The Narcissism of Small Differences

First, the fuss: Beinart, who attends an Orthodox synagogue and is at pains to stress he believes 100 percent in the Zionist project, would like to save Israel from itself.

The ongoing colonization of Palestinian land seized in the 1967 war is killing any chance of a two-state solution, while Israel’s treatment of its non-Jewish citizens is illiberal and iniquitous. Can the U.S. help? Beinart casts President Obama, convincingly, as a true-blue liberal Zionist who imbibed Judaism’s humanist teachings from mentors like former congressman and federal judge Abner Mikva. Bibi Netanyahu is portrayed, also convincingly, as a thug. Yes, Beinart certainly goes further than most American liberal Zionists in criticizing Israel and its leadership.

This has not earned the author universal love. In fact, The Jewish Daily Forward used words like “unglued” and “angerfest” to describe the reception of Beinart’s book not just in the Jewish press, but also in The New York Times and The Washington Post. (The frothy response to Beinart’s book demonstrates, yet again, that Israel is the third rail of American politics.) A sprinkling of liberals, like Paul Krugman, has defended the book.

You would never know it from the hubbub, but Beinart’s position on U.S. policy toward Israel is not markedly different from that of his detractors. The shared bottom line is lavish military aid to Israel, $3 billion a year in munitions and advanced weaponry.

This longstanding annual package, supplemented by loan guarantees, has made Israel—a wealthy nation by global standards—the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid over the past 30 years. (Number two on the list has been Egypt, whose aid package is largely a bribe to make peace with its Israeli neighbor.)

Support for such unconditional military aid to Israel is spread across the gamut of pro-Israel organizations, from the conservative, powerful AIPAC on to J Street, purportedly a moderate counterweight to AIPAC, and even to “peace” groups like Americans for Peace Now. Given the unstoppable flow of weaponry from Washington to Israel, along with unstinting diplomatic support, the American-sponsored “peace process” is generally hard to distinguish from a war process. Few in the world see the U.S. as a neutral or credible arbiter between Palestine and Israel.

Bizarrely, Beinart fails even to sketch this all-important backdrop, alighting on America’s enormous military support for Israel only fleetingly and obliquely. One might expect a self-proclaimed liberal like Beinart to lustily advocate an end to military and diplomatic support for a nation that, as he admits, engages in ethnic cleansing and has Jim Crow-style laws at home.

Instead, Beinart merely proposes an economic boycott of the occupied West Bank. Given the near-total economic integration of this zone with Israel proper, the effect of such a measure would be negligible. For all the fury it has aroused, this is a timid book.

Today, Washington’s relationship with Israel is not some detail deep in the fine print of American statecraft. It is one of the engines of our Middle East policy and our costliest client-state relationship, whether measured in money, strategic liability, or reputation for honesty and human rights.

Beinart’s book, despite a few small nudges toward greater sanity, is itself a sign that the conversation needs to open up beyond rival factions of the Israel lobby.
Chase Madar is an attorney in New York and the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in U.S. History, published by O/R Books.