Peter Beinart on Israel's Complicated Relationship with American Jews

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An Israeli man wrapped in the national flag stands next to cameramen at the Israeli army navy port in the southern Israeli town of Ashdod on May 31, 2010.
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A day after Israeli naval commandoes lauched an attack on a flotilla of ships carrying aid to the Gaza strip, Israel is still facing widespread international condemnation. Israel defended the move Monday, saying activists aboard the ships attacked the Israeli soldiers first with guns, knives and axes.

Where does Monday's incident fit into Israel's complicated relationship with the international community? We talk with Peter Beinart. In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Beinart charged that Israel's political shift rightward is alienating liberal American Jews who have "checked their Zionism" at the door.

Beinart is a professor at the City University of New York and a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. His book, "The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris," was released today.

Here's some of what Peter Beinart had to say:

"I think what this is likely to do is to focus a lot more attention on the Gaza embargo, which has not be an issue, it’s gotten much discussion in the United States and I think  that’s a good thing because although I think you can debate the incident itself and I would be inclined to say that perhaps the Israeli Naval commandos didn’t really have a lot of choice once they found themselves under attack  on that ship. I think the larger issue is the wisdom and the morality of Israel’s Gaza embargo which I think is very very difficult to defend. And I hope what will come out of this is more pressure on Israel to ultimately, quite dramatically, change the nature of the way it’s been treating Gaza.

"It seems as if the activist on that particular ship did act violently and again I think the Israelis commandos once they were put on that ship and were attacked by a mob may not have had very much choice, but I hope that we focus on the larger issue. The larger issue is that Israel has instituted an embargo against Gaza which is much broader than simply an attempt to keep Hamas from building rockets to fire against Israel. If you look closely at the embargo, what you see is it really is an effort to try and punish the Palestinian people so that they turn against the leadership of Gaza and that’s why Israel bans a whole series of products, chocolate for instance, jam that really has nothing to do with the building of rockets and that’s the policy that I think is really misguided on Israel’s part and I hope that they will be under pressure to change.

"I feel Obama’s challenge is that he comes into power at a time when his predecessor has actually fritted away a lot of American power. America does not have as much power around the world, including in the Middle East as we did several years ago. That said, I think Obama has rightly recognized that America’s position in the Middle East is really dramatically dependent on its ability to try to show at least some progress in peace towards Israel and the Palestinians or at least make sure that the possibility of a two state solution is not foreclosed.

"My hope is that American Jewish organizations will recognize that they admire Israel and feel solidarity towards Israel not just because it’s a Jewish state but because it’s a liberal democratic Jewish State and that they will defend liberal democracy in the United States and stand with those people in Israel who are fighting for liberal democracy and against those who are threatening it."