Israel: The eroding consensus

An influential Jewish-American journalist says it is time for US to stop telling Israelis what they want to hear.

Israeli flag

If America is to be a useful friend, it owes clarity to Israel, no less than Israel and the world owe justice – and a nation – to the Palestinian people [REUTERS] 

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, is arguably the most influential Jewish-American journalist.

Now 50, Remnick became editor at 37 after an impressive career covering the collapse of the Soviet Union for the Washington Post. His book about that incredible period, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, won a Pulitzer in 1994.

Remnick believes that fear is misplaced and that Obama should think big despite the pressure from the donors and White House aides mired in the status quo.

Over the years he has written about Israel and the Palestinians with some regularity. Although he claims no special expertise in the area (other than being a strongly self-identifying Jew), his editor’s “comments” indicate that he knows the issue well.

In fact, his pieces are usually far more sophisticated than the news and opinion pieces that the supposed experts regularly produce for the prestige newspapers and journals.

Over Remnick’s past 13 years as editor of The New Yorker, his attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have evolved. In the early years, Remnick’s views were decidedly mainstream.

Though no Likudnik, he did give Israel the benefit of the doubt in most situations. Back then, he clearly believed that although Israel often blundered, even badly, it still was sincerely seeking peace. Of course, holding those views was significantly easier a decade or two ago than it is today.

Today those views seem only to be held by either true believers (the “Israel can do no wrong” crowd) or politicians determined to ingratiate themselves with donors whose politics can be summed up as “Israel First”.

There aren’t a whole lot of those donors but it doesn’t take very many to intimidate politicians. And intimidated they are.

But established journalists like Remnick don’t have to be intimidated (although ingratiating oneself with rich and powerful people is not an unknown phenomenon among writers).


Today Remnick is treading the path blazed last year by Peter Beinart, another influential Jewish American writer who had been editor of The New Republic at 24.

A year ago, Beinart broke with the AIPAC crowd with a blockbuster piece in The New York Review of Books explaining how the combination of right-wing Israeli policies and the mindless chauvinism of AIPAC and its allies had succeeded in alienating young Jews from Israel.

Beinart’s piece enraged the pro-Israel establishment, although it knew, from its own surveys, that identification with Israel is strongest among those in their 80s and then drops precipitously among the now-ageing “baby boomers” and their kids. (One Ivy Leaguer recently told me that even J Street is a hard sell among Jewish kids. As for AIPAC, forget about it. In fact, any passion for Israel at all makes you pretty much an outlier.)

A year later, David Remnick has crossed Beinart’s Rubicon. In a “Talk of the Town” essay in his magazine, Remnick definitively asserts that it is time for the United States to put a comprehensive peace plan (exchanging the territories for peace) on the table and to push it to fruition.

He writes that the Obama administration obviously knows this, but is simply afraid of the implications for “domestic politics”. Remnick believes that fear is misplaced and that Obama should think big despite the pressure from the donors and White House aides mired in the status quo.

For decades, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and other such right-leaning groups have played an outsized role in American politics, pressuring members of congress and presidents with their capacity to raise money and swing elections.

But democratic presidents in particular should recognize that these groups are hardly representative and should be met head on.

Obama won seventy-eight per cent of the Jewish vote; he is more likely to lose some of that vote if he reverses his position on, say, abortion than if he tries to organise international opinion on the Israeli-Arab conflict.

However, some senior members of the administration have internalised the political restraints that they believe they are under, and cannot think beyond them. Some, like Dennis Ross, who has served five presidents, can think only in incremental terms.

This is strong stuff, especially when it comes from David Remnick. But it isn’t all.

Netanyahu’s ‘chilling’ influence

A sizeable chunk of the piece is devoted to Remnick’s explanation of why it is silly to expect prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to abandon his decades-long commitment to the occupation of the Palestinian territories. The thinking goes that:

Just as Nixon set aside decades of Cold War ideology and red-baiting in the interests of practical global politics, Netanyahu would transcend his own history, and his party’s, to end the suffering of a dispossessed people and regain Israel’s moral standing.

Not going to happen, writes Remnick. He believes that the reason is the influence of Netanyahu’s 101-year-old father, Benzion Netanyahu. Remnick tells of a meeting he had with the prime minister’s father, writing that the elder Netanyahu “invited me to his house for lunch, and I am not sure that I have ever heard more outrageously reactionary table talk. The disdain for Arabs, for Israeli liberals, for any Americans to the left of the neoconservatives was chilling.”

Add to that a “coalition government that includes anti-democratic, even proto-fascistic ministers, such as Avigdor Lieberman,” and it is clear that Obama’s sweet talk has not a chance of accomplishing anything.

And that is why Obama has to act decisively and without waiting for permission from AIPAC, Dennis Ross, or the Democratic party’s fundraisers.

The importance of an Obama plan is not that Netanyahu accept it right away; the Palestinian leadership, which is weak and suffers from its own issues of legitimacy, might not embrace it immediately, either.

Rather, it is important as a way for the United States to assert that it stands not with the supporters of Greater Israel but with what the writer Bernard Avishai calls “Global Israel”, the constituencies that accept the moral necessity of a Palestinian state and understand the dire cost of Israeli isolation.

Remnick concludes that it is time for the United States to stop telling the Israelis what they want to hear, and start telling them what almost all policy-makers actually believe.

A friend in need…

If America is to be a useful friend, it owes clarity to Israel, no less than Israel and the world owe justice – and a nation – to the Palestinian people.

A few years ago, there is no chance that either David Remnick or Peter Beinart would be saying these things. And a few years before that they wouldn’t even be advocating a Palestinian state at all. And before that it wasn’t even safe to talk about a discrete Palestinian people.

But it’s all changing for two reasons. First, at long last, it is common and uncontroversial knowledge that the Palestinian people have suffered mightily at the hands of Israel, with the support of the United States.

Second, it has become abundantly clear that Israel’s isolation is increasing at such a rapid rate (Turkey and Egypt distancing themselves from Israel in a single year) that the continuation of the occupation (and the conflict that emanates from it) threatens the existence of Israel itself.

That is why there will be more Remnicks and more Beinarts. Not because influential Americans like them are indifferent to Israel’s survival. But because they aren’t.

MJ Rosenberg is a senior foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network. Follow MJ’s work on Facebook or on Twitter.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.