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Peter Beinart’s Liberal Fantasies

They're delusions Israel can't afford.

by
Benjamin Kerstein

Bio

February 24, 2011 - 12:00 am
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Beinart isn’t much better on the subject of Israel. He is — or pretends to be — completely unable to think of a single reason why Israel might be slightly nervous about events in Egypt, so he puts the whole thing down to issues which are clearly personal obsessions of his own: Gaza, the Palestinian question, etc. In fact, these issues are largely peripheral to Israel’s concerns. There is actually a very simple reason why Israel is concerned about the Egyptian revolution: absolutely nobody knows how it is going to end. A liberal democratic regime could emerge in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation, but a totalitarian theocracy is equally possible, as is a new variation on the old military regime, or simply a long descent into chaos and civil war. Almost anything could happen at the moment, and for a small and vulnerable country like Israel, that kind of uncertainty is inherently frightening. Many Israelis, and I am one of them, hope that the liberal wing of the protest movement will win out in the end, but this is by no means a foregone conclusion. It is possible that Beinart does not understand this because he has bought, at least partially, into certain conspiratorial fantasies about Israeli power. He accuses Israel of trying to “prop up a dying autocratic order,” for example; when in fact Israel has nothing like the power to do so, even if it wanted to. In addition, he advises Israel to fight for “Middle Eastern public opinion,” as though Israel had the extraordinary persuasive capacities required to undo the century’s worth of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda that pervades much of the Arab world. Such fantasies may be ironically reassuring to those of Beinart’s political persuasion; but they are fantasies nonetheless; and Israel does not have the luxury of fantasies.

It does seem reasonably clear, however, that Beinart’s real concern is not Israel or Egypt but America. His remark about the “American Jewish right” who cannot or will not “distinguish hatred of Israel’s policies from hatred of Israel’s very existence” is quite telling in this regard. Having recently become a critic (sometimes vitriolic) of the pro-Israel community in America — which he identifies entirely, and erroneously, with the political right — Beinart is not so much commenting on Israel’s attitude toward Egypt as he is trying to score points and settle scores with those he considers his domestic political opponents. One imagines that this is how he manages to dismiss any possible threat to Israel’s peace with Egypt so easily; how he calls ElBaradei the leader of a movement which prides itself on being leaderless; how he describes not one but two totalitarian Islamic movements in desperately rosy terms; and how he convinces himself that the very real popular hatred of both Israel and the Jews in the Arab world does not exist.

To believe such things, moreover, is the only way Beinart can justify, to himself and others, his obvious hatred and contempt for his political rivals.

The fact that his claims are at best wishful thinking and at worst deliberately false is beside the point. This kind of thinking is pathetically narcissistic, of course, but it is a narcissism shared by many on the Jewish left who consider themselves opposed and oppressed by a monolithic, semi-fascist, pro-Israel establishment. Such fantasies, unfortunately — as Beinart unintentionally reveals — do not aid the cause of Israel or Egypt; nor do they make one a particularly perceptive, or even competent, observer of momentous events in the Middle East.

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Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor who lives in Tel Aviv.
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