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The Israeli Desert

Jeffrey Goldberg: “Peter was faced with a couple of choices with this book. He could make himself feel good about his moral superiority or he could devise ways to get Israel to do what he wants, and I think he went more with the former than the latter.”  

All of this has left Beinart angry, defensive, and confused—surprisingly so, given that he has long relished launching arguments. “I just don’t accept the basic assertion that this book is one-sided,” he says in his office. When I ask him whether, in writing about such an obviously emotional topic, he wasn’t sufficiently attuned to certain sensitivities—that perhaps there are signifiers of good intentions he failed to send—he seethes. “What are the signifiers?” he asks, his voice rising and taking on its customary sense of urgency. “That I say very explicitly I’m a Zionist? That I say that I have harsh words to say about Hamas and Arafat and the second intifada? That I have very, very admiring words to say about Israel’s existence? That I think I tangibly show my commitment to the Jewish community and Jewish continuity through the way I live my own life?” Beinart regains his composure. “So I don’t know,” he says softly, his voice now betraying less exasperation than bewilderment. “I don’t even know what the signifiers are.”

Up until now, Beinart’s career has seemed, at least to the casual observer, uniquely charmed. Yale, a Rhodes Scholarship, and then, in 1999, when he was just 28 years old, the editorship of The New ­Republic (where I worked with him for seven years). Since stepping down as TNR editor in 2006, he’s held prestigious fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations and the New America Foundation. Today, in addition to his CUNY professorship, he’s a senior political writer for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, where he also edits a recently launched blog devoted to Israel called Open Zion. A gifted writer with a fierce intellect, Beinart is capable of untangling the most nettlesome political issues in his columns and essays. At his best, he is the rare political writer whose prose is so powerful that it can actually change minds.

And yet Beinart’s rise has been far from graceful. Even in a profession populated by striving careerists whose every relationship is transactional, he’s drawn ­unwanted notice for his ambition. Fellow journalists still remember the self-written biographical sketch he circulated early in his career that listed his various achievements, including this entry: “Beinart won a Marshall Scholarship (declined).” In a 2010 ­essay for Commentary, Andrew Ferguson recalled a voice mail Beinart once left him when Beinart was editing TNR and Ferguson was writing for Bloomberg News, which then hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner’s most exclusive after-party. “The message commenced with 90 seconds of flattery, densely packed, followed by an insistence that I had to write for his magazine, simply had to,” Ferguson wrote. “My faithful fan made noises as if to ring off. And then came the sudden turn, in a voice that had the texture of Vaseline: ‘Oh, one other thing. You know it’s so odd, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been to the Bloomberg party! You don’t suppose …’ ”

In talking to various Jewish journalists about Beinart over the past few months, I heard the words shmegegge and “Sammy Glick,” as well as this joke: “A yeshiva student goes to his rabbi and says, ‘Rabbi, I had a dream last night that I was the leader of a Hasidic court and I had 300 followers.’ The rabbi says, ‘When 300 Hasidim have a dream that you’re their leader, come back and we’ll talk.’ ” More than one called attention to the large picture of Beinart that greets viewers when they visit Open Zion.

Indeed, even to many who have been impressed by Beinart’s writing, his career has been something of an enigma: For a public intellectual who so clearly wishes to meet the moment, he’s had an oddly difficult time reading it. In the run-up to and the early days of the Iraq War, Beinart was an avowed proponent of liberal interventionism. He wasn’t alone in this, but he was unusually strident. In 2004, he wrote “A Fighting Faith”—an attention-­grabbing TNR essay that later grew into his first book, The Good Fight—which assailed his fellow liberals, whom he branded “softs,” for being insufficiently hawkish. It wasn’t long, though, until Iraq—and his liberal-interventionist worldview—lay in ruins. Beinart spent the next several years penning a series of apologias for his Iraq bellicosity and finally a second book, The Icarus Syndrome, which was a critique of hubristic American foreign policy. It was a useful, even noble, attempt to examine and understand his own mistakes. But by the time the book came out, in 2010, Beinart’s fulminations against the dangerous belief in “American omnipotence” had only a minor impact on the public debate.

Even for a polemicist, Beinart infuses his writing with an unusually apocalyptic sense of crisis. In his rendering, politics is an epic clash between good and evil, the world is constantly perched on a precipice, and, with one wrong choice, those on the side of the good will tumble into the abyss. And in Israel, it seemed that Beinart might have found the right subject—and the right moment—for his talents. Although he’d edited the avowedly pro-Israel New Republic, he had never written very much about the country or its politics. “I think it was an issue I was grappling with privately for a while,” he tells me. “I think I was torn about it.” Then, in May 2010, Beinart came to grips with his views and confidently strode into the Israel debate with a New York ­Review of Books article titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” The piece took dead aim at American Jewish leaders, castigating them for abetting Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and, in turn, alienating a younger generation of American Jews from Israel. “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” Beinart wrote, “and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”