Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Peter Beinart: The Crisis of Zionism - A Review

After reading and reviewing the wonderfully optimistic book Start-Up Nation, I decided to "balance" it by reading Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart is a self-described liberal Zionist with a serious interest in Judaism and in the future of Israel. His book is an attack on Israeli policies with respect to the disputed territories and a call for action in the form of a boycott of West Bank products. Unlike other members of the anti-Israel left, Beinart calls for those boycotting West Bank products to make an equally vigorous effort to buy products and patronize companies from within Israel's "green line." This, he proposes, is intended to offset the idea that boycotting the West Bank is "anti-Israel."

Beinart's book is well written and interesting but ultimately, somewhat flawed. His view of Israel's role in its ongoing dispute with the Palestinians is either naive or willfully blind in that he seems to place the blame for just about everything squarely on Israel's shoulders. There is little discussion in the book of Palestinian extremism, nor is there any real discussion of a legitimate compromise proposal for ending the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Moreover, throughout the book, Palestinian acts of terrorism are minimized or downplayed. Beinart even finds a way to blame the failure of Camp David and the subsequent 2nd Intifada on Israel, even though he concedes that Arafat does not even appear to have made a genuine counter-proposal in response to the huge concessions that were proposed by the Israelis. Nevertheless, Beinart's focus on the urgent need to reach a peace deal with a two state solution is intended to benefit Palestinians and Israelis and is laudable.

His chapter entitled "The Crisis in Israel," focuses on the discrepancy between Israeli democracy and equality of rights within the "green line" area and the current situation in the disputed territories. There is nothing new here about the idea that Israel is facing an increasingly difficult challenge in trying to reconcile the idea of a "Jewish State" with the goal of a liberal, democratic State, while trying to find a way to resolve the issue of the territories. The current status quo threatens not only the lives and living conditions of the Palestinians but also threatens Israel's condition as a viable liberal democracy. It is hard to disagree with this part of Beinart's analysis and many Israelis, on the left and in the centre of the Israeli political landscape would agree.

Beinart then switches over to the United States, where he paints a grim picture of American Jewry. Characterizing the vast majority of Jews as liberal democrats, Beinart rails against "America's major Jewish organizations" as having lurched to the right. A particular focus of his attacks is Abe Foxman, National Director of the ADL, who is "beholden to no one but the philanthropic dollar." Beinart attacks the ADL and the AJC (American Jewish Committee) for supporting the policies of the Israeli government and for failing to "challenge the occupation." He even manages to defend former President Jimmy Carter, despite the overwhelming evidence that Allan Dershowitz has put forward with respect to Carter's ill-will towards Israel.

In a chapter entitled "Is the Occupation Israel's Fault?," Beinart minimizes the security threat to Israel that an immediate withdrawal from the territories would entail by arguing that Israel is already within rocket range of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. He suggests that Israel should rely on its "credible deterrent." Of course, this is not been a great success with respect to Gaza from which Israel has faced numerous rocket attacks after withdrawing its forces. Beinart then runs through the peace deals offered by former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert and concludes that these offers were rightly rejected by the Palestinians as insufficient, even though, he concedes, "there is a dispute about whether Arafat made any offer at all." While there were (and still are) clearly disputed issues, including the future of Jerusalem (in particular the Temple Mount), the issue of Palestinian refugees and the exact nature of the land swap envisioned, Beinart seems to suggest that Israel should have fully conceded its position on each of these issues. Moreover, despite the fact that the issue of "land swaps" was supposedly negotiated down to a difference of 4% of the total area of the West Bank (the Israelis proposing to keep 6% and the Palestinians proposing 2%), Beinart also lays the blame for this failure on the Israeli side. From Beinart's viewpoint, the dispute comes down to the disputed West Bank city of Ariel, which Israel refused to agree to dismantle.

Beinart goes on to describe subsequent events when former President Bill Clinton outlined parameters that "went well beyond Barak's proposal at Camp David": "Arafat accepted the Clinton parameters in principle, but then offered reservations that rendered his acceptance virtually meaningless." Beinart paints former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza as part of a "hidden agenda" to allow Israel to continue to hold the rest of the West Bank. By way of contrast, on the Palestinian side, even Hamas gets off lightly. Its charter, calling for Israel's destruction is downplayed and Beinart justifies Hamas' decision to fire missiles into Israel. Again, he concedes that "Hamas had been killing Israelis since the 1990s," but somehow makes the case that if Israel had just lifted its blockade against Hamas and ceased any attacks (including retaliatory attacks), everything would have been wonderful and the Hamas rocket attacks would have ceased. None of this is intended, on my part, to argue that the situation in Gaza is very good. However, I think it is fair to say that if the Palestinian leadership took a different tactic following Israel's unilateral withdrawal, there could have been significant economic cooperation between Israel and Gaza that would have greatly improved the situation for Gaza's Palestinians. Instead, Gaza's leadership focused on amassing weapons, firing rockets and public relations exercises instead of working towards an arrangement with Israel that would have ameliorated conditions for Gazans.

In a chapter entitled "the Jewish President," Beinart reviews President Obama's credentials as a liberal, philo-Semitic president, whose own daughters attended a Solomon Schecter Day School in the Chicago era. Describing Obama as having been influenced by the late influential Conservative Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.), Beinart also describes the connection between Rabbi Arnold Wolf of Chicago's Temple Solel, who was one of Obama's "earliest and most prominent supporters." Overall, Beinart describes Obama as sharing a liberal Zionist view of Israel with a range of influential Jewish friends. According to Beinart's description, this would include pressuring Israel to make concessions with respect to the occupied territories, but in the name of preserving a liberal Zionist vision of Israel rather than as a way of attacking Israel.

As much as Obama is described in the book as a supporter of everything that is good about Israel, Netanyahu is no doubt, in Beinart's view, the devil incarnate. Describing Netanyahu as an heir to the chauvinistic Jabotinsky school of right wing Zionism, Beinart traces Netanyahu's political lineage from Jabotinsky to Benzion Netanyahu (Prime Minister Netanyahu's late father) to Netanyahu himself. Along the way, he suggests that Netanyahu is a racist, advocates a policy of physically transferring Palestinians out of Israel and the West Bank, and sprinkles in selective quotes from Netanyahu's 1993 book, A Place Among Nations, and its 2000 reprint, A Durable Peace. Overall he describes Netanyahu as a monist Zionist, who "subordinates external moral considerations to Zionism itself." He also reviews Netanyahu's close connections with AIPAC and wonders about the source of Netanyahu's electoral campaign funding. While Beinart may ultimately be accurate in his description of Netanyahu's reluctance to agree to the type of peace deal that Netanyahu's predecessors were being pressured to sign (if only the Palestinians would have also agreed), Beinart omits the massive swing in Israeli popular sentiment that followed the collapse of the peace talks and the onset of a new wave of violence. In a sense, Beinart's book advocates boycotting Netanyahu as much as any given policy. Ultimately, with the recent change to Netanyahu's coalition to now include the Kadima party, it remains to be seen whether there is any accuracy to Beinart's description.

Beinart's antipathy towards Netanyahu comes through even more clearly as Beinart describes the public clashes between President Obama and Netanyahu. Noting that Obama received 78% of the Jewish vote in the 2008 Presidential election, Beinart argues that he and many others were hopeful that Obama could lead a shift in U.S. policy to bolster the liberal Zionist vision of Israel that they shared and bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of the territories. But Beinart goes on to describe a series of confrontations between Obama and Netanyahu and concludes that Obama was completely "humbled" as a result of pressure from AIPAC and other powerful, sometimes unnamed, Jewish and fundamentalist Christian sources. Ultimately, Obama was forced, as Beinart describes it, to back down from insisting on a complete settlement freeze and was publicly embarrassed and humiliated in the process. Of course, another possibility is that Obama began to rethink some of his policies with respect to Israel but that wouldn't fit too well with Beinart's thesis.

Beinart's chapter on the future of American Jewry hits closer to home since his description is also somewhat applicable to Canadian Jewry - and even Israeli Jewry. Jewish families who send their children to Jewish day schools are the ones who are continuing to carry on Jewish traditions and minimize the likelihood of intermarriage and assimilation. These families, especially in the United States, but in other areas as well are predominantly Orthodox. This means, in Beinart's view, that the number of actively involved, liberal, non-Orthodox Jews is steadily declining, relative to the overall population of committed Jews. Since these liberal Jews are the people who would share Beinart's view of a liberal Israel, their influence is steadily waning in the Jewish community. I have to note that this is also the case in Israel, which provides full state support for Orthodox schools but does not have a sufficient number of liberal, Jewish schools in which children can learn about and practice liberal Judaism. For Beinart, the net result is a prediction that the major American Jewish organizations will come to be dominated increasingly by Orthodox Jews with an illiberal agenda. This type of change is also occurring in Israel and has led to many different challenges pitting Orthodox Jews against others who advocate an egalitarian, democratic agenda. The ultimate result, if Israel does not save itself now, according to Beinart, would be a lurch towards a non-liberal version of Jewish Zionism at the expense of the liberal Zionist vision that many of the founders of Israel originally shared, and which included principles of democracy and equality for all Israeli citizens.

Beinart's solution to all of this is to propose a modified version of the "Boycott, Divest from and Sanction" ("BDS") campaign. He calls for people to refer to Israel as being divided into two parts - "democratic Israel" and "non-democratic Israel." He also calls for a boycott of settlers and their products while tempering that with an "equally vigorous embrace of the people and products of democratic Israel." He proposes that East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights not be included in the definition of "non-democratic Israel" since the Palestinians in those areas can actually obtain full Israeli citizenship.

If the only existential issue that Israel faced was dealing with the territories, Beinart's analysis might make some sense. But he dramatically minimizes that true existential threats to Israel. He barely mentions the 2006 war with Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear threat, the ongoing missile attacks from Gaza and the other threats that Israel faces. In short, he has a very rosy picture of how Israel might defend itself from attacks that would emanate from very close range following a full withdrawal from the territories. Moreover, given the fact that he has shifted the blame for the failure to reach a peace deal to Israel, almost entirely, he implicitly absolves the world from the need to pressure the Palestinians equally.

With the two sides, according to Beinart, having come as close to a deal as he describes, one would think that it would make sense to pressure both sides. For example, it seems quite unrealistic to expect that Israel will accept a "right to return" for the Palestinian refugees. Most Jews living in surrounding Arab countries left or were expelled following the establishment of Israel. Moreover, one state was designated as a Jewish state and the other as a Palestinian state. Sure, the Palestinian state should be entitled to offer an unlimited right of return for Palestinians from anywhere in the world who wish to return to the area and live in the Palestinian state. But to this point, even as Beinart describes it, the Palestinians appear to be demanding the right to have refugees return to and live in Israel, while having a Palestinian state that is virtually, if not completely, free of Jews.

Many in Israel, on the left and even the centre of the political spectrum will agree with Beinart's overriding thesis that Israel cannot continue as a liberal democratic country without reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. And many would like to see that deal concluded as soon as possible and believe that Israel should be willing to make significant concessions to reach a deal. Yet many in Israel, even those on the centre and the left, have real concerns, based on experience from the last go-round, that the Palestinians are not prepared or are not politically able to make corresponding concessions that will be required to reach a deal. The central flaw of Beinart's book is that he downplays this possibility and places virtually all of the blame on Israel, which allows him to advocate joining the BDS crowd, with a modifying twist. A more balanced recount of historical events might have led Beinart to advocate pressuring (or boycotting) both sides in an effort to reach a lasting deal.

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