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.