Sort of like the Israelis and Palestinians, Jeff Goldberg and I seem to be talking past one another. On Sunday he published a New York Times op-ed in which he said that it was imperative for America’s president to pressure Israel to dismantle its West Bank settlements–and the reason the president isn’t doing so is because major American Jewish organizations are in favor of the settlements. I argued on CONTENTIONS that the reason Israelis aren’t dismantling the settlements (and that President Bush isn’t pressing them to do so) has nothing to do with the views of American Jewish groups and everything to do with the dismal record of recent Israeli concessions in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. In both cases (as well as at the Camp David negotiations in 2000) Israelis thought that territorial concessions would lead to peace. Instead they led to the empowerment of terrorists. It’s an obvious point, and one I’m sure he’s familiar with, but one that Jeff never mentioned in his article.
Now, on his blog, Jeff objects only to one part of my critique, namely this sentence: “Although he goes on to criticize the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis that this nefarious “Lobby” holds hostage American policy toward Israel, Goldberg concedes most of their substantive case.” He tries to argue that it ain’t so, because he says he disagrees with their principal arguments. And what are their principal arguments? According to Jeff:
Max, as you well know, “The Israel Lobby” makes three principal arguments: The first is that American support for Israel – which is engineered solely by the Jewish community, the authors erroneously claim – hurts America. The second is that the organized American Jewish community, by advocating for policies that are not in America’s best interests, caused the Iraq war and is partially to blame for the attacks of 9/11. The third is that Israel’s behavior is so outrageous as to make it undeserving of American support, on moral grounds.
I think Jeff is being a bit too clever here. It’s true that these are three of the arguments that Mearsheimer and Walt make. But there is an even more basic argument that underlies everything else (as Jeff mentions in passing): that American policy toward Israel is determined not by a rational calculation of our priorities but by the political influence of “The Lobby.” “The reason why American politicians are so deferential [to Israel] is the political power of the Israel lobby,” Mearsheimer-Walt write on page 5 of their tract.
They even cite, among others, the same example of the Lobby’s power that Jeff uses: America’s unwillingness to force Israel to dismantle its settlements. On page 9 they write:
Israel’s situation would be better today if the United States had long ago used its financial and diplomatic leverage to convince Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and instead helped Israel create a viable Palestinian state on those lands. Washington did not so, however, largely because it would have been politically costly for any president to attempt it.
Compare this with the argument that Jeff makes in his Times article:
So why won’t American leaders push Israel publicly? Or, more to the point, why do presidential candidates dance so delicately around this question? The answer is obvious: The leadership of the organized American Jewish community has allowed the partisans of settlement to conflate support for the colonization of the West Bank with support for Israel itself.
Maybe Jeff can explain the substantive differences between those passages, because I don’t see any.
I don’t take any joy from pointing out the resemblances. As I mentioned, I’ve long been an admirer of Goldberg, and one of his articles that I have particularly enjoyed was the masterly takedown of Mearsheimer-Walt that he did in the New Republic. I also agree with him that, in the long run, most of the West Bank settlements are not viable. (I do, however, think that those settlements located in the immediate suburbs of Jerusalem will have to remain within Israel, with the borders being drawn to offer the Palestinians land elsewhere as compensation. There have been several plans put forward that would achieve this.)
Moreover, I am glad to see in his Atlantic post that he makes a distinction that he didn’t make in the Times: “I don’t advocate a unilateral end to the occupation, just to the settlement project. An end to the occupation has to come about through negotiations with a viable Palestinian partner. A partner, by the way, who might be strengthened by a reversal of settlement program.” I take this to mean that he favors continued IDF action in the West Bank even after the settlers are gone. That makes sense, even if it would likely negate the suppose political benefits of a pull-out: Palestinians would still be steamed about seeing an Israeli military presence even if they don’t see any settlers.
That’s an issue to ponder for the future. At the moment, any large-scale removal of settlements is unwise. It would be seen as a reward not to “moderates,” but to the extremists of Hamas who continue to rain rockets down on Israel notwithstanding the previous withdrawal of all settlements from the Gaza Strip. The determination of if and when to pull out of the settlements should be made by Israel’s democratically elected leaders. It shouldn’t be forced down their throats by Washington policymakers.
But leave aside the merits of dismantling settlements. In his Times op-ed, Jeff wasn’t just arguing that this is a good idea but that this is a good idea thwarted by the pro-Israel lobby. The former proposition is certainly debatable. But the latter proposition is demonstrably false–whether it comes from a well-respected pro-Israel journalist or from a couple of pseudo-academic, anti-Israeli cranks.