Peter Beinart's new polemic, The Crisis of Zionism, has divided American Jewish and pro-Israel voices with its sharp criticism of leadership here that, he says, has at best turned a blind eye to settlement practices that are putting the liberal dream of a Jewish and democratic Israel out of reach.
Some of the biggest news in the book, though, may be on its back cover, where former President Bill Clinton — looked to by some more hawkish Democrats as a pro-Israel contrast to President Obama — offers his warm endorsement.
"Peter Beinart has written a deeply important book for anyone who cares about Israel, its s security, its democracy, and its prospects for a just and lasting piece," he writes in the blurb. "Beinart explains the roots of the current political and religious debates within Israel, raises the tough questions that can't be avoided, and offers a new way forward to achieve Zionism's founding ideals, both in Israel and among the diaspora Jews in the United States and elsewhere."
Clinton, while in office, leaned hard on Israeli leaders to negotiate for peace with the Palestinians and helped end the recalcitrant Benjamin Netanyahu's first term as Prime Minister after Netanyahu resisted him and tried to turn American politics against him. And Beinart also writes in the book of the ways in which abiding mistrust spilled from the Clinton era into Netanyahu's dealings with Obama.
After Netanyahu first met with Obama in 2009, Beinart writes, he worried that Hillary Clinton and Rahm Emanuel had already turned the new president against him.
"They want to throw me under the bus," he reportedly said.
But Clinton, who tried and failed to make peace during his final days in office, has emerged as an unlikely and powerful critic not just of the prime minister of but of Israeli social trends. In a 2010 roundtable with reporters, he worried publicly about some of the same demographic trends that Beinart argues are pulling Israel away from democracy.
"An increasing number of the young people in the [Israeli army] are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem," he said. "It's a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian."
Clinton's longstanding personal ties to Israel, and his popularity in the country, gave him a credibility and credible political threat in his clashes with Israeli leaders and American Israel hawks that Obama has never been able to wield. But his recent comments suggest that his actual views on the importance of ending Israel's settlement practices are not unlike the president's.
Beinart's book grew out of a 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books on the "failure of the American Jewish establishment. The book turns its attention to Israel's domestic politics as well.