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The Israeli Desert

Alana Newhouse: "“What I don’t like about the book is this idea that if I don’t vote for Peter, then I’m not a liberal, I’m not a supporter of Israel, I’m not a good Jew.”  

In late April, Beinart takes an Amtrak train out of Penn Station and heads two hours north, up the Hudson Valley. Like any author flogging a book, Beinart has become a familiar presence on the speaking circuit—although, given his book’s subject, his particular circuit largely consists of synagogues, Jewish community centers, and Hillel houses. Oftentimes, he faces a hostile audience. At the Columbia Hillel, he debated Daniel Gordis—the event was promoted as a “Heavyweight Fight on Zionism”—and was heckled. “I feel like from the clapping I have about a quarter of the room,” Beinart said during a rare moment of applause, “which is better than I expected.”

On this April evening, Beinart’s schedule calls for him to be at Bard College. It is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, and he has been invited by the school’s J Street student chapter. The mood, however, is anything but festive—although this time he is facing anger from his left. As he walks into the lecture hall, he is handed a flyer by a student protester that reads celebrate ­israeli ethnic cleansing “independence.” He then spends most of his 90 minutes insisting to those in attendance that Zionism is not racism and that Tel Aviv is not the center of all the evil on Earth. When it is over, Beinart looks whipped. “I wish Jeff could have seen that,” he says.

Beinart is referring to Jeffrey Goldberg, his most problematic critic. In Washington, where Goldberg resides and Beinart lived until 2010, the two were friendly, traveling in the same social and intellectual circles; they were sometimes guests at each other’s homes for religious celebrations. But being on the wrong side of Goldberg now is less a personal than a professional problem for Beinart.

When it comes to the topic of Israel, Goldberg is currently the most important Jewish journalist in the United States. He is the favored interlocutor for both Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu; the leaders, as well as their advisers, seem to do much of their talking to one another through interviews with him. One White House aide likes to describe Goldberg as the “official therapist” of the U.S.-Israel relationship. And among Jewish journalists who write and think about Israel, he’s become something of a referee. “He’s a marker in the debate as well as an enforcer of its boundaries,” Alterman says. “So when he moves, the 50-yard line moves.”

Both Goldberg and Beinart describe themselves as liberal Zionists—in 2006, Goldberg wrote his own book that was highly critical of the occupation—but Goldberg is in many ways Beinart’s opposite. Six years his senior, Goldberg has the round face and stout frame of a neighborhood tough; he strenuously denies any interest in being the troubadour of anything. “I’m just writing stuff down that I think and report” is how he describes himself to me when we meet one recent afternoon at an outdoor plaza near the Watergate, where The Atlantic has its offices. Goldberg is, in fact, as much of an operator as Beinart may hope to be (Goldberg’s Torah study group in Washington includes David Brooks, David ­Gregory, and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk). He’s just better at it—smoother and more comfortable in his skin. His sense of humor, a sort of Borscht Belt shtick updated for today’s nation’s capital, is a frequently employed asset. When our conversation is interrupted by a fleet of Marine helicopters flying over the Potomac River, Goldberg deadpans, “AIPAC, by the way, owns those helicopters. They have their own fleet of ­Cobras and Blackhawks now.”

Beinart and Goldberg’s biggest disagreement on Israel may have to do with how they acquired their understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although ­Beinart has been to the West Bank on several occasions, he readily concedes that he derives much of his knowledge of the situation there from what he reads. “I look to the journalists and researchers who’ve spent a lot of time in the West Bank,” Beinart says. “The substantive claims in my book are identical to those made by Gershom ­Gorenberg,” the Israeli journalist whose 2011 book, The Unmaking of Israel, is a deeply reported, on-the-ground look at the deleterious consequences of the occupation. Goldberg, by contrast, has reached most of his conclusions from firsthand observation during his fifteen years reporting from the West Bank and Gaza, and he ­bridles when, for instance, Beinart argues that Hamas has made certain statements that suggest a greater (albeit ­insufficient) openness toward accepting a two-state solution. “I’ve spent a lot of time with Hamas over the years, and I feel like I have a better sense of Hamas than Peter does,” he says. “I hereby invite Peter to Gaza with me, and we’ll spend a couple of weeks in the mosques, and then he’ll tell me if he thinks that they’re philo-Semitic or non-anti-­Semitic or non-annihilationist in their ­fundamental outlook.”