"The American Jewish leadership ... is most comfortable with a narrative that says Israel is embattled from without, from external threats, and that we need to focus on those threats and that brings us together," Beinart said Thursday in an interview. "But I don't think that we have a narrative in the American Jewish community, especially the organized Jewish community, to talk about the internal threats to Israel's democratic character."
Chief among those threats, he says, is Israel's control over millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Most experts believe that if Israel does not disengage from the Palestinian territories, the number of Arabs living under Israeli control will soon outnumber the number of Jews, forcing Israel to make a difficult choice: Either maintain the status quo, in which Palestinians can't vote, and stop being a democracy, or grant Palestinians the right to vote and end the country's status as a democracy with a Jewish majority.
"The big question for me is can Israel survive as a democracy and a Jewish state?" he said.
"We are moving toward the day in which Israel's occupation will be permanent, when it will be impossible to create a viable Palestinian state," he added. "When we wake up to the reality that that's happened, it will force my children to make the choice that I don't ever want them to have to make: between being a Zionist and being a believer in democracy."
The 12 million people who live in Israel plus the Palestinian areas are roughly equally divided between Arabs and Jews, and the Arab birthrate is higher. In Israel proper, Arabs are more than a fifth of the almost 8 million people. The West Bank, still dominated by Israel despite autonomy agreements, has some 2.5 million Palestinians. Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and its 1.5 million Palestinians in 2005, yet blockades and controls movement in and out of the territory, now run by Hamas militants—and in the eyes of many has yet to truly be separated from it. It is a bewilderingly complex situation whose overall democratic credentials can seem fragile.
Beinart, the former editor of The New Republic and a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, believes the solution is the creation of a Palestinian state. In the meantime, he is calling for a boycott of goods produced in Jewish West Bank settlements, a position that remains radical in most Jewish circles.
He lays out his case in a new book, "The Crisis of Zionism." The book projects far more urgency than many U.S. Jews are accustomed to and has triggered controversy linked to a deep-rooted reluctance to break ranks too dramatically with a country still widely seen as plucky and embattled.
The irony is that Beinart's central arguments are quite fundamental to Israel's left wing. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the hard-line Likud Party, has begun to warn of the demographic threat.
At the same time, Netanyahu has allowed the continued growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, deepening Israel's occupation of the territory. Netanyahu says he's ready for new peace talks, but many in his camp seem fundamentally content to perpetuate the status quo. That has led the Palestinians to conclude that Netanyahu is not serious about peace. They say he should freeze settlement construction for peace talks to resume.
Beinart accuses American Jewish leaders, with their focus on the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and threats to Israel by Iran and Arab militants, of being complicit in Israel's West Bank policies.
"The American Jewish leadership doesn't talk about the responsibilities of power very much," he said.
He also fears this complicity bodes poorly for the future by alienating younger, secular Jews who do not identify with an older generation whose opinions were shaped by fresh memories of the Holocaust, experiences with anti-Semitism and Israel's triumph in the 1967 Mideast war. That could leave a smaller core of more religious, and more hawkish American Jews in charge of policy.
"What will be the character of the new Jewish leadership that emerges?" he asked. His book, he said, is meant as a call for all American Jews to care more about Israel-related activism.
Beinart's book has created waves. A New York Times book review accused him of "Manichaean simplicities" and employing "several formulations favored by anti-Semites."
Jeffrey Goldberg, an influential American commentator and frequent critic of Israel, also accused Beinart of playing down Israel's legitimate security concerns.
"Peter was faced with a couple of choices with this book. He could make himself feel good about his moral superiority or he could devise ways to get Israel to do what he wants, and I think he went more with the former than the latter," Goldberg recently told New York magazine.
Beinart was in Israel this week for an annual conference sponsored by President Shimon Peres, where he appeared on a panel about the country's relationship with world Jewry.
Several panelists challenged Beinart's claims. "My Zionism is not in crisis because my Zionism is not conditioned on an idealized view of what I'd like Israel to be," Abe Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a panel discussion with Beinart.
Danny Danon, an Israeli lawmaker in Netanyahu's Likud Party, said he "welcomes any debate" about Israel's future but rejects Beinart's views. "I would invite him to see with his own eyes what is really happening in Judea and Samaria, rather than just criticizing and delegitimizing the Jewish people who live in our homeland," said Danon, using the biblical terms for the West Bank.