Of all the difficult allies whom Barack Obama has had to contend with during his presidency—the thin-skinned and erratic Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, the secretive and possibly duplicitous Pakistani general and de facto ruler, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani—perhaps none has given the president more headaches than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The pair’s distaste for and distrust of each other was evident from the start: Netanyahu, whose inner circle contemptuously referred to the U.S. president as Barack “Hussein” Obama, regarded him as flagrantly pro-Palestinian, and recklessly dismissive of Israel’s security concerns. Obama, in turn, saw the Likud leader as an unyielding ideologue whose goal is permanent occupation of much of the West Bank and who has used every method available to him, open and devious, to make negotiations with his Palestinian adversaries impossible.

The Crisis of

by Peter Beinart
Times Books, 304 pp.

As Peter Beinart makes clear in his passionately argued and persuasive new book, The Crisis of Zionism, Netanyahu managed swiftly to gain the upper hand in the relationship—in no small part thanks to the political support he received from right-wing U.S. Jewish lobbying groups. The alliance between these organizations and the most revanchist elements of the Israeli leadership—those dedicated to expanding control over the West Bank and preventing the creation of a viable Palestinian state—represents, to Beinart, a betrayal of the democratic and humanitarian principles upon which Zionism, and especially American Zionism, was based. His book is one part analysis of how that betrayal came to pass, and one part a rallying cry for a more responsible, and ethical, approach to both the Palestinian question and the U.S.-Israeli relationship. “Unless American Jews help end the occupation that desecrates Israel’s founding ideals,” he writes at the outset of this eloquent polemic, which is certain to place him at the top of the enemies list of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Zionism will become “a movement that fails the test of Jewish power.”

Beinart’s book is the second major work in recent months to sound the alarm about the entrenchment of what he calls “non-democratic” Israel across the green line. In The Unmaking of Israel, liberal American-Israeli journalist (and orthodox Jew) Gershom Gorenberg argued that Israel had in effect created an apartheid state in the West Bank, blighted by discrimination, violence, and repression—and that those values were spilling over into Israel proper. Beinart too is deeply concerned by the rapid growth of Israel’s West Bank settlements—from a population of about 50,000 a generation ago to more than 300,000 today—and the undue influence these illegal outposts wield over Israeli politics and society. “Over time, democratic and non-democratic Israel have become Siamese twins,” Beinart observes. “In 2010 … Netanyahu called Ariel, a settlement that stretches thirteen miles into the West Bank, ‘the heart of our country.’ Many Israeli maps and textbooks no longer show the green line at all.” For Beinart, Exhibit A in the settlements’ toxic influence has been the rise of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in one of the most remote such outposts. Lieberman has become the leading government advocate of loyalty oaths for Israeli Arab citizens and for the forced transfer of large segments of the Arab population across the green line—where they would be involuntarily stripped of their Israeli citizenship.

But while Gorenberg focuses on ultra-orthodox extremists in the settlements and the Israeli Defense Force as the most dangerous threats to an orderly West Bank withdrawal and an equitable peace, Beinart concentrates on a different obstacle: right-wing U.S. Jewish supporters of Israel. “There are two kinds of mainstream American Jewish organizations,” he writes: “those whose tolerance for the occupation is warping their historic commitment to democratic ideals and those with no commitment to democratic ideals at all.” In the first category he puts the Anti-Defamation League, run by the outspoken Holocaust survivor Abraham Foxman, and the American Jewish Committee. In the latter he places the largest and best funded of all the lobbying groups, AIPAC, many of whose leaders were also scarred by brushes with anti-Semitism. To a greater or lesser extent, all of these organizations continue to see Jews as victims, regard any criticism of Israel as manifestations of anti-Semitism, and consider Palestinians an undifferentiated and hostile mass determined to see Israel wiped off the map. Former Knesset member and liberal politician Yossi Beilin calls the elders who run these groups a “plutocracy,” woefully disconnected from American Jews as a whole. As Beinart sees it, they’ve failed to recognize that the reality has changed. “We live in an age not of Jewish weakness, but of Jewish power,” Beinart observes. “Without moral vigilance, Jews will abuse power just as hideously as anyone else.”

To be sure, Israel continues to live in what its leaders often point out is a “dangerous neighborhood”: rockets rain down regularly from Hamas-controlled Gaza, while Iran builds its nuclear capability and calls for Israel’s destruction. But Beinart argues persuasively that the Jewish state’s security no longer depends on military control of the West Bank. Moreover, he shreds the claims of the Israeli leadership and American Jewish leaders that the occupation shouldn’t be criticized because it is somehow the Palestinians’ fault. In this view, the Palestinians have repeatedly chosen violence and spurned generous Israeli offers for peace. Beinart provides an evenhanded assessment of the 2000 Camp David talks, the President Clinton-brokered peace negotiations whose failure set the stage for the second Palestinian intifada. The conventional wisdom holds that negotiations collapsed because of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s intransigence; Beinart shows that Israeli leader Ehud Barak’s take-it-or-leave-it offer—including inequitable land swaps, the retention of big settlement blocs, and Israeli control of the Jordan Valley—would have been impossible for Arafat to accept. While hardly letting the Palestinian leader off the hook, he makes a strong case that the intifada stemmed as much from Palestinian anger and frustration at Israel’s entrenched occupation as from Arafat’s surrender to the most violent forces in Palestinian society. And he rightly points out that while Israel, by relentlessly expanding settlements, continues to ignore the 2004 road map to peace devised by the diplomatic foursome comprising representatives from the United Nations, the U.S., the European Union, and Russia known as the Quartet. By contrast, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has met his responsibility by building a disciplined security force, dramatically bring -ing down violence both within the territories and that directed at Israel.

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.”

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Joshua Hammer

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