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The Israeli Desert

Last month, the White House invited nine national-security writers to an off-the-­record meeting with the president. The guest list featured the usual mandarins of the foreign-policy-journalism Establishment, including the Washington Post’s David ­Ignatius, the Los Angeles Times’s Doyle ­McManus, and The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib. It also included Goldberg, Remnick, and Beinart.

The White House insists that Beinart’s invitation to the meeting had nothing to do with Beinart’s—or Obama’s—views on Israel. “We tried to diversify the invite list and bring in some people who hadn’t necessarily been in before,” says National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. But as soon as news of the meeting—and Beinart’s presence at it—leaked to Politico, Israel ­obsessives began trying to divine a larger meaning. Was it intended to tweak Netanyahu, whose ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, had previously denounced Beinart as belonging to “a marginal and highly radical fringe”? (If so, it may have worked; one source says Tel Aviv “noted with interest” Beinart’s inclusion.) Was it a dog whistle to the liberal American Jews who share Beinart’s disappointment that Obama hasn’t done more to pressure Israel and hope that he might do so in a second term? Or was it an attempt by the White House to build up Beinart so that he might open more space on the Israel issue in which Obama can then operate?

The focus of the meeting was Afghanistan, the NATO summit, and Iran. Still, given the journalists who were present, it was inevitable that Israel would come up. According to sources with knowledge of the meeting’s substance, Beinart took the opportunity to ask the president about what would have to happen for Obama to reinvolve himself in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in a second term. When another journalist asked Obama about what Netanyahu’s new coalition government might mean for the peace process, the president joked, “You should ask Jeff. He knows a lot more about this stuff than I do.” Goldberg won bigger laughs with his reply: “I’m not authorized to talk about that.”

After the meeting, Obama went around the Roosevelt Room shaking hands with his guests. The last person he greeted was Beinart, who had brought gifts: two copies of The Crisis of Zionism, one for the president and one for deputy national-­security adviser Ben Rhodes. Obama, perhaps more than any other president, is said to be unusually attuned to intramural debates among American Jews and the precise language they require of one another when they talk about Israel, so it’s almost certain that he was aware of the firestorm surrounding Beinart and the book he had just handed him. As he talked to Beinart, according to those who were within earshot, the president had a message for the embattled author: “Hang in there.”

This story appeared in the June, 11, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.