Peter Beinart’s False Prophecy
The Crisis of Zionism, his book arguing that the Israeli occupation alienates young American Jews, is sloppy with facts and emotionally contrived
A few months ago I read pretty much the same book by Gershom Gorenberg. But whereas Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel is based on the honest toil of on-the-ground reporting, nothing in The Crisis of Zionism suggests that Beinart ever set foot outside of his study to write this book. “That’s not writing, that’s typing!” Truman Capote supposedly once said of a Jack Kerouac novel. Similarly with Beinart: It isn’t reporting. It’s Googling.
Again, you see it in the small but important details that Beinart misuses. For instance, in making the case that Israel could withdraw from the West Bank without putting its security critically at risk, Beinart commends readers to the authority of former Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, who is quoted as saying: “There is no longer an eastern front.” Translation: Top Israeli brass no longer views the Jordan Valley as a strategic asset because they don’t seriously fear a conventional attack along that front.
There are, however, problems with this reference. You have to realize that the quote is at least eight years old, uttered when the United States appeared to be triumphant in Iraq. You have to realize that it is lifted with little context from a Brookings Institute report by Gal Luft, whose views on the matter are more-or-less the opposite of Beinart’s. You have to realize that Farkash has been outspoken in warning that an independent Palestinian state poses all kinds of security hazards to Israel. And you have to realize that even if Israel were to receive various security guarantees in a prospective peace deal with the Palestinians, it can have little confidence that those promises would be honored for very long.
Then there is Beinart’s hysteria-fueled treatment of the Israeli political scene. His fundamental contention is that the growth of Jewish communities in the territories has effectively faded the Green Line to the point of near-invisibility. This is the sheerest bunk. The reason Ariel Sharon was reluctant to build the security barrier is that he understood it meant drawing a de facto border between Israel and the territories. But he built it anyway, just as he also decided to get Israel out of Gaza. Since then, Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted the principle of a Palestinian state. Beinart offers a lengthy explanation for why Bibi’s June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech was no more than a tactic of diplomatic delay, and maybe it was. But the fact is that Mr. Revisionist publicly accepted the idea of a Palestinian state—and paid no political price for it with his right-wing base.
The real problem for Beinart’s argument is that, in word and deed, Palestinians have repeatedly furnished good reasons for the Israeli (and American) right to argue against further territorial withdrawals, at least until something fundamental changes in Palestinian political culture. I supported disengagement from Gaza as editor of the Jerusalem Post. But it’s hard to argue that the results have been stellar in terms of what a Palestinian state portends. Last year’s murder of the Fogel family, horrifying as it was, wasn’t nearly as disturbing as the public celebration of the killings among Palestinians. By contrast, when a Jordanian soldier murdered Israeli schoolgirls on a little island in the Jordan River in 1997, the late King Hussein personally begged the forgiveness of the bereaved Israeli families. (Alas, by still another contrast, Jordan’s justice minister has demanded the imprisoned soldier’s release, calling him a “hero.”)
None of this appears to disturb Beinart much, except to prompt some glib and equivocal acknowledgment that Israelis live in a less-than-super neighborhood. Indeed, to read Beinart is to appreciate how much mental slovenliness can be contained by the word “but.”
• “Yes, the Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah traffic in anti-Semitism and murder Jews, but they gain strength when Israel—by subsidizing West Bank settlement and meeting nonviolent protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets and military courts—discredits those Palestinians willing to live in peace.”
• “Discussing the Hamas charter is important; people should read it. But listening to American Jewish organizations, one would never know that Hamas has in recent years issued several new documents, which are more compatible with a two-state solution.”
• “There is, of course, real anti-Semitism in today’s Middle East. But by too often ascribing criticism of Israel to a primordial hatred of Jews, American Jewish leaders fail to grapple with Israel’s own role in its mounting isolation.”
In 2003, in connection to the late historian Tony Judt’s own contribution to the anti-Israel oeuvre of the New York Review of Books, Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic observed that characterizing anti-Semitic acts as a response to something Jews did doesn’t explain anti-Semitism. It reproduces it. I’m tempted to accuse Beinart of doing the same thing here. I won’t. But Beinart should at least trouble himself to wonder, as Wieseltier also suggested, why the same logic doesn’t apply to other minorities. For example, would Beinart object to an argument that African-Americans are at least partly responsible for white racism because they commit a disproportionate share of violent crime in the United States? Let’s hope he would.
Whatever his answer, Beinart is singularly intent on scolding Israel, like an angry ex who has lost all grip on the proportions of the original dispute. To him, no Israeli misdeed is too small that it can’t serve as an alibi for Palestinian malfeasance. And no Palestinian crime is so great that it can justify even a moment’s pause in Israel’s quest to do right by its neighbor.
Paradoxically, the result of such thinking is an unwitting, but profound, contempt for the very Arabs for whom Beinart claims so much concern. Beinart’s Arabs are almost always characters off-stage, to be trotted out only when—as with the Jaber family—they can serve some trite homiletic purpose. These are Arabs who have no moral agency: They never act; they only react. The very thought that Palestinians need not celebrate suicide bombers or cheer the murder of Jewish children seems never to have crossed Beinart’s mind. They are like some not-fully domesticated animal that requires the ministrations of a horse whisperer lest it trample you underfoot.
This has implications for Beinart’s argument. To typical Israelis, theirs is a country of 6 million Jews faced with the ardent, sometimes fanatic, hostility of 350 million neighboring Arabs (to say nothing of another billion or so non-Arab Muslims) and the contested loyalty of one million of its own Arab citizens. Lebanon is in the hands of Hezbollah; Gaza in the hands of Hamas; Turkey and Egypt—until recently, its only significant Muslim allies—are gradually moving into the column of adversaries. In the past decade, it has had to fend off a steady drizzle of suicide bombers and Kassam and Katyusha rockets over the course of three separate wars. The Arab Spring has become an Islamist winter. Iran has now enriched more than 5,000 kilograms of uranium. Israel will soon have to roll the dice with a military strike or otherwise allow a regime that pledges its destruction the means to carry out that pledge almost instantaneously.
UPDATED: Many conference attendees stand to the left of the official party line; some support the boycott of products made in West Bank settlements