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The Conceptual Shift Israel Needs to Ensure Its Future

There are no shortcuts toward peace, but that shouldn't paralyze Israel. Ehud Barak responds to Micah Goodman

Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak
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Illustration: Palestinians wait in line to cross the West Bank wall as Israeli troops in a tank and a helicopter watch.
IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak

A year after Micah Goodman published his best-selling book “Catch-67,” the author is offering us a new take on “How Israel can shrink the occupation, without shrinking its security” (Feb. 18). Commensurate with the spirit of the book (which is slated for publication in English this September), Goodman continues to sum up the positions of the sides of Israel’s internal political debate in terms of moving from a situation of being hooked on dreams – the dream of “peace” on the left, and the dream of settling the whole Land of Israel on the right – to a situation of fear.

According to Goodman, the majority on the right say: Settling all of Judea and Samaria may not bring redemption, but withdrawing from the territories will bring disaster. The majority on the left say: Withdrawal from Judea and Samaria may perhaps not mean that peace is around the corner, but remaining there is leading to disaster.

The positions of the sides are evolving, Goodman maintains. The left warns against moral deterioration, diplomatic isolation and a demographic debacle, and asserts that the desire to cling to Judea and Samaria is a threat to state’s definition as Jewish (even if Arabs make up only 40 percent of the overall population). On the right, the argument that a Palestinian state is liable to grow stronger, forge military alliances and threaten Israel with a war or even an invasion, has been supplanted, in the wake of the Arab Spring, by the fear that a Palestinian state will threaten us with its weakness. That is to say: The disintegration of such a state will create a vacuum that will suck in the forces of radical Islam and terrorism. In his assessment, many Israelis on the right and the left accept the fact that the arguments of the other side in the debate carry “tremendous power” and weight.

Most Israelis, Goodman says, are confused. They have internalized and are experiencing the fears of both sides, and the result has been deep uncertainty. He goes on to propose a point-specific guide for the perplexed to escape what he calls “Catch-67,” which is based on three “intellectual shifts” that could help extricate us from the maze, and four examples of practical steps that can be taken on the way to getting out.

My friends Ami Ayalon, Gilead Sher and Orni Petrouschka, the heads of the Blue White Future organization and Israelis with great achievements to their credit, published an article in response (Haaretz, March 1). In it they call on Goodman to lift his gaze, not to make do with identifying “measures aimed at ‘shrinking the conflict,’” but to take a hard look at the big picture and posit the Israel that’s evoked in the Declaration of Independence as the true goal of Zionism. Their article also contains a series of far-reaching operational and policy proposals, which merit discussion. These are proposals that, in contrast to what we find in the government, do not ignore the elephant in the room: the prolongation of our rule over another people and its price.

I, by contrast, choose to read Goodman’s article in terms of the half-full glass, and I hope that this is not mere wishful thinking on my part that will be proved wrong. In summing up the year he’s had since publication of his book, Goodman emerges as a thinking, open person who is not fixed in his ideas, and is sincerely searching for a way to create an exit from the maze in which we’re trapped. He is endowed with a real ability to listen, something rare in these parts, and with the ability to adopt views that have been modified, once he’s been persuaded of their validity. Goodman did not purport (even in his book) to present the full range of solutions. However, his approach, as far as I understand it, is developing in an important – and correct – direction.

What am I getting at? Even though the description of the sides’ viewpoints and their respective development – which I call “the diagnosis” – in general repeats what is written in the book, I discern in the author’s suggestions about what should be done in regard to the situation – “the prognosis” – a refreshing innovation and a positive, clear change.

Concerning the critique that was voiced by many (including this writer) of his tendency to create a symmetry between the arguments of the sides, Goodman says, a year on, “I must admit that there is some validity to this objection.” And he does indeed go on to present a more refined thesis.

His three proposals for conceptual shifts and four examples of possible practical steps are all steeped in the hallmarks of Beit Hillel (the more moderate of two schools of thought about Jewish law during the Second Temple period) – that is, of what I termed, in my critique of a year ago, the “responsible left.”

First conceptual shift: To think artistically, namely, by considering a spectrum of possibilities, not in terms of all or nothing. To stop thinking about political issues in religious molds. Any commentary is superfluous.

Micah Goodman.Credit: תומר אפלבאום

Second shift: To free ourselves of the false dichotomy to the effect that “ending the conflict” with a dramatic peace agreement, or “managing the conflict” and living by the sword eternally are the only two possibilities. “If, for example, it proves impossible to completely end our military rule over the Palestinians without assuming intolerable security risks,” Goodman wonders, “could this military rule still be dramatically minimized?”

Yet this is just what the responsible left has been claiming for all these years. In other words, the fact that most of the time it is not possible to achieve shortcuts to an agreement should not paralyze Israel to the extent that, on the one hand, it does not put its security above every other consideration, and on the other hand, it does not work to shrink the conflict and reduce the friction in order to preserve the prospect for future conciliation. To that end, it’s necessary to continue to maintain Israel’s overall responsibility for security throughout the entire territory, for whatever period of time is required, and simultaneously, to act to preserve the option of an agreed settlement if and when the conditions ripen, and also, until that time, to normalize life in the Palestinian Authority.

And it’s worth noting that the four practical measures that Goodman chooses as examples (see below) are all part of the toolkit of the responsible left. But the first two, and also the third, are in the nature of a red flag being waved before the right wing, including almost all the ministers of the present government.

Here they are, judge for yourselves: First, cease expanding settlements situated outside the settlement blocs; second, transfer parts of Area C (which is under Israel’s full control) to the Palestinian Authority; third, amend the Paris Protocol in a way that would enhance Palestinians’ opportunities to develop a more independent economy; and fourth, ensure movement/transportation continuity for the Palestinians.

This is not by chance. The moment Goodman chooses “shrinkage of military rule” over the Palestinians, calling to diminish their dependence on Israel and reduce their humiliation as a reasonable interim goal, and says, “Even if Israel lacks the power to end the conflict, it can still shrink it to proportions that will no longer threaten the state’s very existence” – he exposes himself as a person who may, at the end of the day, if it can be done without affecting our security, strive for an agreement. For the bulk of the Israeli right, this is an unforgivable deviation, even if the deceptiveness of the prime minister, the demands of political correctness and the culture of lies and repression that are customary in the right wing sometimes obscure the picture.

It is not, I believe, a coincidence – and I say this in Goodman’s praise – that the four examples he puts forward, he found during his intellectual journey over the past year, though they have long existed in the drawers of the professional, expert echelons. These are the same experts (echoing both Maimonides and the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef) to whom, I recommended in my critique a year ago, one should listen closely when dealing with matters of pikuah nefesh (saving of lives). These are also the experts who are worth listening to when we consider the question of whether the threats put forward by the two sides to the debate are similar.

Let me reiterate: These threats are substantively different. The demographic threat to the Jewish identity, security and future of Israel is existential, it is certainly closer than we might think, and it is very real. The threat depicted by the right – involving the collapse of the PA or of a Palestinian state and the creation of a vacuum that will draw in radical terrorism – is indeed a concrete threat, but it is by no means an existential threat to Israel and it is far from being a certainty. That’s the opinion of the professional experts and it’s my opinion, too. We all remember the stand taken by the Hebrew sages in the case of “bari mul shema” – (“Bari ve’shema, bari adif”: that is, the certain is to be preferred over the tenuous). On this issue one can ask, with irony, why those who raise the argument that the weakness of the Palestinian Authority is a threat to Israel – do everything they can to weaken the PA, instead of strengthening it.

The day after Netanyahu

The third and final conceptual shift that Goodman proposes involves painful relinquishment of our dreams. On the right, the dream of redemption by way of settling all of Judea and Samaria; on the left, the dream of peace in a New Middle East. Once again, the strength and the courage to descend from dream to reality, to make decisions and implement them, are the cornerstone of both the approach and the record of the responsible left throughout its history. It is also the principal element lacking in Israel’s present leadership.

Nevertheless, I will note that I tend to phrase it differently. Herzl said, “All of men’s deeds originate in dreams; and their end – that, too, is a dream.” Dreaming and the right to dream are profound expressions of humanity and impart inspiration and meaning. I would not give them up for anything. What we must insist on is the ability to distinguish and differentiate between dream and political plan of action. There is a right to dream that accrues both to every individual and to all groups or peoples. But when we consider political or military action, the decisive factor must be the test of reality. However cruel it may be. The dream will always be present in the background, but it’s the reality principle that spurs the decision.

I shall return for a moment to my friends, the leaders of Blue White Future. Their call to cast a hard gaze upon reality, to recognize where we are being swept to and to decide what we really want has much to recommend it. Like them, I am a great believer in adopting Israel’s Declaration of Independence as the formative document of the goals of Zionism and the state, and as our de facto constitution. But even those who may not agree with every detail of their program will discern in it the type of momentum and clarity that Israel needs, and the underlying vision and dream.

Their demand is legitimate when it’s aimed at leaders or public opinion molders. However, their call to Goodman to adopt their mode of observation is somewhat inadequate. Goodman says he is out to describe and analyze Israeli discourse, not to determine who is right. If he were to adopt the positions advocated by Blue White Future, he would be tagged a leftist, and no one in the right-wing camp would listen to him anymore. As for myself, I am satisfied with the change he seems to have already undergone. But Goodman may have to downplay even that so that those on the right will go on listening to him.

The subject of the nature of the internal dialogue in Israel and its content is important. We are poised, I hope and believe, at the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu period – an era that has been characterized by discourse more violent than we have ever seen. It has been a time of incitement by Israelis against each other, of individuals and groups being labeled as traitors; of a relentless threat to the free media, to human rights organizations, to civil society, to the values of the Israel Defense Forces, to the Supreme Court and also, very recently, to the officials and leaders of the law enforcement agencies. Like the outbreak of an autoimmune disease, the head of the executive branch and a few sycophants are mounting an assault on the formative state institutions and are defending an imagined “together” of us all. They are trying to mow down the values of the State of Israel and its institutions, in order to extricate a single individual, possibly with a small group around him, from the consequences of their corrupt and corrupting behavior.

When this chapter is – soon, I hope – behind us, there will come, I believe, a catharsis, after which we will all be called upon to enlist on behalf of the rehabilitation (not physical) of everything that has been laid waste. The beginning of every process of repair is dialogue. A different dialogue, attentive and open. It will not be short or easy. The baggage of bitterness, sometimes hatred, is heavy. The trust that millions have in the state’s bodies and institutions, and in the figures active in the public arena, has been badly cracked.

Micah Goodman, even in the eyes of a critic like myself, is a thinking, probing person who is contributing a great deal to the quality of the Israeli dialogue. Something of the mode of Goodman’s conversation is needed for this dialogue.

The journey Goodman has made is grounds for hope that this is possible. That persuasion is feasible. That beneath all the slogans, the “post-truth,” the “fake news” and the “alternative facts” resides something that is called “facts,” “truth,” “logic,” “tolerance,” “listening” and “openness.” In short: Beit Hillel.

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the state’s founding, we are entitled to look back with satisfaction and pride, and forward in security and hope. But ahead of us looms a singular challenge: to restore to the people of Israel the possibility of direct dialogue, the values and norms that have been eroded, the internal unity and the recognition that “all Israel are responsible for one another.” For brethren are we. And as such we should act.

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