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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

It is a difficult thing to keep one’s head when the world is in a state of euphoria. This is probably why so much of the coverage of recent events in Egypt, including the recent resignation of Hosni Mubarak and the installation of a military government, has lacked the kind of elementary skepticism that ought to be applied to any event of such potential magnitude. To a certain extent, this is understandable. The intoxicating power of revolutionary change is very real, and can overwhelm even the most cynical personality. It becomes problematic, however, when people become so addicted to it that, like any run-of-the-mill alcoholic, the suggestion that they might have a problem throws them into a defensive rage. The reaction toward Israel’s cautious skepticism in regard to the Egyptian revolution provides a case study in the phenomenon, with many apparently intelligent and worldly journalists throwing themselves into spasms of inchoate fear and loathing at the Israelis’ refusal to jump on the happy bandwagon. What this has revealed is not so much the childlike naïveté lurking beneath the sophisticated exterior of many commentators, but also their tendency to abandon their own intelligence whenever Israel is involved.

An extraordinary example of this was published in The Daily Beast on February 7, several days before Mubarak’s resignation, titled “What Israel is Afraid of After the Egyptian Uprising.” It was penned by Peter Beinart, a former member in good standing of the American pro-Israel camp who has recently become one of its more violent critics. Beinart’s take on the situation — and I do not think it is an unusual one among American Jewish leftists and American leftists in general — is equal parts wishful thinking and willful self-deception. His thesis, to the extent that one can be gleaned from Beinart’s grab-bag of homilies, is that Israel is opposed to the Egyptian revolution because it is opposed to Arab democracy. The reason Israel is opposed to Arab democracy is that a democratic Arab world would make it much harder for Israel to do evil unto the Palestinians. Beinart presents no evidence whatsoever that this is actually the case, and it should be noted that the Israeli government has thus far declared no opposition to democracy in Egypt, though it has expressed strong concerns about where the current upheaval in that country may be leading. In Beinart’s eyes, however, even this elementary skepticism is simply incomprehensible and unconscionable. While he admits that “a theocracy that abrogated Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state would be bad for Israel,” he informs us that this is “unlikely” because Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood “abandoned violence decades ago, and declared that it would pursue its Islamist vision through the democratic process.” He asks, “Might the Brotherhood act differently if it gained absolute power? Sure, but it’s hard to foresee a scenario in which that happens,” and reassures us that “Mohammed ElBaradei, the closest thing the Egyptian protest movement has to a leader, has called the peace treaty with Israel ‘rock solid.’”

Indeed, Beinart appears to believe that Israel’s concerns about radical Islam are caused by nothing more than paranoia and craven self-interest. He illustrates this by drawing a rather tenuous connection between the unrest in Egypt and the Hamas regime in Gaza. In fact, Beinart appears to hold Hamas — which is nothing more than the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — in special affection. He reminds us that the group “won the freest election in Palestinian history,” and “the organization has been basically observing a de-facto cease-fire for two years now, and in the last year its two top leaders, Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniya, have both said Hamas would accept a two-state deal if the Palestinian people endorse it in a referendum.” Any opposition to the Hamas regime meets with Beinart’s violent disapproval: “Ever since 2006,” he notes angrily, “Hamas, Egypt, Israel and the United States have colluded to enforce a blockade meant to undermine the group’s control of the Gaza Strip.” While he admits Hamas is “vile in many ways,” he nonetheless asserts that “a shift in U.S. and Israeli policy towards Hamas is long overdue.” In his opinion, “Israel and America are better off allowing the Palestinians to create a democratically legitimate, national unity government that includes Hamas than continuing their current, immoral, failed policy.” Beinart’s obsession with Islamic theocracy in Gaza leads him back to Egypt; since a democratic Egyptian government would not, he believes, help Israel and America contain that theocracy, “partly because Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, but mostly because a policy of impoverishing the people of Gaza has little appeal among Egyptian voters.” In fact, he says, a democratic Egypt that refuses to “collude” against Hamas “may be doing Israel a favor.”
According to Beinart, this somewhat counterintuitive claim is justified because “the Middle East’s tectonic plates are shifting. For a long time, countries like Turkey and Egypt were ruled by men more interested in pleasing the United States than their own people, and as a result, they shielded Israel from their people’s anger. Now more of that anger will find its way into the corridors of power.” This is, apparently, a good thing, if only the Jews were not too stupid to realize it: “The Israeli and American Jewish right,” claims Beinart, “will see this as further evidence that all the world hates Jews, and that Israel has no choice but to turn further in on itself. But that would be a terrible mistake. More than ever in the months and years to come, Israelis and American Jews must distinguish hatred of Israel’s policies from hatred of Israel’s very existence.” As an alternate approach, Beinart suggests, “Instead of trying to prop up a dying autocratic order, what Israel desperately needs is to begin competing for Middle Eastern public opinion, something American power and Arab tyranny have kept it from having to do.”

It must be said that Beinart is undoubtedly sincere in his opinions. Unfortunately, his article repeats almost every mistake and willful illusion the Jewish left has been indulging in since Egypt began to explode two weeks ago. At certain points, in fact, he appears to misread even himself: He states, for example, that an Islamic regime in Egypt would be bad, but then proceeds to whitewash an organization which has advocated precisely that for the better part of a century. He claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is non-violent and democratic without bothering to wonder for a moment or two if this is a tactic adopted in the face of the threat of violent suppression by the Egyptian security forces. Even more absurdly, he dismisses the possibility that the Brotherhood could claim absolute power, even though we have an excellent historical example of a supposedly non-violent and democratic Islamic movement doing precisely that in the 1979 Iranian revolution. Beinart is equally disingenuous regarding Hamas, and here his obfuscations come disturbingly close to deliberate lies: He claims that Hamas won a free election in 2006 without bothering to mention its seizure of absolute power in a violent coup d’etat a few months later; which would seem to undermine his rather sanguine predictions about including them in a unity government. He also admits that Hamas is “vile” but never bothers to mention why; possibly because to do so would involve admitting that Hamas is, according to its own charter, a racist, genocidal, imperialist, anti-Semitic, and anti-democratic movement. One cannot help thinking that Beinart left this out because it might lead his readers to view his claim that Israeli, American, and Egyptian resistance to such a movement is “immoral” with a certain amount of skepticism.
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.

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