David Brog, a former adviser to the recently departed former senator Arlen Specter (D/R/D-Pa.) and now the executive director of Christians United for Israel, has written a pot-stirring piece in the Middle East Quarterly taking to task liberal Jews who have thrown their lot in with anti-Israel critics. He argues, “For many years, the liberal base of the Democratic Party has been steadily turning against the Jewish state. . . .The response of most pro-Israel liberals to the erosion of support for Israel among the Democratic base has been to surrender. With limited exceptions, there has been no effort to make the case for Israel on the merits. As the Jewish state stands accused of the worst of crimes, many have waved the white flag at best and joined in the attacks at worst.”
Brog singles out as examples of this disturbing trend Peter Beinart, who has turned from mainstream pundit to virulent critic of Israel and Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, which among other things argued for the Obama administration not to veto a condemnation of Israel in the United Nations Security Council and defended Richard Goldstone. Brog contends that the problem goes down to the grass-roots level, citing polling to show a much lower level of support from Democrats than from Republicans.
He implores pro-Israel liberals to push back against the false narrative that Israel is to blame for the lack of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and the continued retention of the territory taken in the 1967 war. (“Intellectually speaking, Beinart and Ben Ami are frozen in 1999. They express perfectly the views that most American Jews and most Israelis held at the close of the twentieth century. Jews not only supported a two-state solution in the abstract but believed that the time was right to aggressively pursue it. Simply give the Palestinians a state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza, it was argued, and there will be peace in the Middle East.”)
Brog is right in calling attention to declining support for Israel on the left. He is on the mark when laying blame for the lack of Palestinian state at the feet of Palestinian leaders. However, I think Brog overestimates the importance of fringe characters like Beinart and Ben-Ami. (J Street has shriveled to a shadow of its imagined self while Beinart’s anti-Israel book was panned by nearly every mainstream publication.) I also would not overlook the degree to which President Obama has already provoked liberal Jews to step forward to defend Israel (as Sen. Harry Reid and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer each did at a 2011 AIPAC convention).
Brog agreed to answer some questions on his essay:
You say that Beinart and Ben-Ami are frozen in 1999 and are simply unrealistic about a two-state solution. Have these two and many anti-Israel leftists decided that Israel is morally depraved, deserving to be weakened and punished for the 1967 occupation?
Without a doubt, many on the left see Israel as the villain. But they tend to see the “occupation” as a prime example of Israel’s villainy. I think the anti-Israel narrative is largely built on the myth that Israel could end the occupation and enjoy peace if it only wanted to. This false premise about peace leads to a false premise about Israel’s very character.
What’s so disappointing about Beinart, Ben-Ami and their crowd is that they act as if they’ve uncovered some precious new insight. Eureka! End the occupation, create a Palestinian state, and there will be peace! That’s why I say they’re stuck in 1999. Israel’s prime minister, [Ehud] Barak, aggressively pursued exactly this policy back then. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pursued it even more aggressively in 2008. Israel has repeatedly offered to give the Palestinians half of Jerusalem, all of Gaza, over 90 percent of the West Bank and compensating territory from Israel proper in exchange for peace. Israel actually pulled its troops out of every major Palestinian population center. The result was not peace but the largest wave of terror in Israel’s history. I don’t understand how anyone can ignore this history and return to the same black-and-white worldview that prevailed before. That is not insight. It’s delusion.
Is this a function of anti-nationalism and hostility toward the West or is it a distinct view about Israel?
On the surface, it seems to be a distinct view about Israel. Like so many around the world, these guys have Israel under a microscope. They are focused on Israel’s imperfections and alleged infractions as it strives to pursue peace and protect its citizens from militant Islam. We don’t hear them saying much about our own failings as we continue to prosecute our battles against militant Islam. Beinart actually wrote a pretty good book back in 2008 — “The Good Fight” — in which he makes the progressive case for a robust effort against Islamic terror. I wish he’d written a similar book making the progressive case for Israel.
But you’re probably right to tie this focus on Israel to a larger worldview. By virtue of its small size and front-line location, Israel is often the first target of those seeking to blame the West for the plague of Islamic terror. This inclination toward moral equivalence between terrorists and tyrants and democracies also haunts us.
Has Obama accelerated this trend or is he a product of the left’s growing antipathy toward Israel?
President Obama has clearly embraced this worldview, which sees Israel as the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Since Israel is the problem, he has seen pressure on Israel as the solution. I don’t question the president’s motives – I criticize his results. Whatever he sought to do, he has seriously damaged the peace process by turning issues to be solved through negotiations into strict preconditions to negotiations. As Mahmoud Abbas has asked, how could he demand less than the U.S. president?
But yet the vast number of elected Democrats remain solidly pro-Israel, as does the country, so do Beinart and Ben-Ami matter all that much?
Yes, there is still strong bipartisan support for Israel today, and Democrats are prominent among Israel’s most vocal supporters. But I’m worried about the rising generation of liberals. The polls have consistently shown that a large majority of Republicans sympathize with Israel over the Palestinians in this conflict. But only a minority of Democrats express similar sympathy. And as we saw at the Democratic convention, this anti-Israel base is getting increasingly vocal.
This liberal opposition to Israel isn’t based on anything Israel’s actually done – it is a product of misperceptions about Israel and the conflict. There is a compelling progressive case to be made for Israel. But with limited exceptions, pro-Israel progressives aren’t making it. Instead, they’re buying into the bias and reinforcing the belief that Israel is guilty as charged. If we continue down this path, Israel will end up as a partisan issue in America, with the Republicans supporting Israel and the Democrats largely hostile. That would be a disaster for both countries.