The Spectacle Blog

Peter Beinart’s Revealing Fixation

By on 3.19.12 | 2:57PM

Peter Beinart takes to the New York Times op-ed page today for a bit of tiresome liberal Zionist positioning, attempting to plant his flag as a supporter of Israel while simultaneously conceding rheotrical ground to her enemies. His big idea is to nod solemnly at the viciously anti-Zionist (and sometimes anti-Semitic) Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement, and meet them halfway with a boycott of only the West Bank. "We should," he hastens to add, "oppose efforts to divest from all Israeli companies with the same intensity with which we support efforts to divest from companies in the settlements: call it Zionist B.D.S." This sounds like roughly as promising a concept as a racially sensitive blackface show, and any hope that Beinart is capable of walking the fine line that he's trying to draw is dashed by the content of his critique of Israeli settlement policy, specifically by his favorite illustrative example. Beinart seems obsessed with a small city called Ariel. We'll have to get into the weeds a bit to understand why this obsession is kind of nuts -- and rather revealing.

In his Times op-ed, Beinart writes:

In 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called the settlement of Ariel, which stretches deep into the West Bank, "the heart of our country." Through its pro-settler policies, Israel is forging one political entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea - an entity of dubious democratic legitimacy, given that millions of West Bank Palestinians are barred from citizenship and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives.

The clear implication is that the Jewish inhabitants of Ariel make a two-state solution untenable. And this isn't the first time Beinart has suggested this. At the Daily Beast last week, Beinart launched a new blog called "Zion Square." He writes that he's launching Zion Square to correct "official Jewish discourse about Israel [that] grows more disconnected from reality." That he thinks the debate over Israel is primarily about "Jewish discourse," even as Christians United for Israel reaches a million members, hints at a certain ethno-religious solipsism that, as we'll see, is relevant to his fixation on Ariel -- which, sure enough, he cites as an example of the alleged reality-disconnect:

The first is the settlement of Ariel. In official Jewish discourse, Israeli leaders yearn to relinquish the entire West Bank, spare a few settlements that hug the green line.

But Ariel stretches thirteen miles beyond the green line, virtually slicing the northern West Bank in two. Twenty thousand people live there, and every day, the Israeli government subsidizes more to come. In 2010, Benjamin Netanyahu called Ariel "the heart of our country." If he's right, that country is unlikely to survive as a democratic Jewish state.

While this might be true if you read "the heart of our country" in the most geographically literal sense (i.e. that everything north, south, east, and west of Ariel is an essential part of the State of Israel), the impression Beinart leaves, once again, is that Ariel itself is a major obstacle to dividing the West Bank.

This just isn't the case. Just take a look at the map below. It's taken from David Makovsky's detailed report, released last year by the Washington Insitute for Near East Policy, called "Imagining the Border."

The salmon-colored splotches on the map are Arab communities in the West Bank, while the blue splotches are Jewish settlements. The purpose of Makovsky's report is to offer options for a land-swap deal that would meet the Palestinian Authority's territorial demands while allowing Israel to annex the land where 70-80% of West Bank settlers live. In the map above, the area shaded in purple is where Israel would annex territory under one of Makovsky's proposals. (Territory on the other side of the green line, which could be ceded to a Palestinian state, is shown on other parts of the map; Makovsky gives several options and the details vary.)

As you can see, there are quite a few settlements just in this fairly small section of the map where Jews would have to either evacuate or else find themselves outside of Israel -- and without the protection of the IDF -- if there were a peace deal (or if an Israeli government executed what at this point seems like a somewhat more likely endgame, a unilateral disengagement under which Israel withdraws to demographically sound and defensible borders). In Makovsky's formulation, those are "nonbloc settlements," while the settlements he proposes annexing are "bloc settlements."

As you can see, Ariel falls into the latter category. While Netanyahu's "heart of our country" phrasing is a little silly, it's not any sillier than Beinart's claim about "virtually slicing the northern West Bank in two." Beinart is right that Israel's status as a fully democratic state with an overwhelmingly Jewish majority is hard to maintain as long as the West Bank remains undivided, but the West Bank can still be divided, and when it is, Ariel can, and most likely will, remain a part of the Jewish State.

Given all this, why is Beinart so fixated on Ariel? Perhaps he's influenced by the boycott of a cultural center in Ariel by a clique of dilletante artists mentioned in his op-ed, but I suspect the main reason is Netanyahu's comment. Focusing on the Israeli prime minister -- and eliding the significant fact that settlement expansion in recent years has been largely confined to bloc settlements -- inflates the culpability of the Israeli government in the current impasse, and ignores Palestinian agency. However much Peter Beinart may protest otherwise, the failure of the peace process is explained largely by the intransigence of Palestinian leaders (and the political prospects for a unilateral disengagement are blunted, for now, by the rockets being fired at Israel from Gaza, the last place such a policy was tried). Beinart's focus on the Israeli government is a manifestation of his aforementioned ethno-religious solipsism: He thinks he's diagnosing a problem with the Jews. I would suggest he reconsider the role of the Arabs.

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