Peter Beinart’s Blindness on Israel, Iran and Nuclear Weapons
In a New York Times op-ed predictably hailed as “brave,” Peter Beinart attempts to lay out the case that a prudent American policy on Iran’s nuclear program requires shattering the delicate balancing act that Washington has maintained on Israel’s. Except that aside from tossing out dark hints of Israel’s power in Washington, he never actually manages to coherently link the two.
Instead, we are treated to three recurring Beinart themes.
First, Beinart highlights the “artifice” of American politicians warning of the dangers of the Middle East turning nuclear but not mentioning Israel’s supposed arsenal. But he provides no evidence to back up this putative artifice, and the two quotes he does provide — from Senator Robert Menendez and President Joe Biden — make a rather different point that he either doesn’t understand or deliberately misconstrues. The two politicians never claim that the region is nuclear-free; what they do claim is that an Iranian bomb will lead to a proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the region.
This may be a good claim or a bad claim, but Beinart never engages with it at all. Israel is entirely orthogonal to the argument. President Biden, in the quotation Beinart cites, warns that a nuclear Iran will lead to a nuclear Turkey, a nuclear Saudi Arabia, and a nuclear Egypt too. This is an argument that attempts to take into account a complex region of overlapping alliances and competing interests. It incorporates a reasonably sophisticated understanding of the political pressures and geo-strategic concerns facing governments in Ankara, Riyadh, and Cairo. And it understands how different those concerns are faced with a newly nuclear Iran as opposed to half a century of assumed Israeli capabilities.
As always with Beinart, the rush to point out others’ putative hypocrisy only exposes his own. Unable to conceive of a geopolitics that isn’t obsessively focused on Israeli sin, he can’t possibly conceive the regional dynamics Biden is alluding to. Had this logic been applied to budding nuclear programs in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, there would have been a ready excuse to let them cross the threshold. Would the region be a better or worse place today in that scenario?
Second, and even more typical for Beinart, is the recurring use of meaningless polling data. Public opinion data can range from highly informative to downright silly. A poll on people’s habits of fears or even policy preferences in the face of COVID-19 might be informative. A poll asking the general public what they believe the appropriate period between vaccination shots ,or whether they knew which of the vaccines was administered with just a single shot would be ridiculous.
In Beinart’s latest piece, a poll showing that slightly more Americans believe Iran has a nuclear weapon than believe Israel has one is to supposed to show — well, what, exactly? Something to do with deterrence, apparently (more on that later).
How can any reasonable conclusion be determined from such data? A poll asking Americans which European countries are covered by NATO’s Article V (and therefore guaranteed American protection in the event of attack) and which are not would probably yield some funny results. Actually, a poll of International Relations students on that question probably would, too. Should that be an argument for or against NATO commitments?
As ever with Beinart, one needs to follow the link on the poll; there is always something he’s hiding. In this case, 51% of Americans say Israel has the bomb, and 60% say Iran does (other countries are not asked about, so we don’t even have a baseline accuracy to measure this against). But 16% say Iran does NOT have the bomb, while only 10% say this of Israel. You could cherry pick this datum for the opposite argument, but it would still be inane.
The third touches on the Beinartian essence. The fact that Israel, uniquely in the world, is a state and a society that some actively wish to see eliminated — and that this elimination fantasy has been central to the worldview of various regional actors and has informed their political and ideological priorities for decades — has no place in his analysis. The desire to see Jewish presence in the middle east wiped out and the obsessive hatred of Jews which informs it do not exist in Beinart’s analysis. This is the black hole at the center of everything he has written in the past decade, sucking everything beyond his event horizon.
Reading Beinart on any Middle East issue would be a bit like watching a soccer match without knowing that the aim of the players is to kick the ball into one of the two goals at either end of the field. Why are they spending ninety minutes kicking that thing around and passing it and trying to hold on or regain possession? And why not just pick the damn thing up and run, or at least throw it?
This is how Beinart can talk about the occupation and feel no need to discuss how it started — a military victory against a coalition of Arab states determined to eliminate Israel; or why it has lasted so long — the refusal of the defeated side to recover occupied territory as long as that would require making a genuine peace with the existence of a Jewish state next door. This is also how Beinart can write so emotively about displaced people in 1948 without mentioning that there was a war initiated by the Arab side, with the openly stated goal of eliminating the Jews of Palestine.
And this is why Beinart is unable to make sense of Israel’s early push for a strategic deterrent. He sees that American policy makers treat the deterrent needs of Israel and Iran differently, but he can’t conceive of it being caused by anything more than hypocrisy or some kind of sinister plot. That one of those is a tiny country for which a fantasy of its elimination remains ideologically and theologically central for millions is something he simply can’t see.
Which is odd since it’s not just American presidents who understand that, but leaders of most of the global powers that have much less friendly relations with Israel, but have taken a similar approach on this issue. In fact, it is even tacitly understood by many of Israel’s neighbors. The whole point of the Menendez and Biden remarks that Beinart mangles is that an Iranian nuclear capability would engender a regional arms race, while whatever presumptions there have been about the status quo in the region have not. It’s not an overly subtle point, but blinded by sanctimony, Beinart genuinely doesn’t seem to get it.
It’s not just Israel’s goals that he can’t see. Concern that an Iranian nuclear program might be an existential threat to Israel strikes Beinart as “dubious,” but only because Beinart can’t take seriously Iranian motives and the deeply held beliefs of the mullahs and other jihadist actors in the region regarding Israel.
But maybe Iranian statements on Israel need to be taken seriously. And maybe they explain, at least partially, some otherwise inscrutable moves by the Iranian government in the past decade. On their own, the costly interventions in Syrian and Lebanon make no sense, and the support of various international terrorist organizations even less so. As part of an ideology (and theology) that Beinart refuses to see, however, they begin to make sense.
Maybe, then, Beinart could actually make a case regarding Israel’s strategic capabilities and America’s deliberate ambiguity — something that is more of a result of timing and the comparative costs and benefits of non-proliferation in other regions. And maybe he can’t. But it would be bracing simply to hear him tell the truth.
Shany Mor is an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter at @ShMMor.