What Roger Cohen Gets Wrong

03.05.13 10:15 PM ET

Liberal Zionism seems capable of nothing but hopelessness. Few things portray that as clearly and as succinctly as Roger Cohen’s most recent column for the New York Times, “Zero Dark Zero.” To give credit where credit is due, Cohen does accurately identify some important and relevant points. He argues that “Israelis for the most part are comfortable enough to ignore their neighbors.” He’s right. Israelis, as many analysts have come to conclude in reading the results of the most recent elections, have deprioritized the Palestinian issue.

“Israel’s situation” Cohen writes, “feels sustainable.” And it is. Certainly not morally, but it is absolutely sustainable materially. Israel exploits Palestinian land and resources to profit both economically and politically from occupation. At the same time, the relative costs of occupation have decreased. Defense consumption in Israel as a percentage of GDP is at its lowest rate since the start of the occupation.

And what then is Cohen’s way out of this mess? What ideas does this columnist bring forward to change this material equation? None. What. So. Ever.

In his column, Cohen includes a quote from me where I note that the U.S. is subsidizing the Israeli occupation and is unable to change that due to domestic politics. As he closes his column he writes that President Obama, who is visiting the region soon, has zero cause for hope due in part to “limitless Israeli strength.”

Last I checked, while Israel is certainly a strong player, and militarily far stronger than the stateless Palestinians it occupies, its strength is not limitless. Even the United States, a global superpower, is not limitless in its strength. More to the point, the extent of Israel’s power is largely dependent on the United States and the very man—the president of the United States—whom Cohen believes is hopeless as he travels to the region.

Depriving the most powerful state on earth any agency is stunning, even more so when it is, as I noted, subsidizing the Israeli occupation. Logic would denote that if the United States wanted to change Israeli behavior vis-à-vis settlement expansion, for example, it could easily do so by applying leverage. But this is absent in Cohen’s piece, as it is in most liberal Zionist arguments.

Furthermore, while Cohen clearly recognizes that Israel can materially sustain its occupation, he not only fails to suggest ways nation-states can change that equation, but he also shuns civil society efforts to impose costs on Israel, like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, because it refuses to abandon the Palestinian right to return and conform to his Zionist worldview. He attempts to smear BDS and the right of return by associating it with annihilationism—something he’s made a habit of—and did so by unapologetically taking a BDS founder’s quote out of context to mischaracterize the movement.

So, Cohen tells us, Israel will not end its occupation of its own volition, but he stops short of advocating for coercing Israel to change its behavior through either state-level or civil-society level sanctions. If anything is hopeless—and breeds hopelessness—it is this defeatist approach.

Cohen laments that believers in the two-state outcome on the Palestinian side “have become harder to find.” But really, who can blame them? Given the imbalance of power and the physical sustainability of the Israeli occupation, which Cohen identifies, and unwavering American support for Israel throughout this process, no reasonable person, Palestinian or otherwise, can envision a Palestinian state on the horizon.

Of course, this could change. But that would require a drastic reversal in American policy that held Israel accountable for violations of international law, instead of helping them as they flaunt it.

We are very far from that happening, but we could be closer, especially if columnists with prominent platforms like Mr. Cohen spent less time lamenting and more time using their capacity to demand change in their government’s policies.