Peter Beinart and 'Non-Democratic Israel'

With Peter Beinart's book The Crisis of Zionism only days away from publication, the attempt to marginalize Beinart has begun. This morning Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, said that Beinart is "well beyond the Israeli mainstream, the moderate left, and the vast majority of Israelis who care about peace"--he's part of a "marginal and highly radical fringe."

Oren said this on Facebook, and the trouble with Facebook as a venue for ambassadorial pronouncements is that it lets people talk back. A Facebooker named Joe Millis replied, "If he's marginal, why are you commenting? He's obviously not marginal. And he is also right."

So what is Beinart right (or, depending on your perspective, wrong) about? He had just published a New York Times op-ed, drawn from his book, urging people to boycott products made in West Bank settlements. (This can be viewed as a kind of compromise with the full-fledged "Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions," or BDS, movement, which targets goods produced in Israel proper as well as in settlements.)

And, perhaps more intriguingly, Beinart's op-ed said we should start referring to the West Bank as "non-democratic Israel."

This provoked some head-scratching. "Shouldn't we just call it Palestine?" tweeted one foreign policy observer. Others were specifically bothered by deeming the West Bank part of "Israel," which seems to affirm the Likudnik idea that Israel rightfully includes "Judea and Samaria".

But I think that's Beinart's point. He's trying to get the Israeli right to realize that it can't keep considering the West Bank part of Israel while extolling Israel as a beacon of democracy--unless, of course, West Bank Palestinians are given the vote, which last time I checked wasn't high on Likud's to-do list.

But Beinart's intended audience goes well beyond the Israeli right. Even Israeli (and American) Jews who don't especially want to call the West Bank part of Israel need to understand that increasingly, like it or not, it is. I was in the West Bank this summer, and it seems to me that the settlements and their infrastructure have made it almost impossible for Israel to disentangle itself from the occupied territory. If a two-state solution isn't dead, it's on life support.

Beinart is making a last-ditch effort to revive it. He no doubt realizes that Israel's current political alignment doesn't permit the uprooting of enough settlements to leave Palestinians with something they could, with their dignity intact, call a state. So someone needs to deliver a shock to the system--galvanize Israel, generating the political will to confront the settler movement and win.

To judge by this op-ed, Beinart's galvanization formula is (1) the boycott of settlement-made products; (2) that new coinage--"non-democratic Israel"--which underscores the urgency of a two-state solution; the word "Israel" reminds Israelis that their presence in the West Bank is approaching the irreversible, and the word "non-democratic" reminds them that the logical culmination of this trend isn't just a bigger state but an apartheid state.

Ambassador Oren's attempt to sideline Beinart was actually pretty civil as these things go. Over at Commentary, the marginalization went like this: Beinart said something that reminded them of something John Mearsheimer had once said, and the thing Mearsheimer said had once reminded Jeffrey Goldberg of something that early-twentieth-century anti-Semite Father Coughlin had once said. So there you go.

Why is Commentary resorting to these desperate tactics? I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with the fact that Beinart is a Zionist. Many supporters of the full-fledged BDS movement want to see a one-state solution--which, even if it works out well, culminating in a harmonious, ethnically integrated state, means the end of a Jewish state. So it's not hard for Commentary (and Oren) to convince most Israeli Jews that these people aren't to be heeded.

Beinart, on the other hand, is a Jew who believes strongly in a Jewish state--so strongly that he sounds almost like a biblical prophet as he explains how deeply imperiled Israel is, and how it will find salvation only by mending its ways. In some circles that's a threatening message--all the more so when the messenger deeply believes it.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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