Why Israel Has to Do Better

Peter Beinart, who started a flame war with an essay criticizing Israel’s rightward lurch and American Jews’ failure to call the country out, on how his critics excuse inexcusable behavior.

It has been a week since my essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” was published in the New York Review of Books, and the responses have largely congealed into a single critique. From Leon Wieseltier to Jonathan Chait to Jeffrey Goldberg to Jamie Kirchick to David Frum, the main complaint is that I didn’t spend enough time discussing the nastiness of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and extremist Muslims in general.

It’s a little odd when you think about it, because my piece never claimed to offer an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Iranian conflict. Rather, it was a plea for American Jewish organizations to take sides in Israel’s domestic struggle between democrats and authoritarians, and thus help save liberal Zionism in the United States. Those American Jewish organizations, of course, don’t need to be encouraged to criticize Iran and the Palestinians. It’s virtually all they do. If I had written an essay directed at the U.N. Human Rights Council, which condemns Israel and often ignores human-rights abuses in the Arab world, rather than the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which does the opposite, would Leon and Jon and Jeff attack me for not spending enough time denouncing Avigdor Lieberman?

The harsh truth is that settlers—including fanatical settlers—are now so entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy that the process of planning, funding and building settlements occurs irrespective of whether the Palestinians are naughty or nice.

To some degree, it is true that the misdeeds of Israel’s foes have pushed Israelis to the right. That certainly happened after Yasir Arafat’s failure to respond courageously to Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David in June 2000 and his (much better) one at Taba in January 2001. But that was almost a decade ago. Arafat has been dead since 2004; the second intifada fizzled the same year. The West Bank now features Palestinian leaders who are far more sincere about non-violence, and about the kind of two-state solution that Arafat did not grasp. And yet Israel has not responded with any meaningful halt in settlement growth. (Sadly, that remains true even today, since Israel began a huge amount of construction just before Netanyahu’s partial “freeze,” with the result that, as Israel’s Transportation Minister recently declared, “The construction momentum in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] is the same as when it was at its peak.”) So in the West Bank, at least, it’s hard to see how Arafat’s failures justify Israel’s continued encroachment onto Palestinian land—an encroachment that makes it ever harder to create a Palestinian state without provoking an Israeli civil war. The harsh truth is that settlers—including fanatical settlers—are now so entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy that the process of planning, funding and building settlements occurs irrespective of whether the Palestinians are naughty or nice. As Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar write in their indispensable book, Lords of the Land, settlement growth is built into the daily functioning of the Israeli state. It takes place “as though it were an involuntary, unconsidered movement of a body that has lost its mind.”

Peter Beinart: Love Israel? Criticize ItWhen it comes to Gaza, many Israelis have, understandably, been enraged by Hamas rocket fire. But the critics of my essay describe that rocket fire as if it is completely independent of Israeli policy. Let me be clear: I detest Hamas, as much for what it does to Palestinians as for what it does to Israelis. Fifteen years ago, the organization blew up a Jerusalem bus carrying a friend of mine, so I’m not inclined toward sympathy. Still, there was another path open to Israel and the U.S. after Hamas won the 2005 Palestinian elections. It was to support a Palestinian unity government that included Hamas and Fatah, committed itself to a cease-fire with Israel, and fudged the question of Israel’s right to exist by, for instance, endorsing the 2002 Arab League proposal that offered recognition in return for Israel’s withdrawal to 1967 borders. Such a unity government was possible: the Saudis actually brokered one in February 2007. Israel and the U.S. could have responded to it the way the U.S. responds to the Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah: We could have dealt with the non-Hamas ministers.

Instead, Washington and Jerusalem dogmatically insisted that Hamas be blackballed unless it accepted all past peace agreements, a standard that Netanyahu’s own government would fail. And they encouraged Fatah to try to seize power by force in the Gaza Strip. Then, after Hamas routed Fatah militarily, Israel slapped a brutal embargo on Gaza, one that has left its population overwhelmingly dependent on food aid, and which Israel did not substantially lift even when Hamas (mostly) abided by a cease-fire for much of 2008. None of this justifies rocket attacks on Sderot. But it does suggest that if Hamas attacks have hardened Israeli public opinion, some of the blame lies with Israel’s own leaders, who did not seriously pursue political—as opposed to military—solutions after the Palestinians did what the Bush administration had been demanding they do: hold a free election.

Finally, it’s hard to see how the misdeeds of Hamas, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad or anyone else in the Muslim world explain—let alone justify—Avigdor Lieberman’s campaign to delegitimize and disenfranchise Israeli Arabs, the vast majority of whom don’t support either Hezbollah or Hamas, and simply wish to be equal citizens of Israel. The plight of the 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish gets short shrift in the American press, but it may be the greatest of all of Israel’s challenges. In the words of Israeli civil rights lawyer Yoella Har-Shefi, “If we don’t give Arab citizens this chance to become Israelis, the country will come apart. We are sitting on the edge of a volcano.”

The grim truth is that there are powerful, internal trends pushing Israeli politics in an illiberal direction. In 2000, there were 200,000 settlers in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem); now there are 300,000. About a quarter of them are Gush Emunim-style fanatics, and many of the younger settlers are so violent they actually scare the old guard. Shin Bet warns that if another prime minister of Israel tries to follow in Barak and Yitzhak Rabin’s shoes, they should expect an assassination attempt.

Settler fanaticism is a cancer that has grown from within Israel; you can’t blame it on Ahmedinejad. Nor are Iran’s mullahs responsible for the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews, who burn Christian holy books and assault women who try to pray at the Western Wall, have virtually taken over the city of Jerusalem. Their contempt for liberal values would have been problem enough had not the Israeli government bribed them with housing in the West Bank, thus joining their zealotry to the settlement enterprise. This too cannot be blamed on Hassan Nasrallah.

One last point. Leon, Jeff, Jon, Jamie, David and I are all Jews. In some sense, therefore, Israel’s crimes—unlike those of Hamas or Ahmedinejad—are committed in our name. We have a special obligation to expose and confront them. And we have a special obligation not to use the crimes of Israel’s enemies to excuse behavior that dishonors a Jewish state, and the Jewish ethical tradition that we all consider precious. In 1994, after settler fanatic Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron, a man I once looked to for guidance on these matters expressed it better than I ever could. “When the comparative impulse becomes primary, accounting becomes apologetics. The really striking thing about the ethical texts of the Jews in exile is the extent to which they are silent about the adversity that the writers of these texts were regularly experiencing. For most of two millennia, the Jews had the standing alibi of anti-Semitism, if they wanted to take it up; but they did not want to take it up. They held themselves to the highest standards of conduct and then proceeded to the business of safety. One is not better merely because others are bad. And the better is not the same as the good.” The man who wrote those words is Leon Wieseltier. We could sure use him today.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.