On Political Books

May/June 2012 Peaced Out

Peter Beinart warns that American Jews must refocus on the democratic and humanitarian principles of Zionism before Israel becomes simply another despotic Middle Eastern state.

By Joshua Hammer

Eight years after the intifada’s outbreak, with negotiations still frozen, Obama attempted to jump-start the peace process. The U.S. president—heavily influenced by liberal-minded American Jewish intellectuals such as Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf and Chicago attorney Newton Minnow—seemed destined for a collision with Netanyahu, whose major influences leaned in the opposite direction. These included the radical Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the earliest advocates of Arab deportations, and his own father, the equally uncompromising Benzion Netanyahu, who once worked as Jabotinsky’s private secretary. In 2009 the Obama administration was largely united behind a policy of pushing Netanyahu to declare a settlement freeze as a prelude to negotiations with the Palestinians. Soon, however, those who favored a freeze—Middle East envoy George Mitchell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer—found themselves losing ground to longtime U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross, a canny political operator who believed that pushing for a freeze with Netanyahu would be politically unwise and would end up leading nowhere.

The shrewdest player, however, was Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister ran circles around his less experienced U.S. counterpart. At Netanyahu’s bidding, U.S. lobbying groups, led by AIPAC, argued that a freeze would endanger Israeli security. The groups persuaded hundreds of U.S. congressmen to sign a letter demanding that Obama take the freeze off the table. Netanyahu proved his “sincerity” about a peace deal, meanwhile, by offering his own two-state solution, which would have left the Palestinians with patches of noncontiguous territory and Israel in control of a united Jerusalem. Politically exposed, Obama backed down. The result was a foreign policy debacle that emboldened Israel’s hawks, humiliated the U.S. president—and drove the deeply disappointed Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to seek a declaration of Palestinian statehood from the UN Security Council (which the U.S. promptly vetoed).

Beinart devotes the last sections of his book to strategies for ending the occupation and breaking the stranglehold over U.S.-Israeli policy wielded by AIPAC. His proposals range from the dramatic (a boycott of goods manufactured in Israeli settlements) to the incremental and probably unrealistic (government subsidies for non-orthodox private schools in the United States, places that tend to reinforce both Jewish identity and liberal values). Beinart believes that what is needed most is a renewed engagement with Israel among young, secular American Jews, combined with a return to the moral Zionism that preceded the 1967 war and the occupation. U.S. Jews seeking absolution in good works at home, he argues, while ignoring Israel’s fundamental disparities, are fooling themselves; Israel’s problems are theirs as well. In the end, “a disfigured Jewish state will haunt not only American Zionism but American Judaism,” Beinart writes, “and the American Jews who try to avert their eyes will be judged harshly by history.”

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Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign corespondent based in Berlin, now working on a book about German colonialism in Africa.