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The Crisis of Zionism

Peter Beinart

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One really good way for a young journalist to ruin his Washington career is to criticise the policies of the state of Israel. By and large, it just isn’t a way to make friends and influence people. Many evangelical Republicans believe that the founding of the Jewish state in 1948 was a key marker in the advance towards the end times, identify with Israelis as westerners and see Palestinians as aliens and terrorists.

The leaders of the more liberal-leaning Jewish lobby among Democrats often adhere to the view that criticism of Israel is simply anti-semitism, that the country is held to double standards in its own region and that the Holocaust is the defining event that makes defence of Israel and its interests paramount at all times. American-Jewish criticism of Israeli policy is regarded as betrayal; American non-Jewish criticism as bigotry.

In this emotionally fraught theatre an unlikely figure has forced his way onto the stage. This week he will unveil a new book, The Crisis of Zionism, which has already sparked an intense and emotional debate in Washington. He is Peter Beinart, a brilliant and devout Jewish-American with roots in South Africa who edited The New Republic, a magazine almost synonymous with liberal Zionism, a few years after I did.

His contribution to the debate has been a rather simple one: if nothing drastic changes soon, he argues, Israel will have to choose between being a Jewish state and being a democratic one. It can no longer be both, as its founders envisioned.

Because of its 45-year occupation of the West Bank and aggressive settlement-building there — both near its previous boundaries and far beyond them — Israel is now essentially two countries: a democratic one in the west, where Arab and Israeli citizens can vote and move freely as near-equals; and a non-democratic one in the West Bank, where Jews can travel at will and can vote but Palestinians are cut out of any democratic governance and endure checkpoints, water shortages, travel restrictions, unpunished violence by settlers and the constant sight of new settlements, subsidised by the Israeli government, rendering their hopes of an eventual Palestinian state all but illusory.

Beinart thinks the two-state solution — rejected first by the Palestinian Arabs and now by the Israeli right — is becoming impossible because of this trend. He is also concerned that the experience of occupying another people’s land, of forcing them behind wire fences or a giant concrete wall and denying them full democracy, is itself morally corrosive.

Beinart has blamed the deepening crisis on a complacent and out-of-touch US-Jewish establishment Indeed the polls show the divide between Jew and Arab is growing, in both democratic and non-democratic Israel. The settlers, once a small fringe, now have a virtual veto over any Israeli government coalition. The foreign minister of Israel, Avigdor Liberman, is a West Bank settler who has spoken of population transfers and loyalty oaths for Arabs. And the power of the American president has been shown these past few years to be entirely hollow if he tries to budge the Israelis one inch from their refusal to stop settling the very land they would have to give up for peace to come about.

With every year that passes, the Jewish population on the West Bank grows — far more rapidly than in democratic Israel.

And the possibility of undoing this fusion of democratic Israel and occupying Israel — to give a Jewish and a Palestinian state side by side — becomes harder and harder.

What Beinart has done is not just illustrated this crisis and challenged a blinkered view of how it came to pass; he has blamed its relentless deepening on a complacent, out-of-touch and defensive American-Jewish establishment. He believes that it remains so trapped in the post-Holocaust paradigm of Jewish victimhood that it cannot also see, as earlier Zionists did, the danger of Jewish power.

He has exposed how the Israel lobby in America, far from trying to support its president in restraining new settlements in the West Bank, found every excuse to let the Israelis off the hook, engaged in character assassinations of people who argued back, all but sided with a foreign prime minister over its own government in the clash between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, and is now beating the drum for war against Iran.

Beinart first went public with his dissent in The New York Review of Books. Last weekend he even argued in The New York Times that Americans should boycott goods made by settlers in the West Bank, while encouraging trade with democratic Israel, to put some pressure on Israel to change — for its own moral survival as a Jewish state.

Hence last week’s pre-emptive strikes. Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic wrote that Beinart’s “recounting of recent Middle-East history [was] one-sided and filled with errors and omissions”, though he did not actually cite any. The Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, called Beinart “well beyond the Israeli mainstream”, his views “supported only by a marginal and highly radical fringe”.

Beinart’s patron, the former owner of The New Republic, Marty Peretz, got even more personal: “It’s a narcissistic book, and the narcissism of privileged and haughty people is never particularly attractive.” The head of the Anti- Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, argued that Beinart’s proposal for a boycott “will only worsen the anti-Israel and delegitimisation campaigns around the world that he says he opposes”. And this is before the book has even come out.

Beinart, a friend of mine, is walking into a glass wall. It is hard to convey the way that debate about Israel in America is more constrained than in Israel, let alone Europe. But the way in which this cogent, tightly argued, passionately Zionist book — with a blurb by Bill Clinton, no less — has been denounced and excoriated even before it has been published is too depressing for words.

Its offence, it seems to me, is telling the truth: that Israel is becoming its own worst enemy, that the dysfunctional relationship with America could lead to an avoidable conflict with Iran and that an Israel that is an essentially occupying power cannot also remain a liberal democracy for much longer.

Beinart is clearly criticising Israel because he loves it and wants to save it. His opponents seem far more concerned with smearing a writer than saving a precious, remarkable refuge from itself.

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