Goldblog vs. Peter Beinart, Part III: Zionism Reloaded

It's been a mixed week for the Jews; on the one hand, we have excellent news out of the Major Leagues: Ryan Braun, Ike Davis, Kevin Youkilis, and Ian Kinsler all homered on the first night of Shavuot, raising the Jewish home run total this year to 20 (Gabe Kapler also had a good night). On the other hand, American Jewish support for Israel has collapsed completely, at least according to the Internets. This collapse, which has been brought about by a single Peter Beinart essay in the New York Review of Books, has led AIPAC to shut down operations completely (the furniture sale is next Tuesday, I've been told).

Peter and I, after a strategic pause to celebrate the receipt of the Torah on Sinai, continued our e-mail conversation about his article last night, and here are excerpts. Peter, by the way, is the author of the forthcoming book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, which I sincerely hope is all wrong.

I'm leaving for the Perfidious Zionist Entity shortly, with some side trips planned to various countries also despised by al Qaeda, so our dialogue might be interrupted by travel, but I'm having fun talking to Peter about his interpretation of this moment in Jewish history, and as you know, the theme of Goldblog is "fun."

Jeffrey Goldberg: It's been said this week that you are brave for writing what you wrote. I think you're aware that I never consider criticism of Israel to be brave -- after all, it's the thing to do. But ignore my bias for a moment: Is there something inherently brave about criticizing Israel (and AIPAC) that I'm missing? I imagine you yourself reject the idea that what you did was brave, by the way.

Peter Beinart: Let's put this in context. We live in the U.S., not Iran or Zimbabwe. There's very little threat of physical--let alone state-sponsored--violence for anything you say politically. So in a global context, it's hard to say anyone in the U.S. is really brave no matter how unpopular their views. With that caveat, I think there is something a little brave for a member of Congress or an administration official to criticize AIPAC or criticize Israel harshly because it could end their political career. Let's just imagine that a Senator or Cabinet Member said what Barak and Olmert have said about Israel being on its way to being an apartheid state if it doesn't give back the West Bank. That would be a serious career-threatener. For a journalist/pundit, however, it's completely different. In the press, criticism--even harsh criticism--of Israel is common, and in fact, I think in the blogosphere it is almost becoming the norm. In all honesty, the thing I worried about most was the reaction of some of our friends, because a lot of the people whose friendship I really value are significantly to my right, which isn't surprising at an Orthodox synagogue. But I mostly worried for nothing. There's been a lot of disagreement, but nothing the least bit malicious. It's made me realize how remarkable and unusual a community we live in, in fact. I think I may even have smoked out one or two hidden doves.

JG: One of the critiques I've read of my questions, as opposed to your answers, is that I'm obsessing about the threat from Hezbollah and Hamas, and not focusing on your concerns, the moral corruption that grows from occupation. One reason I'm focused on Hezbollah and the rejectionist front is that we actually agree that settlements are a disaster for Israel, and what's the fun of agreeing in a blog conversation? But the other reason I'm focused on these threats is that I think you've decontextualized Israel's challenge. If Hamas and Hezbollah and Syria and Iran weren't posing active threats to Israel, I would agree with you that Israel is dragging its feet on the issue of territorial compromise. But how can you actually claim that an Israeli pullback from the West Bank, either a unilateral pullback, or one negotiated with a weak Palestinian Authority, won't lead to more bloodshed? The rejectionist front facing down Israel has seen every Israeli pullback as a victory not for the principle of compromise, but a victory in their campaign to eradicate Israel. I'm not sure you have the sequencing right: Perhaps the Iranian-sponsored threats have to be neutralized before the Israeli public will agree to potentially dangerous territorial withdrawals. And perhaps these threats have to be neutralized so that they pose no danger to the moderates of the P.A., which is the mortal enemy of Hamas. My point is, this situation is more than just an Upper West Side morality play. There are forces at work here that are impervious to the charms of political compromise.

PB: I bet you're right that stopping Iran from going nuclear would give the U.S. more leverage on the Palestinian question, and perhaps shift Israeli public opinion a bit. (Though you'd still have a government that is basically pro-settlement and a settler movement that controls chunks of the Israeli bureaucracy, no matter what the public or elected officials want). So yes, we should do everything we can to stop Iran from getting a nuke--though I'm pessimistic we'll succeed. And I think military action will have its own dangerous consequences, including leading to Hezbollah attacks, so war isn't likely to promote the peace process. I'm also not as convinced as you that Israeli withdrawals lead to greater violence. There were far more Hezbollah attacks into northern Israel before the withdrawal from Southern Lebanon than after, though they still occur, which is terrible. And I really think Israel and the U.S. botched the Hamas election victory--i think they should have supported, not torpedoed, a Palestinian national unity government even if it fudged acceptance of past agreements a bit (after all, Israeli governments haven't respected all past agreements--Netanyahu said explicitly that he rejected Oslo when he was elected in 1996), and then dealt with the non-Hamas ministers as we do with the Hezbollah presence in the Lebanese government. That might have created an opportunity for calm, economic growth, and perhaps eventually new negotiations with a strong Palestinian government able to marginalize the rejectionists politically and impose control on the ground. The problem I have with the Gaza War is less that I think Israel used disproportionate force: it may well have, but war is always hell. It's more that I think just wars must be last resorts, you have to exhaust the alternatives, and I think the Israelis and the Americans really didn't. That's not to excuse Hamas--which is a nasty movement--but it's a way of saying that with a group like Hamas, which has deep roots in the Palestinian society, you can't eliminate it through military force alone. You have to moderate at least elements of it by bringing them into the political process and investing them in non-violence paths to statehood. I think that was possible, or at least that more of an effort could have been made. Besides, think how much more leverage it would give Fayyad if he could show Palestinians that he got Israel to really stop settlement growth (as opposed to this sham "partial freeze," which hasn't really stopped actual construction at all), or even withdraw some far out settlements. If you hate Hamas, nothing would hurt them more politically.

JG: Jon Chait writes that you cut intellectual corners when you are angry, and he provides the following example: "For instance: Peter asserts, his 'basic point, which is that Human Rights Watch is no tougher on the Israeli government than are a host of Israeli human rights organizations.' Not true. HRW celebrated the Goldstone Report, but as the New York Times reported in January: "[V]irtually no one in Israel, including the leaders of Breaking the Silence and the human rights group B'Tselem, thinks that the Goldstone accusation of an assault on civilians is correct. 'I do not accept the Goldstone conclusion of a systematic attack on civilian infrastructure,' said Yael Stein, research director of B'Tselem."

How do you respond to this? And do you in fact believe that Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups apply a single-standard to their reporting about the Middle East?

PB: In fact, nine Israeli human rights groups called for exactly what Human Rights Watch called for: An independent Israeli investigation modeled on the commission that followed the Sabra-Shatilla massacre, the Or commission that investigated Arab Israeli killings during the second intifada and the Winograd Commisssion into the 2006 Lebanon war. That had been the truly admirable Israeli way to react when you have reports--as you did from soldiers in the Breaking the Silence group--about serious abuses. What's more, many Israeli human rights submitted reports to the Goldstone Commission and were in turn accused by the Israeli right of being the basis for the Goldstone charges. (By the way, I wrote nothing about the Goldstone Commission in my piece but others keep bringing it up).

I recognize that Human Rights Watch may make mistakes. But it has done reports on Palestinian human rights abuses and lots of them (many more than on Israel) on human rights issues in the Arab world. Groups like AIPAC, which ONLY criticize Israel's neighbors and never criticize Israel, are in a particularly bad position to charge one-sidedness, it seems to me. And the argument that Human Rights Watch should not investigate Israel because it is a democracy doesn't make sense. I have no problem with them investigating torture in the United States--I'm glad they did. What's more, and this is so obvious that it's often ignored, Israel is NOT a democracy in the West Bank, which is where a lot of the abuses occur.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, while not perfect, are the most reputable human rights organizations in the world precisely because they piss off so many governments of all ideological stripes. They're in that business. People who try to discredit them in what they believe is Israel's interest do two very damaging things. First, they undermine the other work they do. If Human Rights Watch gives an exception to Israel, it will be much more likely to fold on say, Kashmir, another territory occupied by a democracy where there are big human rights problems. Second, as I said in the piece, if you convince Human Rights Watch to stop criticizing Israel you dramatically undermine Israeli human rights organizations that often do parallel work, which, of course, is exactly what Netanyahu wants. His vice-prime minister is on record, after all, as calling Peace Now a "virus."