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Beinart Advocates Partial Boycott

Oren slams call; J Street’s Ben-Ami praises analysis, differs on prescription

Marc Tracy
March 19, 2012

I promise that soon this will cease being an all-Peter Beinart blog. But the fact is that in the run-up to the release in one week of his The Crisis of Zionism, he really has been, as they say, driving the conversation, so for now attention must be paid. What I mean to say is, it’s not often that a New York Times op-ed provokes a same-day response from the Israeli ambassador.

In the op-ed, which is adopted (though it doesn’t say so) from the final section of Beinart’s book, Beinart comes out in favor of something he calls, with an obvious sense of paradox, “Zionist B.D.S.”—a boycott of goods made in the settlements combined with renewed support for Israel within the Green Line (as well as East Jerusalem, which after all has been annexed by Israel). He also advocates referring to the West Bank as “nondemocratic Israel.” “If Israel makes the occupation permanent and Zionism ceases to be a democratic project, Israel’s foes will eventually overthrow Zionism itself,” he argues. “We are closer to that day than many American Jews want to admit.”

Ambassador Michael Oren called Beinart’s position “marginal and highly radical.” He added that it “absolves the Palestinians of any responsibility for the current situation, including their rejection of previous peace offers, their support for terror, and their refusal to negotiate with Israel for the past three years. By reducing the Palestinians to two-dimensional props in an Israeli drama, Beinart deprives them of agency and indeed undermines his own thesis.”

One group whom Beinart’s op-ed leaves in a potentially tricky situation is J Street: though the two are not formally affiliated, J Street advertised that Beinart will be signing copies of his book, which can be purchased in advance of its official release, at its conference in Washington, D.C., this weekend. And J Street, unlike other left-of-center Israel groups (such as Americans for Peace Now), does not support the boycott.

In an interview today with Tablet Magazine, J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami said he “absolutely agreed” with Beinart’s diagnosis of the situation. “He’s the troubadour of our movement in laying out this urgency and need for us to sound the alarm,” he said. He also reiterated J Street’s opposition to the boycott: “He thinks that pressure on settlers on an individual basis will get them to rethink their enterprise,” he explained. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. They think the world is against them, and this will only reinforce their belief that they’re right and reestablish their intensity to hold onto the land.”

Ben-Ami cast this disagreement as purely tactical, however, saying, “A boycott in and of itself has no ideological identity … I don’t think that anything he’s saying is in any way questioning the legitimacy of the state of Israel—and in fact he’s proposing these things to support the legitimacy of the state of Israel.”

From the right, David Frum castigates his Daily Beast colleague along lines similar to Oren’s, and adds, in a reference to the first lines of Beinart’s op-ed, “The true pincer squeezing those who think in the way Beinart describes is the pincer that always pinches liberals who join movements led by illiberal radicals: it is the pinch of exploitation by people with clearer-eyed purposes.” From the left, and as if to prove Frum’s point, Richard Silverstein argues that Beinart’s limited boycott doesn’t go far enough, and that Beinart represents “liberal Zionism writing its own requiem.”

I fear, as somebody who considers himself a liberal Zionist but who opposes Beinart’s boycott, that Silverstein is right. From a tactical perspective, I agree with Ben-Ami: limited boycotts (or full ones, for that matter) are likely to have the opposite of their intended effects, unless and until they reach a prevalence under which they are actually choking the Israeli economy—something Beinart by his own admission doesn’t want to see happen (and something that, as Ami Eden points out in a sharp post, is something more likely to happen as a result of a partial boycott).

I also think it’s hypocritical to imply that the settlements can be so neatly separated—economically, politically, morally—from the rest of Israel. I don’t believe Israel is defined by the settlements and I do believe it has taken two to tango lo these nearly 45 years, which is one reason I oppose all boycotts of Israel. However, I can’t imagine ever believing both that the settlements were so bad and also that Israel were so guiltless in their perpetuation that I would support solely boycotting the settlements. Indeed, the one part of Frum’s response I took issue with was his description of the settlements as “a consequence of Palestinian rejectionism.” Enabled by it, sure; a consequence of it, not so much.

Regarding Beinart’s prescription, cui bono? So far as I can see, only those liberal Zionists—not all liberal Zionists—who want an easy salve on their consciences without the full burden, whether of guilt or of principle, of actually abandoning Zionism altogether.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.