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Andrew Sullivan vs. TNR: Please shoot me now

Andrew Sullivan vs. TNR: Please shoot me now

I was expecting fireworks after reading Leon Wieseltier’s 4,250-word attack piece on blogger and former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, and the Internet did not disappoint.

Here’s the quick and dirty summary: Wieseltier uses a W.H. Auden quote as a framing device for long, tedious, and link-free article that paints Sullivan as an anti-Semite. Sullivan fires back with a rebuttal of Wieseltier’s interpretation of the quote and shows the original email exchange that prompted Andrew to use it. He follows up a while later with a 2008 quote from Wieseltier explicitly saying Sullivan is NOT an anti-Semite. More is soon to follow. [UPDATE: Here’s Sullivan with more. Much, much more.]

So far, I’m not impressed by any of it. Wieseltier does catch Sullivan writing some weird and sloppy things about Jews, and Andrew should be much more careful in criticizing Israel. But Wieseltier is equally sloppy and careless with his language, sweepingly accusing Sullivan of "venomous hostility toward Israel and Jews." The whole thing is pretty tiresome, and the fracas as it plays out will do little to enhance the discussion about Israel and the Palestinian question (and just wait until Marty Peretz throws his hat in the ring), or either man’s image, for that matter.

Having read both TNR and Sullivan’s blog for years now, I feel well-qualified to make a few unsolicited observations. First, Sullivan is no anti-Semite. He doesn’t really have a set ideology, though he claims to be a conservative. His worldview seems to be determined not by deep, core beliefs, but by an innate sense of what his audience wants to read at any given moment. He’s wildly successful as a blogger in part because he shifts with the political winds — witness his conversion from a fanatical enthusiast for George W. Bush’s war on terror to a strident critic of "enhanced interrogations," or his sudden passion for Iranian dissidents. It’s probably not an accident, either, that he spent much of 2008 pumping up the ludicrous, but Web-driven Ron Paul candidacy while writing obsessively about the Google-riffic Sarah Palin.

Sullivan’s criticism of Israel ought to worry defenders of the Jewish state, then, because he is a bellwether for a broader shift in American media and society that has happened over the last few years. Israel is using up a lot of the goodwill it had built up in the 1990s, when eminent statesmen like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres made good-faith efforts toward peace with the Palestinians. Since then, the country has been governed by a series of unimaginative right-wing leaders who have pandered constantly to their settler base and chosen to solve political problems through the use of force. Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party may have their fingers on the pulse of their public right now, but their agenda is not one that appeals to most Americans, who strongly support Israel’s right to exist but have little interest in underwriting the permanent occupation of the West Bank.

Tired old arguments like "but the Palestinians are worse!" may win debate points, but they aren’t a good way to rebuild the widespread support for Israel that existed in Bill Clinton’s time. Only wise and far-sighted Israeli leadership can do that, and self-styled friends of the Jewish state might want to think about ways they can help nudge the Israeli political class in a more productive direction, rather than publishing 4,000-word essays about …  bloggers.

UPDATE: Jeff Goldberg chimes in with a few additional thoughts:

What Israel needs is a leader who will step forward and say, "Here is the way things should look," and then present an outline for the creation of a viable Palestine. The settlers will go nuts, but that’s what they do. Hamas will go nuts, because that’s what it does. But Hounshell is right: What is needed is a Rabin.