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Israel and its liberal friends

Questions for liberals: What does it mean to be a friend of Israel? What does it mean to be a friend of the Palestinians? And should the same standards of friendship apply to Israelis and Palestinians alike, or is there a double standard here as well?

It has become the predictable refrain among Israel's liberal critics that their criticism is, in fact, the deepest form of friendship. Who but a real friend, after all, is willing to tell Israel the hard truths it will not tell itself? Who will remind Israel that it is now the strong party, and that it cannot continue to play the victim and evade the duties of moral judgment and prudential restraint? Above all, who will remind Israel that it cannot go on denying Palestinians their rights, their dignity, and a country they can call their own?

The answer, say people like Peter Beinart, formerly of the New Republic, is people like . . . Peter Beinart. And now that Israel has found itself in another public relations hole thanks to last week's raid on the Gaza flotilla, Israelis will surely be hearing a lot more from him.

Now consider what it means for liberals to be friends of the Palestinians.

Here, the criticism becomes oddly muted. So Egypt, a country that also once occupied Gaza, enforces precisely the same blockade on the Strip as Israel: Do liberal friends of Palestine urge the Obama administration to get tough on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as they urge him to do with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? So a bunch of "peace" activists teams up with a Turkish group of virulently anti-Semitic bent and with links both to Hamas and al Qaeda: Does this prompt liberal soul-searching about the moral drift of the pro-Palestinian movement? So Hamas trashes a U.N.-run school, as it did the other week, because it educates girls: Do liberals wag stern fingers at Palestinians for giving up on the dream of a secular, progressive state?

Well, no. And no. And no. Instead, liberal support for Palestinians is now mainly of the no-hard-questions-asked variety. But that is precisely the kind of support that liberals decry as toxic when it comes to Western support for Israel.

I leave it to others to decide whether this is simple hypocrisy or otherwise evidence of how disingenuous claims by certain liberals to friendship with Israel have become. Still, these liberals insist that their remonstrances are necessary because, without them, Israelis won't get the tough love they need.

Really? Consider a sample of recent clippings from the Israeli press. An editorial in Haaretz: "Like a robot lacking judgment . . . that's how the [Israeli] government is behaving in its handling of the aid flotillas to the Gaza Strip." A columnist in the Jerusalem Post: "As evil as these jihadists [aboard the flotilla] are, they were acting in a cause the whole decent, democratic world knows is right: Freedom for Gaza. Freedom for the Palestinians. And end to the occupation. An end to the blockade." A member of Israel's cabinet: "We need to ease the population's conditions and find security-sensitive, worthy alternatives to the embargo."

None of this indicates a society lacking in a capacity for self-criticism. Yet that capacity hardly has any parallel in the closed circle of Palestinian media or politics, a point that ought to bother Western liberals.

It doesn't. One wonders why.

Part of the reason surely has to be intellectual confusion, an inability to grasp the difference between national "liberation" and genuine freedom. Ho Chi Minh was not a "freedom fighter," and neither was Yasser Arafat. How many times does the world have to go through this drill for liberals to get the point?

There's also a psychology at work. Harvard's Ruth Wisse calls it "moral solipsism"—obsessive regard for your own moral performance; complete indifference to the performance of those who wish you ill.

Finally there's the fact that liberalism has become a politics of easy targets. Liberals have no trouble taking stands against abstinence educators, Prop 8 supporters or members of the tea party. But when it comes to genuine bigots and religious fanatics—and Hamas has few equals in those categories—liberals have a way of discovering their capacity for cultural nuance and political pragmatism.

Today, by contrast, the task of defending Israel is hard. It's hard because defenders must eschew cliches about "the powerful" and "the powerless." It is hard because it goes against prevailing ideological fashions. And it's hard because it requires an appreciation that the choice of evils that endlessly confronts Israeli policy makers is not something they can simply wash their hands of by "ending the occupation." They tried that before—in Gaza.

Is there a liberalism that is capable of recognizing this? Or are we again at the stage where it has been consumed by its instinct for fellow-traveling? In 1968, Eric Hoffer wrote: "I have a premonition that will not leave me; as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish the holocaust will be upon us." By "us," he meant liberals, too, and maybe most of all.

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