Peter Beinart is Not a Liberal
In Haaretz on 30 July 2014, Peter Beinart published a major article on the current war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza – “Gaza myths and facts: what American Jewish leaders won’t tell you”. The title is false. American Jewish leaders may have a propaganda line that offers a particular and distorted narrative of the sequence that led to the current flare up in Gaza, but Beinart does not entitle his piece “What American Jewish leaders did not tell you,” but what they “won’t tell you”. The claim is that American Jewish leaders willfully distorted the narrative even though they knew better. However, Beinart’s own account suggests that the Israeli military and political leadership misled Israelis, American Jews and the world.
But that is a minor problem though it offers a clue to Beinart’s own arts of deception. Liberalism stands for tolerance of differences. Liberalism accepts a plurality of views and interpretations. Liberalism does not insist on a one-sided dogmatic interpretation to replace an allegedly right wing dogmatic interpretation of history. Most of all, liberalism recognizes that history is complex and any simplistic version of a historical narrative, whether Beinart’s or his opponents, is generally wrong.
The basic outline of the misleading tale, according to Beinart, is that, “Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005, hoping the newly independent country would become the Singapore of the Middle East. Instead, Hamas seized power, ransacked greenhouses, threw its opponents off rooftops and began launching thousands of rockets at Israel.” Beinart grants that Israel did indeed dismantle its settlements and withdraw all 8,000 settlers from Gaza in 2005. The alleged distortion is that Israel did not “leave” Gaza because it did not leave behind an independent country with exclusive control of its air space and borders, most particularly the latter. However, in fact Israel along with Egypt continued to control whether Gazans could enter or leave the strip.
The illogic of this point is almost too obvious. Land borders exist “between” countries and territories. They are not just perimeter lines. If Beinart’s argument is valid, then Canada is occupied by the United States since Canadians (or others) cannot cross the border into the USA because Americans control whether or not they can enter. No country exclusively controls its own land borders.
Beinart, however, argues that Gaza is unique because it is Israel that controls the population registry and not Gaza or even the Palestinian Authority. However, Israel only has veto power over the population registry. Changes made to the “official” registry recognized by both sides require Israeli approval. The registry of births, deaths, marriages and divorces is maintained by the PA. The veto is only relevant with respect to the issue of travel permits in relation to Israel’s copy of the registry. As a result, a joint meeting is required (historically at the Erez crossing) to amend the registry that both the PA and Israel maintain. The reality is that Hamas maintains, and has maintained since it gained control over Gaza, its own population registry.
At the time of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Israel agreed to the addition of 50,000 names to the population registry, either persons who entered the West Bank or Gaza for purposes of marriage or others who for one reason or another lacked any status. However, in 2008 Israel put the process with respect to Gaza in deep freeze and an estimated 10,000 or so Palestinians and others remain without status for purposes of entry into Israel. It did not affect their status within Gaza or even entry into Egypt once the Muslim Brotherhood won control of the government in Egypt. Hence, these individuals could only enter or leave via the tunnels into Egypt once Morsi was overthrown for Egypt has resumed the use of the Israeli approved registry to control entry into its territory. Following the Egyptian military government’s destruction of 1643 of those tunnels, the tunnel option into Egypt was no longer available. Does that mean that Egypt “occupies” Gaza?
In any case, none of this has anything to do with occupation which is a matter of factual determination. If Israel was in actual occupation in Gaza, would it allow the construction and firing of rockets let alone the construction of a labyrinth of tunnels into Israel? According to international law, Article 42 of the Hague Regulations defines occupation as a foreign military or hostile army having effective control of a territory and its population. If Israel were in occupation it would be able to impose its will on Gaza. Stating that Israel occupies Gaza is propaganda and neither history nor a reasonable interpretation of the evidence and legal precedents available. A very well-reasoned determination of the Israeli Supreme Court – acknowledged as a liberal culture in the record of its interpretations – determined that since 2005, Israel no longer has effective control over Gaza and its population and is not in occupation.
Beinart may wish to dissent from this determination, but he should then directly confront the factual determinations and legal arguments put forth by the court and not use specious arguments to make his case. Since his arguments, as well as a plethora of others that he does not make, have been very effectively refuted by Pnina Sharvit-Baruch (“Is the Gaza Strip Occupied by Israel?” in Israel’s Rights as a Nation-State in International Diplomacy ed. By Alan Baker, Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 131-146), Peter Bainart would do well to take them into account and offer evidence and arguments to refute these careful considerations instead of simply offering dogmatic claims as if they were self-evident truths.
Further, there is a legal context which Peter Beinart conveniently omits. The Agreement on the Gaza Strip was signed as part of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1994. In that agreement, control over the lateral roads along the border was retained by Israel while most other responsibilities of governance and administration were transferred to the PA. This suggests an argument could be made that Israel still occupies a very small part of the territory of Gaza, but not that Israel is in occupation of Gaza per se.
The September 28 1995 Israel Palestinian Agreement superseded the previous Cairo Agreement and provided the legal basis of border controls for Gaza essentially ceding to the PA control over civic and internal security affairs, including maritime issues subject to certain qualifications. This was subsequently modified when Israel withdrew its settlements and both parties signed the 15 November 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA). The agreement was explicitly designed to reduce friction between Israel and the Palestinians and lead to better economic conditions within Gaza. So why does Beinart insist that this is part of the propaganda line of the American Jewish leadership?
Further, none of this was a secret. None of these facts were denied by the American Jewish leadership. Not only Gisha, but Human Rights Watch, B’tselem and Amnesty International, among many NGOs, have consistently protested this arrangement and further insisted that they amounted to occupation. Israel and the American Jewish leadership disagree with this interpretation. So do I. This does not amount to willful misleading. It amounts to being a true liberal who understands that historiography is not about insisting on one dogmatic narrative to replace another but understanding that history is complex and a matter of interpretation requiring argument and evidence.
In regard to that historiography, citing the political scientists Jonathan Rynhold and Dov Waxman, Beinart insists that Sharon withdrew the settlers from Gaza, not to facilitate economic improvement, but as a distraction from the two state solution being pushed by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and the Geneva Initiative. Since I have never undertaken any research on Sharon’s motives for withdrawal, I have little to say except I suspect the matter is not so simplistic and doubt Beinart’s singular and assured insights into Sharon’s motives or the political scientists he cites as authoritative. I do know that the Gaza withdrawal was, to the best of my knowledge, first proposed by a well-know peacenik and friend, the Hebrew University philosopher Avishai Margalit now at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. I welcomed and supported the proposal at the time and later cheered Sharon’s subsequent adoption of it. I thought it would lead to the beginnings of full self-determination for the Palestinian people.
It did not. It did not lessen Gaza being used as a terrorist base but, in fact, greatly increased it, particularly after Hamas seized control. Further, I have not read that the American Jewish leadership denied that Hamas won the majority of seats in Gaza (or that victory was a result of the tribal system of Fatah in running multiple PLO candidates in the same riding to compete with a single Hamas candidate). The claim that Hamas seized power is that they initiated a separate government from the Palestinian Authority without any legal basis, killed a number of Fatah members and installed its own followers in all the administrative positions. Further, Hamas ran on a platform of eternal resistance to Israel as well as stressing its main platform of honesty and integrity, and insisted that resistance meant violent resistance versus Abbas who had given up on the use of violence as the means to achieve Palestinian independence and full self-determination.
The issue was not the illegitimacy of Hamas’ electoral victory but how they used the power acquired by that victory. Palestine was not structured as a federation, but even if it were as Canada is, if the Parti Québecois had not only won elections in Quebec but used those elections to declare independence, run federal officials out of Quebec (and especially if it threw them off rooftops) and insisted unilaterally on its own foreign and defence policies, would Peter Bainart as an ostensible “liberal” defend such actions as he seems to do in his account and omissions re the Hamas victory? If the Quebec government had taken such initiatives and Ottawa had resisted and even planned to send troops into Quebec, would Beinart call such actions by the federal government an attempted coup?
Would forging a long term truce with Hamas and trying to get Hamas to endorse any deal Abbas made have been preferable strategies than trying to isolate and delegitimize Hamas? I think Beinart is dreaming in technicolour, but I would be willing to consider his counterfactual argument if only he had made a decent case for his position instead of asserting it as if it were a self-evident truth. This is also the case with his main thesis, with which I have some sympathy, that Israel failed to support a two-state solution with sufficient vigour and failed to support Palestinian leadership committed to a peaceful process adequately. My doubts come when Beinart cites the Geneva Peace Initiative as the blueprint that Israel should have followed. Then my skepticism of Beinart is reinforced for, on the one issue on which I have genuine expertise, the Palestinian refugee issue and the right of return, the Geneva Initiative was a foolish document that entirely ignored the progress that had been made in the multilateral talks led by Canada precisely on this issue. The proposal as formulated in the Geneva Initiative was not a proposal the vast majority of Israelis could or would accept or should have accepted, and it served only to undermine the little but significant progress that had already been accomplished on the refugee issue in the negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel under Canada’s leadership.
Beinart’s problem is that he poses as a liberal when he is really a dogmatic moralist with a singular view of history. His blinkered and often justified antipathy to the current Israeli government leads him into outlandish claims and unwarranted criticisms and, most of all, an illiberal and dogmatic interpretation of a complex history.