Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, who died at age 85 on Tuesday, was a literary giant of his generation in Israel and often seen as a voice of moral authority in the eyes of many Israelis.
Yehoshua was for years part of a famous "literary trio" in Israeli public discourse, together with fellow authors Amos Oz (who passed away in 2019) and David Grossman. The three were famous for their outspoken left-wing political activism and ongoing criticism of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians as for his outstanding achievements as an author.
But unlike the other two members of the famous trio, Yehoshua’s views were uniquely dynamic and ever-evolving, most prominently in the last years of his life, when he rocked leftist circles by abandoning his long-held advocacy of a two-state solution and proposing a one-state alternative as the only viable way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For decades, beginning in 1967, Yehoshua was a vocal critic of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. He never shrank from party politics as an active member of the Labor Party and subsequently Meretz, and also served as a member of the public council of the human rights group B’Tselem. Over the years, Yehoshua repeatedly raged against settlement expansion and encroaching annexation, declaring that "a binational state is a sure way to kill the Israeli nation."
A distinct shift in his views became apparent at a late age. In 2016, Yehoshua began advocating in favor of granting residency status and offering “fundamental rights” to the 100,000 Palestinians living in Area C in the West Bank, “who confront the Israeli occupation, facing both the army and the settlers.”
At that time, he also began to express public doubt in the feasibility of two states, with Israel working to forestall it, the “Arab world falling apart and disintegrating in bloody civil wars” and the U.S. and Europe failing “to force the two-state solution on both sides.”
Then, in 2018, Yehoshua officially turned his back on two-state advocacy, publishing a detailed manifesto in Haaretz presenting the outline of “alternative” steps he believed needed to be taken based on the reality that “it is no longer possible to divide the Land of Israel into two separate sovereign states," adding that "the possible partition of Jerusalem into two separate capitals with an international border between them is becoming increasingly untenable.”
In the piece, Yehoshua acknowledged that for 50 years—“most of my adult life”—he advocated for something that was now a lost cause. “I never stopped putting forward possible ideas for the border crossings and the status of Israeli minorities in the future Palestinian state, in an effort to give life to the receding two-state vision,” he wrote.
But the current harsh reality, he concluded, led him to put forward what he described as a “de facto partnership” in which all West Bank Palestinians would be offered official Israeli resident status and after five years—Israeli citizenship, outlining his version of a one-state solution designed to diminish the “cancer of the occupation,” as he described it.
Even after detailing his proposal, Yehoshua acknowledged that it was not the resolution to the conflict he had dreamed of for many decades.
“If a political force can prove to me, in words and in deeds, that it would still be possible to achieve a separation into two states, of a sort that both sides would accept officially, I will follow it through fire and water,” he wrote.
Zehava Galon, former leader of Meretz and a close friend and political ally, said Tuesday that while Yehoshua’s proposal was “interesting and original,” she viewed it as primarily “testifying to his desperation and frustration when it comes to the ability to create two-states” which she believes is “the only possible realistic solution.”
- A.B. Yehoshua on identity, Zionism and the two-state solution: 11 must reads
- Why Did Israel's Greatest Living Writer Turn on the Two-state Solution?
- A.B. Yehoshua Answers: My Moral Obligation to Question the Two-state Solution
Yehoshua’s decision to entertain the idea of a joint Israeli-Palestinian entity flew in the face of the assumptions underlying Yehoshua’s statements and writing about the conflict over the years—which featured a fierce Zionism and total negation of the Diaspora.
Many of the tribulations of Jewish history, he had hypothesized, stemmed from the Jewish people’s lack of national borders. In 2002, he declared that “the substantive, almost anarchic, absence of boundaries in the Jewish identity that nestles within a different identity, naturally arouses resistance.”
On that occasion, and in others, Yehoshua’s anti-Diaspora views rankled Jews abroad. Repeatedly, he asserted that a full Jewish life was only possible in the Jewish state and those who lived elsewhere were merely “playing with Jewishness.”
American Jews, he said in 2012 "are partial Jews while I am a complete Jew.” Memorably, he compared the Jewish experience outside Israel to “masturbation.”
Yehoshua was equally capable of articulating positions that rankled his countrymen as much as Jews overseas, particularly in 2002, when he commented on terrorist suicide bombings that “Palestinians aren’t the first ones that the Jewish people have driven to insanity. They aren’t the first people who have gone (murderously) crazy, we saw this in the past with the Germans.”
In 2012, he called for a change in Israel’s policy towards Hamas, writing that “the time has come to stop calling Hamas a terrorist organization and define it as an enemy,” arguing that the use of the word “terror” impedes Israel’s ability to talk to the rulers of Gaza and “an organization that has a state is an enemy, not a terror organization.”
Yehoshua remained politically engaged even in his final months, when he knew his years-long battle with cancer was about to reach its conclusion. Galon said she spoke with him by telephone in March and he said that despite the flaws in the fragile Bennett-Lapid government coalition, he thought it was vital to keep it in place.
He also spoke about “how important it was to him that there are Arab parties in this coalition”, describing it as “a new step for Israel’s Arab citizens.”
Galon said she was touched by the fact that at the end of the acclaimed author’s life, following his decision to forgo further treatment of his cancer, he was still interested in calling her and others to express his views on matters of national importance.
“With all his last remaining strength, he was still determined to speak out on what was so important to him,” she said. “It was truly moving.”