Commentary Magazine


Peter Beinart and the Destruction of Liberal Zionism

In political debates, it remains true that the messenger usually matters more than the message. I say this because Peter Beinart’s much-discussed essay in the New York Review of Books and the reaction to it has been in substance merely a procession of the kind of cliches on liberal disaffection with Israel that anyone who has been paying attention became familiar with years ago. But because Beinart is a Jewish former editor of a steadfastly pro-Israel magazine, the New Republic, his public apostasy has garnered attention in great disproportion to the quality or originality of his complaints.

The most important requirement for joining the Israel-bashers is to charge Israel with bad faith in the course of the effort to bring peace to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, which is the glue that holds the narrative together and makes the recriminations seem warranted. This charge has two subordinate tenets: revisionism for dealing with the past, and conspiracy theory for dealing with the present. Thus, in Beinart’s telling, large numbers of Israelis are racists and authoritarians who never really wanted peace, and their political leaders are fanatics manipulating guileless Americans and Palestinians while mainstream American Jewish organizations enable them from the sidelines.

There are important matters of context missing from Beinart’s critique. He condemns the hostility some Israeli Jews have expressed toward Israeli Arabs without so much as mentioning the rise in radicalism among Israeli Arabs, to the point today where many of their political leaders — including members of the Knesset — have openly sided with Hamas and Hezbollah, lauded the Iranian nuclear program, supported the destruction of Israel, and participated in all manner of delegitimization and anti-Semitic incitement. These are citizens of Israel: imagine if Muslims who had been elected to the U.S. Congress were engaged in similar endorsements of America’s enemies.

In condemning the statements of Israeli politicians, Beinart doesn’t mention another important consideration, which is Israel’s proportional-representation electoral system. In this system, there is no geographic representation, and parties merely need to earn 2 percent of the vote to obtain seats in the Knesset. This brings into parliament a variety of figures who represent fringe or radical interests. There are two parties represented in the U.S. Congress; there are 18 in the Knesset. If America had Israel’s system, one could find all manner of political radicals — truthers, birthers, Chomskyites, militiamen, eco-fascists, socialists, anarchists, college professors — with seats in Congress, and they could be quoted saying all manner of crazy (and unrepresentative) things about America. Beinart is up in arms about some of the campaign jingoism of Avigdor Lieberman, who holds the title of foreign minister but doesn’t actually exercise much power in that role, since foreign relations are really the bailiwick of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Beinart never mentions that Lieberman’s party won only 12.5 percent of the vote. Because Beinart’s purpose is to suggest that Israel is on its way to authoritarianism, he casts the byproducts of a too-raucous and significantly too-diverse political system as its essence. Israeli Arab parties are also represented in the Knesset, and their leaders frequently say things about Israel and Jews that are far, far, worse than anything Lieberman said about Arabs during his campaign. Inconvenient facts such as these go unmentioned.

But those are quibbles. More important is Beinart’s imputation that critics of Israel within the Jewish community and elsewhere have been rendered mute and ineffective by the power of politically conservative Jews and the Washington lobby they supposedly control. Beinart suggests a great burden to bear in becoming an Israel critic: “The hardest thing I’ve ever written,” he said in announcing his essay on his Twitter feed.

Please. As the astonishingly polite reaction to his article over the past week has demonstrated, there are few postures today from which it is more comfortable and advantageous to call out one’s anguish and concern than as a Jewish critic of Israel. The ranks are full of people who have made careers out of being contemporary prophets, traveling the land to warn the Israelites that their arrogance and sin is inviting catastrophe. The key difference is that the biblical prophets were often despised and persecuted figures, whereas the prophets of today enjoy the embrace of a vast array of institutions, foundations, and publications.

How hard it must be for Beinart to ally with his employer, the New America Foundation, and Haaretz, Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, the New York Review of Books, the Nation magazine, the New York Times editorial and op-ed pages, Time magazine, the American Conservative, the American Prospect, Mother Jones, the entirety of the British and European media, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’tselem, J Street, J Call, the New Israel Fund, Richard Goldstone, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, the European Union, the British Foreign Office, the European Council, scores of NGOs, Walt and Mearsheimer, Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim, Tony Judt, Tel Aviv University, every Middle East Studies department, George Soros, the Ford Foundation, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter, Andrew Sullivan, Noam Chomsky, Mondoweiss, and … well, you get the picture.

The sad truth is that Peter Beinart isn’t any kind of trailblazer or whistleblower, and he most certainly has not earned himself any trouble by coming out as an Israel-basher. He is someone who has rather belatedly fallen completely and predictably into line with the demands his ideological compatriots make for orthodoxy when it comes to their increasingly passionate interest in assaulting Israel and championing the Palestinian cause. In Beinart’s work, we are not witnessing an act of courage but rather a spectacle of conformity.

In this new role, Beinart declares his “outrage” at the choices of the Israeli electorate and the refusal of mainstream American Jewish groups to condemn them. He demands that Israelis make political choices as if life were frozen in 1992, unaffected by almost 20 years of the failure of the peace process and territorial withdrawals. For Beinart, Israeli voters have no right to feel chastened and betrayed by the serial refusal of the “international community” and Western liberals to act against the aggression and terrorism of Israel’s enemies. We are dealing, in other words, with someone who not only rejects the laws of democratic politics — discredited policies get rejected in elections — but someone who places absurd demands of charity and self-denial on Israeli voters while justifying his intrusion with the fatuous declaration that “Israel’s crimes—unlike those of Hamas or Ahmadinejad—are committed in our name,” that is, in the name of American Jews. This is the kind of statement it is easy to imagine John Mearsheimer making; it is a shameful and outrageous denial of the citizenship of American Jews, most of whom probably could not name the Israeli defense minister, not to mention that it is comically egomaniacal to insist that Israelis should act and vote with Peter Beinart’s tortured conscience in mind.

One cannot understand the depths of Beinart’s mischaracterization of Israeli politics without understanding why, over the past two decades, the Israeli left has been discredited and the right has had its fortunes rise.

The judgment of history on the Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, is deservedly harsh. We now know that Yasir Arafat never intended to make peace with Israel, or prepare Palestinians for peaceful coexistence, or follow through on the obligations to which he dedicated himself on the White House lawn in 1993. After his return from exile in Tunis, Arafat set about violating virtually every limitation placed on him by the accords. He talked peace in English but promised jihad in Arabic, assuring Arabs everywhere that the peace process was merely a means for establishing a better position from which to destroy Israel; and then at Camp David in 2000 he rejected a Palestinian state and started the four-year suicide-bombing war known as the second intifada.

During this period, it quickly became obvious to anyone who had not been stricken with peace-process messianism that Arafat had the worst of intentions. But the peace processors remained incurious about Arafat’s transgressions. There are things he must say to his Arab audiences that make Westerners uncomfortable, they reassured; he’s a weak leader and criticizing him will only make him weaker and imperil the hope for peace, they said. As we now know, this was nothing but self-delusion. Not a self-delusion grounded in bad motives, but largely good ones — the genuine desire for peace, for a resolution of Palestinian grievances, for a new era in the Middle East in which Israel’s presence would be accepted.

But the Oslo dream failed nonetheless. Its last gasp was the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which reinforced the central lesson Israelis learned from the suicide bombing war: the Palestinians want victory, not peace. Only 11 months after the Gaza withdrawal, Israelis were forced to revisit the consequences of a previous disengagement, this one from the security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, by fighting a month-long war with Hezbollah. Meanwhile, rocket attacks from Gaza were steadily increasing, culminating in military action against Hamas in the final days of 2008.

For Israelis, the “risks for peace” were taken in large part because of the promise that Israel would be rewarded with the approval of the international community, especially its liberals. Through the peace process, Israel was promised acceptance; through disengagement, Israel was promised the moral high ground and assured that acts of self-defense would finally, at long last, be accompanied by the full and unapologetic support of Western liberals.

So what happened? Where were the liberal Zionists in all this? The Hezbollah and Hamas wars in particular were treated by Peter Beinart’s new allies as acts of brutal Israeli aggression and cruelty. Operation Defensive Shield in 2003, the Hezbollah war, and the Hamas war should have been moments in which liberal Zionists stepped forward to say: Israel took the risks for peace that we demanded. Israel committed itself to a diplomatic process, offered a Palestinian state, and withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza. The terrorists who attack Israel will find no defenders among us. Instead, talk of war crimes filled the airwaves, investigations were demanded, arrest warrants for Israeli officials issued, and now Peter Beinart says that he must question Zionism because civilians were killed in Gaza. Carried away by his own moral indignation, he never asks two fundamental questions: who started the war, and why was it fought from civilian areas?

The liberal Zionists, when it has mattered most, have defected. It has been easier to join the critics of Israel, who are fellow liberals, than to appear jingoistic and tribal by defending the hated Zionists. Some peace processors, such as Israeli “new historian” Benny Morris, have acknowledged the flaws in their thinking and have become cautious and skeptical. But some cannot come to terms with the reality of their mistakes, the failure of their predictions, and the durability of Arab rejectionism. In the liberal imagination, this is not how the world is supposed to work. In the liberal vision, everyone desires progress and the good life, and when given the choice will prefer compromise and material comfort over ideological stubbornness.

Because the history of the peace process repudiates so many of liberalism’s most cherished premises, liberalism is increasingly repudiating Israel, and doing so in a perfectly logical fashion: with people like Beinart now saying that Israel is not in fact an admirable country and that it deserves to be thrown out of the company of liberal nations. In this way, the failure of the liberal vision is transformed from being a verdict on liberalism to being a verdict on Israel.

It is Israel, we are now admonished, that has been dishonest and aggressive and unwilling to compromise. Believing this is the only way to avoid confronting the real problem, which is liberalism’s inability to reconcile its beliefs about human nature with the cruel functioning of humans in practice.

Beinart writes as if none of the tragedies of the past two decades happened, or if they did happen, that Israelis, unique among peoples, may not allow themselves to acquire any fears or resentments or lessons. Even Shimon Peres, one of Israel’s greatest doves, understands what has transpired, telling the Wall Street Journal a few days ago: “I am not surprised that so many Israelis lost their trust when they’re being attacked time after time, time after time.” Lost their trust indeed: the Meretz/Labor peace-process faction held 56 Knesset seats in 1992. Today they have 16. Normally in politics, such a massive shift in public opinion is accompanied by genuine inquiry about why it happened. Beinart is unreflective. It must be because of the settlers, or racism, or AIPAC.

Beinart has thus joined a legion of others in the burgeoning profession of being an Israel Scold. Israel Scolds have adopted a set of condescending attitudes toward Israelis, their recent history, and their political choices, demanding that they never allow the cruelties of reality to undermine their faith in the promise of the progressive vision. The distilled pleading of Beinart is merely a series of demands that Israelis refuse to learn from experience: how dare they allow any hostility to Arabs creep into their politics; how dare they vote for Avigdor Lieberman, a populist who plays to the less-than-perfectly liberal Russian immigrants; how dare they lose faith in the peace process and the liberal hopefulness that animated it. Most important: how dare they upset the comfortable ideological existence of American Jews, whose acceptability to their liberal peers depends in no small degree on their willingness to join in pillorying Israel over the failure of the peace process — a failure, alas, that is not Israel’s but liberalism’s.

About the Author

Noah Pollak is assistant editor of the Middle East Quarterly.




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