Defense Minister Moshe Dayan at King Solomon's pool south of Bethlehem, June 8, 1967. Moshe Milner, GPO

What the Israeli Right Gets Wrong About Security and the Occupation, According to Ehud Barak

Ehud Barak reviews 'Catch 67,' a book he says is steeped in right-wing ideology and therefore fails to identify the real threat facing Israel's existence



I opened Micah Goodman’s new book, “Milkud 67” (“Catch 67: The Ideologies behind the Disagreements Tearing Israel Apart,” Dvir, 224 pages, 94 shekels; in Hebrew), with great curiosity. After books that reveal “times past” – from “Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism” (published in English in 2015) to “Moses’ Final Speech” (Hebrew, 2014) – he’s suddenly writing about “times present.” “Catch 67” confronts the conceptual foundations, theses and practicalities related to the most critical and emotional dispute of our generation, involving the direction in which we are headed – the future of the territories, the Land of Israel, security, peace arrangements.

Goodman maintains that as a result of the turmoil Israel has experienced in the 50 years since 1967, conflicting rigid ideologies have emerged on both the right and the left. Having become an integral element in each side’s identity, they do not allow for an open, substantive discussion. To disengage from this situation, which he terms “Catch 67,” he suggests downgrading the ambition “to solve the problem” into a more limited goal of “escaping from the trap,” basically by transforming the problem from “existential” into “chronic.” This will bypass the need for ideological compromise, avert a “collision of identities” and make possible the “amelioration of the Israeli discourse.”

In Goodman’s words, “The New Right and the New Left are something of a mirror image. The New Left no longer claims that withdrawal will being peace, but that the continued presence in the territories will eventuate in a catastrophe; the New Right no longer claims that the continued presence in the territories will bring redemption, but that withdrawing from them will eventuate in a [security] catastrophe.”

According to Goodman, in the eyes of the right (including, it should be noted, the messianic-religious right), “withdrawal from the Judean Hills and Samaria will shrink Israel to minuscule dimensions and turn it into a weak, vulnerable state that will ultimately collapse.” In the eyes of the left, “continued Israeli presence in the territories will bring about Israel’s moral disintegration, isolate it politically and cause its collapse demographically.” The right asserts that “realization of the left’s vision will lead to the state’s total crash, the left asserts that realization of the right’s vision will lead to the state’s total crash.” Goodman thus creates symmetry between the arguments of the right and the left, and this, or at least so he maintains, is the basis for the catch. A hundred pages later, he writes, “It turns out that everyone is in the right. And because everyone is in the right, everyone is trapped.”

I reject this conclusion outright. The Middle East is a tough neighborhood and the threats are real. However, Israel is the strongest state in the region, and the symmetry that Goodman invokes is nonexistent. He is comparing a definite threat to the future of the Zionist project with technical military risks (the deployment of a hostile force west of the Jordan River in the future, or missiles and terrorism from outside or inside in the immediate term), which, though not to be belittled, do not pose a threat to Israel’s existence and also have more than one possible response (for example, by way of technology, weapons acquisition or operational conceptions).

The catastrophe the left describes – “one state, which will lead to an Arab majority and a prolonged civil war, or, alternatively, an apartheid state steeped in violence and facing an ongoing threat of collapse” – is, lamentably, an accurate portrayal. Whereas the catastrophe the right describes is not of the same scale. Separation from the Palestinians does not constitute an existential threat, and the argument that in its wake it would be impossible to defend Israel, is incorrect. Most of those who have been engaged with Israel’s security throughout the country’s history, and who believe in security before and above every other consideration, view separation from the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria – combined with Israeli security control over the whole area for any foreseeable future – as part of every interim agreement. And they view “territorial compromise” and “two states for two nations” as part of any final-status agreement, when it comes. If we are not wise enough to consider a territorial compromise, we face a danger, not only to the state’s character and its status internationally, but above all to security. Including the battle against terrorism.

Ilan Bruner, GPO

Goodman builds us a magnificent edifice of propositions, perched on flimsy foundations of “symmetry,” that produces a “catch,” or trap. However, if there is no “symmetry,” the existence of the “catch” is questionable and turns out to be a state of consciousness, which is not fact-based. And as we are strong and understand the security interest well, an interim agreement, or a final-status agreement that we find acceptable, cannot pose an existential threat to Israel. As I turn the book’s pages, I read about a “catch,” but as I look at reality, I see opportunities. We will always need to maintain operational alertness, alongside a realistic judgment of threats and readiness to act. But adoption of the book’s pronouncements is liable to confound our reading of reality, aggravate dangers, blind us and prevent us from seeing the opportunities.

Goodman positions himself ostensibly in the center of the political map, analyzing and critiquing right and left alike. In fact, though, whether consciously or not, he adopts the basic assumptions of the right, as if they were engraved a priori in reality, even though some of them are blatantly untenable – and by doing so he contributes, regrettably, to their dissemination in the mainstream.

1967, per Goodman

No systematic critique of Goodman’s book is possible without being clear about his reasoning, whose gist is this:

The Six-Day War was a formative moment of national unity, which contributed to a brilliant victory. Its results sparked a painful dispute: Should the territories, particularly Judea and Samaria, be settled? Or will we, at the end of the day, have to return most of them in return for peace agreements? Since then, the clash between those who strive for peace and those who strive for the whole land has been tearing apart Israeli society from within.

Even 50 years after the war – a period that included the Oslo agreements and the Gaza “disengagement,” the Camp David talks of 2000 and Ehud Olmert’s proposals, as well as two intifadas and three rounds of fighting in the Gaza Strip – the military confrontations did not end with a crushing victory, and the political efforts did not generate a breakthrough to achieve a final-status agreement. The dispute intensified and the ideologies have turned increasingly rigid, becoming part of the identity of each side. Identity is not something one replaces, nor does one discuss its change with those who possess a different identity, thus precluding a discussion informed by genuine mutual attentiveness.

AFP

How did the ideologies develop?

Goodman sets forth the development of the conceptual narrative of three streams in Zionism: right, left and the religious-Zionist movement. In the beginning there were: a right wing that dreamed of liberal maximalism (Ze’ev Jabotinsky), a left wing that dreamed of a socialist “exemplary society” (David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson) and religious Zionism of a mild and moderate character (Haim-Moshe Shapira), which dreamed of national resurgence spiced with Jewish heritage.

And then came 1967 and shook things up. In the religious-Zionist movement, a vision of approaching redemption was ignited. Shapira’s moderate language was supplanted by the ideas of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. On the left, weakened by economic privatization, the quest for an “exemplary society” gave way (in the wake of the peace treaty with Egypt) to the idea of “peace.” Subsequently, according to Goodman, the secular right suffered a setback when (in the wake of the first intifada) the liberal element overcame the maximalist thrust; and the Zionist left collapsed when the second intifada overcame the idea of peace. With all these ideas bruised and battered, only one concept remained strong and firm: that of (Kook-style) right-wing religious Zionism.

But nothing endures forever: In 2005, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip dealt a blow to messianic Zionism and rattled confidence both in the implacable advance to redemption and in Abraham Isaac Kook’s notion that the secular Zionists, by force of a somewhat mystical connection, would serve as the “messiah’s donkey,” by striving “without conscious awareness” to bring about the messianic goal.

The messianic-religious right completed a hookup with the secular-maximalist right, and together, according to Goodman, they underwent a second turnabout after the Gaza pullout. Basically, the element of imminent redemption was weakened and, following the actualization of scenarios that Gaza would be taken over by extremists – leading to rocket attacks on Israel – security fears intensified. Thus, on the right, the “principle of redemption” was replaced by the “principle of security.” According to Goodman, the Zionist left also underwent another turnabout (in the wake of the second intifada) and “converted the hope for peace into fear of [the consequences of] the crimes of the occupation.”

What is to be done?

Goodman finds a source of inspiration in a talmudic tradition – “both these and those are the words of the living God, but the halakha is according to the House of Hillel” (Eruvin 13b) – as the starting point for a new Israeli dialogue to be marked by openness and attentive listening. The basis for “the halakha is according to the House of Hillel” lies in the fact that unlike the House of Shammai, the followers of the House of Hillel made a point of voicing, and in some cases accepting, the approach of the House of Shammai before stating their own position.

Factual and logical traps

Goodman’s book is well-written, clear, articulate and readable. In contrast to the author’s previous books, however, the subjects he deals with here are more earthly; their foundations rest on security, strategy and politics, which are not Goodman’s fields of expertise. As a result, he falls into the same factual and logical traps that he warns us to avoid.

For example, time after time he urges us to depart from the fixation forced on us by the “ideology” that has become part of our “identity” and to concentrate on fact-based arguments and logic, through openness and attentive listening. However, the book’s main parts, dealing with the “ideologies” and the political “arguments” put forward by the different streams, are saturated to the core with elements of the right wing’s identity-based “ideology,” which pose as substantive “arguments” even when they are blatantly untenable factually.

If I were not confident beyond any doubt of the author’s intellectual integrity, I would say that this was an instructive example of post-truth and “alternative facts” being interwoven into a political debate. Since I am certain of Goodman’s integrity, I can only assume that while writing the book he met, on the one hand, too many right-wingers who presuppose that their “ideology” is a priori embedded in reality and constitutes part of it. Which, of course, is not the case. And, on the other hand, that he apparently met too few left-wingers, people from the House of Hillel, or politically unbiased experts, who could have enlightened him.

Deep anxiety

Security is perhaps the most important issue of all, and its presentation in the book suffers from two serious flaws. First, in numberless places throughout the book, the unfounded assertion appears, in various formulations, that without full Israeli control of the Judea and Samaria ridgeline, Israel is not defendable. The author’s whole depiction of Israel’s security situation is informed by deep anxiety, which is understandable emotionally but rests on a flimsy factual basis. And let it be said from the outset: We must not make light of any adversary or enemy. There is no mercy for the weak in the Middle East, and there is no “second chance” for those who are unable to defend themselves.

Israel must always be vigilant, strong and ready to vanquish every assailant. Israel is the strongest country in the region militarily, strategically and economically, and – if we forge our relations with the United States skillfully – will also be so diplomatically, and be able to maintain its qualitative military edge. Israel can and must weigh its future and its moves based on an understanding of the possibilities afforded by the position of strength I have described. Anxiety is not a healthy national strategy. If a regional power like Israel lapses into a pessimistic, passive, self-victimizing frame of mind, the result will be paralysis, missed opportunities to transform the situation from the ground up, and bleak prophecies that will (because of the paralysis) prove self-fulfilling. There is no mention of these simple truths in the book.

JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Israel’s location and its small dimensions are termed “bad opening conditions that threaten Israel’s very ability to survive.” Regarding the importance of the Judea and Samaria hills, Goodman states as a matter of fact: “Without them the country is not defendable.” Period. And he sums up, “The implication of all this is simple: Whoever controls the hills controls the center of life of the Jewish people,” or, “The conclusion of the previous chapter is sharp and simple: Israel must not leave the territories that were conquered in the Six-Day War.” Categorical. And he adds, “The combination of location and place creates a situation in which Israel is not only surrounded by enemies but also has difficulty defending itself against them.” Half-true. Barely.

This is exaggerated, absolute and oversimplified. Small dimensions indeed, and if they could be extended by incantation, focused prayer or a flicker of wishful thinking, without risks and costs, we would all choose that route. But obviously that is not the case. Yet was it not from that constricted border (which it is indeed essential to change in a future agreement) that we embarked on the greatest of our victories, against three enemies? With two of them we already have peace treaties (albeit not ideal), while the third, Syria, has been wallowing in a civil war for the past six years. There is much to do, but for those who shape our actions, there’s no room for fear.

And it is here that the second serious flaw in the author’s understanding of security appears: its reduction to one dimension. The Judea and Samaria ridgeline that rises above the coastal plain is not without military value, but neither is it the be-all and end-all. Security is not only a dominating observation point and positions to emplace weapons. Security is a totality. It is the sum of military, civilian and diplomatic capabilities, and it is also national morale. These simple truths, too, go unmentioned in the book.

The right-wing version of the demographic challenge, which is presented in the book as deserving serious consideration, is totally wrong. It reminds me of the arguments of climate-change deniers, a collection of half-arguments and half-wishful thinking in the “alternative facts” style. Contrary to the author’s proposition that “it’s definitely possible to surmise that the Jewish majority is not about to disappear in the foreseeable future,” the demographic threat is definite, and the timespan for its actualization is measured in years, not in generations. These are facts. Not beliefs.

In his discussion of this subject, the author gives too much weight to the deniers of the demographic threat, whose reasoning is at times absurdly weak. He ignores the fact that the “demographic window of opportunity” will close very soon, and that the “demographic Judgment Day” is approaching – when the Palestinians will revise the character of their struggle and place at the center of their agenda the “one-state” demand” in the “state for all its citizens” version. The situation in which the extremists on both sides are calling for one state, dreaming of one state and working to achieve it, is transforming the “one-state” vision into the true existential threat to Israel in our generation.

‘The left,’ according to Goodman

The second subject, in addition to security, that is addressed in the book with seemingly a priori ideological bias, is “the left.” Goodman reduces the left to a radical left that exists, if at all, on the margins of Meretz voters, and by doing so serves the arguments of the right wing, simplifying their (supposed) proofs.

The left, in his opinion, “changed again and is engaged primarily with questions of human rights and the damage of the occupation.” Or, “The conclusion is that it is forbidden to withdraw from Judea and Samaria and entrust security relying on faith in international guarantees.” And again: “Those who draw the Zionist lesson find it hard to believe that it’s possible to risk leaving the territories and trust in guarantees from the world’s nations”

Niel Cohen, IDF Spokesperson's Unit

What is at issue here? Has anyone on the left suggested dismantling the IDF? Forgoing freedom of operation in general? And self-defense in particular? Who is this “left” that’s being talked about? Does it include Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Haim Bar-Lev, Motta Gur, myself? The chiefs of staff who followed us? Are they the “naive” types who would rely solely on international guarantees? And who exactly on the right will teach us the meaning of security? Goodman is now revealing to us that the “security principle” is the political anchor of the right, and “international guarantees” are the flimsy prop of the left. Really?

“International guarantees” and the human rights dialogue are part of the left’s argument, but not its principal part. They are subordinate to the two primary tenets, whose test, according to the responsible left, lies in deeds. Not in talk. They are: (A) security, before and above everything; and (B) the “wholeness of the nation” and its unity take precedence over the “wholeness of the land.” Similarly, the “security principle” is part of the right’s argument, but its professional and substantive base is shaky, and peeking at us from beyond it, slightly tainted by messianism, are the doctrine of Rabbi Kook and the “one-state” agenda.

In the chapter dealing with the Jewish-halakhic aspect of the “catch,” we learn that both Maimonides and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef – the latter alluded explicitly to the question of the territories – ruled that piku’ah nefesh (saving of lives) and considerations relating to the risk to human life should tip the scales, and that at the end of the day, the decision is up to the professionals, meaning the experts. If they say that not returning the territories means immediate certainty of the danger of war and puts life at risk, then they should be returned. Here Goodman fails again, and with him, or before him, the right wing in Israel, in the test of acting according to the conclusions that arise from their arguments.

For what do the experts say? An absolute majority of Israel’s security personnel, in the IDF, the Shin Bet and the police believe that Israel would be safer and more efficiently defensible if, within the Land of Israel that is so precious to all of us, a “separation line” were to be drawn that would include the “settlement blocs,” the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and a military presence along the Jordan River and at a few other strategic sites. Within that line, there will be a solid Jewish majority for generations, and on the other side, an appropriate area for a demilitarized, viable Palestinian state, with agreed-upon, bilateral security arrangements. Have these facts vanished from the author’s line of vision? Could it be, heaven forbid, that these truths were shelved (they are expert facts and arguments, not opinions or political positions) because their assertion brings about the collapse of the “security principle” argument, which is all that precludes the identification or cataloguing of the right as “messianic”?

Those who are in charge of our security on a daily basis and who make life-and-death decisions, must plan and operate according to reality as it is, not according to wishful thinking or political “belief.” And the fact that almost all of them find themselves on the left side of this dispute should have signaled us clearly that this is indeed the reality. It’s a pity Goodman did not see this.

The “blind spot” in the right’s perception of the security task in the territories extends also to fighting terrorism. The book’s security discussion rests on the implicit assumption that continued rule on the ground does not exact a price in the battle against terrorism. The truth is the opposite. The assessment of security personnel is that terrorism that springs from within a civilian population is more easily fought from behind a defined “separation line,” with freedom of action across it, than from within a jumble of populations. The intimate mix hampers intelligence acquisition and impairs the ability to respond before there are victims.

Courtesy of the Defense Ministry's IDF archive

The responsible left does not maintain that we should rely on someone else (Palestinian or other) exclusively. The responsible left maintains further that continued control of the territories as such entails a significant security risk. The responsible left maintains that a strong and ever-stronger IDF, backed by Israel’s technological superiority and by the ties with the United States, is the foundation stone of security. And it is sustained by Israel’s status internationally, its economic might and the internal unity within the country, as far as we succeed in preserving it. The responsible left maintains that considerations of “net security” together with demographics and the need to hold to the moral high ground, have created an imperative to separate from the Palestinians while ensuring security; that the goal remains “two states.” The responsible left does not take as its point of departure a “liberal universalism,” as Goodman claims, or justice for the Arabs, but considerations of “security first.”

The responsible left is the political stream in Israel that carries within it the true Zionist lesson – that “we can rely only on ourselves” – bolstered by a comprehensive, broad, deep perception of the essence of security – a perception that addresses the horizon, not only the present, and grasps that in the 21st century, security is not only dominant hills, but a broad totality. It is the responsible left that continues to maintain the conception espoused by Ben-Gurion and Dayan, by Peres, by Rabin and by me, together with many others. It is the conception that actualizes in its vision and its deeds the building of the “iron wall” that led us to victories in our wars, that led Egypt and Jordan to make peace with us and that sustains us today in the struggle against terrorism. It is the broad conception whose implementation pushed the Arab world from the “three noes” of Khartoum in 1967 to the Saudi Initiative of 2002 and the “Arab League Proposal.”

In contrast, the right wing, whose deep, true motivation is the “wholeness of the land” before – and even at the expense of – the “wholeness of the people,” seeks to evade political decisions until construction outside the “settlement blocs” has created an irreversible situation. The chimes of imminent redemption resonate in their ears. They are voiding the “security principle,” which they adopted, of many of its components, by reducing its contents to issues of weapons emplacement and topography; by shutting their eyes to other aspects of security and to the aspect of time; and by ignoring the broad expert agreement on the compatibility of Israel’s security needs and interests with the paradigm of the “two-state” solution, when the time comes. Above all, the right wing is at fault in ignoring the fact that a security concept should stem from a realistic, expert comparison of alternatives and risks, subject to the reality principle, and not a thrust for a predetermined faith-based solution.

A few comments on other issues raised in the book:

The national argument

The national argument, which covers less than two pages, is perhaps the strongest bridge to creating the discourse Goodman craves. Judaism is indeed distinctive in having created a community of believers and a nation simultaneously. For me as well, and for many of my friends who are not religiously observant, the biblical homeland, the heritage of the Jewish people and the affinity for Zion, which were preserved across generations, are part of our identity. The relationship between Israeliness and Jewishness is deeper and more basic than that between the Italian national identity and Roman Catholicism. Every Israeli who grew up and fought here, feels a deep thrill at the encounter with the landscapes that were the cradle of our birth as a people, as a civilization and as the bearers of a universal mission.

The report that reached me in the expanses of Sinai in 1967 – that “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” – sent shivers through me that I will never forget. And again with Sebastia, Shiloh, Beit El, Hebron and on the stone steps at the top of the Beit Horon ascent. Those were jolting encounters with the chain of generations and the deepest of our roots. My heart goes out to those who say that forgoing parts of Judea and Samaria would be for them a personal rupture and a painful blow to the collective national will. It would be painful and difficult for everyone. Nevertheless, when we look at history, when one peruses an atlas and examines the borders of the Kingdom of the House of David, Israel and the Maccabeans down through the generations, it’s clear that the geopolitical constraint created an accordion of contours of borders that changed from one generation to the next, as a result of clear-eyed understanding and the coercions of reality, and often at a steep price. It is the responsibility of the leadership in each generation to look at reality and make decisions with the aim of defending security, the future, our identity and our heritage. Reality is rife with contradictions, but the decisions have to be made and they are sometimes painful. That is the situation at present.

I will not go into the book’s discussion of the Arab position, which boils down to: the sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs. That is an inaccurate interpretation, which serves the overall thesis of the author and of the right wing in Israel. To begin with, the humiliation of Islam by the West in the past and its impact on the Arab world are facts. But they are facts that are beyond our control, and the force with which they are hammered home is exaggerated. If we accepted Goodman’s thesis at face value, peace with Egypt and Jordan would not have stood a chance.

And again, the symmetry to which Goodman harks back is imaginary. There is no symmetry. Those who advocate leaving most of the territories would not rely on international guarantees but on the IDF, strategic capabilities, an alliance with the United States and Israel’s overall strength. Neither “blind confidence in the gentiles” nor “blind confidence in God,” in Goodman’s words, but the basic Zionist lesson of reliance on ourselves. If we remain in all the territories, the occupation will indeed bring about our crash, as Goodman notes. But if we leave them, it’s not the case that terrorism will run rampant among us. Just the opposite: It is now among us. When we leave, we will “spew it out.” It will become terrorism from outside, which is easier to cope with.

A Zionist response

Goodman’s overall thesis, though abundant with multifaceted analyses and with respect for all streams, is steeped in a right-wing agenda. The book’s thesis is woven, at times with crude seams, such that symmetry is created between the reasoning of the right and of the left – a symmetry that does not, realistically, exist. The result of the invented symmetry is the “catch,” from the “victims of which” the author wishes to forge a dialogue of openness and fraternal love. The reader, without realizing, absorbs more and more rightward-tilting ideas concerning security, demographics, the adversary’s stances and Israel’s possible room to act. Goodman is serving – unconsciously, I hope – the political approach of the messianic right and the “one-state” government. Amplifying their arguments, most of which are from the realm of faith and wishful thinking, he demands for them equal footing with the professional views of the absolute majority of the experts.

As part of the dialogue Goodman calls for, I suggest a different approach: a response that is Zionist and not Diaspora-based. Not a chess game with ourselves but urgent action to alter the reality. The situation is not symmetrical, and “catch” is an incorrect depiction of the reality. Where Goodman and the right wing see a catch and paralysis, I see an opportunity and a prospect. We face a “demographic window of opportunity” that is on the way to closing. It must be exploited. We have before us a one-time regional reality, which is creating a common interest between us and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan. The collapse of states in the Middle East is also more of an opportunity than a threat, and even the Iranian threat has been deferred, even if it has not disappeared.

We must work urgently today to convene a regional conference that will focus on the struggle against terrorism, on putting a stop to Iran’s hegemonic and nuclear intentions, on regional infrastructure initiatives and on the Palestinian issue. In regard to the Palestinians, I recommend adopting the plan of action of the NGO Commanders for Israel’s Security. It has presented an interim plan to the public, one not contingent on the agreement of the Palestinian side, as a response to a situation in which it’s possible that a final-status settlement will not be achievable now. That is the proper response, so long as the other side is not ripe for a settlement. Internationally, we must fortify our relations with the United States – with the administration and with the American people – and, most important, with the Jewish people in the Diaspora, and above all with its younger generation.

To right way to extricate ourselves from the trap of the catch – to the extent that it does exist, if only in the gut of good Israelis – is through action. A talmudic debate between us is not enough. Israel must be set on the right track internally and embark on a journey externally – to restore the Zionist ability to decide and to act.

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