Jacob Heilbrunn

Peter Beinart Says America Should Boycott the West Bank

Banksy graffiti at the Israeli-West Bank barrier in Bethlehem.Over the past year, Israel has successfully deflected attention from its Palestinian dilemma by sounding alarms about Iran. A chorus of supporters in America have also been warning about the looming crisis with Iran, most notably the Republican contenders for the presidency. Apart from Ron Paul, the candidates have depicted President Obama as dangerously squishy and suggested that they would do a better job not of deterring Iran but, rather, defanging it.

But a small insurgency in America is battling back. Peter Beinart, the author of the new book The Crisis of Zionism (which I review in the current issue of The National Interest), is a case in point. His critics will allege that it is a personal crisis and that Zionism is in great shape. But he has a searching op-ed today in the New York Times that takes issue with Israel's settlement policy. He is calling for a Western boycott of goods produced by Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Like a number of liberal intellectuals, Beinart has become increasingly disenchanted with the policies of successive Israeli governments.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank began after the 1967 war. It was never supposed to be permanent. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol suggested that several outposts would serve as temporary, defensive measures. The rest of the story is well-known. Israeli governments, fearful of anatagonizing the politically potent settler movement, exasperated by Palestinian intransigence and tempted by the prospect of more land, have either turned a blind eye toward expansion or actively promoted it. It is not a saga, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft observes in the New York Review of Books, that holds out much promise for peace:

here are two sides locked in what sometimes looks a dance of death, and is all too plainly a dialogue of the deaf.

Strong words. But even stronger words come from Beinart, who believes that Israeli democracy is itself at risk, that Israel risks corroding the very principles upon which it was founded by attempting to rule over an alien and hostile people. Beinart says,

If Israel makes the occupation permanent and Zionism ceases to be a democratic project, Israel’s foes will eventually overthrow Zionism itself.

We are closer to that day than many American Jews want to admit. Sticking to the old comfortable ways endangers Israel’s democratic future. If we want to effectively oppose the forces that threaten Israel from without, we must also oppose the forces that threaten it from within.

It would be difficult to disagree. What Beinart is saying, in essence, is that being pro-Israel is not tantamount to giving Benjamin Netanyahu permission to do whatever he pleases. Which is why Obama has been right to dissent on a preemptive strike against Iran. How much of the talk about attacking Iran is really about regime change rather than its nuclear program? Wouldn't a strike on Iran send much of the Middle East into upheaval? Does it serve Israel's interests to become increasingly isolated in the region, to the point that it has antagonized Turkey?

Beinart wants to try and force a change in Israeli behavior by making a moral statement. But whether a boycott of goods from the West Bank is really practical is another matter. Still, his op-ed—and mounting concern about the Netanyahu's government's actions and inaction—is testament to the change that is taking place in American assessments of Israel's course. Beinart's crusading call is certain to further roil the waters and focus attention on a subject that the Netanyahu government has done its best to try and suppress.