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Failure to stifle Sullivan represents great turning-point

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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In the latest American Conservative, Scott McConnell surveys the rapidly-changing terrain in the US debate of Israel/Palestine and wonders if Obama has the ability to seize the moment.

One of the most interesting developments—not to my knowledge ever quantified—is the dramatic growth in the number of Americans who have become well-informed about Israel from a critical perspective. This group, far too diffuse to be called a coalition, includes some anti-Zionists, but its vast majority favors a two-state solution. It is composed of Christians and Jews and an increasing number of Muslims. It includes congressmen who tour the region under non-Israeli auspices, young people who volunteer on the West Bank, a talented coterie of bloggers, and a proliferation of Jewish peace groups, stretching from the establishment-oriented J Street leftward. Whereas informed skepticism about Israeli claims was once limited largely to American diplomats who served in the region, today its base may be ten times larger. For the first time in U.S. history, the pro-Palestinian side has a competitive voice in the public discourse—far smaller than the Israel lobby’s but growing every day…

A milestone in this shifting moral climate was the face-off between Andrew Sullivan and Leon Wieseltier….Wieseltier is a staunch defender of Israel. “We’re the cops,” he once said of his magazine’s role in policing the Washington debate on the Mideast. In February, Wieseltier posted a long essay accusing Sullivan of displaying “venomous hostility toward Israel and the Jews.” The “rants” Wieseltier cited in evidence were in the main Sullivan’s expressive critiques of Israeli policies—the “pulverization of Gaza,” the “daily grinding of Palestinians on the West Bank”—and the assertion that “standing up to Netanyahu’s provocations” would help the U.S. “advance its interests in the region and the world."…

What happened next invites a point of comparison. In the mid ’80s, the editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, launched a campaign against Joe Sobran, then a senior editor at National Review. Sobran was a less judicious and far more reactionary writer than Sullivan, but there was nonetheless a fair degree of overlap between what he was writing about Israel then and what Sullivan is writing now. Under pressure from Podhoretz, NR founder William F. Buckley wrote an editorial affirming that “the structure of prevailing taboos respecting Israel … is welcome” and that Sobran, in full “knowledge of the reigning protocols,” had transgressed them, giving rise to “suspicions of anti-Semitism.” NR henceforth disassociated itself from Sobran’s syndicated columns. This was the first step along the way to the severance of Sobran from the magazine. Outside the National Review orbit, Sobran’s career unraveled. Apart from a few paleoconservatives, few took time to lament the hit.

In Sullivan’s case, almost the opposite occurred. Much of the liberal blogosphere rose to his defense. 

…The patronizing generalizations of Israeli Orientalism about the “Arab mind” have lost much of their cachet in Washington, as the United States has had to expand its base of specialists to deal with the Arab world. A fair number are in the military and report to General Petraeus.

The result is that two streams of anti-settlement, pro-peace-process discourse have begun to merge and reinforce one another. The realist argument about Israel—which can be traced from President Truman’s secretary of state George Marshall through Kennedy and Johnson aide George Ball to Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer—now appears to have the patronage of American’s most respected military commander. The pretense that America’s and Israel’s interests in the Middle East coincide completely is being challenged at the highest level and may never recover.

At the same time, the humanitarian argument, rooted in observation of Israeli oppression and Palestinian suffering, is disseminated more widely than ever. It reaches Americans through the Internet, through congressional visits, through the work of Israeli peace and human-rights monitoring groups, through the burgeoning communities of international solidarity workers, through church groups, through Richard Goldstone. Expressions of unconditional solidarity with Israel—such as Joseph Lieberman’s claim that we must not quarrel in public because Israel is “family”—are of course as common as ever. But they often give off the musty scent of Soviet bloc boilerplate in the 1970s and ’80s—words that many recite ritualistically but fewer and fewer say with conviction.

A gap in the line has been opened, but no one yet knows whether Obama will push through it. …

In a broader sociological sense, the United States and Israel are plainly moving in different directions: America has been striving to become less racist and is inexorably becoming more multicultural. So are all the Western democracies. Israel, founded on the idea that Jews, like other peoples, should have their “own” state, is animated by an ethnonationalism that seems, in the Western world at least, increasingly anachronistic. Meanwhile, Israeli racism is on the upswing. I know no one on the Israeli Right who has proffered a suggestion for what Israel might do with the Palestinians in the absence of a two-state solution: the choices would seem to be either to grant them democratic rights in what would then become a binational state or solidify the current West Bank apartheid and rule over a growing Arab population while denying it equal rights.


McConnell’s last question, What the hell kind of vision does the Israeli right have for Israel and Palestine? is one that Chris Matthews asked the other day on his show. I was gobsmacked by the same question when I was over there in January, and people told me that they have religious visions about Judea and Samaria, have ethnic-cleansing visions based on an enlarged Jordanian state, or think that they can somehow enfranchise American Jews as voters and prevail over the Palestinians. All crazy. I don’t understand why this is not the subject of major analyses and investigations in the New York Times?

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