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The Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg Despairs About Israel

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I rarely agree with the Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg about the Middle East. That is because Goldberg has always been right-wing on Israel, a consistent defender of the Israeli government and its lobby in Washington. He was also a major proponent of the Iraq war and is, not surprisingly, equally hawkish about Iran. He is also very influential.

How influential? So influential that when Fidel Castro decided to improve relations with Israel this year he invited Goldberg to Cuba and said nice things about the Jewish state. Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately responded and a shift in policy occurred.

For years now, Goldberg, more than any "pro-Israel" organization, has been the most effective advocate of the status quo, with the exception of the now embattled, scandal-ridden and teetering lobby.

But this week Goldberg had an epiphany: if Israel continues on its current course, it is finished. Writing from Israel, he says that, although in the past, he always believed that Israel would choose democracy over permanent occupation, he is no longer sure.

I will admit here that my assumption has usually been that Israelis, when they finally realize the choice before them (many have already, of course, but many more haven't, it seems), will choose democracy, and somehow extract themselves from the management of the lives of West Bank Palestinians. But I've had a couple of conversations this week with people, in Jerusalem and out of Jerusalem, that suggest to me that democracy is something less than a religious value for wide swaths of Israeli Jewish society. I'm speaking here of four groups, each ascendant to varying degrees:The haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose community continues to grow at a rapid clip; the working-class religious Sephardim -- Jews from Arab countries, mainly -- whose interests are represented in the Knesset by the obscurantist rabbis of the Shas Party; the settler movement, which still seems to get whatever it needs in order to grow; and the million or so recent immigrants from Russia, who support, in distressing numbers, the Putin-like Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister and leader of the "Israel is Our Home" party.

[...]

Am I being apocalyptic? Yes. Am I exaggerating the depth of the problem? I certainly hope so. Israel is still a remarkably vibrant democracy, with a free press and an independent judiciary. But on the other hand, the Israel that I see today is not the Israel I was introduced to more than twenty years ago. The rise to power of the four groups I mentioned above has changed, in some very serious ways (which I will write about later) the nature and character of the Jewish state.

Nothing Goldberg writes is new. But it's new coming from him. And that is the significance.

More and more, the only people who defend the Israeli government are Jewish organizations (which simply parrot the Israeli government line), Israel's claque of propagandists in the media (Krauthammer, Kristol, Dershowitz, etc.) and members of Congress (Chuck Schumer, Howard Berman, Steny Hoyer, Eric Cantor, Gary Ackerman, Anthony Weiner, etc) who get their talking points from AIPAC which they dutifully recite out of fear of offending the lobby.

And then there are a few hundred thousand American Jews (and, intermittently, evangelicals) who pipe in at times like the Gaza war to say that any criticism of Israel either is an attempt at "delegitimizing" Israel or is anti-semitic. Invariably, these people pronounce the same line: Israel is a tiny country surrounded by enemies who seek to destroy it, a democratic beacon of light in an ocean of darkness. And it, unlike, say, the United States, it must never be criticized.

But this tired approach no longer works. And that is because of the occupation, which has now been in place since 1967 and which Israel is clearly determined to perpetuate.

Netanyahu's apologists hardly try to defend the occupation but prefer changing the subject to Israel's right to exist. They choose that line of defense because they cannot plausibly (and publicly) defend an occupation and even though they know that the "right to exist" is not the issue. After all, virtually all of Israel's significant critics accept Israel's right to existence and security. Like Goldberg, they believe that it is the occupation itself that is the looming threat to Israel's existence.

So these defenders of the status quo fall back on silliness. Tel Aviv is a nice liberal place. Gays serve in the IDF. Israel has a lively free media and art scene. And Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are freer than Arabs in many parts of the Muslim world.

Of course, few would dispute any of that.

With the exception of a few crazies (and none with any power in the United States or Europe), pretty much everyone, across the spectrum, accepts Israel's right to security and its right to be as Jewish as it wants to be.

But the occupation is something else. In fact, Goldberg's dramatic column indicates that when it comes to the occupation, public sentiment in America (including in much of the Jewish community) is moving to the same place as in the rest of the world. Israel, yes, Palestine, yes. Terrorism and occupation, no.

In 2011, there will be only one way to be pro-Israel. That is to join those who are fighting the occupation. Supporting the status quo, defending the occupation, opposing direct US intervention to establish borders and end the occupation, is, in effect, about as anti-Israel a position as it is possible to take. Those who are content with the status quo are choosing occupation, and the fatal consequences of occupation, over a thriving and secure Jewish state.

The fight to end the occupation is no mere battle for Israel's "soul" or even for the Palestinians' right to live as free human beings. It is a fight to preserve Israel itself -- not against the Palestinians but against the occupation and the fanatics who are perpetuating it.

The Jews dreamed of restoring a Jewish state in Palestine, ancient Eretz Yisrael, for 1900 years. Goldberg reminds us that both the dream and the reality will be destroyed if the fanatics prevail. The stakes could not be higher.

Supporting the status quo, tolerating the occupation, is anti-Israel. It is that simple.