left-leaning daily. But in his JCCSF appearance — before a near-capacity crowd in 450-seat Kanbar Hall — he came off as no leftist firebrand, offering a measured analysis of Israel’s current strategic predicament.
It started with the “Four Surprises.”
That was Benn’s term to describe recent developments in the Middle East: 1) the apparent rapprochement between Iran and the United States; 2) U.S. inaction in Syria after earlier demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad; 3) new momentum for the movement to boycott Israel; and 4) the latest round of peace talks championed by Secretary of State John Kerry, but practically no one else.
Calling himself a pessimist, Benn said the “odds are against” success for the Kerry-brokered talks, but he noted that most Israelis would support a peace deal if it came before them.
“Israelis have been immune from the conflict since the security barrier went up,” he said, referring to the barrier that Israel started constructing along the West Bank after the second intifada ended in 2005. “Any deal signed by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will enjoy huge support. It’s up to Netanyahu to make up his mind.”
Echoing his newspaper’s longtime editorial position, Benn stressed that Jewish settlements in the West Bank pose a serious obstacle to peace. He suggested they play into the worst impressions people have of his country.
“Israelis cannot be proud of their country,” he said. “Everywhere they go they are asked if Israel is the new South Africa. Twenty years after [the Oslo accords], the occupation is still going on.”
Regarding BDS (boycott, sanctions and divestment), Benn said the movement is now “the center of discussion” among Israeli leaders and opinion-makers.
He differentiated between recent proposals proffered by the European Union to curtail business dealings with Israeli companies located in the West Bank, and the more nihilistic boycotters who consider Tel Aviv a settlement in occupied Palestine.
Although he maintains that boycotts have more symbolic than actual effect, he is adamantly against them.
“Most Israelis see themselves as part of the West,” Benn said. “ If Israel faced a situation where it was not part of the West anymore, that would resonate very strongly. The best response to BDS is to negotiate with the Palestinians over statehood and taking the risk that [a Palestinian state] would not be the friendliest of friends.”
Benn was born in Ramat HaSharon, just north of Tel Aviv, and holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He joined the staff of Haaretz in 1989, covering the security and diplomatic beats as a reporter. He later served as head of the news division and editor of the opinion pages before being named editor-in-chief in 2011.
Over the years, Haaretz has taken heat from some who accuse the newspaper of providing aid and comfort to enemies of Israel. Benn scoffs at the notion.
“I want Israel to prosper,” he said, “and for Israelis to be proud of their democracy.”
That won’t happen, he added, until Israel loosens its grip on the West Bank, something he feels is inevitable.
“How long will the status quo hold?” he asked rhetorically. “I can’t give an expiration date, but it’s getting there.”