Stephen M. Walt

Belated thoughts on Peter Beinart

I was overseas when Peter Beinart’s article on "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" appeared on the website of the New York Review of Books and started an immediate hullabaloo. I read it quickly online but had little time to reflect on it or to post a reaction. My copy of the NYRB was ...

I was overseas when Peter Beinart’s article on "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" appeared on the website of the New York Review of Books and started an immediate hullabaloo. I read it quickly online but had little time to reflect on it or to post a reaction. My copy of the NYRB was waiting when I got home, however, and I’ve now had time to digest Beinart’s article and some of the reactions to it. What follows is a belated response, in the form of a few comments and two questions.

Overall, I thought it was an important contribution to a long-overdue debate. He doesn’t say much that is new, of course, but he says it well. Moreover, Beinart is a well-connected individual with demonstrable pro-Israel credentials, which makes it harder for critics to accuse him of being a self-hating Jew or having some deep-seated animus toward Israel.  

I also thought his essay reaffirmed several of the points that John Mearsheimer and I made in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Though he does not say so explicitly, Beinart clearly recognizes that what he calls the "American Jewish Establishment" has a significant influence on U.S. Middle East policy and especially on our “special relationship” with Israel. After all, if the attitudes and activities of that "Establishment" were of little consequence, there would be no reason for Beinart to write the article in the first place. He clearly hopes that his article will convince its leaders to abandon their role as unthinking cheerleaders for Israel and adopt a more critical stance.  He believes that this is the best way to save Israel from itself.

Beinart also recognizes that some of this "Establishment’s" influence derives from its efforts to shape public commentary about Israel. In his words, "groups like AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace." "Scold" is far too weak a word for the baseless and sometimes vicious attacks that some groups and individuals dish out against those with whom they disagree. Still, his basic point is on the money.  

Finally, his overall prescription dovetails with some of our own recommendations, and especially the idea that the key organizations in the lobby need to rethink the positions that they have held for many years. The issue, as we made clear in our book, was not the existence of a powerful "pro-Israel" community in the United States. Rather, it was the specific policies that the most powerful of these groups were defending and/or promoting, policies that we believed were harmful to the United States and Israel alike.

It took a certain amount of guts for Beinart to publish this article, and it is to his credit that he has been willing to engage the predictable chorus of critics without flinching. I’m not about to join his adversaries, but I would like to raise two questions.

First, he writes that "the heads of AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference should ask themselves what Israel’s leaders would have to do or say to make them scream ‘no.’ After all, [Avigdor] Lieberman is foreign minister, Effi Eitam [who openly favors ethnic cleansing in the West Bank] is touring American universities, settlements are growing at triple the rate of the Israeli population; half of Israeli Jewish high school students want Arabs barred from the Knesset.  If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?"

It’s an excellent question, but Beinart does not answer it and he should.  Nor does he say what policies he would advocate once Israel crossed his red lines (wherever they are). In subsequent interviews, in fact, he has acknowledged the tension between his own liberal convictions and his Zionist beliefs, and said that he is willing to compromise the former (somewhat) in order to preserve the latter. He ought to say more, however: Just how far is he willing to sacrifice the one to preserve the other? More importantly, he does not tell us where he stands on the "special relationship"; nor does he identify the circumstances, if any, where he would recommend that the United States either distance itself from Israel or put strong pressure on it to change its policies.  

In short, I’d like Beinart to answer the same question I asked Aaron David Miller. What does he think the United States should do should it become clear that a genuine “two-state” solution is not going to happen?

Second, Beinart’s essay is primarily directed at the American Jewish community, which is understandable. Yet I’m curious as to whether he thinks this is a topic that all Americans should engage with, or whether he thinks (as some do) that it is a topic on which non-Jews should remain largely silent. My own view is that the special relationship has a profound impact on American foreign policy and therefore it is a subject that all Americans should care about very much and be able to discuss openly — without being unfairly attacked — even if they a critical of Israel’s actions and America’s unconditional support for them. No group should enjoy a privileged position in that debate.  I wonder if Beinart would agree.

In any case, the best thing about Beinart’s essay is that he decided to write it, and that the NYRB chose to publish it. It is a sign of a more open discourse on this important subject, and it is long overdue. The United States faces vexing challenges in the Middle East, and the only way to develop policies that will work better is to have an open discussion of past failures. Beinart deserves our thanks for his thoughtful contribution to that effort.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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