Jonathan S. Tobin So-called “liberal Zionists” like author Peter Beinart have been mounting an all-out campaign to undermine any notion that the proper attitude of American Jews toward Israel is support of its current government. Beinart and others on the left don’t like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and believe their sensibilities rather than his judgment ought to be regarded as the proper path for the Jewish state. Though Beinart and other foreign liberals tend to regard the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians as mere details that only serve as an impediment to the implementation of their vision of peace, they are entitled to their opinions. But should it take precedence over that of the Israeli people?
Beinart and others who think Zionism is in “crisis” are about to get another lesson in Zionist democracy. With it becoming increasingly clear that Netanyahu will agree to move up the date for the next parliamentary elections to perhaps as early as September 4, those carping about the direction Israel has taken on the peace process, settlements, the Iranian threat, the religious-secular divide or any other issue will have an opportunity to watch Israeli democracy in action. The voters will have the opportunity to throw out Netanyahu and elect a government more in line with the views of Beinart and J Street. But, if as widely expected, they return Netanyahu to power with an even larger majority, shouldn’t there be some expectation these “liberal Zionists” will respect the will of the people?
The problem for these left-wing critics is that although they think Israel is in need of being saved from itself, most Israelis disagree. The majority there appears ready to vote for the parties that make up the current coalition because they believe there is no viable alternative on either security or domestic issues. Netanyahu is far from perfect, but his positions reflect the broad consensus of the Israeli public on the key issues of the day.
That puts people like Beinart in something of a bind. You can’t preach about preserving Israeli democracy while at the same time claim elections there mean nothing. Friends of Israel, even those who style themselves critics of its government’s policies, are not obligated to become Netanyahu cheerleaders. But once the voters have decided, there is some obligation to respect the democratic process.
Many on the Jewish left have spent the last three years since Netanyahu’s election in 2009 acting as if his win was an accident that can be set aside by President Obama with their support. The problem with Beinart and those who agree with him is not so much that they would like Netanyahu replaced, but that they believe Washington should override the verdict of the Israeli electorate on the peace process. While Israelis take the views of its only superpower ally seriously, the notion that they should be dictated to on matters of war and peace is intolerable. So, too, is the idea that American Jews like Beinart, whose grasp of the nuances of Israeli society and politics is minimal, have a unique understanding of how to reform the country so as to have it conform to their own liberal vision of Zionism. As much as world Jewry has a vital stake in the preservation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, policy decisions must be left in the hands of the people who live there.
It can be argued that the current consensus renders early elections an unnecessary distraction. But they do serve the purpose of reminding Beinart and other American Jews that Israel’s people will be presented with a clear set of choices and will then make their decisions. Liberals who would prefer a different outcome than a Netanyahu victory can go on preaching that Israel would be better served by his defeat. But once he is re-elected, they are also obligated to recognize that in a democracy, the losing side accepts the outcome. No one can claim to be a Zionist, even someone of the liberal or progressive persuasion, and claim he can reject not just the government but the Israeli people who elected it.
Israel is not perfect, and the peculiar compromises on the religious/secular divide may grate on the sensibilities of Americans. But contrary to the gloom and doom scenarios envisioned by Beinart and others who think it is heading for destruction, it is a vibrant, successful and thriving democracy. Most Israelis don’t think they need to be saved by the likes of Beinart. After the next election, he should take the hint.