Sullivan & Goldberg On Boycotting Products From West Bank Settlements

Jeffrey Goldberg didn’t much like Peter Beinart’s new book:

I don’t have much good to say about Beinart’s call for a boycott, because I find economic warfare targeting Jews so distasteful, for obvious historical reasons. (As readers of Goldblog know, I would like to see the settlers out of the West Bank as well, but this is a very bad way to go about achieving the goal.) And to be completely blunt, I’m not that interested in debating Peter’s new book, which I’ve just finished reading, because I find his recounting of recent Middle East history one-sided and filled with errors and omissions. The Middle East crisis is complicated, except in Peter’s telling. It’s hard to argue with Peter’s work precisely because there’s so much missing. …

Andrew Sullivan is unpersuaded:

This is the classic, condescending “You Don’t Get The Complexity” bullshit he has used on countless others when he is ever faced with actually taking a stand on the relentless settlement and de facto annexation of the West Bank, with all its hideous moral and human consequences – not least to Israel’s soul and existence as a Jewish state. Notice the de haut en bas smear: “filled with errors and omissions” which he will not produce or cite so they can be aired and debated. He is above that. Presidents and prime ministers call him on the phone. And the headline is another swipe at Peter of a purely political, rather than intellectual, nature:

J Street Big Takes a Serious Shot at Peter Beinart’s Call for Boycott

See! Even those lefties don’t actually think this will work. …

What would work to stop and reverse the settlements and forcibly remove the religious fanatics now upping the ante in a global religious war into which the US would inevitably be dragged? Nothing Israel or AIPAC is prepared to do, of course, as everyone who is aware of the profound “complexities” already knows. Even though Goldberg has argued that staying the current course could mean the end of the Jewish state, it’s all far too complicated to tackle or undo now. Always later. Always too complex. Until – bingo – the occupation cannot be undone, and the only options for Israel are ethnic cleansing or an apartheid state. At which point we’ll have another round of sighs, jibes and public hand-wringing. We may, in fact, already be there.

But Goldberg’s latest formulation on the settlements is such a beaut it’s worth unpacking … [quoting the first two sentences I quoted in the Goldberg excerpt above] First the intimation (but not outright accusation) of anti-Semitism by summarizing Peter’s views as “economic warfare targeting Jews” and referring back to the 1930s. And then in the parentheses the sentence deserves, he again retiterates his opposition to the settlements and – surprise! – finds Peter’s proposal to change things insufficient.

I repeat: What would be a very good way to remove those settlements? We await Goldberg’s next high-profile missive from the prime minister’s office – but shouldn’t hold our breath. A boycott of settler goods would not work, Goldberg avers, because they are fanatics and fanatics resort to doubling down when pressured. So Goldberg thinks these maniacs or state-subsidized settlers will leave eventually because … of what, exactly? A seminar with Deepak Chopra? A visit from the Pope? If pressure cannot work, and persuasion is impossible, and a settler fanatic is Israel’s actual foreign minister … then we are left with continued support (and aid!) for a demographically doomed Greater Israel, permanently dragging the US down in global power and credibility – and possibly a world war of unknowable consequences. …

Goldberg, in turn, failed to change his views:

Andrew, however, seems impervious to the influence of new information. Also, he’s more and more incapable of expressing nuanced understanding of Middle East politics, and he’s oblivious to the existence of anti-Semitism. (Peter’s book, alas, downplays the global hate campaign directed against Israel and Jews as well). All I can suggest to Peter is that he needs to find more allies who are not widely considered to be irrationally hostile to Israel. What he doesn’t need is people who fly into rages about Israel and its dark manipulation of world politics.

In re: the argument for a settlement boycott, Peter has had the grace to publish on his own website a piece by Yehudah Mirsky (also excerpted below), which rebuts the argument, and which happens to capture my feelings almost exactly. …

It seems to me that Sullivan has the better of the argument.

Goldberg failed to engage Beinart on the merits; instead he assured his readers that Beinart’s book was full of errors, and explained that he finds “economic warfare targeting Jews so distasteful, for obvious historical reasons”.

This, to me, gives the game away.

I’m certainly open to– in fact, predisposed to believe– the view that a boycott is unwarranted or counterproductive. But the argument that any and all Jewish regions can never be subject to a boycott for any reason ever is the opposite of a principle. It’s pure tribalism. Every group can make that claim. “We as Palestinians should keep firing rockets from Gaza because: Al Nakba.” “We need to occupy Vietnam indefinitely because: Yorktown.” This isn’t to say that every group has an equally valid claim to eternal victim status– Lord knows that the Jewish people have a more legitimate claim than almost anyone else. But a boycott is not “economic warfare”, and opposition to a boycott on the grounds of inherited victim status is really not an argument at all.

Elsewhere, Goldberg has written that in about five years, “Either the Jews of Israel would grant the Palestinians the vote, at which point their country would lose its Jewish majority and its identity as a refuge for the Jewish people, or it would deny them the vote, and become an apartheid state.” Should such a situation arise, regardless of the merits of the argument that people of Jewish descent are, for historical reasons, a victim class, that doesn’t seem to be the right framework for evaluating the situation in the West Bank.

Missing from Goldberg’s posts is an argument that Israel’s policies in the West Bank are sound; or, in the alternative, an argument as to how better to improve those policies.

It seems to me that Sullivan’s argument is not about liking & trusting Iran more than Israel, or about blaming Israel more or less than the Palestinians for the faltering peace process. It’s about what Israel is actually doing in the West Bank; what steps Israel can take to get from where we are to a world Goldberg prefers, that avoids his concern that “we’re only a few years away, at most, from a total South-Africanization of this issue”; and what, if anything, the US and others should do to influence Israel, a country that depends on US support.

The Goldberg quote I linked last paragraph is from a post titled, “Peter Beinart Is Right—or, a One-State Solution Is Inevitable if Settlements Continue”.

So, he agrees with Peter Beinart that Israel faces an impending moral crisis. It seems to me that his critique of Beinart’s recommendations for how to get from here to there should include a different set of recommendations. Asserting that boycotts can’t be applied to some states because of their ethnic identity, and working to term the book politically incorrect rather than engaging its arguments, really doesn’t help the discourse about our foreign policy all that much.

Personally, I’m willing to concede for the sake of argument Goldberg’s implication that the Palestinians are more to blame than the Israelis for the weakened state of peace negotiations. But so what? Israel still needs to do everything it can right now to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. The settlements are a massive obstruction to progress on peace talks.

I’m of the view that Iran’s rulers are more brutal than was Mubarak, though I could be wrong about that. Regardless, the only way forward for Israel is to reach accommodations with its neighbors, as it did with Egypt. Israel’s got like 8 million people. They can’t just live in perpetual enmity with everyone forever. More so now than later, Israel has the cards. It’s got the nukes, and the demographics, and the solid economy. So right now is the time to work really hard to make those deals– above all, with the Palestinians.

Yes, there’s a double standard. We’re always going to hear more from certain folks about how Israel is bad than about how others are worse. But so what? Who said life was fair? It is what it is. Israel is where it is. It has to reach accommodations with the enemies it has, not the enemies we wish we had.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s former Mossad head Meir Dagan saying the same thing: Israel ”must present an initiative to the Palestinians. We must adopt the Saudi initiative. We have no other way, and not because [the Palestinians] are my top priority, but because I am concerned about Israel’s wellbeing and I want to do what I can to ensure Israel’s existence. If we don’t make proposals and if we don’t take the initiative, we will eventually find ourselves in a corner.”

That’s the premise of Beinart’s book– a premise with which Goldberg agrees. Goldberg should be working really hard to correct whatever it his that he secretly views as the errors in Beinart’s reasoning, rather than merely working to stigmatize his book.

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  • http://poisonyourmind.com dedc79

    I thought the odder part of the exchange was Sullivan getting worked up about Goldberg’s suggestion that Israel (and specifically Netanyahu) was bluffing about bombing iran. As someone who was hoping all along that Israel was/is bluffing, why would this now be such an awful thing?

    • http://poisonyourmind.com reflectionephemeral

      Sullivan’s argument is, “Goldberg wrote a cover article for the Atlantic saying, ‘oh man, Israel’s gonna attack Iran any second!‘ Now, contemplating the fact that he was simply used as PM Netanyahu’s propagandist dupe, Goldberg says, ‘wow, great work, Benjamin!’ You’d think he’d, I dunno, express an iota of frustration at being lied to, or something.”

      Take it or leave it, but it’s not the larger issue here anyway– the one Goldberg is trying to duck– of Beinart’s recommendations for how to affect Israel’s decisionmaking.

      What, if anything, should the US do to influence Israel, a country that depends on US support? Should private groups consider boycotts? Should the US pressure the Israeli leadership in private? Should we stop vetoing everything that passes through the UN? Should the US diminish or delay the $3 billion per year in aid Israel receives?

      The status quo here, in Goldberg’s estimation, is that in about five years, “Either the Jews of Israel would grant the Palestinians the vote, at which point their country would lose its Jewish majority and its identity as a refuge for the Jewish people, or it would deny them the vote, and become an apartheid state.”

      That sounds very bad, to me.

      It seems to me that someone like Goldberg who has that view would take good-faith suggestions of how to avoid that future– like the one Beinart is offering– and figure out how they might or might not work. The engaging but ultimately futile passtime of psychoanalyzing Andrew Sullivan is really neither here nor there.

      • http://poisonyourmind.com dedc79

        Well, maybe it would be helpful to take this out of the context of the Sullivan-Goldberg debates altogether.

        Questions I would ask are (1) is a boycott warranted?, (2) what would it’s purpose be?, and (3) is it likely to achieve that purpose?

        I think a history of anti-semitism plays into all three of those factors, although I wouldn’t say it should invariably preclude this type of action.

        With respect to #1 it seems fair to ask whether any other countries have been boycotted over territorial disputes, and if so, what the circumstances are.

        With respect to #2, it seems fair to consider the extent to which some who favor boycotts are more interested in the stigma that israel would become associated with then they are in actually ending settlements. It is part of a common thread with those who try to use language from the holocaust to describe israeli actions, or those who liken Israel to Apartheid South Africa. The aim is more to slur than to be productive.

        With respect to #3, it seems fair to ask whether a country composed in signficiant part of refugees or descendants of refugees from the middle east and europe (the same places most aggressively pushing for boycotts) is going to have the desired reaction to an international boycott.

        All this being said, I do support efforts of the American and European governments to exert some pressure on Israel to put an end to settlement construction and dismantle as many as possible. The iran issue seems an opportune one for the US to say “We’ve got your back on Iran, but stop with these settlements now.”

        • http://poisonyourmind.com reflectionephemeral

          Fair enough. Seems to me that the boycott debate is a subset of the larger debate– is it in Israel & the US’s interests for Israel to change what it’s doing in the West Bank? If so, what might convince Israel to take those actions?

          As to boycotts, I’m predisposed to oppose them, just because I don’t think they’re particularly likely to work. But I haven’t read Beinart’s argument.

          I don’t agree with your rationale on your 3 points.

          #1, “it seems fair to ask whether any other countries have been boycotted over territorial disputes” is a dodge from the issue, which is, “should we try to convince Israel to change what it’s doing in the West Bank, and would the BDS movement help achieve that?” Given that Goldberg has repeatedly invoked apartheid to describe where Israel’s heading, it seems to me that South Africa– a country that considered itself an upstanding democracy & was therefore sensitive to international opinion– is the right comparison, to the extent one is needed.

          As to #2, “the extent to which some who favor boycotts are more interested in the stigma”, I really don’t care, unless there’s a showing that this is a front for some ghastly group. And that Peter Beinart, the former editor of the New Republic, is proposing it, makes me think that it’s not. Sure, some jerks will support it, too, but so what?

          I think that the question of Israel’s likely reaction, that you raise in point #3, is really important. Tough to guess at, for me anyway, but essential. The goal is achieving policy results, and obviously that all hinges on how Israel responds to pressure, and what the right means of applying pressure might be.

          Do you think I’m off base in agreeing with Dagan, btw, as to the larger context here?

          • http://poisonyourmind.com dedc79

            I generally agree with what Dagan says although when he says “we must adopt the Saudi initiative” I don’t know whether he means in whole or with room to negotiate some. I don’t think Israel should necessarily go along with it entirely and I think/hope there is some room to maneuver there. It’s certainly a welcome initiative (from my perspective) in that it appears to offer actual acceptance of israel into the middle east community and peace in exchange for reachign an agreement with the Palestinians. This is progress from the period where it was simply “push Israel into the sea.”

          • http://poisonyourmind.com reflectionephemeral

            Yeah, I don’t know a ton about the details about the Saudi initiative, I’m sure there’s aspects of it one can legitimately criticize.

            But the big picture, that “If we don’t make proposals and if we don’t take the initiative, we will eventually find ourselves in a corner,” seems inarguable to me– especially in light of Goldberg’s comments about an impending “apartheid state” and “total South-Africanization”.

            For moral and demographic reasons, we don’t have the luxury of kicking the can down the road on pushing a peace initiative. But the US & Israeli leadership are pretending otherwise.

  • http://poisonyourmind.com dedc79

    “But the argument that any and all Jewish regions can never be subject to a boycott for any reason ever is the opposite of a principle.” Is this an argument Goldberg actually made?

    • http://poisonyourmind.com reflectionephemeral

      Yes.

      “I don’t have much good to say about Beinart’s call for a boycott, because I find economic warfare targeting Jews so distasteful, for obvious historical reasons.”

      Now, as is Goldberg’s wont, he doesn’t actually make an actual logical argument here. He simply casts aspersions on people who make arguments that make him feel sad and/or mad.

      But to the extent there’s a principle embedded in his sole substantive comment in opposition to Beinart’s proposal, it is, as I wrote above, “any and all Jewish regions can never be subject to a boycott for any reason ever” because “people of Jewish descent are, for historical reasons, [an eternal] victim class”.

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