Zionism's enfant terrible

After his call to boycott settlement products, Beinart warns democratic Jewish state slipping away.

July 12, 2012 15:48
Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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‘The thing about Peter Beinart,” a colleague told me when I said I would be interviewing the author of The Crisis of Zionism and the man who set off a heated polemic in the Jewish world with his call for a Jewish boycott of Israeli settlements, “is the man’s a hard guy to hate.”

Many, it seems, would not agree. Since publishing his book earlier this year, Beinart has been the target of a torrent of criticism, and worse. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, writing for Tablet, charged him with being “singularly intent on scolding Israel.” Jonathan Rosen, in The New York Times Book Review, castigated Beinart for “employing formulations favored by anti-Semites.” Daniel Gordis, writing for this publication, said that “Beinart’s problem isn’t really with Israel. It’s with Judaism.” Ronn Torossian, in The Algemeiner, called Beinart “a self-hating Jew,”adding that he “doesn’t represent the Jewish community any more than a black member of the KKK would represent African-Americans.”

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“I don’t claim my book is perfect,” says Beinart, who was in Jerusalem last month for the Israeli Presidential Conference where he spoke on a panel on Israel-Diaspora relations. “I write books in order to have an opportunity to make things clear and then I write new books because my views have evolved. I knew this was a very emotional and passionate debate, but I wrote the book because I think that in the coming decade, by the time my small children are married or perhaps even by the time they are bar/bat mitzva, the window for a two-state solution may very well have closed.”

If that window were to close without the American Jewish community having done everything in its power to keep the possibility of a two-state solution alive, continues Beinart, “then we will be having very different conversations with our own children when they ask us, ‘how did we let the dream of a democratic Jewish state slip away?’ and for me those conversations are more worrying than the difficult conversations I may be having today with people who don’t like my book.”

So have Beinart’s views evolved in the six heated months since he published the book and does he regret his call for a settlement boycott? Beinart, who teaches journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and currently writes for the Daily Beast where he is the editor of its Israel-centred blog Open Zion, explains that he was inspired by Israeli intellectuals such as David Grossman, Amoz Oz and A.B. Yehoshua who themselves have supported various forms of settlement boycotts.

“What I was talking about,” he says, “is essentially making distinctions about the way we treat the part of Israel where, in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, everybody has the right to vote, which I think is part of what makes Israel such an extraordinary accomplishment.

Under the strain that Israel has faced in its 64 years of existence, it has maintained in its original boundaries those democratic principles, but that is distinguished from the territory under Israel’s domain where the vast majority of people do not have citizenship and the right to vote, and live under a different law, which seems to me a profound violation of the Declaration of Independence.”

Beinart divides Israel into democratic, inside the Green Line, and non-democratic, to the east of the 1967 border.

“I think we have to make those distinctions because I think that right now people are incentivized to actually move from democratic to non-democratic Israel,” he says. “This represents a real danger to the future of Israel as a democratic state. I felt like I wanted to try to open that conversation more in the American Jewish community. If other people have other ideas on how we can get a handle on influencing the settlement growth that, not just in my opinion, but in the opinion of many Israeli experts and leaders, is threatening Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state, then I am open to other ideas.”

Beinart is mindful of how he is viewed as someone who wants to save Israel from itself without participating in the risks of being an Israeli.

“I thought a lot about that,” he says, “and it seemed to me to be critical that those of us who are not going to buy products and services from the West Bank make some public affirmation of the products and services within the Green Line.

Because you are right, for people like Grossman and Oz, Israel’s existence is taken for granted. For us it’s not, and that’s why I only would support not buying products from the West Bank if it was paired with some kind of public embrace of the products and services of democratic Israel.”

He also says the distinction between “democratic and non-democratic Israel” is the best strategy against the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, which he argues gains strength from the “disintegration of the Green Line.”

“It’s the effacing of any distinction between Israel in its original boundaries and the West Bank which makes the BDS movement’s argument much easier,” says Beinart. “They say, ‘what are you talking about, there is no distinction here. All of this is a Jewish state, which is not truly democratic, which is fundamentally discriminatory, and we have to boycott all of it.’ That seems to me a grave danger and is something I’ve worried a lot about.”

But it is not only those who wish to boycott and delegitimize Israel within its 1967 boundaries that Beinart is worried about, it is the connection with American Jewry itself. In addition to what he defines as declining attachment to Israel among American Jews because of assimilation, a factor he puts down to a “tremendous failure in Jewish education,” Beinart identifies a rift that has opened up between Israel and a significant section of the American Jewish community because of Israel’s policies.

“There is a phenomenon of an emerging intellectual and religious leadership among those non-Orthodox young American Jews who are not assimilated – Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative rabbinical students, the independent minyan movement – and here what’s very interesting is that you find very high levels of religious commitment to Judaism, religious renewal, probably greater knowledge, greater observance than among their parents, coupled with often quite steep alienation from the policies of the Israeli government, even though people often feel quite connected to Israeli society.

“There is an interesting polling of the independent minyan movement that shows that people in the movement have spent more time in Israel than older American Jews, but when it comes to defending the policies of the Israeli government they are much more loath to do so. So you find actually among this group a kind of cultural Zionism that is engaging with Israeli society but has very big problems with the Israeli state.”

Beinart says that this phenomenon runs deep.

“There are many more American rabbis who have deep fears and anxieties about Israeli policies toward the Palestinians than will publicly say so,” he states. “I think there is a lot of fear often among rabbis and Jewish communal leaders more generally about publicly expressing those views. I think if more were [to speak out] I think that would have an impact, and I think American Jewish politicians by and large take the path of least resistance on this question.”

Beinart is considered by some a voice that President Barack Obama listens to on Israel – he was recently among nine national security writers invited to a prestigious off-the-record briefing with the president, where, according to New York Magazine, he presented Obama and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes with a copy of his book.

Beinart devotes a whole chapter of The Crisis of Zionism to “The Jewish President” and how Obama “came to embody the Jewish liberalism that America’s leading Jewish organizations have abandoned.”

Another chapter is devoted to how Obama betrayed those liberal Jewish ideals after being “humbled” by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby.

That pressure, and other factors, says Beinart – contrary to the opinion of many pundits, especially in Israel – mean that Obama will not take a tougher line on Israel in his second term, if he is reelected come November.

“Politics don’t end when you enter a second term,” says Beinart, “particularly because on Israel the political pressure comes from Congress. The way things work politically is that it’s Congress which essentially says to a president – especially if he is from their own party – ‘we think you are going too far; it’s causing us problems with our donors, with people who have influence,’ whatever. So even though Obama doesn’t have to run for reelection, all those members of Congress do and they can very effectively box a president. AIPAC’s focus has always been on Congress. I’m not saying that AIPAC is the sole influence here, but AIPAC has always been an effective organization and they fundamentally focus on Congress. That won’t change.”

“The second thing,” continues Beinart, “is that if you make an analysis, if you were to take certain political risks you have to ask yourself what is the likely effectiveness. You have an Israeli government that does not seem to be looking to raise the idea of a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines and a Palestinian leadership that is weak, then I think the American president makes a calculation that says ‘I’m going to get a lot of tzures for a potentially small payback.’” Beinart also points to what he describes as very strong desire in the American foreign policy elite to turn away from the Middle East, toward Asia, a factor he believes is not sufficiently understood by Israeli policy makers.

“I think that, frankly, after 10 very bitter and tough years a lot of American foreign policy makers are sick of the Middle East.

It’s been awful, America has made huge mistakes, there’s not a lot of upside. Obviously Iran needs to be managed. There’s an effort to maintain American influence, to maintain our relations with the Saudis, to maintain our relations with the Egyptians.

But I think there is a strong desire to say ‘look, for 10 years we have been focused on the Middle East when China has been rising and rising and gaining more and more influence. We have to try and reestablish American influence in the Pacific.’ There is an opportunity for the president to play in Asia the role that Harry Truman played in Europe; essentially to lay out the strategic framework in Asia for the next generation of policy makers, and that also comes out with domestically much less political tzures. So my strong suspicion is that Obama will try to make his second-term foreign policy about Asia.”

When I put it to Beinart that he paints a none-too-flattering picture of the most powerful man on earth backtracking from his personal views and principles to accommodate political reality, he replies: “Politicians have to be pragmatists. Barack Obama is a pragmatist.”

When it comes to the cost-benefit analysis on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, explains Beinart, Obama has come to the conclusion that it just isn’t worth it.

“I think that he made an effort in 2009 on pushing for a settlement freeze – remember it was supposed to be a settlement freeze plus moves to normalization by Arab countries – and then he made another effort in May 2011 in a speech about the 1967 lines. In both cases he didn’t achieve a lot. While the Palestinians and the Arabs bear some of the blame, you can’t ignore the fundamental reality that this Israeli government is not that interested in negotiating the creation of a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines.

“You can argue that they are right. Key cabinet ministers like Bennie Begin and Moshe Ya’alon have said this themselves, that this is not a government that wants to create a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines right now. So given those circumstances, I think Obama saw that the costbenefit analysis was not in his interest... I think that this is the way politics work.

My view is, I don’t blame Barack Obama, I would blame the American Jewish community for why we have created a political reality that I think has made it harder for Barack Obama to do the things that I actually think are in Israel’s interests.”

Israel’s interests, says Beinart, are, at the very least, keeping the possibility of a twostate solution alive. Otherwise, the only alternative would be a one-state solution, and that, he says, would be a “step away from Zionism.”

“Tell me, what’s your long-term goal? Is your long-term goal one state or two states? ... If you believe in a two-state solution, even if you think it’s not possible tomorrow, I would say shouldn’t you at least stop incentivizing people to move to the West Bank, thus making the two-state solution harder than ever? “I can understand the argument that says that for security reasons you need the IDF in the West Bank, but I can’t understand how Israel’s security is enhanced by giving civilians subsidies to move to the West Bank. Even if we disagree about whether you should try and cut a deal now, I would say at least we should be able to agree that we should keep the possibility open, and my fear is that Israel is foreclosing that possibility.”

The Palestinians, says Beinart, are not simply going to accept whatever Israel puts on the table, they are not going to continue to accept more facts on the ground.

“The Palestinians have another option; to say ‘you know what, we embrace the one-state solution. Make us all Israelis and we’ll all vote.’ When Palestinians move en masse to that answer, I don’t know what Israel’s response is going to be, and that’s what worries me.”

Not that Beinart doesn’t concede that the creation of a Palestinian state entails enormous risk for Israel, but he notes that “every former head of the Shin Bet, every former head of the Mossad and every former head of the IDF except one support a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

“Not because they are peaceniks and not because they don’t think there are risks,” says Beinart. “But I think foreign policy is always about the balance of risks. I think you have to look at what the alternative is.”

The alternative, according to Beinart, is permanent control of the West Bank and the end of the Palestinian Authority.

“Right now one thing they [Palestinians] often stress to me is that sooner or later there will be some kind of Tahrir Square uprising against the Palestinian Authority,” he says. “It doesn’t have legitimacy, its only potential legitimacy is that it is a vehicle for creating a Palestinian state.

When there is no possibility of a Palestinian state then Israel would have to face the possibility of being back in direct control of the West Bank.

“Israelis have to think about that alternative,” he concludes. “Israeli 18-yearsolds patrolling every town and city in the West Bank. You also face a situation where Israel will become more and more isolated in the world if its occupation becomes permanent.

And you will have to deal with Palestinians who essentially embrace the one-state solution and say we want the vote. I think that actually represents a greater threat to the Zionist dream than a Palestinian state.”

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