December 28, 2012 § 2 Comments
As 2012 comes to a close, I want to take a look back at the big things I got wrong this year. Crowing about what I got right is a lot more fun – and I don’t waste many opportunities to remind everyone that I was correct about an Iran strike – but it is also far less useful for me and for my readers, since it doesn’t allow me to recalibrate my thinking or give all of you a sense of when and why you should be ignoring me. I started this blog on March 13 of this year and this is my 276th post so I don’t have the time to comprehensively go through every single one, but after trying to go through the bulk of them, here are some of my biggest misfires from 2012.
Migron’s evacuation: On March 26, I wrote, “Yet, I’ll bet almost anything that Migron is not evacuated and demolished by August 1, and that Likud’s younger rightwing vanguard does everything in its power to make sure that the Migron decision is consigned to nothingness. The Knesset’s current coalition politics will not allow anything less, and Israel will continue to fight a losing battle to convince the world that it is blameless for the situation with the Palestinians and that it will be able to withdraw from part of the West Bank whenever the Palestinian leadership is interested in returning to the negotiating table.”
While this was technically correct since Migron was still standing and fully populated on August 1, the idea behind it was wrong as Migron was evacuated by the first week in September. In this case, I did not give enough credit to the Israeli government and its willingness to carry out an unambiguous High Court decision.
Palestinian civil war: This one was a big misfire. On April 3, I wrote that Hamas and Fatah were on the brink of open armed conflict. My logic was that the Palestinian Authority moves to quash dissent in the West Bank were aimed at limiting Hamas’s ability to operate in Fatah’s stronghold, and that Hamas would do the same in Gaza in response and that eventually the entire tinder box would blow up. This has of course not happened, and I think I was too glib about just how drastic things would have to get for a civil war to take place.
Ehud Barak and Atzmaut: On May 3 I wrote that Barak and his party were going to make the threshold for getting into the next Knesset once elections happened. While this has not actually been proven wrong yet, Barak has decided not to run and Atzmaut is going to fold, so this prediction will be wrong quite soon. Let’s just all pretend that I did not write the following: “So despite the polls, remember that you read this prediction here first: Atzmaut is going to have seats in the next Knesset, will serve in the governing coalition, and Ehud Barak will continue as defense minister.”
Kadima staying in the coalition: On July 3, I predicted that the Likud-Kadima unity government was going to hold together despite the Plesner Committee – which was tasked with figuring out a solution to Haredi and Arab military exemptions – being disbanded. When my prediction was proven incorrect, I wrote a long post taking stock of where I went wrong, so no need to rehash that again.
Turkey’s response to Operation Pillar of Cloud: On November 14, I wrote in The Atlantic that Turkey and Prime Minister Erdoğan were going to maintain a muted response to Israel’s Gaza operation because of the hypocrisy entailed in a more vocal response given Turkey’s tactics against the PKK. Here’s the relevant part:
But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.
Much like Israel’s fight against Hamas, Turkey’s fight with the PKK has not been without civilian collateral damage. Last December, the Turkish military carried out an airstrike in Uludere that killed 34 civilians who the military thought were PKK fighters attempting to cross the border into Turkey. Earlier this year, the government sealed off the Semdinli district in the Hakkari province for months while it fought the PKK, not letting any information out or any journalists in.
Turkey’s problem with PKK terrorism, combined with the inevitable civilian casualties that occur when fighting terrorist groups embedded amongst the general population, makes it harder this time around for Turkey to angrily denounce Israel as it once did. While I expected Turkey to issue a condemnation of Israeli actions, it is not surprising that it did not have the full force as it has in the past given the uncomfortable parallels that exist between Israel’s actions against Hamas and Turkey’s actions against the PKK.
Of everything that I’ve written this year, this is the prediction that was perhaps the one that was most off-base, as Erdoğan later blasted Israel repeatedly for days. My error here is pretty easy to identify, which is that I for whatever reason convinced myself that a desire to not look like a hypocrite was going to override the strong political incentives that existed for Erdoğan to continue foaming at the mouth any time Israel comes up, and to tie himself to the Palestinian cause at every opportunity. Rest assured my naiveté on this issue is done with.
So there you go. I am sure I’ve missed things, and if anyone knows what those are, please let me know in the comments. Happy New Year, and see you all back here in 2013.
December 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I wrote a piece for the Atlantic yesterday about how Israel’s recent announcements on settlements in the West Bank and building in East Jerusalem is widely viewed as an effort to punish the Palestinians in the wake of their statehood bid at the UN, but that’s not the only thing driving Israeli policy. The sudden emergence of serious competitors on Bibi Netanyahu’s right flank accounts for much of what is going on as well. Here’s a teaser:
Over the past few weeks, the Israeli government has been on a building spree. First came word that planning and zoning would begin for E1, a controversial move that would further encircle East Jerusalem with settlements — cutting off from the West Bank the part of the city Palestinians demand to be the capital of their future state. As part of the same announcement, Israel said that it was going to build more housing in other parts of the West Bank as well.
This week, the government approved 1500 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem — the same housing units whose initial announcement in 2010 during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel caused a temporary rift between the United States and Israel and Hilary Clinton’s chewing-out of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem Local Committee are also expected to approve plans to build in Givat Hamatos and Gilo this week, both of which are new Jerusalem neighborhoods that are also across the 1967 armistice line that divides East and West Jerusalem.
This is all taking place despite enormous pressure and condemnation from Western countries, who are not happy with the escalation of Israeli plans to expand settlements or to build up Jerusalem neighborhoods that challenge the viability of a future Palestinian state. Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal are about to formally condemn Israel over its East Jerusalem building plans, and the 14 non-American members of the United Nations Security Council are going to do the same. Even the United States seems to have lost its usual patience with the Israeli government, deeming the new building announcements part of a “pattern of provocative action” that endangers the peace process and the two-state solution. Israel seems hell-bent on isolating itself over the settlement issue, and appears determined to move ahead with plans for both the West Bank and East Jerusalem no matter the cost.
It is easy to chalk this up to Israel’s fury with the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the United Nations, as the E1 announcement came the day after the vote, amidst stated determination on Israel’s part to punish the Palestinians for pursuing unilateral moves outside of the Oslo framework. “We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions,” Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren said this week, making the connection explicit.
Yet, this does not account for the scope of the recent Israeli announcements, or for the seeming recklessness of drawing real anger and censure from Israel’s Western allies immediately following American and EU support during Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza. There is indeed something else going on here, and it has nothing to do with the Palestinians and everything to do with the political jockeying taking place on the right of Israel’s political spectrum before Israelis go to the polls on January 22 to elect their next government.
To read the article in its entirety, please click over to the Atlantic’s website.
December 13, 2012 § 6 Comments
Commentaries about Hanukkah abound this year, from Hilary Krieger’s reminder in the New York Times that the holiday is about more than miraculous oil and plying children with presents to a typically obtuse Mondoweiss piece by Avigail Abarbanel decrying any celebration of Hanukkah as hypocritical because Israel is occupying the West Bank (but don’t worry, since Mondoweiss never conflates Judaism with Israel as we all know that criticism of the latter in no way ever has anything to do with the former). Tying in Krieger’s argument about what Hanukkah is really about with Abarbanel’s clumsy attempt to bash Israel over the head got me thinking that there is indeed a connection between Hanukkah and modern day Israel, but it is not the one that Abarbanel advances about Israeli behavior making Hanukkah unfit to be celebrated.
As Krieger points out, Hanukkah is actually about a revolt that paved the way for Jewish independence and freedom of worship, and the miracle of the oil burning for eight nights is only ancillary to the main story. Making Chanukkah primarily about lights burning in the Temple is the equivalent of celebrating on New Year’s Eve not because the calendar is about to change but because a giant ball is going to drop in Times Square. The reason Jews originally celebrated Hanukkah was because it represented the triumph of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel for the first time since the Babylonian expulsion four centuries earlier. Following hundreds of years of Judea being ruled by foreigners – Persians and Greeks – the Hasmoneans carried out a successful revolt against Judea’s Syrian Greek overlords and established a Jewish kingdom that lasted for a century before one side in the Judean civil war made the mistake of inviting the Roman general Pompey to settle things, which led to a Roman siege of Jerusalem and eventually Roman control over Judea. Hanukkah certainly has an important religious component in that it celebrates the end of Greek religious persecution – which, for those interested, is the only recorded instance of forced religious coercion by pagan conquerors in the ancient world – but just as vital is the celebration of Jewish political sovereignty and the establishment of a Jewish kingdom that was independent rather than a client of a larger empire. To me, Hanukkah has always been about this rather than about lights remaining kindled in the Temple.
Krieger mentions Maccabean religious zealotry and attacks on neighbors, and argues that these elements to the story require some Jewish introspection, as occurs on other Jewish holidays. The story is actually a lot more interesting than she details and requires vastly more real estate than the New York Times op-ed page provides. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Seleucids, they embarked on a mission to expand the borders of their new state. After the Seleucid empire broke apart, the Hasmoneans seized the opportunity to conquer the regions neighboring Judea, including the Galilee, Idumea, and Samaria, expanding into what is modern day Syria and Jordan. This expansion was not benign, however, as the Hasmoneans were not only looking to conquer territory but to create an explicitly Jewish kingdom. This meant forcing the local populations that they conquered to submit to conversion (which included being circumcised) or face expulsion, which was not exactly a great set of options. Over time, this enlarged kingdom became harder to defend and to govern, and the Judean political class divided into factions and civil war ensued. In many ways, what happened is reminiscent of Jack Snyder’s imperial overreach, and Jewish sovereignty was eventually snuffed out by the Romans.
So what’s the relevance of all this to modern day Israel? The reason Israel holds such meaning for many Jews around the world is because it represents the triumph of Jewish sovereignty in the historical Jewish homeland for the first time since the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks in the Hanukkah story and established the kingdom of Judea. In a sense, Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday most intimately connected to Israel and the Zionist dream, precisely because it mirrors the struggle to create the Jewish state and because it is a holiday that has powerful political meaning behind it rather than a holiday that is purely a religious one. Hanukkah represents Jewish political and military power and Jewish political independence, and it is something to be proud of and grateful for if you are Jewish and have any sense of Jewish history at all. The Hasmoneans and their fellow 2nd century BCE Judeans were able to establish a state despite the odds being heavily stacked against them, and it is tough to look at the Hanukkah story and not see the parallels to David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, and the other founding fathers of Israel.
Ultimately, however, as great as it must have been to establish Jewish sovereignty after centuries of foreign rule, the Jewish state in the Hanukkah story collapsed under its own weight due to poor decisions and infighting. So too, there are many dangers looming in Israel’s path, some of which are out of its control and some of which are very much of its own making. It should be obvious to everyone, particularly as the possible beginnings of a third intifada are just now emerging, that hanging onto the West Bank is a failed policy that is hanging around Israel’s neck like an albatross, and it is one that will continually put Israel’s status as a Jewish democratic state at risk. The more that Israeli policies anger Western states that do not have the same base of support for Israel that exists in the U.S., the more Israel will rely solely on the U.S., and that in itself will endanger Israeli sovereignty as it will become harder for Israel to chart its own independent path. Just as ancient Judea expanded beyond what it could reasonably control and descended into destructive factionalism and eventually civil war, modern day Israel does not quite appear to be in such dire straits but resembles this scenario in enough of a way as to be unsettling. Hanukkah should not prompt one to reject any celebration of the holiday because Jews once fought against foreign occupiers and Israel is now occupying the West Bank, but it should certainly prompt a recognition that there are some lessons to be learned from ancient Jewish history. Just like the Hanukkah story of the kingdom of Judea, which began so triumphantly but ended tragically, Israel is also currently headed down a path that it desperately needs to find a way around so that Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland is not once again interrupted.
October 18, 2012 § 5 Comments
Dan Ephron, who is Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief, wrote a piece on Monday about the Israeli right wing’s dominance of that country’s politics. Ephron quoted Noam Sheizaf as predicting that the election in January will create a “total collapse of the center-left, both as a political power and as an ideologically coherent idea,” and Ephron appears to agree that this is a likely scenario. The reason Ephron provides is that the fastest growing groups in Israel are the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox, and that “both groups lean heavily to the right.” Furthermore, “Since the core motivation for their political hawkishness is largely unchanging—a biblical injunction to maintain Israeli control over Judea and Samaria (their term for the West Bank)—it’s hard to imagine them ever shifting alliances. The upshot: with each passing year, the Israeli right grows stronger.”
This seems plausible on its face, but there are a few major problems with this analysis. First, conflating the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredim) is a rookie mistake. Orthodox voters and Haredi voters have different motivations and vote based on different issues. The idea that a party like Shas speaks for, say, Israelis attending hesder yeshivot (where draft-eligible Israeli men split their time between army service and Torah study) is nonsense. It is also analytically lazy to contend that Orthodox Jews who serve in the IDF and go on to careers of various sorts are no different than Haredi Jews who do not perform army service and are largely dependent on state subsidies. Lumping their positions and ideologies together makes Ephron’s argument automatically suspect.
Second, it is simply not accurate to describe Haredi rightwing tendencies as being motivated by a desire to hold on to Greater Israel. As my friend Brent Sasley has pointed out, Haredim are generally anti-Zionist or non-Zionist. Not only do they not care about maintaining all of Greater Israel, as Ephron contends, but many Haredim are actually opposed to the idea of Israel at all, let alone an Israel that encompasses the West Bank. Haredi parties in the Knesset recognize the existence of the state, but they do not care about any biblical injunction regarding the land of Israel. In fact, as Brent usefully noted, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the founder and current spiritual leader of Shas (which is the Knesset’s largest Orthodox party of any stripe), held for years that it was acceptable to give up land if it would save Jewish lives, which is certainly not in line with Ephron’s dubious claim that Haredi rightwing positions stem first and foremost from a desire to hang on to the West Bank. Haredi parties generally – although historically not always – band together with other rightwing parties because they are very socially conservative and they feel most at home on the right. Issues surrounding the West Bank or the Palestinians have very little to do with it.
Third, throwing Likud’s politics in together with Haredi politics and pretending that it all stems from the same rightwing ideology is inaccurate. Both segments are conservative and ideological in their own way, but their conservatism and ideology are not shared. Likud is economically conservative and extremely devoted to the settler cause, and if any party has an ideology based on settling the entire land of Greater Israel, Likud is it. There is, of course, the inconvenient fact that Likud leaders are not themselves religious, including Likud founder Menachem Begin and current Likud prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, but certainly a sizable percentage of Likud voters are Orthodox (but not Haredi). Haredi parties are ideological and conservative as well, but their conservatism is social rather than economic – not surprising given how many Haredim survive on state largesse – and their ideology is one of fealty to Torah and Jewish law as a way of structuring daily life, rather than anything surrounding settling or holding onto the land. Likud is rightwing, and Shas and UTJ are rightwing, but they are rightwingers in the same way the Club for Growth and the Christian Coalition are rightwing – they inhabit the same general political universe but for vastly different reasons.
It is true that the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox both lean heavily to the right, but that is about the only part of Ephron’s analysis that isn’t stunningly ill-informed. Just because both groups have the word “Orthodox” in their names does not mean that they share the same core motivations. The Israeli right may be growing stronger, but that doesn’t mean that Haredi parties wouldn’t shift their allegiance to the left if they were promised a better deal on subsidies and control of Israel’s religious institutions. Ephron’s permanent majority theory is based on some serious basic factual errors, and given that he is the Jerusalem bureau chief for one of America’s most prominent newsweeklies, I expect some more rigor from him.
July 9, 2012 § 4 Comments
The three member group led by former High Court justice Edmund Levy charged with investigating the legal status of unauthorized settlements in the West Bank issued its report yesterday, and its consequences cannot be overstated. The Levy Report found, in a nutshell, that the occupation of the West Bank is not actually an occupation because Israel’s presence there has spanned decades and is thus unique in modern history, and it therefore follows that settlements are not illegal as they are not being built in occupied territory. The report also states that because unauthorized settlement construction took place with the tacit agreement and implied support of successive governments, the unauthorized settlements can be retroactively legalized. So basically, for those following along at home, if you do something that is illegal for long enough, you can just call it legal later on down the road, and if the government decides to ignore the rule of law, that somehow changes the meaning of rule of law. In what can only be described as the most extreme of self parodies, Yesha head Dani Dayan praised the committee’s “impartial first rate jurists” and said that “it is clear that deep, basic and serious legal work was done.”
The report itself is bad enough, but more worrisome is the reaction from cabinet members, who are literally falling all over themselves to see who can be the one to most effusively praise the committee’s findings. The politics are such that there appears to be zero downside to pretending that Israel is not militarily occupying the West Bank because this occupation does not look like other occupations, and that is bound to create pressure for the government to formally endorse the committee’s findings. The fact that I haven’t seen any statements at all from people such as Benny Begin or Dan Meridor (and if they have issued statements or given interviews, please email me or post in the comments section) is even more worrisome yet, since their silence on this means that they either agree (unlikely) or are too cowed by the settler movement to speak out against it. Even Tzipi Livni, who is not a huge settlement advocate and who is not even formally in politics at the moment, said that “it is possible and necessary to use the Levy Report for matters of international law, while considering the current reality and continue negotiations on settlement blocs.”
Israel has reached a dangerous point, and I do not say that lightly. For years, Israel and Diaspora Jews railed against the idea of a one state solution, which was viewed – quite correctly – as a backdoor way of dismantling the Jewish state. With the Levy Report, Israel’s right wing has come up with its own one state solution, but the problem is that this one smashes any pretense Israel will have to being a democratic state unless it enfranchises all of the Palestinians living in the West Bank. Somehow, I don’t think that this is what Edmund Levy, Avigdor Lieberman, or Dani Dayan have in mind. If this happens, Israel can kiss any international support that it has goodbye, and that includes the U.S. I painstakingly made the case once before that U.S. support for Israel stems from the fact that it is a democracy and that should not be taken lightly. Israel does not want to live in a world in which it is forced to make common cause with China and Russia, and Jews of all stripes – Israeli and American, religious and secular – do not want to have to defend an Israel that openly annexes the West Bank while permanently and legally relegating the Palestinians to official second class status.
I refuse to believe, or perhaps just hope, that Netanyahu is stupid enough to take the Levy Report to its fullest logical conclusion. He is a smart guy and is well attuned to the challenges Israel faces, both military and otherwise, and he knows that what amounts to an annexation of the West Bank without corresponding political rights for all of its residents – in essence, the dreaded one state solution – would be suicidal. This is more than maintaining the status quo, in which Israel and the Palestinians negotiate on and off, the big settlement blocs that Israel is expected to maintain in a deal continue to grow, and Israel accepts that it is an occupying force that does not intend on remaining in the West Bank forever. The Levy Report represents a revolutionary and radical change, in which the occupation does not exist, the peace process is over, and the two state solution is finally dead and buried. There is no going back from this, since once the Israeli government declares that it is not occupying anything, it will be impossible to reign in the settlers if the government ever comes to its sense and changes its mind. The implementation of the Levy Report would make Israel a true pariah state on the world stage, and implementing it and then walking it back would mean civil war. Netanyahu knows all this, and he isn’t going to drive Israel into a ditch.
So, what happens next? I have been arguing again and again and again, and then one more time for good measure, that Likud is a party busting apart at the seams and destined to split. I think that this might be the final crack that splinters the party, depending on what Netanyahu does. The pressure from the settlers’ wing, triumphant in this gift that they have been handed, is such that Netanyahu cannot just blow them off or even water down the Levy Report. If he wants to keep them in the fold, he needs to implement the report, or else he is going to have a full blown rebellion on his hands and will be denounced up and down for betraying the settlers’ cause. If, on the other hand, he grasps the full enormity of what accepting the Levy Report means, then he is going to have split Likud in two. I stand by my prediction that he is going to choose keeping Israel in one piece and fracturing his party rather than the other way around, but if he doesn’t, then Israel is in for some dark days ahead.
March 26, 2012 § 1 Comment
Migron is the kind of place that should never be in the news. It is a relatively small outpost in the West Bank that was started, vacated, and started again, built on land privately owned by Palestinians, and will never in a million years be part of any land swaps that might take place should the Israelis and Palestinians work out a peace agreement. Last August, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered it to be evacuated and demolished by the end of this month, and there is no reason that anyone but the government and the residents of Migron should have thought about it ever again. Yet, Migron is now all over the news because the government negotiated a deal with Migron’s residents to allow them to stay for another three years and then amazingly asked the Supreme Court to ignore its own ruling and approve the new agreement.
This might seem at first glance like a strange strategic move, but it was actually a smart one on its face because the makeup of the Court has changed. The new president, Asher Grunis, is a conservative who was able to assume his new position last month despite being less than three years away from the mandatory retirement age of 70 after the Knesset passed a law clearing the way for him to be appointed. The reason this was done is because his predecessor, Dorit Beinisch, who was responsible for the Migron decision among others, was seen as extremely activist and the assumption was that having Grunis at the helm would make the Court more compliant with the government’s wishes. In the first real test of this theory, however, the government has been unpleasantly shocked, as Grunis was part of the three judge panel that unanimously ruled yesterday that the deal between the government and Migron’s residents does not supersede the Court’s order from last August, which means that Migron must be demolished by
the end of the week August 1.
No matter what your political persuasion, it is tough to view this as anything but a victory for the rule of law and judicial independence. The Court’s order was clear, and the fact that the government and Migron’s residents petitioned the Court to approve their deal casts aside any doubts as to whether the government has the power to simply disregard the original decision. The question now is whether the Knesset will scramble to pass a bypass law that nullifies the Court’s decision through a legislative override. If this happens, it will be a truly disastrous move on a number of fronts. With all of the attention that has been focused - including by me – on the various anti-democratic legislation moving through the Knesset, passing a law to avoid enforcement of a Court decision that was itself an attempt to enforce a previous Court decision would add unnecessary fuel to the fire, and provide ammunition to people who erroneously declare Israel to no longer be a democracy. A legislative override will also further doom any last shred of prospect that remains for a peace agreement with the Palestinians, since if the government cannot bring itself to evacuate a place like Migron, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine ever uprooting any settlements as part of a negotiated deal for a Palestinian state. Bypassing the Court is also terrible timing given that Israel is about to face Goldstone Redux, since the new UN committee set up to investigate the settlements is without a doubt going to issue a damning report, and Israel is making the same ill-considered mistake it made last time by refusing to cooperate at all and cutting off all communication with UNHRC commissioner Navi Pillay. What is going to happen next is sadly predictable – Israel will not try to lobby the committee at all in the belief that doing so would grant the committee legitimacy, the committee will blast Israel in every possible way and the government’s strategy will be an utter failure when nobody ignores the report or accepts Israel’s argument that its lack of cooperation makes the report illegitimate, and Israel will then spend months, if not years, complaining that its side of the story was not represented and that it is being unfairly demonized by a one-sided version of the facts.
So for a variety of reasons, this is just not the time to create an even bigger mess by sending the message that Israeli Supreme Court decisions can be ignored whenever they put the government in an uncomfortable position or conflict with the politics of Likud’s coalition. Yet, I’ll bet almost anything that Migron is not evacuated and demolished by
week’s end August 1, and that Likud’s younger rightwing vanguard does everything in its power to make sure that the Migron decision is consigned to nothingness. The Knesset’s current coalition politics will not allow anything less, and Israel will continue to fight a losing battle to convince the world that it is blameless for the situation with the Palestinians and that it will be able to withdraw from part of the West Bank whenever the Palestinian leadership is interested in returning to the negotiating table. Migron and all of the machinations surrounding its eventual fate is a crushingly sad symbol of the state of Israeli politics and the inertia of the peace process.
March 19, 2012 § 1 Comment
Peter Beinart has a forceful op-ed in today’s New York Times arguing that a stronger distinction needs to be made between Israel and the West Bank so that Israel’s democratic legitimacy cannot be used to legitimize its actions in the Occupied Territories and that concurrently what goes on in the West Bank cannot be used to delegitimize Israel. It as an interesting piece and I encourage everyone to read it for themselves, but here are some thoughts and some predictions.
First, anybody who does not read the op-ed itself is going to have no idea that there is anything of substance in it other than a call to boycott the settlements. The piece has been shooting around Twitter and that is the only detail being mentioned. That Beinart writes “But a settlement boycott is not enough. It must be paired with an equally vigorous embrace of democratic Israel” is a facet that is going to be glossed over entirely. Those who think that calling for any pressure on Israel over settlements is outrageous will find anything else contained in the piece to be a mere coda, and those who embrace the BDS movement will trumpet Beinart’s call for a settlement boycott as the first step on the road to a boycott of Israel proper. That there is a large group of people who fall in between these two positions will not matter in the slightest, because the debate on Israel is driven by the loudest voices on the extremes. Beinart is about to be demonized by one side and embraced by the other, and the fact that he is advocating both a settlement boycott and a redirection of any funds not spent in the settlements to Israeli goods will be completely ignored. My guess is that Beinart does not want to be used as a cudgel by the BDS folks or as a punching bag by the Greater Israel crowd, but that is precisely what will happen.
This leads to my second point, which is about Beinart’s advocacy of the term “non-democratic Israel” for the West Bank. I appreciate Beinart’s reasoning, which is that it makes a clear distinction between Israeli democracy and Israeli occupation and thus does not let either side use the West Bank in a res ipsa loquitur manner, but I do not agree that using the phrase will have the effect that he intends. I think that very few people think that the term “West Bank” automatically prioritizes its connection to the Kingdom of Jordan as Beinart contends, but rather realize that it actually reinforces the political boundary with Jordan. This does not make the term meaningless; if anything, it highlights the absurdity of those who argue that Palestinians who want a state should just go to Jordan, or who hold on to the pipe dream that Jordan will ever incorporate the West Bank into the Jordanian polity. I think that the term “non-democratic Israel” actually complicates things even further, because rather than creating the hard line that Beinart wants between the Israel and the territories, it muddies the waters even further. Those who want to maintain the status quo will seize upon the fact that someone is now referring to the West Bank as Israel, irrespective of the modifying adjective preceding it, and those who believe that Israel is not in any way a democracy will argue that this proves their case. I understand that Beinart think this will have the effect of forcing some hard decisions by clarifying the situation, but I think he is being naive on this point. It will just cause each side to dig in harder and ensure that neither ever views the other as legitimate. [ed. note: by each side, I mean Israelis and Palestinians - I do not mean to imply that I find the global BDS movement to be putting forth a legitimate good faith stance, since I don't.]
Finally, I very much identify with Beinart’s description of his agony at calling for a boycott of other Jews given his deep ties to the Jewish community. I am in a similar situation to him in belonging to an Orthodox synagogue and sending my daughter to a Jewish preschool and being outside the dominant position on Israel and the West Bank in such institutions. I have had close friends tell me that I must hate Israel since I think that Israel needs to pull out of the West Bank and let the Palestinians have a state. I have never had an op-ed in the Times calling for a settlement boycott, however, and I am terribly curious to see what reaction Beinart will get when he shows up to synagogue next Saturday. My hunch is that some people will commend him for taking a controversial but principled position, but that the overwhelming sentiment will be condemnation to the point of outright hostility.