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Peter Beinart’s Peace-Making (A Jerusalem Post Column)

March 23, 2012

‘To save Israel, boycott the settlements,’ Peter Beinart pleaded in this week’s New York Times. Israel, he says, is dangerously creating one political entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, in which “millions of West Bank Palestinians are barred from citizenship and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives.”

Therefore, it is time to drop the phrase “West Bank.” Or “Judea and Samaria.” Rather, Beinart suggests, freedom and democracy-loving Jews should now call the West Bank “nondemocratic Israel.” Perhaps, he muses, that name and the boycotts of West Bank settlements that he hopes will follow might save whatever hope remains for a two-state solution.

Many Jews, including Zionists deeply committed to Israel, will resonate to portions of Beinart’s argument. They will agree that the conflict has lingered far too long, and that it is, at certain times, brutal and ugly. They will acknowledge that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is oppressive for the Palestinians and at times callouses Israel’s soul. They will certainly share Beinart’s wish that matters could be otherwise.

But Beinart’s op-ed is cavalier, and thus dangerous, on many levels. What, exactly, is he proposing with this boycott? If a rape crisis hotline serves people on both sides of the Green Line, must it be boycotted? What about Israeli-Palestinian coexistence organizations based in Haifa, but which do work in the settlements? Should Beinart’s plea that contributions to West Bank charities not be tax-exempt apply to them, too? 

Beinart argues that the boundary between Israel and the West Bank has become unconscionably blurred, but then ignores his own complaint in pretending that one could boycott the latter without punishing all of Israel. The whole plan is so half-baked that one knows, instantly, that it cannot be taken seriously. Why, then, even suggest it? Because of a psychology we need to understand.

A similar line of reasoning leads Beinart to place most of the blame for our morass on the Israeli side. Though he acknowledges that the Palestinians haven’t been much help, Beinart invariably spotlights Israel. “Many Israeli maps and textbooks no longer show the green line at all,” he notes. That’s true. But what about Hamas? And what about the maps distributed by the Palestinian authority? Surely, Beinart knows that they have always avoided showing the Green Line, suggesting that all of Israel will one day be theirs. Why does he never mention that? As Clinton might have said, “It’s the psychology, stupid.”

That very same dangerous psychology also leads Beinart to a complete ignoring of history and of the future. Nowhere in this op-ed, or in his original New York Review article, for that matter, do we learn about how the occupation began. It’s as if Israel woke up one morning, and for want of anything better to do, grabbed the West Bank. Or why no mention of the fact that Ehud Olmert, to cite but one example, was elected prime minister on a platform of getting out of the West Bank, after the Gaza fiasco had already begun to unfold, but was stymied by the Second Lebanon War, which he, of course, did not start? In Beinart-land, the past is a blank screen. All that matters is the unbearable heaviness of being in the present.

The future is absent as well. Beinart cannot bear the occupation, but dares not imagine what might unfold if Israel retreated tomorrow. Just last week, the southern portion of Israel was immobilized by rocket-fire from Gaza, even with Iron Dome in place. What would Beinart have us do? Move back to the Green Line so that Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the runways of Ben-Gurion Airport would also be in range? Would he have the entire country be paralyzed the next time?

Does Beinart believe that pulling back to the Green Line would end the armed resistance? Hezbollah and Hamas insist that it wouldn’t. Does he not believe them? Does he understand their intentions better than they themselves do? We don’t know, because he never even raises the subject of what the future might bring. The psychology precludes that.

THE SEEMINGLY noble but tragic psychological logic of Beinart’s worldview goes like this: Good Jews do not occupy people. Therefore, for this unbearable conflict to continue violates our most basic Jewish sensibilities. And since, deep down, we know that Israel’s enemies are not going to compromise (and why should they, given that time and increasing numbers of Jews are on their side?), we must do whatever it takes to end it. Better that Israel should take the moral high road – even at great danger – so that we no longer feel shamed. The less they budge, the more we must. For the conflict must end at any cost.

Beinart insists that he loves Israel, and I believe him. When we debated at the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, I found him warm, likable and smart; his devotion to Israel was evident. But warmth and likability, lovely as they are, do not make for clearheaded policy. What Beinart and his movement owe those of us dubious about their proposals is an answer to these questions:

Do you really believe that compromise on Israel’s part now will end the conflict? Do Fatah agreements with Hamas mean nothing? If peace will not come even when Israel retreats, what do you propose that Israel should do once rockets are launched from the West Bank, too? And perhaps most damning: Is it possible that when people espouse your position they give the Palestinians ever less reason to compromise, thus making war more likely, not less?

As the American Civil War raged, John Stuart Mill had this to say to Americans wearying of the conflict: “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral… feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. A man who has nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

Sadly, some battles cannot be ended, and when they cannot, even if they occasionally shame us, they must be fought. Neither personal safety nor even absolute moral comfort are ultimate values. Any Jew with even a smidgeon of Jewish sensibility wishes that this simmering war could end. But we ignore John Stuart Mill at our own peril. Ending a war at any cost sounds noble, but it is cowardly. For if we cannot articulate that there are things worth fighting for – and yes, killing and dying for – then tragically, we are “miserable creatures who have no chance at being free.”

It was precisely that condition that Zionism sought to end. Thinking Jews dare not knowingly embrace it now.

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